War as a continuation of policy? (II)

The first part showed that CvC did not cover all political motivations for waging war; war isn't always about making others yield to your demands.

I suppose he wasn't able to fully describe the core of the nature of war because he looked at it from the wrong angle.

CvC looked at what could be achieved through warfare.

He should have been aware that only a small minority of those princes who waged war in his era and earlier eras actually achieved much or anything by waging war.

War is worse than a zero sum game; it first reducing the cake, and then presumably changes who gets how large a share of it. That's because warfare is destructive, not constructive.

You don't win it by competing about who can build something quicker or drive down illiteracy or child mortality rates the quickest. Instead, it's about destroying, killing, maiming and taking away.
It should be deeply unintuitive to think of it in a 'who achieved what' framework.

Instead, let's look at the true nature to describe and understand what war really is.

War is the absence of peace. This sounds trivial, but it isn't.

Humans are a social species. We're not loners who only meet up for mating as many other species do. The burdens of late pregnancy and of the long upringing of children to the point where they are self-reliant (producing more than consuming) are so heavy that humans need to stick together to afford them, and accordingly need to be able to coexist in proximity to each other (in a social group).

Nature has prepared us well for life in small clans, and such small groups have an easy time maintaining good enough relations to other insular clans for evolutionarily advantageous interbreeding. Evolution did also prepare us to fight other groups / clans to gain or protect access to essential resources (and sometimes also fight for breeding opportunities as described in the legend of the Sabian women, for example).

Evolution did not optimise us for life in megacities, and the understanding of a nation of millions to billions of people as the own community is overburdening many human minds as well. They think of smaller groups as their own community (or focus on the looks of people), and refuse to feel kinship to more or less arbitrarily defined "others" even in their own "nation". This refusal to accept fellow nationals as kin undermines the illusion of a nation, and thus the effective working of that illusion. It's truly unpatriotic, as true patriotism is all about bolstering the notion of national community and kinship.

- - - - -

It's culture that allows us to nevertheless function as larger communities, even as nations - without too many destructive conflicts with each other. Culture even allows us to maintain peace with other groups (clans / nations); the highest level of culture is probably international law.

War is essentially a slip from this peaceful coexistence. It's a slip that allows us -in narrowly defined ways- to cease being social and instead start killing and generally display destructive behaviour. It's a relaxation of cultural norms that enable us to live in a community (of nations). This release can be fun especially to men, who once in a while plainly enjoy to destroy things (even blow them up) - just as a 3-year-old prefers destroying toy block towers over building them.*

War - the absence of peace - is a temporary and partial relaxation of the cultural taboo of killing and destruction (of what's not yours).

This relaxation of cultural taboos doesn't necessarily have a real objective.

It may happen because those in positions of extraordinary power did let their guard down and did simply not maintain the taboo. The German government of 1914-1918 could not point out what exactly Germany was fighting a bloody war for, for example. There was no approved, much less communicated, list of objectives or demands against the Western Entente powers. Demands were made up for the Russian government only when the Russian forces began to fail. War had happened because peace wasn't protected. The cultural taboo of killing and destroying was not maintained.

There are wars in which openly communicated and/or secret lists of demands existed, but they're merely one subset of all wars. The demands were not necessarily the reason for or cause of war.

War is first and foremost a temporary and partial relaxation of the cultural taboo of killing and destruction. Warfare goes on until all sides re-established this taboo (or escaped** or were eliminated), not necessarily until at least one side yields to demands of at least one other side.

The whole 'war as continuation of policy with different means' way of thinking frames war as an activity pursued to achieve something. Achievement is the exception; net achievement (actually "winning" as "gaining") is extremely difficult because of the destructive rather than productive / constructive nature of warfare. The framing doesn't properly describe war.
I claim with great confidence that less than half of all powers participating in all of mankind's wars have actually achieved more than lost. To think of warfare in the framework of achievement is about as much a folly as to think about betting in a state lottery in the framework of winning.

The "achievement" framework is deceiving, leading to a misunderstanding of the nature of war. It's not even a satisfactory description of the mere political purpose of war.


**: This applies to nomadic people and those who migrated (such as the Goths) to evade an enemy. 


  1. I wouldn't say it is on the level of thinking that most people consider people part of their community or not, its not a conscious thought.

    Do you believe that cultural taboo of killing and destruction is a universal taboo found across all cultures?

    Could you expand more on what you meant when you said "the highest level of culture is probably international law."

    "cultural taboo of killing and destruction"

    Personally i find it hard to agree with that, from the sense of is that really a cultural taboo? For example look at the percentages of a population in different culture support the death penalty. If you look at Western led wars/interventions how often have we seen the killing and destruction and yet it hasnt led to a cessation of war. I am struggling to believe there is a cultural taboo of killing and destroying "others" if you look at it from a historical perspective.

    "It may happen because those in positions of extraordinary power did let their guard down and did simply not maintain the taboo."

    While i agree a great orator can corrupt and incite violence and exploit underlying schisms between elites and masses, rather that actually create the schism. I am not sure they have the power/influence to maintain a culture.

    1. I think you are mischaracterising the scale of destruction that war brings. You are conflating serial killers and gangsters with heavy bomber crews and rocket battery commanders.

      Yes humans kill, torture and destroy in their 'civilian' state. In the military however waking up in the morning, then flattening a section of a city, killing hundreds or thousands is normalised, is your duty. By the custom of warfare this carries no sanction, stigma or penalty. I imagine a 'civilian' who caused similar damage would not be in the same state, even if they 'got away with it' and were left to judge themselves.

      A military is structured and controlled by the state. The actions and limits are authored by the state. The individuals in the military follow the orders and act within the culture and customs the state allows, creates and encourages. Yes human beings are violent, however that innate individual violence does not flatten cities, does not kill tens of millions in a few years. Harry Patch, the last squadie from ww1, used the phrases 'organised slaughter' 'organised murder' the key word being organised. That organising is done by the state and those organisations are directed by the state.

      There are men alive today who killed thousands in ww2, who destroyed thousands of buildings, who caused billions of euros of damage, who destroyed priceless pieces of history. The place they occupy in our culture, in our societies, is allowed because of the relaxing of taboos as SO says. The counter argument that you feel reading that assertion is proof of that. It is state sanctioned violence, state directed violence, so that makes it different.

    2. Nothing you wrote there does matter to the topic. It's utterly irrelevant to the topic whether wartime violence is organised or not.
      What you wrote is all on a completely wrong, way too minor, level.

      On top of that, you were plain wrong when you claimed that human violence does not flatten cities. Earthquakes, tsunamis and human violence are the only things that flatten cities.

    3. I am argueing that there isnt such a cultural taboo as SO states. I dont see how the scale of death and destruction changes whether it is a cultural taboo or not. Your next point makes you out as very anti-military and plain wrong, there has been limits and rules on how warfare has been conducted for thousands of years. As for organisation, any endevaour that involves large numbers of people is always going to be organised.

      I would also point out agaisnt your views of disgust of the state/organisation that the death rate per person is far lower in organised states that we have now that ever in human history.

      The state is the people, you argue as if the state is a singular entity completely seperate from the people of that society. If you read my point i suggested that just because you are in a position of power doesnt give you omnipotent power over the culture/views of a people.

      1st annoymous-RF

    4. SO all those points in my second reply where directed at the annoynmous reply to my reply of your text. I geenuinely just wanted you to expand on your idea to see if i could align/understand it. When do you believe the cultural taboo that you speak of started? Do you believe it found among all human cultures? Are you sure our of taboo of killing/destructon is not deeper than human culture?


    5. This got a bit confusing. I deleted my confused reply.

      I tried to explain that the taboo was a prerequisite for living together, and for groups benefiting from contact with each other in win-win exchanges.

      It appears that the taboo is in effect even in chimpanzee and bonobo clans, so I suppose it may be millions of years old.

    6. Now i agree with that point there is some taboo that enables us to live in groups and its probably millions of years old. The problem for your theory is that if you take that view. How does that taboo, which is some ingrained biological trait, manage to be switched off and on?


    7. It was evolutionarily advantageous to be able to defend your hunting & gathering grounds, or to conquer new ones. It was also evolutionarily advantageous to be able to do tit-for-tat against groups that did rob and steal.

      So we're hard-wired with a violent fallback mode even though we're really best off with a pursuit of win-win.

      Without this fallback mode we'd be ripped off (and apart) by those who have a behavioural defect (sociopaths).

      I argue that it's appropriate to use this fallback mode for defence, but we should pursue win-win instead of being aggressive.

    8. "War is... a temporary relaxation of this taboo."

      I was discussing that this taboo exists as a default on a societal level, and that it is revoked by the state. Likewise its reinstatement is again because the state now deems it desirable.

      That taboo holds fast, again importantly on a societal level, unless the state chooses otherwise.

      "The state is the people" do I have to dignify that with a response? Orwell much?

      "Anti military" I did not include any morality in my argument. I don't think discussing morality is at all useful in this topic.

      "I don't see how the scale of death and destruction..." More death and destruction costs more money. Simple really. The 'civilian' damage that is inflicted by humans violent nature does not measure up to that inflicted during war. 3% of global pop died in ww2, it cost trillions, massive environmental damage, cultural damage, societal damage. The taboo was relaxed by the state and that was the outcome. It was a choice.

      Your point is that the destruction caused by ww2 is just a product of human society. Of humanity "look back at history" "there is no taboo", my point is that the violence of individual humans is distinct from 'organised' violence. The costs are completely different and where as one is indeed an unavoidable part of humanity, the other is not.

      Inter state war is the result of politics.

      The state can choose to start a war. The state can choose to end a war. The point at which either of those choices are made, if you look back at history, are almost entirely arbitrary. WW1 is an excellent example of that.

      There is a taboo against individual violence, there is no taboo against state violence.

      Does my argument change anything? No, because the enemy gets a vote.

    9. Continuation. There are increasing discussions going on at the moment that if there is a barney between RUS and the rest, it will come in the form of a quick, massively violent couple of weeks. Then, a period of 'strategic pause'. The assertion in that through an assessment on the conduct and outcomes of that opening period it will be obvious who the victor would be after a 'total war' which was carried through to its strategic end.

      The geometric validity of this world view can be discussed and can be critiqued (easily), that isn't my concern here.

      The sanity check that this potential future predicts, depends on what? On who? The leaders that have the power to continue the war or accept a sued peace, if any leader controls sufficient power to continue the conflict, the conflict will continue. Just because continuing the war would be the equivalent of shoving entire continents faces into a stihl saw does not mean that a leader would not empower that course of action.

      I cant see there being an increase in the objective long term thinking and reasoning abilities of future leaders. I see the reverse.

      The surity I have seen behind the eyes of people who lay out the short sharp (non nuclear) campaign, followed by 'strategic pause' as an order of cerimonies for WW3, is dangerous. It is the same thinking that termed "the war to end all wars."

      But re the discussion above, that thinking, that reasoning is humanist. It is our base state. It is our common sense. It is obvious. But that does not account for the fact that politics and those with political power do not have to operate inside any of those constraints.

      War, the size, allowed conduct, the damage. The timing of the begining and of the end are political choices. Are a result of political power and the choices of those who hold it. That is not a reflection on humanity. That is a result of the power structure humanity is currently operating under. (This leads to obvious philosophical rat holes, but the 20,000 words that support the core have been written many times before.)

      The way to stop or decrease the costs of the next war, does not depend on the current state of humanities advancement or enlighenment. It depends on the current disposition of global political power.

  2. I agree with the central premise that wars are purely subtractive endeavours, but this psychological and evolutionary argument you build up after is rather poor.

    There is no great universal taboo on killing or violence, neither across cultures nor across time.

    For example, trial by combat is an example of deadly violence as a means of resolving arguments that imposed by the legal framework of the time ( Germanic law 600 ~ 1500). There certainly isn't any taboo being broken, this is rather the moral way to resolve conflicts (for which no other definitive proof exists). Typically, the winner in a trial by combat were right about whatever was under debate since god made them win.

    As to the main point, there is research indicating that most wars seem to have been about one countries standing relative to some other country. Richard Ned Lebow made an inventory of all intrastate conflict from 1648 to ~2000 and found 58% were primarily caused by issues of standing (or "honour") article here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0047117810377277

    Personally, I find the Virtious Violence theory of Fiske and Rai -- basically that violence is often done for moral reasons because it is perceived as the proper way to regulate interpersonal or intergroup relationships -- very convincing.

    Here are some slides explaining the empirical basis for the theory: http://www.doktorikool.ut.ee/kstt/orb.aw/class=file/action=preview/id=1168454/Fiske%2C+Virtuous+Violence+24.09.2012.pdf

    And here Fiske gives a talk about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm-0OEEHhSk&feature=youtu.be&t=185

    1. Well, I didn't claim that war is the only exception to the taboo. All relaxations of the taboo require some sort of justification (capital punishment: crime committed, duel: honour damaged, self defence and so on). It's just that no society could (co)exist if the general rule (taboo) wasn't the prohibition of killing humans.

  3. S.O.

    I completly agree with you about the culture as the one main thing that causes war or prevents it. This is my sight since many decades. But furthermore i also have an additional conclusion out of that - that the culture of an society is one of the most important factors in warfare, and especially for the question of the military strength of an nation. Of cause culture cannot overcome anything (especially in the scenario: high technology / high industrial capacity vs low technology / no industrial capacity) but it carries the military of any might very far if the culture of a society enhances the military, organised violence and the overcome of the taboo you mentioned. This is in my opinion today more important than ever, because on the one side the possible destruction (in a shorter time) is higher than ever before even in the conventional area and the societes on the opposite site are more dependend on very special assets and circumstances. Therefore the western tm societies they cannot endure a long conventionl war (a war of attrition) any more. Any war is moreover shortened and under a pressure of time from many other circumstances and even warlike societies are restricted through that. For an example take the libanon war of israel which the israeli side had to end without achieving much althoug israel would had the potential to fight further at this time.

    So a culture that more easily overcomes the taboo (therefore secures the first strike, the suprise and so on for itself) and which is able because of his culture to fight from the begining with more violence and even under very difficult circumstances and destructive results would have an tremendous advantage against a cultural "weaker" (weaker purly in the military sense) society which would fail in a war because its culture would not allow this society to do what is needed to be done in sufficient (short time).

    Today warfare of western states has become to much an ritualized warfare, like the flower wars of the mesoamerican indians. Our culture restricts our potential to much, erected to many taboos (also then a war started there are taboos which are or are not overcome by culture) and this leads to the defeat of our forces.

    Whoever because of his "better" culture (better in the sense of more useful for warfare) could achieve to overcome the taboo at all and then the following taboos in the war itself could therefore achieve victory much more easily and much faster.

    The faster and more violent Agressor / Attacker will achieve victory in the modern war of the 21st century. To be this, you need more than only technology and industry, you need a culture that fits to this kind of warfare.

    t is like in most fights from simple street fist fighting to total warfare: whoever is able to attack fist, to hit first, to get the first hit right and to hit hard has an advantage the other will not overhaul. The escalation is in most times not linear. It comes in steps. Whoever could overjump such steps has an advantage from it in a fight. Each step has its taboos. And the culture is the main factor of all to overcome them - that means to take the necessary step or better to overjump it.

    As Clausewitz also wrotes this is also the nature of the war in itself. Because this is an inifinite advantage, every war is tending to develope itself into a total war. So the total war is the logical result from this mechanism. But today a longer war is not bearable and a true war of attrition would destroy us and the enemy completly. So a war must be short, decisive and with striclty bordered targets. In such a war the culture will most times decide more who wins than anything else.