The Meaning and Philosophy of War

War is an etymologically broad term that encompasses numerous conceptions of war. Its amorphous definition provides the student of war with the opportunity to explore an immense array of sub-topics. As such, proffered definitions and explanations must be scrutinized for their internal logical validity. Often the proposed definitions mask a particular political or philosophical stance paraded by the author of the article.

Various theories of the causes of war have been proposed. Some posit that war is a product of man’s inherited biology, with disagreements raging as to the ensuing determinist implications (cf William James on man’s natural aggression, Konrad Lorenz on human territoriality). Others claim that culture engenders bellicosity and violence, with different opinions as to whether this can be channeled or abolished through the institution of cultural institutions such as the’soft morality’ of trade that engages increasingly large numbers in peaceful intercourse or by imposing external penalties through an international state or supranational authority.

Economic historians and development economists have argued that many wars stem from growing competition for natural resources and wealth. This theory gains credence in a world where the growing mobility of capital and information levels wealth differences worldwide and makes states more dependent on foreign sources for the material resources necessary to sustain their military apparatuses.

Many philosophers have examined the justifications for war, both its necessity and its legitimacy. In the Western tradition, it has long been a belief that the right to war is limited by the ethical prohibition against taking another person’s life. It is also a belief that the benefits of war must greatly outweigh the disadvantages and that the decision to go to war should be made only after all alternative means of solving the problem have been exhausted.

The most obvious argument against the justification for war is that it has never brought lasting peace. Even when supposedly “good” wars are won, they leave lasting scars on the societies involved and their individuals. The long-running conflict between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil populations of Sri Lanka is a case in point. This conflict has caused severe psychological trauma that is being exacerbated by a lack of socio-economic resources. The effects on the Tamil people include somatization, PTSD, major depression and alcohol or drug abuse (45).

A more recent phenomenon is that the cost of wars is increasing while their deadliness is decreasing. This is partly due to the growing availability of cheaper, more reliable armaments and weapons of mass destruction. A more fundamental reason is that the public has become less willing to accept the risks of war and more prone to support a war when it is perceived to be in their interests.

The main method for preventing war involves primary prevention, in which all individuals are made to participate in society in some way, regardless of their potential for fighting on the battlefield. This can be done by encouraging women to work outside the home, ensuring that soldiers are not forced to take unneeded vacations and encouraging the public to debate the issues surrounding any future military action.