What is War?

The question “What is War?” has been debated by philosophers and political theorists for centuries. One approach defines it as an activity of a nation, state or group against another. This definition is based on the view that war is an expression of the will and ambition of a state to achieve its objectives by means of force. In this regard, it is an important alternative to the traditional definition that focuses on the causes of war. Its main merit is that it highlights the intentionality of war and that bellicosity – the desire to impose one’s will on others – is the essential reason for going to war. It also emphasizes the role of deceit in the decisions to go to war and thus calls for citizens, in particular, those living in democracies, to be ready to question the rationales given by their leaders. It also implies that the media, in a democracy, should exercise eternal vigilance in reporting on these rationales.

Other approaches look at the social condition of states, their relations with each other and their interactions in human society to explain why some wars are fought while others are not. These include the views of Marx (war is the politics of economics), Thucydides (fear, interest and honor), Hobbes (competition, diffidence and glory) and Nietzsche (the weak are swayed by the ideas of the aristocracy, while the strong take what they want). Clausewitz takes these thoughts further with the idea that war arises from the interaction of two elements: the policy element and the political element. He therefore seeks to distinguish between policies and the conduct of war and says that the latter is subject to certain conditions and constraints.

A number of problems emerge from these definitions and theories. For example, the fact that a war is considered to be legitimate can lead to tyranny and other evils. Also, the distinction between policy and the conduct of war may stifle the pursuit of peace.

Lastly, there are the long term effects of war. For both soldiers and civilians, the physical injuries from war can leave lasting traces even after the end of the conflict. Psychologically, fear and anxiety resulting from the experience of war can also have a lasting impact. Moreover, hatred towards the enemies of one’s own country or community develops and can last for generations.

Finally, the economy suffers a huge blow during and after war. This is because the money used for military expenses leaves little or no room for advancing a country’s economic growth and development. Consequently, the standard of living and life expectancy decrease for those directly affected. These consequences are often difficult to address or undo. They also tend to create a Malthusian effect, causing conflict over scare resources. This is particularly evident in Africa and to a lesser extent in West Asia, South Asia and Central America. In these countries, population is increasing faster than the availability of natural resources.