People generally seem to overestimate the rationality of war. It is, for example, a common assumption that the Afghanistan war continues as a consequence of regular, rational assessments of whether it is achieving anything. In the case of Iraq, those arguing in favour of that war frequently assume that the occupation continues for the reasons stated by politicians.
What, it seems to me, is frequently underestimated, are the institutional and social pressures, particularly within US and British society, that enable war:-
- Their populations, still steeped in the heroic mythology of victory in WWII and free of any experience of invasion, have far less of the visceral horror of warfare that pervades other societies.
- They have huge economic interests in waging war, given their substantial respective “military industrial complexes”.
- Their voters and media seem strangely, enormously prone to minor personality cults in politicians, always hoping that a single person can bring about significant good/change, and spurning political parties like the Lib-Dems in the UK, which place greater emphasis on integrity of policy.
- The very existence of a large military places certain temptations in the path of politicians. If you have the weapons, so much easier to use them, than to struggle down the awkward, ambiguous paths of negotiation and peace-making.
- Their relative geographic isolation makes them, on the whole, less globally cosmopolitan, than the people of many other countries. We Anglophiles, I think, tend more than most to speak only one language (no, I don’t have stats, so you could take me down on this one). This, yes speculative, argument could be extended by noting that of the permanent five security council members, the two that share a language are the most closely aligned and effectively belligerent.
- These two nations are corrupted by power (permanent security council members), in the sense of being excessively prone to the unconscious assumption that because they are “leading democracies”, their policies are less self-interested and more righteous.
- They have strangely few women in politics, compared to many so-called ‘less developed’ countries (got stats for this one). I’m not as inclined as some to see women as automatically less belligerent than men, and indeed, institutional forces seem to make them proportionally more belligerent as they gain power, but this still seems an important factor.
Once wars are started, they acquire a dreadful momentum:-
- What seemed unthinkable can now be taken for granted.
- Fear of losing face if withdrawal might imply error in undertaking the conflict in the first place.
- Home populations become conditioned by familiarity into ignoring the dreadful implications of what stories and statistics the media still troubles itself to provide.
- The media troubles itself a whole lot less.