I have been reading a book by an American academic, John G. Stoessinger, Why Nations Go to War [5th edition, 1990]. He wrote it, he says, because he became increasingly convinced that the usual explanations [or excuses] for wars – nationalism, militarism, alliance systems, economic factors – were all bloodless abstractions which left out of account the human element: the personalities who unleash wars. “Who are these people that are dragging us to the abyss? What can we do to stop them? If we cannot stop them, can we limit the damage they are able to inflict?” Because war is not, as is commonly asserted, an ineradicable part of human nature, but a sickness that can be cured.
Each chapter is a case study of a 20th century war: World War I, Hitler’s attack on Russia, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the wars between India and Pakistan, the Israeli-Arab wars, and the Iraq-Iran war. Each of these wars started because of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and miscalculations by those who had the power to unleash or restrain the conflict. Unlike the 19th century, when the post-Napoleonic European wars had mostly been won by the aggressors, none of these 20th century wars were won by their initiators, who experienced defeat or, at best, stalemate. This, however, was a lesson which has still not been learned in the new wars of the 21st century.
What is glaringly obvious from these pages is the incredible degree of ignorance about adversaries, and the blithe conviction of ultimate victory, which impelled so many disastrous decisions. In the case of the Korean war, the Americans were completely disinformed about the real nature and strength of Communist China, and clung to their illusions that the longstanding friendship which they believed had existed between the American and Chinese peoples would prevent hostilities between the two countries. This ignored the basically paternalistic and patronising nature of American ‘friendship’ for Asian peoples, who have never been the willing recipients of American economic and cultural imperialism. The hubris of the iconic General MacArthur in driving on to the Chinese border at the
In his concluding chapter, Dr Stoessinger draws these conclusions:
No nation that began a major war in the 20th century emerged a winner.
In our time, unless the vanquished is destroyed completely, a victor’s peace is seldom lasting.
The personalities of leaders are crucially important in the outbreak of wars.
The most important single precipitating factor in the outbreak of war is misperception. Such distortion may manifest itself in four different ways: in a leader’s image of himself; a leader’s view of his adversary’s character; a leader’s view of his adversary’s intentions towards himself; and finally, a leader’s view of his adversary’s capabilities and power.
There is a remarkable consistency in the self-images of most national leaders on the brink of war. Each confidently expects victory after a brief and triumphant campaign. Doubt about the outcome is the voice of the enemy and therefore inconceivable.
The common belief in a short, decisive war is usually the overflow from a reservoir of self-delusions held by the leadership about both itself and the nation.
A leader’s misperception of his adversary’s power is perhaps the quintessential cause of war.
Wise words which we would do well to heed as the