Another major type of war is the pitched battle, winners and losers, a beginning, a middle, an end. While they are limited in time, they are often far less limited in the destruction they cause. These are the wars of what we half-ironically call ‘civilized’ societies. That is to say they emerged some five thousand or so years ago with the rise of territorial states.
These are the wars of the Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Mongols, French, British, Americans and so on. They have starting and ending dates such as 1914-1918, 1939-1945. They begin on one day and end on another. Within the war period the fighting is often far more ‘total’ than in the tribal wars. They are fought to defeat or conquer another bounded state, and this often involves huge-scale slaughter and destruction. It is not uncommon for millions to die in such a war, both from the fighting and from the famine and disease which they bring with them.
These wars are fought for rather different reasons than the feuding ones. There may be symbolic reasons of hurt pride, jealousy, revenge as in feuds. Yet the two main reasons are fear and greed.
Fear is indeed a powerful force. The enemy is a threat, so one should attack before they do. This was a widespread motive and justification for almost all ‘civilizational’ wars until recently. During the second half of the twentieth century, a new principle of international law was established which banned pre-emptive strikes on sovereign nations. Recently some powerful western leaders have revised the oldest justification for war by declaring that if it is in a country’s self-interest to attack another which it feels might one day become a threat, this is justified. It is a move which takes us back to a world based on fear, arms races and pre-emptive strikes.
The second main motive is greed, that is to say the almost universal fact that while there are many losers, there are always some winners. These are the arms manufacturers, some bankers, the successful warriors, some politicians. There is greed for power; a good war bolsters political power and deflects one’s critics. There is greed for land and other resources through conquest.
The constant wars of aggression of Empires, from the ancient Babylonians or Chinese, through the Romans and Habsburgs, British, up to the current Americans, are well known. This tendency of States to engage in almost constant warfare is strengthened by what one might call the ‘reverse domino’ effect.
In the normal ‘domino effect’, as in the ‘war against communism’, it was argued that to lose one country, for example Vietnam, could cause all the dominoes standing in a row nearby (e.g. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand), to ‘collapse’ into communism. In the reverse effect, as soon as one territory has been annexed, it puts great pressure on the successful conqueror to consider taking over the next.
One example comes from the history of the Roman Empire which, in order to protect its ever widening territories, was drawn into annexing ever more. The British Empire was the same. In order to ‘protect’ India, the British felt they had to take control directly or indirectly of its borders, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Nepal, Assam, Burma. Soon British eyes were upon China and even Japan.
There is no standing still with Empires. Either they push outwards or sink beneath the onset of the ‘barbarians’ on the frontiers. America has increasingly been caught in this trap. Past failures can be overlooked, as in the case of Vietnam, and the people aroused again to further attempts to wipe out the threatening hordes.