I recently asked my first-year humanities classes: Will war ever end? I specified that I had in mind the end of all wars—like the one currently ravaging Ukraine—and even the threat of war between nations. I primed my students by assigning “Warfare Is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity,” by anthropologist Margaret Mead, and “A History of Violence,” by psychologist Steven Pinker.
Some students suspect, like Pinker, that war stems from deep-rooted evolutionary impulses. Others agree with Mead that war is, in her words, a “bad invention” rather than a “biological necessity” or “sociological inevitability.” But whether they see war as springing primarily from nature or nurture, almost all my students answered: No, war will never end.
War is inevitable, my students say, because humans are innately greedy and belligerent. Or because militarism, like capitalism, has become a permanent part of our culture. Or because, even if most of us hate war, warmongers like Hitler and Putin will always arise, forcing the people being attacked to fight in self-defense.
My students’ reactions don’t surprise me. I started asking if war will ever end almost 20 years ago, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Since then I’ve polled thousands of people of all ages and political persuasions in the U.S. and elsewhere. About nine out of 10 people say war is inevitable.
This fatalism is understandable. The U.S. has been at war nonstop since 9/11. Although American troops left Afghanistan last year after 20 years of violent occupation, the U.S. still maintains a global military empire spanning 80 countries and territories. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reinforces our sense that when one war ends, another begins.
War fatalism pervades our culture. In The Expanse, a sci-fi series I’m reading, a character describes war as a “madness that’s in our nature”; it flares up and subsides but never vanishes for good. “I’m afraid that as long as we’re human,” he says, war “will be with us.”
This fatalism is wrong in two ways. First, it is wrong empirically. Research confirms Mead’s claim that war, far from having deep evolutionary roots, is a relatively recent cultural invention. And as Pinker has pointed out, casualties from interstate wars and even civil conflicts have declined sharply since World War II, in spite of recent deadly clashes in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. War between France and Germany, bitter enemies for centuries, has become as inconceivable as war between the U.S. and Canada.
Fatalism is also wrong morally because it helps perpetuate war. If we think war will never end, we are unlikely to try to end it. We are more likely to maintain armed forces to deter attacks and win wars when they inevitably break out. Some experts predict that the war in Ukraine will trigger a worldwide arms race. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is almost certain to kick off a new era of [arms] escalation,” Fortune reports.
President Joe Biden wants to boost the annual U.S. defense budget to $813 billion, its highest level ever. The U.S. already spends more than three times as much on armed forces as China and 12 times as much as Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI. The prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, is urging other NATO nations to increase defense spending. “Sometimes the best way to achieve peace is to be willing to use military strength,” Kallas asserts in the New York Times.
The late military historian John Keegan cast doubt on the peace-through-strength thesis. In his 1993 magnum opus A History of Warfare, Keegan argued that war stems primarily neither from “human nature” nor competition for resources—another popular theory—but from the “institution of war itself.” Preparing for war makes it more rather than less likely, according to Keegan’s analysis.
Military spending also diverts resources, ingenuity and energy away from other urgent problems. Nations collectively spend $2 trillion a year on armed forces, with the U.S. accounting for almost half that amount. That money is dedicated to death and destruction instead of to education, health care, clean-energy research and antipoverty programs. As the nonprofit World Beyond War documents, war and militarism “severely damage the natural environment, erode civil liberties, and drain our economies.”
Even the most just war is unjust. During World War II the U.S. and its allies—the good guys! —dropped firebombs and nuclear weapons on civilians. The U.S. is criticizing Russia, rightly so, for killing civilians in Ukraine. But since 9/11, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen have resulted in the deaths of more than 387,072 civilians, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University. And soldiers are human; their lives matter too.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has exposed war’s horrors for all to see. Instead of beefing up our armaments in response to this catastrophe, we should talk about how to create a world in which such bloody conflicts never happen. Ending war won’t be easy, but it should be a moral imperative, as much so as ending slavery and the subjugation of women. The first step toward ending war is believing it is possible.