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Why War?

John Keegan reflects on the motives for war throughout human history.

Whilst war is all too familiar a topic in recent times, little attempt is made to analyse the fundamental motives which lead countries to resort to armed conflict to settle their differences, or to consider how warfare as we know it today has evolved. It would not be true to say that the past did not know episodes of something like universal peace, at least within the boundaries of civilisation: for much of the second and third centuries the Roman Empire was untroubled by war; and during the nineteenth century, the British, by ignoring their imperial campaigns and treating the Crimean war as an aberration, persuaded themselves that they had entered a perpetually pacific era. But intervals such as these, which in any case look more peaceful at a distance than under close scrutiny, are islands in a vast ocean of storms. No part of the earth's surface on which men live or travel has not been fought over at some time or other. Some spots, like Adrianople in European Turkey and Antioch in Syria, have been fought over time and again. Armies are attracted to such places for 'strategic' reasons, meaning that possession or control of the area is desirable usually because it stands at points of communication between one productive region and another. It might be suggested then that the prevalence and frequency of war arise out of one group's desire or need to prey upon the land or wealth of another. What we know of the earliest warfare endorses this view, and it is further borne out in our own world where the correlation between deprivation and aggression is undeniable. Yet want does not sufficiently explain why we engage in battle. The richest and most powerful states are frequently the most warlike, whereas the poor are often too weak to resist even a direct threat to their independence. War serves many purposes: revenge, remonstrance, religion and ideology, as well as acquisitiveness and pre-emption.

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