Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace
Author: Christopher Blattman
Publisher: Penguin Books, USA
Canadian Christopher Blattman was a young economics student in a suit and tie at the University of California, Berkeley. Coincidences (a stolen laptop and meeting a psychology student) changed his course. Despite earnest warnings from the university advisor, he joined the psychology student (whom he later married) and travelled to war zones in Uganda and Liberia. This was the beginning of a long-term project to explore the causes of conflict and why it erupted into war between groups and nations.
In his book Why We Fight: The Roots of war and the Paths to Peace, Blattman, now a professor at the University of Chicago, emphasises that war is the exception, not the rule: «war is destructive. It massacres soldiers, pillages, starves, kills civilians, hampers trade, crushes industries, and ruins regimes.»
The author maintains that weapons come into play only when the possibilities for compromise and negotiations approach zero. He has categorised this process into five main causes.
When an undemocratic ruler faces no consequences for the consequences of war and seeks personal profit.
Intangible incentives: For example, revenge, status, or dominance. It also involves violence to achieve a higher goal – God’s blessing, freedom, or the fight against injustice.
Uncertainty: The strength and intentions of the opponent are unknown, so attacking seems to be the best defense. In this case, the costs of war must be accepted.
Lack of trust and binding agreements (commitment): The cards are not on the table or cannot be trusted. Surrender weapons and risk a sneak attack? It’s better to strike while one can.
Misinterpretations: The situation is misjudged, the enemy is demonised, and competition and mistrust push the conflict to the edge.
These points are elaborated in chapters filled with historical research, statistics, and, most notably, as in point 1, through field studies in Liberia. The country went from being an American colony in 1822 to establishing Africa’s oldest independent republic and later experienced a long and bloody civil war that erupted in 1989. This is the story of abundant natural resources and a political elite that used its military power to control the country’s mines, plantations, people, weapons, and businesses. Blattman asserts, «Their calculation of costs versus benefits was skewed. Their unaccountable private interests did not align with the public’s needs.» The result was a society with one of the planet’s most irresponsible regimes.
Point 2 is illustrated by the concept of «honourable» war. Why was recruiting British fighter pilots during World War II so easily? Because the patriotic willingness to sacrifice their lives (and earn medals) outweighed the fear of death. This willingness to sacrifice can also be manipulated. Religious fanaticism can convince individuals with bleak prospects that killing the «impure» is worthwhile, as it serves a higher purpose. Blattman quotes one of his interviewees, who had been seduced into violent agitation: «Violence is one of the most intense sensory experiences there is, and those who are capable of surrendering to it experience an equally intense bliss.»
And «uncertainty» – miscalculating risk – is described as a frequent cause of war. Blattman quotes historian Geoffrey Blainey, who has researched world wars fought since the 18th century. According to him, a war usually starts «when nations disagree about their relative strength.»
Trust issues, as shown in point 4, are exemplified by an example from Iraq. For Saddam Hussein, it was important to give the impression of possessing weapons of mass destruction. It was a fateful bluff and his way of warning the Americans against provoking a conflict with him. The puzzle did not add up – for either side. The country was thrown into chaos. Saddam lost his life, and the Americans lost face when it became clear that they went to war under false pretences. Not to mention the cost of the Iraq War for the United States in terms of time, money, and human lives.
«Misinterpretations»: Here, Blattman refers, among others, to psychologist and writer Daniel Kahneman and his concept of rapid and automatic thinking, unconsciously related to emotions. According to Kahneman, we humans are often egocentric, concerned with ourselves and those who share our beliefs. As a result, we draw hasty conclusions, seek evidence for what we already believe to be true, and it can lead to strategies that eliminate room for negotiation in crisis situations. Again, the Iraq War is a good example. The Bush administration was rooted in a common identity, ideology, and enemy image. It failed to double-check information – there was no room for opposing views – and led to a deadly interaction between misinterpretation and affect.
So, what is the path to peace beyond avoiding the five reasons for war? Blattman reminds us how stable and peaceful groups have handled competition. He mentions several key elements: Successful societies create community – economically, socially, and culturally.
Institutional power balance ensures that leaders listen to the needs of the people. They have created organisations that implement laws, legitimise the state, and strengthen social bonds. They have also assembled a toolbox that enables intervention when violence erupts.
It may seem like a poorly chosen moment to believe that choosing peace over war is more natural. Blattman’s categorised dynamics of war are sadly relevant in Ukraine today, for example, in line with point 3: Would Putin have invaded Ukraine if he had known the resilience of the Ukrainians and assessed the costs of war for himself? Germany, in particular, is also confronted with everything it could have prevented (a prolonged misjudgment of Putin driven by economic self-interest, dependence on Russian gas, inflation, etc.).
Blattman is cautiously optimistic and stated in an interview with the German press earlier this year, «As of May 9, Putin has not escalated his rhetoric or mobilised the country.» He believes that Western arms deliveries will not increase bloodshed. On the contrary, the more clearly the West stands behind Ukraine, the higher the costs of war for Russia, and thus the «motivation to find a solution.» Blattman, however, does not dare to provide further details on what that solution might look like as of August 2022.
This fall, Putin has mobilised the country in a way that suggests helplessness rather than a master plan for victory. We know what the West and NATO have said they will do if he activates nuclear weapons: crush Russian troops in Ukraine and the entire «hard against hard» method. Russia is thus leaning towards an involuntary solution: bloody losses for Putin, a bloody victory for Ukraine, and the West trapped in further military escalation.