Where Do Wars Come From?

Where Do Wars Come From?

Two new books, Margaret MacMillan’s War and Martin Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon, offer close studies of how we end up, or almost end up, marching into war.


Ever since the publication, in 1984, of Barbara W. Tuchman’s The March of Folly, I have associated the decision to go to war with the word and concept of “folly.” In her book, Tuchman examined several cases, beginning with the Trojans’ famous decision to move the Greeks’ warrior-filled wooden horse into their city and ending with the US decision to intervene in Vietnam, to show how those who make military decisions often do so in ways that run contrary to their own and their country’s fundamental interests. For anyone who came of age during the Vietnam War era, as I did, this folly has proved to be an inescapable lesson of history, one that continues to be taught to this day: From the Gulf War of 1990–91 to the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, wars inevitably result from errors of judgment.

Two new books offer us close studies of this march of folly. The first, Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us, covers the entire span of human history; the second, Martin Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon, takes a microscopic slice of that timespan, the famous “thirteen days” of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, and reveals how close we came to nuclear annihilation. Both, however, wrestle with the same questions raised earlier by Tuchman: Why do humans choose, again and again, to initiate activities that will almost assuredly result in widespread death and misery, including of their own compatriots?

MacMillan is an emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University and the author of a highly regarded book on the outbreak of World War I, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. While the origins of war are central to her inquiry, she is also interested in far more than just its causes. In crisp prose, she examines the impact of war-making on human societies from the distant past to the present—and the corresponding impact of societies on the conduct of war. Drawing on sources from a multitude of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, economics, history, psychology, and sociology, she shows that warfare, or organized violence, has been part of the human story from prehistoric times to the present. Over this span of time, she argues, these two spheres—war and society—have constantly interacted with each other, driving momentous changes in both. The military’s unending search for improved weaponry, for example, has driven the advance of numerous technologies, from metallurgy to radar; advances in civilian industries, such as steam power and the internal combustion engine, have altered the nature of warfare.

For MacMillan, the most significant cross-fertilization between warfare and society occurred in the areas of state formation and mass mobilization. Prior to the French Revolution, she writes, European monarchs relied on mercenaries and dragooned armies of dubious reliability to fight their wars; following that momentous event, mass popular armies were organized to defend the revolution and then, under Napoleon, to extend (or halt) its reach. This resulted, on the one hand, in the emergence of vast citizen armies supported by large-scale logistical and arms-making organizations, and, on the other, of modern state systems with elaborate bureaucracies (much of them devoted to revenue collection intended to pay for past or future wars), state-provided universal education, and ever-increasing popular participation in the political process. “War forces change and adaptation, and conversely changes in society affect war,” she notes. “The strong nation-states of today with their centralized governments and organized bureaucracies are the products of centuries of war.”

Since their modern formation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strong nation-states have proved to be very much prepared to mobilize large, well-equipped armies in the event of war, as demonstrated by the behavior of the major powers during the two world wars. But, as MacMillan demonstrates, the mobilization of entire societies for war has many pernicious effects that often outlast the total wars they thereby unleashed. By instilling martial values in the young—especially young men—they also help propagate chauvinistic and often racist or ethnocentric attitudes, planting the seeds for future wars. Even more significant, the distinction between combatants and civilians in such societies often disappears—especially during wartime, when everyone, young and old, male and female, is expected to contribute to the war effort in one way or another. This conflation of combatants and civilians, in turn, has come to legitimize attacks on urban populations during major conflicts, as the inhabitants of large settlements were assumed to be engaged in arms production or other war-sustaining activities. Urban attacks of this sort became official policy during World War II, when both Germany and Britain engaged in the systematic bombardment of their adversary’s cities and industrial centers; after the United States joined the war, it too engaged in such practices, notably by bombing Japanese cities (constructed largely of wood) with incendiary weapons. Although it has never been demonstrated that urban attacks of this sort diminished an adversary’s fighting spirit or shortened the war’s duration, this mode of thinking led to a search for ever more destructive weapons—and ultimately to the atomic bomb.

Although, as MacMillan writes, the tools and methods of warfare have changed over time, she detects remarkably little alteration in the motives that drive nations and warriors to engage in armed conflict. In fact, she identifies only three such impulses: greed, self-defense, and ideas or emotions.

Greed, in most instances, has involved the seizure of others’ land and its inhabitants—for food production, resource plunder, human enslavement, taxation, and other forms of exploitation. Most wars throughout time, and all imperial conquests, have had this as their primary objective. “Cortés and Pizarro toppled the Aztec and Inca empires in the early sixteenth century in their search for gold,” she writes. “The rulers of Prussia, Austria, and Russia divided up Poland at the end of the eighteenth century because they wanted to add to their possessions. Hitler took his war into the East because he believed that the German race needed more land and resources to survive. Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990 because he wanted its oil.”

Self-defense is relatively easy to explain, as it usually involves efforts by the targets of such assaults to resist foreign domination. More ambiguous, however, is the impact of ideas and emotions on the impulse to fight—especially as appeals to national pride, religious or revolutionary fervor, historical ethnic grievances, and other traditional calls to war are often used by leaders to disguise more pecuniary objectives, such as the acquisition of personal wealth. The Crusaders, for example, claimed to be driven by religious zeal yet regularly engaged in wholesale plunder; more recently, rebel leaders like Jonas Savimbi of Angola have boasted of their revolutionary credentials while accumulating private wealth from the illicit sale of diamonds. Nevertheless, ideas and emotions have stoked conflicts throughout history, and MacMillan is fully justified in highlighting their importance.

As she points out, the role of ideology, nationalism, and ethnocentrism has also become key in arousing the martial instinct as states became increasingly reliant on large citizen armies to conduct their wars. This process began in the wake of the French Revolution, when ordinary citizens were enjoined by republican leaders to take up arms in its defense. Napoleon also employed revolutionary tropes to recruit soldiers into the armies he needed to conduct attacks on other European powers, and, of course, similar appeals were used to enlist citizen soldiers in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. More recently, political ideologies have played a dominant role in stirring conflict, especially in the 20th and early 21st centuries with the emergence of communism, fascism, Maoism, and wars of national liberation—along with the counterrevolutionary, anti-fascist, anti-communist, and other oppositional formations that have arisen in response to these acute challenges. As MacMillan notes, moreover, “Wars of ideology, whether religious or political, are often the cruelest of all because the kingdom of heaven or some form of earthly paradise justifies all that is done in its name, including removing human obstacles.”

The clash of ideologies on a global scale is what provided the historical backdrop for the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 and animated its principal figures. Occurring at a time when hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union was at a fever pitch and the leaders of both countries were driven by a powerful sense of ideological mission, the crisis nearly erupted into a full-scale nuclear exchange. By examining these dynamics as they played out in Moscow and Washington, Martin Sherwin provides fresh insights both on that momentous event and on the larger themes of war and society raised by MacMillan.

Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon is actually two books in one. At heart, it is a revisionist retelling of the deliberations within the executive committee (ExComm) of the National Security Council, the select body established by President John F. Kennedy on October 16, 1962, to devise a muscular response to the Soviet deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba. In the classical account of these momentous events—most famously in Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days—the “wise heads” of ExComm successfully maneuvered the Soviets (then led by Nikita Khrushchev) into backing down and removing the missiles, thus saving the world from nuclear annihilation. As Sherwin persuasively demonstrates, however, those supposedly sagacious men were largely in the dark as to what was happening in Cuba and repeatedly lurched toward a catastrophe-inviting invasion. In addition to this revelatory narrative, Sherwin provides a second valuable book on the evolution of elite US thinking on the use of nuclear weapons from 1945 to the outbreak of the missile crisis. Although largely intended as a prelude to the events of 1962, this richly annotated section helps us comprehend the ideas and emotions that enabled the members of ExComm to seriously contemplate the use of hideously destructive weapons—thus bringing us back to MacMillan’s musings and, indeed, to Tuchman’s The March of Folly.

When being informed, on October 16, that the Soviets had installed SS-4 medium-range and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles on Cuban soil and were preparing them for operational use, President Kennedy asked his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, to convene a number of high-level figures to advise him on possible courses of action. In addition to Bundy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, this group grew to include Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Director of Central Intelligence John McCone, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and former secretary of state Dean Acheson. The group met several times a day until the crisis abated, debating various options for addressing the Soviet challenge. Unbeknownst to them, Kennedy made recordings of these sessions—which, when made public many years later (and extensively cited by Sherwin), provided an extraordinary insight into the thinking of these powerful figures when faced with decisions of potentially catastrophic consequence.

In the highly burnished account of these deliberations, the members of ExComm had reasonably good intelligence on what was happening in Cuba, possessed a keen understanding of Khrushchev’s intentions, and, under enormous strain and pressure, successfully devised the military and diplomatic chess moves that compelled Moscow’s capitulation. As Sherwin amply demonstrates, however, virtually none of these assertions are true. To begin with, US leaders were never aware of the fact that the nuclear warheads for those missiles had already been shipped to Cuba—in contrast to White House assumptions that they had yet to be delivered—or that the Soviets had deployed 42,000 troops to the island, three times the number identified in US intelligence reports. Nor did ExComm members fully comprehend Khrushchev’s reasons for stationing those troops and missiles or know of other Soviet moves, such as the deployment in US coastal waters of submarines equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes.

Instead, the members of ExComm and their military colleagues were mostly confused, divided, and bloodthirsty, repeatedly making decisions that would, if carried out, have led to a disastrous escalation. When Kennedy decided to impose a naval blockade on Cuba as an alternative to direct military action, many of his top aides steadfastly resisted, saying that only a full-scale invasion and the physical destruction of the missiles would suffice to resolve the matter. Hence, when members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with Kennedy and the rest of the ExComm ensemble on October 19 to discuss the blockade plan, their response was universally hostile. Dismissing the president’s assertion that an assault on Cuba could provoke a Soviet move on Berlin and thereby trigger a full-scale, or “general,” nuclear war, the chiefs proclaimed their view that only an invasion would end the crisis. “We don’t have any choice except direct military action,” insisted Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff. The Soviets wouldn’t dare move against US forces in West Berlin, he argued, and the United States must demonstrate that “if they make a move, we’re going to fight.” (LeMay, it should be noted, was an early advocate of bombing enemy cities as a major war tactic and oversaw the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths.)

What emerges from all these conversations is the inescapable conclusion that, far from behaving in a rational manner and pulling us back from the brink of annihilation, the men around Kennedy nearly pushed us over the edge. Only through the persistent urgings of UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, an occasional participant in the ExComm meetings, was Kennedy persuaded to attempt negotiations with Moscow and so resolve the crisis peacefully.

As Sherwin shows, Khrushchev also behaved in a reckless manner. In basing the missiles in Cuba in the first place, he failed to anticipate the explosive reaction that this move would produce in Washington. Having already learned to accept the presence of US nuclear-armed missiles in Turkey, he assumed that Washington would likewise accept the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, thereby creating a “balance of fear” and somehow reducing the risk of nuclear adventurism. What he failed to comprehend, of course, was the American leadership’s fanatical hatred of the Castro regime and complete preparedness to risk global incineration in its elimination.

It is in this respect that the earlier portion of Sherwin’s book, on the evolution of elite US thinking on nuclear weapons use, comes into play. As he demonstrates, US leaders and their counterparts in Moscow never viewed nuclear weapons as military tools alone; they were also seen as political and psychological tools that could be employed to intimidate one’s adversaries and enhance one’s own self-confidence and swagger. As US and Soviet nuclear capabilities expanded and the consequences of an eventual nuclear conflagration became ever more catastrophic, senior American officers, like their Soviet counterparts, were expected to possess nerves of steel and the willingness to contemplate, without hesitation, the launching of multiple warheads capable of killing tens or hundreds of millions of people. For the key participants in the 1962 events, these attitudes had become totally ingrained.

In defending their behavior during this crisis, the principals involved uniformly described their actions as having been guided by a noble purpose, whether the defense of their country, the eradication of an antithetical political system, or the preservation of their nation’s highest ideals. Looking at this from the vantage point of hindsight, however, it is hard not to detect the more ignoble impulses that have led humans to engage in warfare throughout history: personal ambition, the pursuit of honor and glory, and the preservation of one’s status and perquisites. Every member of ExComm sought Kennedy’s ear and approval, while Kennedy himself was fearful that any sign of hesitation on his part would be used by his political enemies to clobber Democratic candidates in the forthcoming midterm elections and to defeat his own reelection campaign two years later. Khrushchev, for his part, was desperate to demonstrate his capacity to stand up to Washington in the increasingly high-stakes game of nuclear brinkmanship and to stave off challenges to his leadership of the communist world from Mao Zedong and other more radical voices.

That all of this did not finally result in a military clash of some sort and a catastrophic nuclear spiral should be largely attributed, in Sherwin’s view, to pure dumb luck. On several occasions, he writes, the world was but a hair’s breadth away from the use of nuclear weapons, only to be rescued by the prudent thinking of a few individuals. One of these was Stevenson, whose fortuitous presence at the White House on several key occasions, Sherwin argues, prevented Kennedy from succumbing to the bellicose appeals of his top generals; without Stevenson, things could easily have gone the other way. And this, of course, leads us back to Tuchman and the role of folly in human affairs. Read Sherwin’s account from beginning to end, and you cannot help but conclude that the Cuban missile crisis—and with it, humanity’s near-annihilation—was largely a product of human folly.

If there is one aspect of Sherwin’s and MacMillan’s rich and evocative analyses that is open to criticism, it is their failure to delve deeply into the relationship between gender and conflict. Reading their books and others in this field, it is hard not to come away with the impression that lurking under the more conventional explanations for acts of war—nationalism, territorial expansion, monarchical rivalry, and so on—lie the purportedly masculine traits of combativeness and self-aggrandizement that these men (and nearly everyone making these decisions were men) felt they had to embody.

Sherwin never addresses this topic head-on, but so much of the aggressive posturing among Kennedy’s advisers reeks of the hyper-masculine culture in which these men were raised and by which they judged themselves and their colleagues. Not a single woman played a role of any significance in the White House deliberations of October 1962, and the men had reached their positions of authority by succeeding in the fiercely competitive, male-dominated worlds of politics, big business, and the military. They interpreted the Soviet missile deployment to Cuba as a “test of wills” (to quote Dean Acheson), in which fearlessness in the face of possible annihilation was deemed the optimal stance and any expression of support for caution was viewed as evidence of weakness. “Somebody’s got to keep them from doing the goddamn thing piecemeal,” said Gen. David Shoup, the Marine Corps commandant, of the White House’s plan to stop the missile deployment with a blockade. “[We have to] do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin’ around.”

MacMillan does engage with the subject of gender and war, but she never reaches a definitive conclusion on the relative importance of the former in spurring the latter. It is usually men, she notes, who start and do the fighting, and she cites only a few rare instances in which women played significant roles in combat and decision-making. “The assumption that it is the men who should be warriors seems to be almost universal through time and across cultures and, while there are examples of women warriors, the overwhelming majority of those who have fought have been men.” Why this is so, in her view, is probably some combination of biology and culture: Men tend to be larger and more muscular than women, and their greater supply of testosterone makes them more prone to aggressiveness; at the same time, boys are often expected to acquire fighting instincts as they mature, and women are not. “In so many societies, in the past and now, boys are told to be men and part of that is showing the qualities we associate with warriors…. Far more than women, men learn to fear being [or accused of being] cowards.”

For MacMillan, this understanding of masculinity is just one part of the larger tapestry of interactions between war and society—an important one, to be sure, but not one deserving special attention. Yet she provides example after example of how masculine traits and martial values conspired to drive nations into wars that left them devastated and impoverished. This is nowhere truer, perhaps, than in the outbreak of World War I—the subject of research by both MacMillan and Tuchman. As both point out, the European generals’ conviction that a conspicuous show of force would deter military action by their rivals—or, if fighting did occur, that a bold demonstration of “pluck” and daring on the battlefield would intimidate their rivals and ensure victory—all proved calamitously wrong. It seems obvious to this reviewer, moreover, that the near-disaster of the Cuban missile crisis exhibits many of the same characteristics. Khrushchev evidently believed that a daring move on the global chessboard would intimidate Washington and bolster his leadership credentials, while the members of ExComm were convinced that the United States (and themselves as individuals) must project strength and fearlessness above all else.

What do we make of all this history and analysis in our own uncertain age, as the world again faces the prospect of all-out war among the great powers? At the time of this writing, Russia had only recently begun to draw down the massive buildup of troops on its border with Ukraine, retaining large contingents there for a possible future military assault. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, warships from China and the United States were engaged in side-by-side naval maneuvers near Taiwan, suggesting preparations for a future war in Asia. Have we learned nothing from the past?

Sherwin does not really ask if another event like the Cuban missile crisis is possible today, but his conclusion that we were saved from annihilation in 1962 largely by accident is not very encouraging. MacMillan is more explicit, noting that warfare is an intrinsic aspect of human society and will occur in the future as it has in the past. She does ask if humans have made any progress in learning how to prevent war, through legal instruments of various sorts and the creation of institutions like the United Nations. But, as she correctly observes, the primary causes of war—greed, self-defense, and ideas and emotions—are still with us. Clearly, then, future progress in averting war will require more than improvements to existing laws and institutions; it will require addressing and overcoming those underlying factors.

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