Translated by Greg Johnson
We have read all the commentaries, pro and con, on punitive strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. (As of this writing, nothing has happened yet.) The pacifists who have become warmongers (the French Greens), the anti-Atlanticists who have aligned with Washington (the French Socialist Party), the Atlanticists who eschew the label (the British Parliament), and other strange cross-positions present us with an opportunity to reflect: What is war?
War, that is to say the use of armed force between sovereign political units—as distinct from private violence—has always been poorly understood, even in the minds of its protagonists. For example, the recent book on the outbreak of the First World War (1914–1918), an absolute disaster for Europe (Europe’s Last Summer: What Caused the First World War? by historian David Fromkin, a professor at Boston University), shows that this race into the abyss was produced not by any rational political calculation, and contrary to the interests of the belligerents, by a kind of agitated autonomous mechanism, which we can call “warmongering.” A mechanism that some will call tautological, irrational, “crazy.” No actor really wanted to “attack the other,” but more or less all wanted to fight to varying degrees, without any clear shared goals of the confrontation. Fromkin shows that long before the tragic sequence of events of Europe’s last happy summer, disparate forces wanted war for various reasons. And this is true of all future belligerents.
Let us dive into history. The best historians of the Roman Empire note that its wars of conquest in the pre-Imperial period obeyed neither a desire for economic hegemony (which already existed), nor a defensive engagement against the pacified Barbarians, nor a politico-cultural Roman imperialism (which too was imposed by soft power, without legions). The historian of Gaul, Jean-Louis Brunaux notes that Caesar himself, in his famous Commentaries, never logically explained the reasons for his engagement, particularly against the Belgians, northern Gauls (Celto-Germanics) who in no way threatened Rome, which required lethal operations condemned by the Senate for their strategic uselessness. Nor could Augustus three generations later justify the loss of Varus’ three legions recklessly sent into Germany against the “traitor” Hermann (Arminius). History offers countless similar examples: wars or military operations that do not follow a rational logic, and whose goals could have been achieved by fundamentally easier means.
The Marxist School (war = economic imperialism) or geopolitical school (war = securing control of space) or nationalist school (war = defending the national stock) are not wrong but do not answer the question: Why war? Because, according to Aristotelian reasoning, “Why pursue a goal the hard way when we could take an easier way?” Talleyrand thought, in this regard, that France could have easily dominated Europe through diplomacy, economic and cultural influence, and demography without—and much more securely than by—the bloody Napoleonic Wars, which propelled England and Germany to the top. As a rule, intra-European wars have not benefitted any of the protagonists but have weakened the whole continent.
What, then, is war? The answer to this question is found not in political science but in human ethology. Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and many others saw that the branch of primates called Homo sapiens was the most aggressive species, including in intraspecific matters. Violence in all its forms, is at the center of genetic impulses of the human species. It is impossible to escape. “Anti-violence” religions and moralities only confirm this disposition by opposition. War would be, in the words of Martin Heidegger about technology, “a process without a subject.” That is to say, a behavior that (a) escapes rational and volitional causality in the sense of Aristotle and Descartes, and (b) ignores factual consequences. The essence of war is, therefore, not found on the level of logical thinking (e.g., should we invest or not in a particular energy source?) but on the level of the illogical, on the frontiers of the paleocortex and neocortex.
The essence of war is endogenous; it contains its own justification within itself. I make war because it is war, and one must make war. We must show our strength. When the Americans—and, on a lower level, the French—engage in military expeditions, it is less a matter of calculation (the same would be achieved at lower cost and, worse, the result contradicts the objective) than of a drive. A need—not animal, but very human!—to use force, to prove to yourself that you exist. Vilfredo Pareto has quite correctly seen two levels in human behavior: actions and their justifications, with a disconnect between the two.
Thus the essence of war lies in itself. This is not the case of other human activities such as agriculture, industry, animal husbandry, botany, computer science, technology research, architecture, art, medicine and surgery, astronomy, etc., which, to use Aristotelian categories, “have their causes and goals outside of their own essence.” And what most resembles war as a self-sufficient human activity? It is religion, of course.
War, like religion, with which it is often associated (in that religion is theological or ideological), produces its own ambiance self-sufficiently. It emanates from a gratuity. It enhances and stimulates as it destroys. It is a joint factor of creation and devastation. It came out of the human need to have enemies at any cost, even without objective reason. This is why religions and ideologies of peace and harmony have never managed to impose their views and have, themselves, been the source of wars. It is that ideas expressed by man do not necessarily correspond to his nature, and it is the latter that is essential in the end. Human nature is not correlated with human culture and ideas: it is the dominant infrastructure.
Should we all embrace pacifism? History, of course, is not just war, but war is the fuel of history. War inspires artists, filmmakers, and novelists. Without it, what would historians talk about? Even proponents of the “end of history” show themselves to be warmongers. We deplore it, but we adore it. Feminist scholars have written that if societies were not chauvinistic and dominated by bellicose males, there would be no war but only negotiations. Genetic error: in higher vertebrates, females are as warlike as the males, even more so.
The paradox of war is that it may have an aspect of “creative destruction” (to use the famous category of Schumpeter), especially in economic matters. In addition, in techno-economic history from the earliest times to the present day, military technology has always been a major cause of civilian innovations. In fact, conflict and the presence of an enemy creates a state of happiness and desire in the private sphere (because it gives meaning to life), just as in the public sphere, war initiates a collective happiness, a mobilization, a rupture with the daily grind, a fascinating event. For better or for worse. So what to do? We cannot abolish the act of war. It is in our genome as a libidinal drive. War is part of the pleasure principle. It is tasty, attractive, cruel, dangerous, and creative. We must simply try to regulate it, direct it, somehow dominate it rather than do away with it.
The worst thing is either to refuse or to seek war at all costs. Those facing Islamic jihad who refuse to fight back will be wiped out. Like those who deceive themselves about the enemy—for example, proponents of strikes against the Syrian regime. Everything fits in the Aristotelian mesotes, the “mean”: courage lies between cowardice and rashness, between fear and recklessness. That is why any nation that disarms and renounces military power is just as foolish as those who abuse it. War, like all pleasures, must be disciplined.