Why do we wage war? There are only losers in war

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi Internationa

Fighting and killing have always constituted a large part of the ways in which we interact and solve conflicts. History contains countless examples. These are manifest in the stories and occurrences that have been handed down to us from the past as well. Some wars lasted for years, decades even, such as the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). More recent examples include the war in Afghanistan (1979-present) and the Syrian civil war (2011-present).

When fighting and killing take place by and among organised groups, we call it a war. It is factually correct that the total number of armed conflicts has decreased since the Second World War, yet if armed conflict takes place, it now usually does so in larger groups or coalitions and with an increased technical capacity for destruction and killing.

We live in an era characterised by extremely destructive arms technology. According to SIPRI, global spending on armaments in 2018 has amounted to 1800 billion dollars.[1] This is an increase of 2.6 percent in comparison to the previous year. Globalisation entails that we are confronted online on a daily basis with all atrocities taking place around the world. The visibility of human suffering is unavoidable.

Civil war is a phenomenon of every age. It involves rival groups that compete over power or territory within a country or region. Since the Second World War, we have known civil wars (often with an international dimension to them) in Korea, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Ukraine, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Yemen.

Civil wars occur more often in poorer countries in which tensions rise between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. An underprivileged population has little to lose and is therefore more vulnerable to becoming a participant in an armed conflict.

Getting rid of the causes of conflict

Many of the causes of conflict or tension are nothing new. Globalisation, with its exchange of products, people and knowledge, can be traced back to the Chinese silk routes in the second century B.C. In more recent times, it is mostly the technological revolutions in the field of telecommunication and transport that lead to change. Mass migration and the reactions it elicits are just as old: fear among autochthons and contempt for those newly arriving, with each migration always having to start at the bottom again. Mass migration is a source of poverty and conflict.

New violence develops in those places where there are a lot of feelings of hate and vengeance continues to exist among the population and its political leaders. The Balkans, for instance, have been home to one conflict after another since 1804.[2] The necessary initiatives of ‘healing’ were never, or not sufficiently, taken. An armistice or the end of a war should never result in an orgy of vengeance and retribution by the victors. There are no victors in war!

The demand for revenge and retribution is primal, just as the fear for societal tensions. The need for vengeance can be huge and can take on radical forms, such as brazen murders and beheadings. Already in the fifth century did Saint Augustine say: “Evil may not be countered with evil.”

The other is to blame

Certain politicians play into the fears of civilians. Populists exploit feelings of insecurity and fear. They use scapegoats and instigators of misery and point either to individuals, groups of people, or certain nations as the ones to blame for that misery. In times of uncertainty or crisis, there are irrevocably prophets of doom that join the public debate. Media copy those stories and over-emphasise the ‘evil’ around us and the other that is to blame. Besides wars, we are also confronted with rumours and their amplification on social media. We are consumed with thinking about terrorism and real or imagined threats.

Lately, ‘division’ is stronger than ‘connection’. Admittedly, as humans we grapple with situations of incomplete security, fear and suffering. Fear by itself is not bad. We must take fear seriously. Vengefulness and hate are bad. We must hold our plural society together! It is necessary to remain watchful over our information to counter manipulation and to keep thinking critically. We need space for reflection.

Keep cooperating even if it is difficult

In theory, wars become impossible through international alliances. When you can bring countries together, the chances of war between them decrease. When you can develop a web of agreements, treaties, mechanisms and institutions like the European Union, it becomes impossible to wage war on one another. Ideally, member states relinquish much of their sovereignty to a larger whole. But what is made by people can also be broken down again by people — a scenario that might take place for the European Union.

The current trend goes in the opposite direction: nation-states turn into themselves and demand full sovereignty. In that case, misunderstood power and influence get the final say again.

The international community’s responsibility

The international community has sometimes intervened in countries that had, or ran the risk of, armed conflict. Often this happened to prevent armed conflict or to enforce an armistice or peace, such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995.[3] An intervention is often preceded by the UN Security Council’s authorisation, but in reality also takes place sometimes without a mandate, such as in Serbia in 1999 because of the intense violence in Kosovo.[4] The US and UK’s war in Iraq in 2003 was characterised by a lack of international unity and authorisation as well.[5] It generally does not improve the living conditions of civilians during or after a conflict; rather chaos and division have often increased.

People do not want war

Why do we wage war? There are only losers in war. Most people will say that they do not want war. But why is there still war in that case? And why are there still too few alternatives that can efficiently solve conflict?

Many think of war as a natural occurrence, that it is natural for politicians to think of a possible war. It is like a machine that has been set in motion and that cannot be stopped, which impedes reflection and does not take alternatives into consideration.

War can be avoided. Diplomacy and mediation are common means to deal with conflicts. International mediation constitutes a means to solve interstate conflicts in a peaceful manner. Nonviolent means are to be preferred with regard to preventing and solving conflicts.

Lawful violence is reserved for the state. In a society such as ours, the monopoly on violence lies with the state. Civilians moreover expect transparency concerning the violence used, as well as being able to check the means applied.

Application of humanitarian law criteria

It remains a difficult decision whether or not to intervene in a conflict. Each conflict is different, has its own context and requires different analyses and considerations. International (humanitarian) law and the UN Security Council are concerned with the international criteria for conflict intervention.[6]

Humane concerns sometimes require us to intervene. Specifically, this is concerned with the prevention or the halting of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. There is the responsibility to protect civilians and the principle of humanitarian intervention. The international community is required to act responsibly and to prevent and counter injustice and conflict.

The area of tension is related to a double assessment: (1) are there any remaining diplomatic options to prevent or solve the conflict; or (2) have all diplomatic means been exhausted and is there an urgent requirement for the international community to intervene, if must be with limited use of force and under strict stipulations. We should reserve both options. However, we prefer the first option.

Superpowers like China and Russia insist that principles of sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs have precedence over other (Western) notions about humanitarian intervention. However, Russia applies exceptions to that rule and intervenes in situations where it considers a Russian minority in a neighbouring country to be under threat, such as in the Crimea, or interferes in regions like Eastern-Ukraine.

Russia and China’s attitude risks letting authoritarian regimes think they can get away with mass human rights violations and even with ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. The international community just stands and watches.

Martial law remains applicable: there are crimes against humanity and genocides with accompanying tribunals. In theory, even dictators may not go unpunished, we should prevent impunity from becoming a standard.

What do we do when certain regimes are not able to protect their own populations against extreme violence within the state or by external states or groups – or when these regimes reject international interference? Do we just let that happen?

Here, we find ourselves in a tough situation: often, nations frantically hold on to their right to self-determination. This impedes the global cooperation necessary to solve the problems of our time.


[2] “The Balkans, Nationalism, War and the Great Powers – 1804 – 2012” by Misha Glenny, Granta, 774 pp.

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