Two serious falsehoods about war, very hard to uproot, are embedded in the minds of people.
The first is about motivation. Why do the powerful go to war? The most frequent explanation is that they want to seize another country’s resources.
In reality, that’s almost never true. For it to be true, it would be necessary for those nations to be governed by elites or leaders intent on improving the collective quality of life by means of bloody and costly actions unleashed against other peoples.
That may have been true when humans lived in caves and hunted in small groups, but not when the species evolved, developed agriculture and created the bases of modern societies.
It is absurd to think that the United States went to war in Iraq to seize the oil. The war in Iraq has already cost the American taxpayers $784 billion. If we add the Afghan conflict, the price tag exceeds $1 trillion.
That figure is higher than the cost of the Korean War at current prices. To buy energy from Iraq and resell it is what oil companies do. It is good business for everyone. To seize it through firepower is unaffordable.
To intervene in Syria to plunder that country would be, in addition to a crime, supreme folly. Syria exports fewer than 150,000 barrels of oil a day, and its annual per-capita income is barely $3,400. It is a very poor society, badly managed.
The notion that the motivation of Washington or Paris is to steal the few belongings of that dusty corner of the Middle East is absurd. It would be like killing a blind beggar to steal the pencils he sells.
If the United States wanted to seize a very rich oil-producing country, it could turn north to Canada, but no one in his right mind would consider such madness.
The second falsehood is that wars are useful to energize the economy, which even some famous people subscribe to. Fortunately, others like Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz don’t, and he’s right.
In addition to annihilating thousands of people, wars destroy material property, pulverize infrastructures, provoke inflation, inhibit the formation of capital and perversely assign the available resources.
It is possible for arms manufacturers and merchants to enrich themselves, but that happens at the cost of pauperizing 99 percent of the country’s productive fabric. The money spent to build an aircraft carrier is enough to start up 5,000 enterprises that can generate wealth and create jobs.
It is absurd to think that the recruitment of soldiers is a reasonable way to contribute to full employment. The ideal is not to have a society with millions of uniformed people who produce no goods or appreciable services but to have a dense and diversified entrepreneurial apparatus with millions of productive workers. Switzerland has become the world’s richest country by avoiding wars, not by participating in them.
John Maynard Keynes thought that World War II had contributed to end the Depression caused by the Crash of 1929, but his confusion was likely due to the fact that he didn’t have adequate information.
When the United States entered that conflict, 12 years had passed since the start of the crisis and the world was in full recovery. To think that the war helped to strengthen the U.S. economy is like thinking that the earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906 or that Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded New Orleans and killed 1,831 people, helped revitalize the country’s general economic picture.
So, if wars are so bad, and if in reality almost no one benefits, why do leaders resort to them? The answer must be found in the complex human psyche.
Leaders go to war for obscure reasons concealed behind eloquent moral and patriotic speeches, for power and glory, for the pleasure of ruling, for ideological daydreams, for arbitrary constructions — theoretical and strategic — that almost always turn out wrong, for avenging wrongs, because of religious, political or ethnic superstitions, or to defend themselves from some aggression. It’s the strangeness of human nature.