Are wars rational?

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Bigdumps, Jan 28, 2008.

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  1. Just come out of a lecture (im doing war studies) titled "why war? - logic, instinct and emotion".

    The lecturer covered a number of reasons for warfare, one of which he heavily discussed was aggression. Mankind is naturally aggressive and we seek violence.

    I'm not entirely sure I agree with this because levels of aggression vary in different societies, which demonstrates that aggression is influenced by cultural and social factors.

    But what I am wondering is, are wars rational and can wars be fought with rational calculation?

    I know this is not typical arrse fayre but I am hoping some people can help me work some thoughts out!
  2. It is very much influenced by culture. Until very recently, all the wars we fought were defensive, i.e. someone else did something we had asked them not to, so we gave them a spanking. Normally the British only fight wars when there's no other option; we fight each other in bars because it's fun, but that's different.

    All the wars the German had fought were in order to further their political objectives, i.e. we want that land so we'll take it, thanks. Even the element of risk from their viewpoint, from 1939 to 1941, was entirely rational.

    I would say WW1, WW2, the Falklands, Korea, the invasion of Kuwait and probably lots of others I could think of if it wasn't lunchtime, were initiated for rational political reasons by people who either didn't think the problem through to the end OR who underestimated the quality/motivation of their opposition.

    Oh, and your signature's wrong. If you lose your sovereignty you can get it back; you just have to kill a lot of people to do it, or have very powerful friends :wink:
  3. ...And the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. :D

    Brits weren't immune from wars of conquest or aggression. Look at our involvement in Ireland, France, the Crusades, the Americas, not to mention all the other Imperial Wars. Contrariwise, Germans have been traditionally 50/50 defensive/aggressive up to the 19th Century, Austria being an exception to be fair.

    Bigdumps, do you mean individual aggression or national? There's a school of thought that says societies unconsciously seek out wars periodically to vent their population's pent-up aggression. Another possibility is that a set of assumptions about the abilities and needs of the nation compared to it's competitors lead to a groupthink where it's just taken for granted that war is in the national interest on an apparently rational risk vs. reward basis. WWI could be argued to be an example of such, seeing how it would "all be over by Christmas".
  4. Bd, could you give an example of what you consider an 'irrational war'. Ta.

  5. you may as well ask "what is the rationale for war?" I would imagine that wars of all sizes have, over the millennia, had any one of a thousand reasons, most of them forgotten or lost. In the 21st century wars seem to be precipitated by religious differences and ethnic disagreement moreso than the old territorial landgrab or reclamation of ancient land "rights"...

    I would have thought that any war is only as "rational" as the person declaring it or starting it thinks it is, after all, only a small minority of a nation or state ever actually fights in it's wars..the inescapable fact is that as the population of the world increases exponentially, we are forced ever closer to our neighbours, and privacy and autonomy are dashed. This causes friction, and so the eternal conflict of human on human continues.

    Still, mustn't grumble eh??
  6. Ooh. big question, working at a number of levels...

    Firstly, from a historical perspective one has to ask whether individuals make decisions at all - as opposed to being forced into action by deterministic factors such as economics. (For example, WW1 being caused by long term economic pressure on Germany and the Axis).

    Also, its really difficult to assess rationality - one has to put oneself in the rational framework of the people in that period of time. It was rational for Leonidas to march the Spartans to the Hot Gates to fight the Persian hordes, in the context of his own moral code, but when measured a couple of thousands of years later, seems irrational.

    As far as mankind being "naturally" aggressive, I'd probably argue that there is plenty of evidence in recorded history of successful societies that avoid armed conflict in order to gain. Look at Britain - even in the Napoleonic period it heavily subsidised Continental European armies to counterbalance the French (never having a standing army of over 40000 men, though keeping a powerful navy).
  7. My tiny addition:

    The reason for a war starting, or at least previous wars, I can not see as being a rational decision of both sides. However, that is from taking my own, biased view point. Often the "defensive" side will the the rational side; defending land that is rightfully theirs (unless land not rightfully theirs, and an extension of a previous conflict).

    However, a country can become involved in a conflict/war from a totally rational perspective. To me these are the "outsiders" who enter a war to "protect the underdog/little country" etc. Here a decision has been made to enter into warfare when it could be possible to avoid the issue all together, and the war has been entered into for "moralistic" reasons.

    Did any of that make sense?
  8. You'd be better asking is politics rational? Clearly the answer is much less often than we'd hope. War is just what follows. Often idiotic and and better avoided only occasionally driven by cool headed necessity.

    That's especially true in our representative democracies were an effete populace requires the policy pill to be sugared with missionary pieties and dreams of glory. A necessarily pandering executive tends to entirely lose sight of any Real Politik elements that provided the policy momentum and get caught up in the giddy moment. That's the real story of the past half decade. The march of folly.
  9. Smartascarrots wrote:
    Brits weren't immune from wars of conquest or aggression. Look at our involvement in Ireland, France, the Crusades, the Americas, not to mention all the other Imperial Wars. Contrariwise, Germans have been traditionally 50/50 defensive/aggressive up to the 19th Century, Austria being an exception to be fair.

    Carrots - not sure what you mean here. Are you saying Germany's defeat of Austria in the 1870s went against the 50/50 trend - or that Austria is a German state with a different behaviour pattern?

    (FWIW, WW1 started over a religious divide (the Roman Catholic Austrians vs the Orthodox Serbs.) Austria over the preceding centuries held sway over a massive empire, whereas the Germans prior to Bismarck's day were a loose collection of squabbling principalities.

    Germany proper didn't exist until 1873, following three shrewd (and entirely rational) wars against Denmark, Austria and France. So in that respect - yes, I think those wars were rational: started with a clear aim in mind, fought coolly and professionally, and followed up with impressive statemanship to consolidate the gains.

  10. Sorry, I meant that Austria went against the normally rational Germanic pattern. Come to think of it, they're a good example of how it's possible to arrive at an irrational war through a totally rational decision-making process. Look at how they boxed Serbia into a corner in the early 20thC.

    Pushing them into an act that could then be deliberately interpreted as hostile is a classic Metternich or Bismark strategy and gave the Hapsburgs an excuse to crush a competitor. Trouble is (apart from the outcome) a moment of rational thought and analysis and they would have realised Serbia was far more worried about the Ottomans returning or the Bulgarians and Romanians having another go. Having made the assumption there was competition, the rest followed. Garbage in, garbage out.
  11. I would argue that all wars start for rational reasons, even the outwardly crazy ones like the Crusades or the War of Jenkin's Ear. The decision to commit to military force always requires an element of calculation as to benefits and costs, and thus is eminently rational.
    Granted, items factored into the calculation, such as the likelihood of eternal salvation when Jerusalem is captured, may be argued as profoundly irrational, but almost never do they outweigh the more worldly concerns of money or political power/advantage.
  12. I guess it would depend on whether you believe there's an objective measure of rationality or not. After all, jumping off a tower block because the voices tell you might seem entirely rational from an insiders perspective.
  13. No war is rational, but it might be necessary
  14. It does take two to tango, though. It was perfectly rational for Poland to go to war in 1939, but not necessarily for Germany to.

    I'd argue that it was 'rational' for Revolutionary France to go to war with the rest of Europe as it was blatantly obvious the only other option was to wait to be invaded. The fact that the, well, let's call it 'necessity', stemmed from the chaos and disaster of the period didn't effect the internal rationality of the decision.
  15. France? I have a film on my shelf called A Matter of Life and Death, its got David Niven in and he is literally fighting for his life in a 'heavenly' court case. Its a long story. Anyway the case for the prosecution is represented by an American revolutionary who has an axe to grind (don't forget this is in Heaven so the protagonists are all dead people from history) and the case for the defence manages to get the jury replaced because he thinks they are less than impartial all coming from countries that Britain 'did-over' at one time or another. Anyroad they bring up another jury and the prosecution is now gloating because wherever they look for a new jury, they all appear to come from somewhere with an axe to gring with Britain and they include a Frenchman.

    So I get the bit about 'doing-people-over-for-profit-and-empire', we are not lily white but what exactly is France's excuse? I know we don't get on but how can one justifiably say that the issue is the fault of the other? All passion, emotion and sentiment on one side how can a Frenchman justifiably say that Britain 'did-them-over'? As I remember they gloat about Hastings, 1066 and all that even though it technically wasn't the French that invaded us. That invasion begat what was arguably the most brutal period in British history since Iceni revolt against the Romans in 60/61 AD. Every war we have fought with the French since has either been instigated by our (arguably French, excuse the inherent contradiction) rulers of England fighting over their ancestral territory and taking us with them or the the French embarking on the attempted domination of Europe.

    So I ask again. Why are the French always wheeled out as an example of how the British 'did-someone-over'?

    Is it because, since 1066 we invariably won?