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Philosophical Pessimism and the Study of War

ISSUE:  Summer 1975

Peace researchers, by and large, are an optimistic breed. Perhaps in their most private thoughts, they harbor doubts about their ability to ameliorate war, this terrible mode of settling disputes, but such doubt is not evident in their work. The reasons why are clear. These men and women have a deep moral hatred of war. To commit one’s life to understanding and, ultimately, ending warfare, it is necessary to maintain a shred of optimism, to preserve a modicum of hope that war will disappear, , as other evils in the past have disappeared. The titles of the journals devoted to this study reflect this essential optimism : it is not accidental, for example, that The Journal of Conflict Resolution, The Journal of Peace Studies, are not called simply The Journal of Conflict or War Studies.

It is commonplace to preface work on the study of war with some sort of wistful hope that, someday, the knowledge and insight it provides will rid the world of war. Kenneth Boulding expressed this expectation in an article written some years ago when he said that “. . . . one may hope it may be possible in the not-too-distant future to develop a substantial body of knowledge on the identification and control of conflict systems.” In a more recent essay, Karl Deutsch and Dieter Senghor prefaced their study on identifying situations when war is on the horizon with this statement :

Any progress on this path may advance us at least a little toward the goal of Quincy Wright’s work: ultimately to abolish war as a social institution, and to help men control their own fate for the better.

Charles McClelland, in a paean on the virtues of research in hastening the end of war, writes :

The aid of this research would be to develop techniques to do three things: to identify generally those conflict situations and states which are likely to lead to war; to evaluate particular conflict situations and the probable lines along which they are likely to develop if left to themselves ; and to suggest further possible techniques for controlling or containing such conflict situations so as to prevent them from breaking out into war.

For the sake of clarity, we can reduce most of these statements to a few basic principles : war is evil ; war can be better understood; understanding war and its causes can lead to its control or abolition; social scientists can help through research. Having stated these premises, the researcher is free to tell us all about his latest efforts. We know where he stands, and his stance justifies the time spent on what follows. In this essay, I want to examine two underlying assumptions of peace/war research: (1) that war can be abolished, that it is not inevitable, and (2) that war is essentially and necessarily evil and ought to be abolished.


Needless to say, the idea that war may be inevitable is not popular. I have not seen an article in which the author states that he believes war is the ineluctable fate of man, interwoven in the human condition, but that he is going right ahead with his research anyway, in the hope he may be wrong or because he finds it intellectually stimulating! That war can be ended is assumed, so we rarely get any discussion of such a basic question as inevitability.

When inevitability is discussed, the contribution of the student of war tends to be quite superficial. For example, in their introduction to “Theory and Research on the Causes of War,” Dean Pruitt and Richard Snyder spend some time attempting to disprove the inevitability of war. First, they attack the commonly held view that “history repeats itself: we have always had wars; therefore, we will always have them in the future.” Their reasoning in rebuttal is curious. They write: “This argument can be refuted by pointing to historical examples of other deeply rooted institutions that have ceased to exist or nearly disappeared,” and cite as an example, slavery, which, they remind us, used to be rather common but has now all but vanished from the world. This is, of course, reasoning by analogy and, as such, proves nothing at all about war. There are other evils which have not disappeared—murder, for example. Would we use the continued flourishing of murder to prove war is inevitable? Clearly, reasoning by analogy does not get us very far, as some evils vanish and others are quite obviously with us still. Pruitt and Snyder continue to attack the principle of inevitability by noting that to some people “. . . . war is deemed inevitable on the assumption that the struggle for survival is a “law of nature,” ” and, to disabuse any reincarnated Social Darwinians in their audience, they argue that war “selectively destroys the best physical specimens.” This is an old argument about war as a test of the survival of the fittest, but it has little to do with the nineteenth century “vigorous nation” concept. While it is true that some of the strongest will die in a war, this does not necessarily mean that the nation is weakened—unless one assumes that Social Darwinists measured national vigor by some sort of muscular-body count. Historically this is untenable. In the process of proving themselves fit, the Normans, among others, conquered a great deal of territory. No doubt they lost many fit men along the way, but their record of survival and expansion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is remarkable. There are many ways of attacking Social Darwinism, but clearly, this is not one of them.

Finally, Pruitt and Snyder get around to the “nature of man” argument, which they call “philosophical pessimism.” “Man’s evil nature,” they write, “is assumed to express itself periodically in violent behavior of which war is the most prominent manifestation.” They deny this assumption with some comments designed to show the unaggressive nature of man by pointing to studies of unaggressive animals— which is as bad as analogizing man’s nature from studies of aggressive animals. In conclusion, they note that some societies are not aggressive.

In this argument on philosophical pessimism, Pruitt and Snyder are guilty of reductionism. They reduce philosophical pessimism to “aggressive drives,” and then attack this limited concept with arguments as deeply flawed as those of the supporters of this view of man. In short, Pruitt and Snyder are unable even to destroy the straw man they have set up in an attempt to disabuse their readers of the notion that war is inevitable.

What is philosophical pessimism and what does it have to do with the inevitability of war? In my judgment, we can best answer this question by examining what some historians have identified as the causes of war. It should be understood at the outset that all historians are not philosophical pessimists, nor is it inconceivable that some peace researchers areof this disposition, but since historians are less committed to changing society, this particular stance is more likely to appear in their discipline than in peace research.

We will begin with the Peloponnesian War. One would think that its causes would be beyond dispute since we have only one historical account of it, and the primary sources are, to say the least, scanty. Over the years, however, historians have appeared on the scene to modify or even challenge Thucydides’ interpretation of the events leading to the outbreak of that cataclysm. Thucydides rejected monocausal analysis, and in the first book of his great work, one can find elements of almost every conceivable cause of war, from linkages to the domestic scene to flaws in the international system. Still, at the outset he states, “The real though unavowed cause I believe to have been the growth of Athenian power, which terrified the Lacedaemonians and forced them into war. . . .” Years before the war, Athens began to show imperialistic tendencies, frightening Sparta and creating what today we would call bipolarity. Tensions, rigidities, and fear began to characterize the international system, and war flowed quite naturally from this climate. In other words, Athenian imperialism contributed to systemic instability, making war, if not inevitable, at least very probable. This, I think, is profoundly pessimistic, but it does allow some hopeful glimmers for the social scientist to seize. He can study threats and threat-perception and, hopefully, sensitize present-day leaders to the risks of certain kinds of policies; he can examine the international system, and warn nations of the price they might pay in systemic stability for pursuing certain goals. Thucydides is pessimistic in that he claims that after a certain point—and he pushes that point far back in time—war was almost inevitable, but he does leave an opening for social scientists to study with an eye to avoiding certain kinds of systemic configuration.

Thucydides’ “inevitability” thesis has been attacked in a recent book by Donald Kagan, who re-examines the outbreak of the war in the light of recent investigations into the nature of Athenian imperialism. He suggests that Athens was not particularly imperialistic before the war, and that bipolarity and systemic instability in general had little to do with the cause of the war. Thucydides, he feels, was an apologist for Pericles, who made some egregious errors of judgment. Thucydides wished to excuse these errors by concentrating on weaknesses in the system brought on by Athenian imperialism in general, using the familiar device of moving from individual responsibility to long-term policy and system analysis. Kagan reverses things by concentrating on the decision-making process. Guilt is redistributed and falls mainly on the shoulders of those men involved in the day-to-day events just preceding the outbreak of the war. The war was not inevitable, he concludes, and sums up his opinions why it occurred :

All statesmen involved suffered from what might be called a “failure of imagination.” Each allowed war to come and even helped to bring it on because he thought he could gain something at reasonable cost. Each evolved a strategy largely based on past wars and expected the next to follow his own plan. None seems to have considered the consequences of miscalculation. None had prepared a reserve plan to fall back on in case his original estimation should prove wrong.

Kagan tells us that the leaders of the time “expected a short war,” and that they were unaware of the terrible consequences that would spring from the conflict. He concludes :

Had they done so they would scarcely have risked a war for the relatively minor disputes that brought it on. Had they done so, we should admit at once, they would have been far better men than most statesmen who have faced similar decisions in the millennia since then. The Peloponnesian War was not caused by impersonal forces, unless anger, fear, undue optimism, and lack of foresight are impersonal forces. It was caused by men who made bad decisions in difficult circumstances. Neither the circumstances nor the decisions were inevitable.

Superficially, Kagan’s statement sounds optimistic. We can sit back with some relief in the knowledge that the war was, after all, not inevitable. A closer examination, however, shows that while better leaders with better judgment might have maintained the peace in this case, by Kagan’s standards, war in general will be most likely to continue. The war was not caused by “impersonal forces,” but by miscalculation and failure to foresee the future, and by the most human qualities of anger, fear, undue optimism—these may not be impersonal forces, but it is difficult to see just how we are going to eliminate them. Indeed, paradoxically, Kagan’s thesis of particular circumstances and human fallibility predicates the inevitability of war’s persistence.

It is not my intention to arbitrate the dispute between Thucydides and Kagan on the origins of the war. In terms of its inevitability, however, I would argue that Kagan, not Thucydides, is the philosophical pessimist. If war is caused by the human nature of statesmen and the people they represent, we can only assume that these human attributes will continue to cause wars in the future.

Let us move ahead several millennia to a recent statement on the origins of World War I. Joachim Remark writes:

But then discussions of causes, like so many other things in history, are constructions after the event. How many people, in 1914, were really aware of all the origins of the conflict, immediate and long range, that we abstract in leisure from the documents later? . . . . What most of them did feel—and act on—was that here was another crisis, one that contained great risks, obviously, but that might reasonably be expected to end as noncataclysmically as the diplomatic crisis of the past decade had. That it did not, that this time the rhetoric of war would be followed by the reality, none of them foresaw. Only prophets after the event would be able to see the inevitability of arriving step by step, stage by stage, by a series of moves and counter-moves that at the time seemed logical, reasonable, and containable at the time, at a road which had no turns left. And perhaps all one can say in the end is that World War I was a modern diplomatic crisis gone wrong, the one gamble or rather series of gambles, that did not work out, the one deterrent that did not deter. It happens.

Once again we are left with a depressing judgment, not only about World War I, but about the causes of war in general. Statesmen miscalculate, in part because they do not foresee the consequences of their acts or understand how their decisions will interrelate with the responses of others. It is a “gamble that fails,” and we are left with the thought that “it happens”—”that’s life,” or more appropriately “that’s death.” Once again we feel that sooner or later it will happen again.

It should be clear that philosophic pessimism has little to do with aggressive drives. It grows out of certain attributes common to most human beings that lead occasionally to conflict. More significantly, it stems from miscalculation and an inability to foresee the consequences of our actions. We fail to predict, and the future, the unexpected, betrays us. Of course the social scientist is optimistic, for he must believe that prediction is possible, to some extent at least. The philosophical pessimist is wary of what he would no doubt see as the hubris of the social scientist.

At the heart of this disagreement is a very different view of human action and the relation between act and consequence. The philosophic pessimist would probably agree with Nietzsche, who said, “Action: one does not know its origins, one does not know its consequences; therefore does action possess any value at all?” He would also agree with Hannah Arendt, who writes :

Whoever begins to act knows that he has started something whose end he can never foretell, if only because his own deed has already changed everything and made it more unpredictable.

From this viewpoint, the possibility of eliminating war is minimal. It cannot be legislated out of existence, nor is it likely to prove tractable to the combined resources of the social sciences. War is part and parcel of the tragic side of life, and as George Steiner remarked about Greek tragedy, “. . .the spheres of reason, order, and justice are terribly limited and . . .no progress in our science technical resources will enlarge their relevance.”

One further observation about these opposing perspectives is in order. Students of international affairs frequently encounter the thorny problem of deciding when it is wise to adopt a hard-line and when a soft-line approach to foreign policy formulation. Snyder and Pruitt note this problem and correctly observe that under some circumstances, peace is preserved by being tough, and in others by being accommodating. The question is, of course, what conditions make one or the other policy pay. In what appears to any philosophical pessimist as a massive understatement, they respond, “There is clearly a theoretical gap at this point.” Donald Kagan is also aware of this difficulty, but does no more than state the dilemma: both hard- and soft-line policies can lead to war; accommodation sometimes “is justified and brings peace, sometimes it does not”; a hard line “may in some cases bring on the very war it tries to avoid.” We do not know if the author would call this a “theoretical gap,” but as it stands, the statement leaves us with the uneasy feeling that the problem will not yield to the probings of research scholars.

It is in this context that social scientists should deal with the inevitability of war. Simply dismissing the arguments of the philosophical pessimists in order to get on with the day-to-day business of peace research is a disservice to scholarship. It leads to the arrogant assumption that all problems are resolvable, and to continual cries for more research in the belief that there is certainly a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow constructed of empirical studies. Philosophical pessimism, in a sense, hampers research because it calls us back from theoretical speculation to basic questions, but it also serves the function of guarding the researcher against shallow optimism concerning what he can accomplish.


The second assumption of many social scientists is that war is an unmitigated evil and that to talk about its inevitability borders on immorality. The social scientist is lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness. He is the noble warrior fighting off counsels of despair and fatalism. Only occasionally is there any recognition that war, like most other things, is morally ambiguous. For a scholar working toward the abolition of war, this is difficult to accept, but at the risk of sounding like a nineteenth-century German militarist, I will try to make this point explicit. Opposition to war shows a lack of discrimination. The hard, cold fact of the matter is that some wars, by a number of measures we can establish, on the whole have been good wars. They not only settled certain explosive issues over the short and long term, but accomplished these goals at reasonable cost, especially when measured against the costs of not going to war. Further, the problems they resolved probably were not amenable to peaceful means of settlement. Although there is occasionally some recognition of the functional value of war, even this possibility is generally ignored. It is easy to identify good wars if one is not blinded by hatred of them all. On balance, it seems that the recent Indo-Pakistan war was a good thing. In an article on the situation in Pakistan before the conflict that resulted in an independent Bangladesh, K. P. Mishra referred to that country as an example of intrastate imperialism. From its inception, West Pakistan systematically discriminated against the eastern section of the country politically and economically. We cannot evaluate to everyone’s satisfaction the war’s cost in human life, but it is clear that the situation in East Pakistan was intolerable and that many civilians were being murdered by the Pakistani army. War ended that situation. It did not end suffering in Bangladesh, and I suppose one could argue that West Pakistan domination of the east was a lesser evil than war, but I doubt the argument would carry much weight in Bangladesh. Further, for those interested in systems stability, the war seems to have done wonders for the situation on the Indian-Pakistani border. A truncated Pakistan is not in a position to threaten India. We can’t be sure of the long term, but over the short, war has meant stability in a troubled area.

Could these disputes and problems have been settled by peaceful means? We can’t conceive of West Pakistan granting East Pakistan independence, or having tea and talks with India along the border. War was a nice, neat solution. The thought of social scientists mucking about in the Indo-Pakistan dispute is appalling. Even if they were successful in avoiding war, if the cost were instability and East Pakistan under what it considered foreign rule, it is not clear that war was not the “better” result. Further, Mishra concludes that the Pakistan situation was only one example of intrastate imperialism. “A long list of similar exploitive structures can be drawn up from the contemporary situation in the world.” Mishra claims: “A durable structure of peace can be established only if humanity is able to do away with all the hindrances in the way of ending the exploitation of one régime by another.” While we cannot be sure that similar cases of intrastate imperialism will lead to wars, it is always a possibility because the weaker segment of the state may find it necessary to seek outside help to gain its independence. Further, in cases of this sort, where oppression is a way of life, war may be the least bloody solution in the long run.

Another example of a beneficial war is the much-maligned Russo-Finnish War of 1939. As is well known, the Soviet Union attacked and, after great effort, defeated the Finns and annexed some Finnish territory. Americans, and indeed, most Westerners, condemned the Soviet Union. To most outsiders, this was a bad—unjustifiable—war, but it is clear, in retrospect, that this war, too, had some beneficial results. Admittedly, the picture is a mixed one in this case. It is possible that the difficult struggle with the Finns encouraged Hitler to believe the Red Army could be easily crushed by the German divisions. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Finland served as an important testing ground for the Red Army which learned many valuable lessons in the Winter War. According to one Soviet marshal, “We had to retrain ourselves under enemy fire, paying a high price for the experience and knowledge without which we could not beat Hitler’s army.” What is clear is that when Germany attacked Russia, it is very likely that Leningrad would have fallen had it not been for the territorial buffer the Russians gained in the Winter War, and we can assume the Finns would not have relinquished this territory peacefully.

Even for the Finns, in retrospect, the war may have had certain beneficial results. The Russians tested the Finns in 1939 and found it embarrassingly difficult to defeat them. It is possible that one reason the Russians showed a willingness to come to terms with Finland, as opposed to other Eastern European countries, was that they had little taste for another contest with the Finns. Indeed, the Finns showed every indication of challenging the Soviet Union again if pushed to the wall. It is often noted that Finland’s willingness to come to terms with the Soviet Union was the main reason for their autonomous survival outside the sphere of Soviet influence. It is likely that Finnish toughness was the key determinant. Max Jacobson has written :

Finnish resistance in 1944 as in 1940, had succeeded in raising the cost of breaking it to a point which the Soviet leaders must have regarded as excessive. As a result, of all the nations on the continent of Europe involved in the Second World War, only Finland escaped an enemy occupation. Her social fabric remained intact and the continuity of her political institutions unbroken. In this fact, which is the key to understanding her present position as an independent nation, lies an achievement that transcends the conventional meaning of such terms as defeat or victory.

If Czechoslovakia had shown the same fighting qualities in 1938, it is entirely possible they might have retained independence as well.

The point is that war must be measured, not against some idealized and perfect concept of peace, but against conditions of peace in the real world. It must be examined contextually, and sometimes, war is the best—not the ideal— solution.

It is strange how much more tolerant social scientists are in the face of domestic violence. There are few studies of revolution which begin with the hope of abolishing revolution, yet it is accepted that we can and should eliminate war, no matter what the price.

In his monumental study, “The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy,” Barrington Moore makes the point that revolution is sometimes preferable to the status quo. There are times when the price of not having a revolution, with all that represents in suffering, is greater than the admittedly frightening cost of revolutionary change. The same is true of war. War resolves things, and sometimes it creates situations that are better in terms of human happiness and stability in the international system than the prewar situation. If revolutionary violence is “good” under certain circumstances, there is no logical reason to assume this is not true of war as well.

To the philosophical pessimist, the question of evaluating war is as intractable as choosing hard- or soft-line policies, or penetrating more than superficially into the causes of war. Indeed, he sees the irony in the fact that if the social scientists succeed in stopping a war, it would be just their luck that it would be a war that should have taken place. They might be guilty of perpetuating an intolerable peace, of generating an unstable compromise resulting in a more disastrous later war.

This does not mean that it is pointless to study war, or even to try to prevent some of them. It does suggest that in the assumption that war is always evil, certain hard questions are not even asked, much less researched. At the end of his article, “Power, Status, and International War,” Michael Wallace argues that it may be “possible to predict with accuracy the probability of war from the basic structural characteristics of the international system,” and if status discrepancy can be spotted in advance, “the prospects for controlling such violence brightens considerably.” Once again, the question whether violence should be controlled in all circumstances is ignored.

The social scientist might argue that this, after all, is the kind of normative question for which he is not responsible. Yet it is clear that the judgments of many in the field of peace research are normative in nature, and it is these suppositions that artificially limit the scope of peace research. As a result, many important questions about peace and war are ignored. This is a disservice not only to the cause of peace, but to scholarship in general.


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