NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is "War The Health Of The State"?

June 14, 2001

Military historian John Keegan debunks the notion that man is naturally inclined toward war, which he defines as "collective killing for some collective purpose." Indeed, he is hopeful the world is moving toward peace.

Science, Keegan argues, hasn't found anything to explain why people make war.

  • Certainly, men are aggressive and have always been risk takers, and have often wanted something their neighbor possessed.
  • But no war-making gene has yet been discovered, and "war is too complex an activity for step-by-step genetic mutation to 'program' organisms for it," the author notes.
  • Better explanations for the origin of war lie in the coming together of ancient social groups, both farmers and nomads, who fought rival groups for land, or meat or riches.

Keegan also disputes the notion that war made states and states make war. Many states have not been warlike:

  • Although the early pharaonic dynasties may have been founded by force of arms, Egypt had a period of peace that lasted nearly 1,500 years.
  • Many Polynesian states had no history of war, and so, too, did Inuits.
  • And many conquering armies -- the great invaders on horseback, Huns and Mongols alike -- did not create or sustain states, nor arise from them.

Today, most nation-states recognize peaceful resolution of conflict as the preferable alternative. War and violence will continue to erupt in poor countries and from terrorist, ethnic and fundamentalist religious groups. But Keegan notes that many ancient empires and city-states -- two of the most stable being Rome and China -- were careful to keep their peripheries guarded by well-trained legions, so the peace was not threatened.

Source: Patrick B. Pexton, "A Historian of War Ponders Peace," National Journal, June 2, 2001.

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