War: What Is It Here For?
By Bryan Caplan
The peace advocates are notably disposed to
rest their case with proving that war is irrational, illogical,
horrible, and costly; and they appear to think it quite enough to do
that, in order to make us all forsake war and militarism forthwith…
But, really, men are very little governed by
reason and logic; and this accounts for the fact that in an issue
between the philosopher and politician, the politician always wins. He
may, nay, invariably does, have a worse case: but he quite regularly
carries it, because he knows how men act and how they may be induced to
act. He must know, for otherwise he could not be a politician; this
instinctive knowledge is the primary essential qualification for his
Given this starting point, I’d expect Nock to lead the reader to an epiphany: War, like protectionism, is something that people vote for but flee from. Individually, we do whatever we can to avoid war, but collectively, we often walk straight into the belly of the beast. But he completely disappoints me. Nock’s position is simply that the man in the street prefers the experience of war to the experience of peace. War gives people…
[W]ar addresses some of
the best permanent instincts of mankind, addresses them powerfully and
shrewdly; and they are the very instincts that have been most
continuously baffled and denied by peace.
among these is the instinct for equality. War has invariably served and
promoted this instinct, and peace has invariably disserved and
2. Sense of purpose
Another immeasurable advantage which war has
over peace in competing for the common man’s interest, is in its appeal
to the sense of purpose… War has its perils and its horrors; but
the first glad sense of great definite purpose dawning into stagnant
and unillumined lives is sufficient to set them at naught. The
conditions of war, terrible as they are, interpret themselves to the
common man’s satisfaction…
A third instinct,
preeminently satisfied by war and notoriously dissatisfied by peace, is
the instinct for responsibility… The soldier may
not be idle; he may not be lazy, trivial, self-centred, untrustworthy,
irresponsible, traitorous, disloyal. If a leader, he must lead; he may
not shirk or malinger or dissipate his powers. If he fails, he is
superseded; he has but one chance.
[T]he appeal of war to the common man is
something far different from what the peace advocates appear to think
it is. Nowhere, speaking broadly, does the common man enlist because he
loves war, but because he hates peace… The more drab and
unrelieved the conditions of peace, the more gladly will the common man
While Nock criticizes peace advocates for their ignorance of human nature, he is the one who overlooks truly obvious facts. For starters: War is a spectator sport. Getting people to personally fight in a war or even voluntarily contribute money is hard. That’s why countries so often resort to conscription, and so rarely fund their militaries with bake sales. Yes, the man in the street often says he’s rather die than yield an inch to the hated enemy. But the vast majority are happy to free ride.
Nock acts like the man in the street has no choice but to endure the misery of peace until his country declares war. But he’s plainly mistaken. If you find the conditions of peace “drab and unrelieved,” you can just travel to a war zone, pick a side, and enlist. This has been known to happen, but it’s awfully rare.
To put the point even more starkly: If people really hated peace, refugee flows would run from safe havens into war zones, rather than the reverse.
You might protest that my claims are culturally specific, applicable only to modern, civilized man. I agree that we’re more cowardly than we used to be. But human beings have always been war-fearing in an absolute sense. In what era were wars fought by unpaid volunteers and financed by bake sales? Refugees in Nock’s time fled from danger to safety, just as they do today, and always have.
But aren’t wars often popular? Sure – if you measure popularity with applause, cheers, bumper stickers, or votes. If you measure popularity with voluntary donations of life and property, though, you discover the truth that eluded Nock: People may love war in the abstract, but they loathe it in the concrete.