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On the Essence of War

greekhelmet1,417 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

We have read all the commentaries, pro and con, on punitive strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. (As of this writing, nothing has happened yet.) The pacifists who have become warmongers (the French Greens), the anti-Atlanticists who have aligned with Washington (the French Socialist Party), the Atlanticists who eschew the label (the British Parliament), and other strange cross-positions present us with an opportunity to reflect: What is war?

War, that is to say the use of armed force between sovereign political units—as distinct from private violence[1]—has always been poorly understood, even in the minds of its protagonists. For example, the recent book on the outbreak of the First World War (1914–1918), an absolute disaster for Europe (Europe’s Last Summer: What Caused the First World War? by historian David Fromkin, a professor at Boston University), shows that this race into the abyss was produced not by any rational political calculation, and contrary to the interests of the belligerents, by a kind of agitated autonomous mechanism, which we can call “warmongering.” A mechanism that some will call tautological, irrational, “crazy.” No actor really wanted to “attack the other,” but more or less all wanted to fight to varying degrees, without any clear shared goals of the confrontation. Fromkin shows that long before the tragic sequence of events of Europe’s last happy summer, disparate forces wanted war for various reasons. And this is true of all future belligerents.

Let us dive into history. The best historians of the Roman Empire[2] note that its wars of conquest in the pre-Imperial period obeyed neither a desire for economic hegemony (which already existed), nor a defensive engagement against the pacified Barbarians, nor a politico-cultural Roman imperialism (which too was imposed by soft power, without legions). The historian of Gaul, Jean-Louis Brunaux notes that Caesar himself, in his famous Commentaries, never logically explained the reasons for his engagement, particularly against the Belgians, northern Gauls (Celto-Germanics) who in no way threatened Rome, which required lethal operations condemned by the Senate for their strategic uselessness.[3] Nor could Augustus three generations later justify the loss of Varus’ three legions recklessly sent into Germany against the “traitor” Hermann (Arminius).[4] History offers countless similar examples: wars or military operations that do not follow a rational logic, and whose goals could have been achieved by fundamentally easier means.

The Marxist School (war = economic imperialism) or geopolitical school (war = securing control of space) or nationalist school (war = defending the national stock) are not wrong but do not answer the question: Why war? Because, according to Aristotelian reasoning, “Why pursue a goal the hard way when we could take an easier way?” Talleyrand thought, in this regard, that France could have easily dominated Europe through diplomacy, economic and cultural influence, and demography without—and much more securely than by—the bloody Napoleonic Wars, which propelled England and Germany to the top. As a rule, intra-European wars have not benefitted any of the protagonists but have weakened the whole continent.

What, then, is war? The answer to this question is found not in political science but in human ethology. Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and many others saw that the branch of primates called Homo sapiens was the most aggressive species, including in intraspecific matters. Violence in all its forms, is at the center of genetic impulses of the human species. It is impossible to escape. “Anti-violence” religions and moralities only confirm this disposition by opposition. War would be, in the words of Martin Heidegger about technology, “a process without a subject.” That is to say, a behavior that (a) escapes rational and volitional causality in the sense of Aristotle and Descartes, and (b) ignores factual consequences. The essence of war is, therefore, not found on the level of logical thinking (e.g., should we invest or not in a particular energy source?) but on the level of the illogical, on the frontiers of the paleocortex and neocortex.

The essence of war is endogenous; it contains its own justification within itself. I make war because it is war, and one must make war. We must show our strength. When the Americans—and, on a lower level, the French—engage in military expeditions, it is less a matter of calculation (the same would be achieved at lower cost and, worse, the result contradicts the objective) than of a drive. A need—not animal, but very human!—to use force, to prove to yourself that you exist. Vilfredo Pareto has quite correctly seen two levels in human behavior: actions and their justifications, with a disconnect between the two.

Thus the essence of war lies in itself. This is not the case of other human activities such as agriculture, industry, animal husbandry, botany, computer science, technology research, architecture, art, medicine and surgery, astronomy, etc., which, to use Aristotelian categories, “have their causes and goals outside of their own essence.”[5] And what most resembles war as a self-sufficient human activity? It is religion, of course.

War, like religion, with which it is often associated (in that religion is theological or ideological), produces its own ambiance self-sufficiently. It emanates from a gratuity. It enhances and stimulates as it destroys. It is a joint factor of creation and devastation. It came out of the human need to have enemies at any cost, even without objective reason. This is why religions and ideologies of peace and harmony have never managed to impose their views and have, themselves, been the source of wars. It is that ideas expressed by man do not necessarily correspond to his nature, and it is the latter that is essential in the end.[6] Human nature is not correlated with human culture and ideas: it is the dominant infrastructure.

Should we all embrace pacifism? History, of course, is not just war, but war is the fuel of history. War inspires artists, filmmakers, and novelists. Without it, what would historians talk about? Even proponents of the “end of history” show themselves to be warmongers. We deplore it, but we adore it. Feminist scholars have written that if societies were not chauvinistic and dominated by bellicose males, there would be no war but only negotiations. Genetic error: in higher vertebrates, females are as warlike as the males, even more so.

The paradox of war is that it may have an aspect of “creative destruction” (to use the famous category of Schumpeter), especially in economic matters. In addition, in techno-economic history from the earliest times to the present day, military technology has always been a major cause of civilian innovations. In fact, conflict and the presence of an enemy creates a state of happiness and desire in the private sphere (because it gives meaning to life), just as in the public sphere, war initiates a collective happiness, a mobilization, a rupture with the daily grind, a fascinating event. For better or for worse. So what to do? We cannot abolish the act of war. It is in our genome as a libidinal drive. War is part of the pleasure principle. It is tasty, attractive, cruel, dangerous, and creative. We must simply try to regulate it, direct it, somehow dominate it rather than do away with it.

The worst thing is either to refuse or to seek war at all costs. Those facing Islamic jihad who refuse to fight back will be wiped out. Like those who deceive themselves about the enemy—for example, proponents of strikes against the Syrian regime. Everything fits in the Aristotelian mesotes, the “mean”: courage lies between cowardice and rashness, between fear and recklessness. That is why any nation that disarms and renounces military power is just as foolish as those who abuse it. War, like all pleasures, must be disciplined.


[1] Civil war is of the same nature: factional struggle to acquire a monopoly on the sovereignty of a political unit.
[2] See especially Lucien Jerphagnon, Histoire de la Rome antique, les armes et les mots (Tallandier).
[3] Jean-Louis Brunaux, Alésia, la fin de l’ancienne Gaule (Gallimard).
[4]  Cf. Luc Mary, Rends-moi mes légions ! Le plus grand désastre de l’armée romaine (Larousse).
[5] In this sense the term “economic war” to describe competition is quite ill-considered. Not only because nobody dies, but because economic competitors are doing everything to avoid confrontation or restrictions (cartels, trusts, oligopolies, takeover bids, etc.), and because the goal of competition is not in itself but outside it: to maximize business performance. However, sport is closer to war.
[6] For example, theories of gender, feminist-inspired, are at odds with majority behavior.
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  1. just a commentator
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    You should have added the Aztec “Flower Wars” that were wars on a regular basis, just to make prisoners and kill them afterwards.

    Of course, the Aztecs were just too eager in these wars that’s what led to the alienation of them with their neighbors and the Spaniards received well by those neighbors.

    Just a comment to add on your general piece which sounds quite interesting and well founded.

    P.S.: Fight and war is for man what children and motherhood is for women. B. Mussolini.

    • Sandy
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      “That is a frightening statement, P.S.: Fight and war is for man what children and motherhood is for women. B. Mussolini. Just as woman is aborting her White babies or having Others man is likewise aborting his race and standing aside as his children are raped and murdered. Not good.

  2. Jaego
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    And the confusion and aimlessness of the varying factions is a perfect means and cover for those who do have real goals but don’t wish to be perceived.

  3. Donar van Holland
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Contra Faye, I would say that the essence of art, like war, lies in itself. It is a self-sufficient human activity.

    Norse mythology understands the pleasure of violence very well. The chosen fallen heroes spend their days in Valhalla fighting each other during the day, and feasting at night. The medieval tournament still reflected this understanding. But it is completely beyond the comprehension of modern day psychologists.

    In order to be fruitful for civilization however, violence must be restricted by certain boundaries and rules. In other words, it must become a (serious) play, which is the essence of civilization.

    We are definitely at an advantage compared to our faint-hearted white race traitor enemies if we understand and consciously embrace the pleasure of violence. It is a powerful extra motivation to keep fighting.

    However, balance is essential. In Chinese terms: the Yang of aggression must be in balance with the Yin of peaceful friendship. Or in Norse terms, the Fire of fighting the enemy must be balanced with the Ice of comradeship with fellow Berserkers.

    Let us find delight both in enmity and in friendship. That is the true pursuit of happiness.

    • Jaego
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s a manifestation of Homo Ludens, Man the Player. And it is the epitome of Civilization since only the Warrors fight. All others who are unable or unwilling get to abstain and thus are free from doing violence to their code. Of course, this assumes the violence is with a given Civilization. Conflict between Civilizations is usually without rules and tends to be very bad – especially if your opponents don’t consider you human as ours do not.

  4. me
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    For many, it is a human nature to compete with one another. You can say that war is the ultimate in competition.

    Now, we’re warring ourselves to the death. We should channel our competition impulses in more peaceful ways.

    Is it possible outside forces are urging us to fight more wars? I’ve heard of cases where jews have instigated many of our wars in history.

  5. Verlis
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    In fact, conflict and the presence of an enemy creates a state of happiness and desire in the private sphere (because it gives meaning to life), just as in the public sphere, war initiates a collective happiness, a mobilization, a rupture with the daily grind, a fascinating event.

    That depends entirely on who the enemy is and the nature and status of the conflict. It’s easy to smile when you’re winning, but I doubt Faye would have penned a single word of this essay if the Germans were happily kicking his ass. Luckily for him there’s no risk of that today. But wait, how can that be? Don’t our genes cry out for it, isn’t it fated to occur, and wouldn’t only a fool believe otherwise?

  6. crowley
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I wish Faye had expanded a little on the notion that females are more warlike than men. Nearly all individuals seek master of the universe status. Why wouldn’t they? yet when it comes to physical violence women instinctively dislike it for a number of obvious reasons. Isn’t this true for the entire order of Hominidae?

  7. Fourmyle of Ceres
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    I have been a big fan of Peter Turchin, and have had to crack open my old math textbooks to try and understand him. Mathematically, he “proves” certain postulates of historical dynamics, and provides an objective model to what the metahistorians intuited.

    War is necessary for human organizations, for when they conflict – and they always conflict – and grow to the local version of critical mass, war, the most advanced form of organized human violence – solves everything.

    YOUR genes get passed on.

    YOUR philosophy prevails.

    The Other Guy?

    Well, too bad. If you want, you can claim his women, too, and she will gladly go to the bed of the champion. Period. We at have discussed this phenomenon that is so commonplace as to be a force of nature, as reliable as the tides.

    How long has this been going on?

    As long as since Cain looked at Abel, and said, “There can be only one.”

    Incidentally, I think National Geographic did a great piece recently on how Genghis Khan’s genes spread though Northern Asia. In that case, the one who won laid his mark on history in a very substantial way.

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