Is an End to War Possible?

Al Globus, March 2008

I think so, and given the power of modern weapons, I'd better be right.

I first began to think war (1) might be heading for obsolescence when considering the attitude of the great powers today vs. at the start of World War I. I think it's fair to say that today none of the great powers want to engage in total war with any of the others. We can imagine being dragged into a war with China over Taiwan, but does anyone really want such a war? Would thousands of people be cheering in the street? Of course not.

When World War I started, thousands of people were cheering in the streets. The elites of Europe signed up for the glorious war they wanted so badly, and were exterminated in gruesome trench warfare. WWI cured most of the great powers of any desire to fight each other. Only Germany and Japan entered into World War II with enthusiasm, almost everyone else tried desperately to stay out. Germany and Japan were so thoroughly smashed by WWII that today, 60 years later, one can hardly get them to fight at all.

This brings up the second reason war may be becoming obsolete: aggression doesn't seem to work very well any more. We've seen that result in WWII, but consider more recent failures of military aggression:

There are many other examples of recent failures of aggression, and only a few unqualified successes: the U.S. invasions of Grenada and Panama come to mind. Only a fool continues failed policies. If this keeps up, the ruling elites will eventually come to the inevitable conclusion that aggression doesn't work very well.

War is traditionally used to adjust borders, and it would be silly to think that borders don't need adjusting. Recently, however, there have been a few cases of borders being adjusted by elections instead of war. For example:

War isn't needed for border adjustments, elections are cheaper and get better results.

War can overthrow repressive governments, but many violent revolutions are failures. Even those that succeed in replacing the government often become more repressive than what they replaced, the Russian revolution being a case in point. By contrast, in recent years non-violent revolutions have often been successful, consider India and Eastern Europe. Even the Soviet Union, one of the most savage dictatorships of all time, fell to largely non-violent protest. Non-violent revolution has a success rate at least as good as that of violent revolution. Again, it's cheaper and gets better results. Once we realize this, another class of war becomes obsolete.

War can be used to control resources, but eventually it will dawn on people that there are far, far, far more resources in space than on Earth. While space development is expensive, it's a lot cheaper than war and has a much bigger upside. For example, a single near earth asteroid (3554 Amun) has about $20 trillion worth of precious metals, space has literally billions of times more energy than Earth, and a single asteroid (Eros) can be converted into orbital space settlements with a land area equal to over 100 times the surface area of the Earth. In addition, a lot of resource wars fail. Space development is an eminently viable alternative to resource wars.

Some say we are hardwired for war, that it is in our genes. But most people actually live quite peacefully most of the time, even though they share the same supposedly war-like genes of those doing the fighting. For example, Switzerland has remained peaceful for over a century, in spite of sitting right in the middle of the biggest wars of all time. Swiss genes aren't much different from German genes. Even soldiers who fight in wars usually spend most of their lives in peaceful pursuits. Obviously, our genes don't require war of us, although perhaps they may predispose us towards it. In any case, I suspect that these predispositions can be easily absorbed by competitive sports at much less cost and much more fun.

War has some serious downsides besides the immediate death and destruction. Consider:

  1. War breeds terrorists. Al Qaeda was born of the Soviet-Afghan war. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a bunch of children in Oklahoma, was a product of the first Gulf War. Palestinian suicide bombers are created by the Israeli-Arab war. Open societies are vulnerable to terrorists. While many can be killed or captured, it's almost impossible to get them all. The only way to end terror is to stop breeding terrorists, and that requires the end of war.
  2. The U.S. military is developing weapons that choose their target and attack autonomously under software control. I write software for a living. A lot of people think I'm very good at it. One thing about complex software, you never really quite know what it will do. I can tell you without hesitation that developing software to kill people on its own accord is a very bad idea that we will bitterly regret. The only way to stop this development is to end war.
  3. While we feel that the threat of nuclear annihilation has receded, the bombs are still there. Tens of thousands of them. It only takes one bad day, one mistake, one misinterpreted piece of intelligence to destroy civilization and kill billions of people. If we do not end war be assured, it will end us.

So is war becoming obsolete? Maybe, but in any case I'm going to try and retire it. Because if we don't end war it will end us. In the first Terminator movie the hero tells Sarah Connor "Come with me if you want to live." I'm telling you the same thing. This is not a movie.


(1) Definition: war is a state of widespread conflict between states, organizations, or relatively large groups of people characterized by the use of violent, physical force between combatants or upon civilians.

(2) Some would like to think the Iraq war was justified. Perhaps. But when a hundred thousand or so soldiers enter a country without permission and without being attacked, it is military aggression, justified or not.