Why we fight wars

Sigmund Freud observes that “conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence” is a general principle (Freud, 1950, p. 274).

This principle tells us the idea that there are interests among men and that in the large population of humanity and the numerous states we have in the world, conflicting interests are never far behind. One can say that interests come into conflict precisely because humanity has certain needs and desires which tend to overlap with the needs and desires of others. If Freud is indeed correct with his presupposition, then there is strong reason to believe that violence, in one way or another can diminish the conflict of interests by overpowering the rival.Why do we fight wars? Freud would tell us that we fight wars because there is a conflict of interest. Interests among humanity can be seen as a manifestation of our desire and inclination to prolong our welfare. Survival is a key factor in determining the precise interests that we want and the specific measures that we are willing to take in order to realize these interests. Apparently, it can hardly be denied that fighting wars do more damage than it can do to preserve not only the lives of individuals but also the precious resources of nations.

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In ancient times, wars were fought for the expansion of the nation. This expansion is observed in terms of both geographical and political expansion. Through geographical expansion, the nation can be able to acquire more resources to augment to the provision of the needs of the population and of the nation. Through political expansion, the nation and its leaders acquire more political power, exponentially increasing the coverage of their authority. In essence, nations during the ancient times fought wars in order to attain power and, consequently, secure the survival of the state as a whole. In more recent times, wars still mirror shades of the past. The Gulf War, as some may say, has been one of the major wars in the world which reflected the role of oil reserves and resources in securing the growth of a nation and in feeding the growing demands of a hungry population. As the industrial age and the information communications technology converge in bringing higher demands for resources, the consumption or demand for oil has steadily increased over the past years.

It can be said that during those times war was fought in the Persian Gulf in order to establish a firm hold of what appears to be a fertile land of oil reserves. Of course, one can also say that the Gulf War also portrays the efforts of the Western allies to reaffirm their dominance and power over the nations which have fertile “backyards” enough to sustain the needs of the West. But there is more to this than just the ‘conquest’ for oil as we shall see later.The two World Wars epitomize the global attitude of conquer and command. The fact that nations turned into alliances in order to quell the rival nations suggest that there is a deep-seated division which separates these nations. But what exactly is this deep-seated division about? Where is it founded on?The deep-seated division among nations especially during the two World Wars is the concrete illustration of how nations perceive themselves as the superior or more dominant race (Schwartz, 2002, p. 3). If indeed the wars were all about acquiring resources, there is little reason to believe that these nations are more than willing to spend a huge amount of resources and risk thousands of lives for the sake of achieving a goal which has little assurance of turning into a reality.

Although the prospects may be appealing, the trade-off for a massive war such as the first and second World Wars is imbalanced. That is, risking a huge ‘investment’ in terms of military, political and financial power for a war with little assurance of ever succeeding, let alone being advantageous for either sides, simply does not fit the puzzle.This leaves us with the notion that there is more to wars than mere acquisition of wealth. The deep-seated division may have a lot to do with one may call as a ‘personal’ angst against the other. The thought of a ‘cultural’ or ‘national’ ego may provide a better understanding to the question of why we fight wars (Hull & Berliner, 2002, p. 9).As each person has his or her own identity, so does every nation.

And among the tens of nations in the world, it can be argued that not two of these nations have exactly the same identities. The sense that these nations are not willing to be subjugated by other nations, even at least in terms of discrimination in both thought and deed, guarantees the presumption that these nations have their own sense of a national or cultural ego.Interests among these nations come into conflict when egos are trampled upon. The sense of nationalism provides a strong attachment to the ideals and the identity of each of these nations. When conflicts of interests arise, Freud tells us that violence will settle the differences.

This is one side to our inquiry of why we fight wars.However, it cannot be denied that there are also other means in order to mitigate conflicts of interests and to avoid engaging into a costly war. But why is it that there are still cases where war has been embraced despite other alternatives to mitigate conflict of interests? Perhaps the answer to this question rests on the idea that man has shades of being an animal. Nature provides us with a rough glimpse of animal behavior. Animals in the wild such as lions, birds and tigers among many others have their sense of territory. Ever on guard, these animals are more than willing to risk their lives in order to protect their territory for it is their territory which gives them the reputation and identity in the wild.

The key to understanding why peacefully mitigating and preempting wars does not simply become the answer is the idea that man has his animal instincts. Why man fights wars rests on the thought that their ego fuels man’s drive to pursue violence with others. Violence does not only cripple the enemy; it also shuns the enemy in such a state where retaliation after defeat is difficult to obtain.

A crippled ego after a well-fought violent battle may find it hard to restore its original state. Pursuing violent means such as wars in settling conflicts of interests, whether in terms of resources or of international influence, is a formidable method for nations—especially nations which already have huge amounts of military and financial resources to back-up a war campaign—to both reaffirm their status as a formidable nation and lessen instances of resistance by other nations towards them.We fight wars not just to acquire mere physical resources. Defending or propagating certain national and cultural identities for the sake of ego and engaging nations in resolving conflict of interests through a violent war requires minimal parameters for the nation with the capability to do so provide another way of looking at why we fight wars. Engaging in a violent war is an advantage to the capable nation; the opposite is true for the ‘weak’ nations.

But even though the ‘weak’ nations may have the disadvantage, it does not hinder them from defending their national ego. The time of colonization offers us a better view of this.Wars are fought because of conflict of interests. At the bottom of every war rests the presumption that defending a national or cultural ego is a war worth fighting for.

ReferencesFreud, S. (1950). Why War? In Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 5, pp. 274). London: The Hogarth Press.

Hull, G., & Berliner, M. S. (2002). Diversity and Multiculturalism: The New Racism. Impact, 9.Schwartz, P. (2002).

Back to the Dark Ages?: Today’s Attacks on Reason, Individualism and Progress. Impact, 3. 

Author: Victoria Sutton


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