Rather than hijack Eric Diaz' excellent recent post with lengthy and tangential comments, I'll post my thoughts about the roots of war here. Machines, Organizations&Us is a column on human-machine interactions, so after laying some anthropological and ethical groundwork I'll offer speculations on relationships between technology (and our feelings about technology) and war.

One of my aikido students asked me,
Why does war exist, and is war always bad? Do we fight because it is the right thing to do, like self-defense / prevention of harm? Or do we fight because we want something out of it, like getting enjoyment from anger and jealousy? Also, I grow suspicious of people who want peace and then create conflict, not peace, from their actions.
I answered:

Let's dispense with goods and bads, and deal with "ises." Humans evolved, and evolution doesn't cut us much slack. If we were constituted differently, we might not have evolved and survived as a species. So, men complaining about war may be like women complaining that men only think about sex; if either thing were different, we might not be here.

The two, not surprisingly, are related. Bonobos, critters that look like chimpanzees, don't have war. They defuse conflicts by grooming each other and having sex. There aren't many bonobos left. Chimps solve conflict by fighting. Then the winners have sex, that being the "something they get out of it." One strategy is better for procreation, the other better for protection, and a population needs both procreation and protection. There aren't many chimps left, either, but that's because of human-caused loss of chimp habitat, and there are (I think) more chimps than bonobos.

Is the same true for humans? A news article in early 2003 noted that fully 12% of the current human population are direct descendants of Genghis Khan and his siblings. So historically, young men were motivated to go to war if it represented their only chance to "marry." Old men preferred to die in "glorious" battle because it beat the alternative, which involved having other people chew their food for them. That is to say, old age was not a pleasant affair before modern medicine, and some preferred to avoid it.

Today, some youngsters join the armed forces, even when war looms, because it's the only route out of a bad neighborhood and a life of poverty. (Actually not the only route: Selling drugs gets you out of poverty, affords the same probability of dying young, and you don't have to take orders from no stinkin' sergeants.) Others are duped into it, believing their elders' bullshit about glory and justice.

Suppose we could only stop a genocide by going to war. All other things being equal, most people would like to see fewer deaths rather than more. All other things, though, are almost never equal, and I would tend to suspect decisions based on body-count arithmetic. In any case, each person must choose his own battles. We have a volunteer army, but they don't get to vote on where they will fight and where they won't. It might be worth letting them do that! Phil Ochs said, "It's always the old who lead us to the war, always the young who fall." So it's like abortion, which is similarly tragic: I don't like abortion and I don't like war, but I'm not going to tell women - or men - what they may or may not do with their bodies.

I intended that as a straw-man question, but it's a tough one. I was raised to see preventing further genocides as a duty, and as a young man I was crushed to see the US fail to act on that principle, for instance in Cambodia or Rwanda. You're a movie fan, J; go see The Killing Fields. Should future such situations arise, I might well decide to rally others to a rescue mission, knowing violence might result but dedicating myself to miminizing it.

In wars of old, non-combatants suffered in serious, but indirect, ways: via famine, rape, pillage. In today's wars, innocent bystanders are far more likely than before to be killed directly. This can happen in myriad ways, from mined rice fields to mis-aimed missiles to cross-fires in urban warfare. I hope young people desiring to go to war will consider the near-inevitability of killing civilians, and think twice and perhaps decide to stay home in Peoria.

You mention Pearl Harbor, which was a famous failure of U.S. intelligence. I'll go so far as to say all war is a failure of intelligence, planning, strategy, communication, or preparation. If a threat is developing against you, you should, just as in aikido, assemble overwhelming force at your opponent's weakest point. You tell your opponent what you're going to do should he not stand down, and then keep your word. This is how a mission should be defined and executed.

Even military commanders who have mastered intelligence, planning, strategy, communication and preparation get caught by ego. They escalate force beyond what's needed for the mission, responding to "insults" and stooping to vengeance. Others don't understand mission at all. I heard a recent speech by a US Army General, who began, "My job is to kill people." He could as easily and more accurately have said, "My job is to protect Americans and that may unfortunately involve killing people." That guy should lose his job before he does any more damage.

There have been isolated human cultures that, like bonobos, shun war. When threatened, they have hired mercenaries or allowed deviant insiders to fight on their behalf. The fighters were then exiled when the conflict ended - if the village survived - so as not to contaminate the peaceful society. There are, in the modern world, far fewer isolated cultures. The characteristic, if not the people themselves, may die out.

So you're right that untrained pacifists may do more harm than good. Their attitude that violence never settles anything is naive. As Robert Heinlein noted, violence settled Hitler's hash pretty good. Work on yourself first, then work for peace! As an aikidoist, you are peaceable but skilled at forestalling conflict and applying minimum necessary violence. You position yourself in ways that communicate your strength and your intention, but you never "attack first." You don't interpose yourself between someone you want to protect and someone attacking her - except at the moment a blow is being struck - because it's unlikely that you understand what's really going on between them.

For the same reason, you would not assassinate even a despotic leader in cold blood. (Another hypothetical social experiment: Suppose all international conflicts were customarily settled by assassination. Leaders would know before running for election that this is what would happen to them if they piss off another country. This would put a different complexion on politics, n'est ce pas?) You give everyone every opportunity to fix up their karma, until and unless they launch another attack. Only then is matching violence indicated - but if you are unprepared for their next attack, shame on you.


In a recent Technological Forecasting&Social Change editorial1, I wrote:
Mine was the generation that, in our university years, vowed to end poverty, war, and racism. Thirty-five years later, we can note modest, uneven, but definite progress against racism.... Poverty has somewhat diminished worldwide, but has increased in the US.2 Of the three, it is war, against which we've made no inroads, that generates and absorbs the most new technology. The human cost of war is unspeakable, and defense contractors' profits are astronomical. In no other socio-technical arena is there such a disparity between the soft costs (the scientific jargon seems tasteless in this context) and the hard benefits.
Can we better understand the role of technology in inciting, and preventing, violence? Current theories of the origins of war3 do not mention technology. Scholars classify wars and terrorism as religious, political, economic, wars of rivalry, colonial/imperialist, or wars of national liberation. Many technological effects are relevant, however. To mention only three:

  1. Communication technologies can make people feel more compassionate toward people who are far away - but also more envious.

  2. Arms dealers love armed conflict, natch. 

  3. Satellite phones mean no despot can keep human rights violations secret. A journalist can always 'get the story to the newsroom back in New York.'

People's resistance to technological change may be extreme, even violent, and begins surprisingly early. Are there “Wars of Reaction” against anticipated change? I believe so.

For example, the English Revolution of 1688 “changed England from a largely agrarian society to a manufacturing one.” It was a “head-on clash between two ideas of how the state should be modernized.” It also had religious dimensions - but so did every aspect of life in that era, so it would be fatuous to call 1688 simply a religious war. Pincus4 concludes, “Revolutions occur when [old regimes] embark on modernization programs that trigger upheaval and instability.”

A list of wars of reaction against modernization would include the American Civil War, World War II, and Afghanistan today. The fact that WWII broke out shortly after Nazi Germany's transmission of the world's first TV broadcast is symbolic of the thesis. The Nazis promulgated a romantic vision of Germany as a pastoral utopia. To be sure, they embraced and advanced technology, perhaps more so than any other society of the era. Their intention, however, was to develop industrial production underground, and man it with slaves who would be born and die beneath the surface of the earth, never seeing the sky.

Who starts wars of reaction against modernization? Culprits include leaders with much to lose under a changed regime, and thinkers, writers, and artists with much to gain under an “unchanged“ regime.

The figure below presents a tempting - but too simple - hypothesis:

Reaction against urbanization and mass communications

Here are some data on the dates television first came to a handful of world-renowned trouble spots.

First television broadcasts in...
 Mexico 1950
 Venezuela 1952
 Dominican Republic
 Philippines 1953
 Colombia 1954
 Guatemala 1956
It remains to map when armed conflicts occurred in those countries. Surprisingly - but less so, when you stop to think about it - data are readily available, though the better sources are expensive:

I hope to take this reasoning (and empirical work) farther as time permits. If you are able to contribute data and analysis (or money, for that matter), please add to this thread.
[1] ”Change in socio-technical systems: Researching the Multis, the Biggers, and the More Connecteds.“ Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 75, Issue 5, June 2008, Pages 721-734. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V71-4SGTS82-2...

[2] The editorial includes brief support for my assertions about progress on poverty and racism.

[3] Valeriano, B. G. and Vasquez, J. A. ,"A Classification of Interstate War”; Michael Brecher, A Study of Crisis; D. Scott Bennett&Allan C. Stam III, The Behavioral Origins of War; John A. Vasquez, The War Puzzle; Michael Nicholson, Rationality and the Analysis of International Conflict; Peter Hast Vigor, The Soviet View of War, Peace, and Neutrality; War Database, by Ronald Bleier.

[4] S. Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Yale U. Press 2009, reviewed in The Economist, October 17, 2009, pp97-98.