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Why is war so popular?

August 14, 2014

One of the historical trends I have noticed in my study of history, is that war is extremely popular.  Far more popular than one would expect given its staggeringly negative consequences.  Popular isn’t even the right word because it understates the level of enthusiasm by orders of magnitude.  There’s no other policy which enjoys the level of support that war does across all cultures and historical time periods.  If you simply had a vote for either peace and prosperity forever, or war and destruction, I think the war option would win, and I don’t know why.


Argentina 1982.  A corrupt and unpopular regime is facing a potential uprising.  What’s the solution for rallying the populace?  Is it a great economic reform that will make everyone rich? Land reform? Increased welfare?  NO! Let’s declare war on one of the most powerful countries on the planet.  A war which Argentina had only a slim chance of ever winning.  Basically their only path to victory was if Britain decided it would be too much trouble to bother fighting, but guess what – the calculus is the exact same for Margaret Thatcher!  She gained tremendous popular support when she decided to fight too, despite the fact that it gained the U.K. nothing.  The war was over a handful of tiny island in the Atlantic.  It’s not a real prize and will never affect the lives of anyone either on the mainland in Argentina or the U.K.  But yet the fact that the war happened increased the popularity of both leaders fighting it.

Hamas 2014.  Hamas knows that they will never kill a significant number of Israelis.  They simply lack the military hardware to compete with Israel’s modern technology.  The Palestinians know that the only outcome with be basically thousands of them being killed for no gain whatsoever.  And yet, Hamas gains political support for their actions.  It’s one thing to wonder “why does a political party essentially murder its own people?”  It’s another thing to wonder “Why do those people overwhelmingly support being murdered for the sole purpose of advancing that political parties popularity, and then….?????” But if you want to die just so that the people who are responsible for your death are more popular why do other Palestinians like Hamas? I just to convey the level of confusion I have on this issue.

United States 2001.  These guys from Yemen, living in Afghanistan blew up some buildings in NY.  Great, let’s attack Iraq!  Bush’s approval rating goes over 90%!  I get trying to kill Osama, cause he’s the guy who organized the attack, but Iraq?

France/Prussia 1870.  Napoleon III is facing popular unrest from republicans and communists, his corrupt regime is running out of money, so what do they do?  Attack Prussia, who then proceed to utterly demolish France’s armies.  Now, the French had good reason to think they would do better than they did.  However, what then? Even if you win, the cost of the war will exceed the tax revenues from any provinces they would hope to annex.

If you are a crappy leader and you need a huge burst in popularity, attack someone, anyone.  It doesn’t matter if they never did anything to you, if they will proceed to kick the crap out of your military, literally no other factor matters.  War is so popular that even losing a war will still put you in the black (as long as the victor doesn’t cause a regime change).  Even if your country gets destroyed and an entire generation is wiped out by the fighting, your people will sing songs of your greatness and build huge monuments to you.

A monument to a loser:napoleon's tomb


I’m not sure why this tendency is as powerful as it is, but my guess is that it is an atavistic trait that dates back to when it would have been far more useful.  When a small tribe lost a war against another tribe, it was likely that they would be exterminated.  Resources were far more scarce in the past, and people lived a lot closer to the Malthusian edge.  This means that killing your neighbor meant more for yourself.  You are more likely to fight harder in a war you think you will win, rather than just trying to cut and run.  Thus, optimism bias and not carefully trying to analyze the likely outcome are adaptive rather than irrational.  Keep in mind, we are the descendants of the winners of these conflicts.  Our forefathers thought they would win the war, and they did win the war.

In the past, winning a war meant more resources for oneself and one’s kin.  But conflating a tribe with a nation state is a fallacy.  Even if your country “wins”, everyone you know could be killed.  And when nation states win wars in the modern era, there is often no benefit whatsoever to the people who live there.  Obviously defensive wars prevent you from being killed en masse, but someone has to start a war and for the country as a whole, there is no benefit.  And even the benefit to the leader is the result of a mistaken attitude by the people he rules, so you’re back to square one.

Challenge to readers: Is there any other policy which has popularity anywhere in the same ballpark as war?

The Mouse that Roared satirizes this phenomenon

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2014 3:48 pm

    The Falklands are huge compared to some of the rocky outposts in the Yellow and South China seas that China and several of her neighbors are suddenly asserting claims to. Some say there may be offshore drilling rights at stake…

    • August 19, 2014 4:11 pm

      Still, the economic benefit to Argentina pales in contrast to what they risked. The British could easily have decided to invade the Argentinian mainland in retaliation.

  2. August 25, 2014 12:49 pm

    Right now some people in Ukraine are willing to fight to switch to being ruled by a Russian dictator and other people in Ukraine are willing to fight to keep these malcontents in Ukraine. This is impossible for me an outsider to understand.

    • August 25, 2014 2:08 pm

      I toyed with deleting this article simply because I don’t have any answers or solutions. It all just seems confusing to me. I think the western Ukrainians just need to accept the fact that Russia annexed the Crimea and move on with their lives. If that means building defensive structures so it doesn’t happen again, so be it.

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