Contemplating conflict’s conundrum

“A roller-coaster of a ride, packed with detailed analysis and research and punctuated throughout by illuminating examples that grip the reader.” – Read Luke Turrell‘s review of Why War?

Read the digital document above or continuing reading below.


TITLE: Why War?

AUTHOR: Richard Overy

REVIEWER: Major Luke Turrell, Executive Officer, CHACR

The axiom – you can’t (or shouldn’t) judge a book by its cover – is, sadly for our faith in human cognitive progression, untrue. There is significant evidence that the cover of a publication plays an instrumental role in whether a potential reader will buy it. In the case of Richard Overy’s authoritative offering on war and warfare – judging the book by its simple red cover and monosyllabic title would be a catastrophic mistake, especially for military personnel or those involved in defence and security.

Why War?, unsurprisingly given the academic and literary expertise of the author’s lifetime study of conflict, is a roller-coaster of a ride, packed with detailed analysis and research and punctuated throughout by illuminating examples that grip the reader. It is a complex study not of wars – like Overy’s Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945 – but more philosophically ‘why war?’ Despite widespread academic or philosophical demands for peace, often following the horrors of a specific conflict, war has become, at various times, inevitable or even desirable. Overy’s question is – simply – why?

Part one looks at the four major human sciences; biology, psychology, anthropology and ecology, to consider their own explanation of why war exists. Typically, each science has explained war using primarily their own terms of reference; biologists have explained war as evolutionarily adaptive i.e., war is hard-wired in our genes as a mechanism for biological survival based on factors such as parochial altruism, kin selection and male aggression. In contrast, in the years after the First World War, psychologists tried to understand and explain war as being culturally determined – the emergence and celebration of an ‘in’ warrior class versus an ‘out’ other, a clear gender division of labour and coalitional forms of conflict suggesting a more universal psychological predisposition to warfare. Edward Glover even suggested the cause of Germany’s decision to go to war in 1914 was Kaiser Wilhelm’s infantile aggression. Anthropologists in the 1930s sought to use the absence of warfare amongst ancient civilisations in Central America and New Guinea to prove that human societies had the potential to embrace a pacified future. In this case, the spectre of the First World War motivated a sense of ‘wish fulfilment’ with evidence of warlike violence ignored, overlooked or reinterpreted to fit the paradigm of warless communities. As Overy points out, “[f]rom these perspectives, human beings become the object of natural or cultural forces that can be understood to determine why warfare has occurred in the evolutionary past”.

Part two explores ‘proactive’ explanations of warfare, conscious acts conducted in the pursuit of tangible objectives and splits into chapters entitled resources, belief, power and security. There’s no doubt resources have been a direct object of warfare although Overy points out it can’t be considered the only motivation, in some cases acquisition of resources was a secondary objective to political advantage, religious imperatives or dynastic ambition and in this sense resources should be seen as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. In a similar way the book points out that seemingly ‘religious wars’ were, in fact, motivated by other material or political goals – nevertheless belief “can be a primary driver that cannot by any measure be rationalized away”. Overy also highlights that war as a purely hubristic pursuit of status and reputation by powerful individuals is historically rare although, interestingly, that also means we tend to study individuals like Napoleon, Hitler and Alexander all the more avidly. Tellingly, power-driven motivations for war regardless of the cost, however seductive initially, have invariably ended with selfdefeating calamity rather than triumph. A historic fact President Putin will hopefully consider sooner rather than later. In the final chapter the author addresses the need for security throughout history, “the principal priority, after which other priorities can be secured”. Astutely, he identifies the importance of defined and agreed boundaries or frontiers throughout history as a precursor to security and stability – factors he notes worryingly are largely lacking in the new frontiers of space and cyber.

I started reading this book because, true to marketing research, ‘author and book recognition’ convinced me it would be worthwhile and because a review of the book was required. However, I found myself eagerly reading Why War? for enjoyment, rather than to complete this Critique. Which explains why these words are being committed to keyboard a week over-due. Equally I can see why some military personnel might not warm to it. It’s academic and scholarly rather than practical, with examples from ancient history that may feel unconnected to an era of robot wars and artificial intelligence. But ultimately, Overy points out that war is likely to be part of our future as well as our past. And at some stage, hopefully not too soon, a British soldier will ask: ‘Why are we at war?’ Regardless of the detailed context, this book will help explain why.

Published by Pelican, Hardback, £22, 400 pages, ISBN: 9780241567609