Why We Love War

And what we can do to prevent it anyway


| January / February 2003



Portraying humans as basically hating war might actually hinder the important work of deterring it, suggests research psychologist Lawrence LeShan. New psychological studies explain what history has long shown to be true—that war holds a deep attraction for large numbers of people in most cultures around the world. In accepting and understanding this hard truth, we may be better equipped to bring peace on earth. A timely new edition of his book The Psychology of War arrived last fall, just as the White House began beating the drums—and much of the American public eagerly fell in line—for a new war.

The Editors 

To understand why humans go to war, and have done so throughout history, we have to acknowledge certain psychological facts. One of these is a relatively recent scientific insight: that humans organize our perceptions of reality in a variety of different ways, and that we often shift between these modes without being aware of it. No single mode reveals the absolute “truth” of the world around us, and each has advantages and disadvantages. We also know that during war our view of reality is quite different than it is in peacetime. Once this shift occurs, war becomes more difficult to prevent or to stop. Learning to recognize this shift allows us to see the signs that a society is moving toward war—and to understand what must be done if war is to be avoided.

War is not an entirely universal activity—there have been a few cultures in which it is unknown. But under almost every form of economic and political organization, regardless of different family structures, child-rearing practices, and other social norms, people fight wars on a fairly regular basis. The problem of why we go to war has been with us for a long time. The Histories, written by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., was one of the first attempts to pinpoint the causes of a particular war (in this case, between the Greeks and Persians). Since then, countless investigators have studied the causes of other conflicts, but attempts to generalize from their conclusions have failed. Though many theories have been developed on why war is so widespread, none has helped to stop it, and none fits the actual data on how war happens.

As suggested in The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, a classic numerical study of conflict by the British mathematical psychologist Lewis Fry Richardson, our accepted beliefs about when and why wars occur have little validity. For example, people of my generation were taught that the harsh peace treaties concluding World War I brought the next world war into being much more quickly. Richardson’s analysis shows the opposite—that statistically speaking, the harsher the peace treaty, the longer the peace that follows it. During the Crimean War in the early 1850s, A.W. Kingslake theorized that war is a foreign circus put on by rulers or ruling classes to distract citizens from troubles at home. As Richardson points out, this theory, though attractively simple, does not fit the data. In World War I, for example, Germany’s rulers were far more occupied with trying to unify the country in order to fight the war than with fighting the war in order to unify the country.

Today, no single theory on the cause of war is generally accepted. There’s been a lot of discussion about using our knowledge of psychology, sociology, and other social sciences to prevent war. Much has been done on techniques—such as intercultural student exchange, international organizations, international mediation efforts, and armament reduction—for reducing war’s likelihood. But there appears to be a great reluctance to deal with general theories about the cause of war—or even to admit such theories are necessary.