Looking for Peace in the Long History of War

ON WARS, by Michael Mann

If wars are “the least rational of human projects,” why have there been so many of them all over the world, in every era? This is the question that the sociologist Michael Mann poses in the boldly titled “On Wars.” It is an ambitious book, plumbing the roots of war from the early Roman Republic to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with intermediary chapters on ancient and imperial China, Mongol conquests, feudal Japan, the carnage of European Christendom, clashes in pre-Columbian and Latin America, the two world wars, colonial incursions, communist conflicts and the wars of the Middle East.

Mann, the author of the four-volume “The Sources of Social Power,” disputes the idea that humans are genetically programmed to make war. “Organized war became ubiquitous,” he contends, only when “fixed agrarian settlements generated states and social classes.” In other words, “societies, not universal human nature, cause wars” — though, now that humans are entrenched in societies, this seems a distinction without a difference.

Whatever the motives that lead us to fight, Mann sees his project as more than a scholarly inquiry; his aim is to find a way out for humanity. “If we want to achieve Immanuel Kant’s ideal of perpetual peace,” he writes, “we need to know what to avoid that otherwise might lead to war.”

As one way to get at the problem, he examines the times and places where wars have not occurred. He highlights southeastern China, which fought only a handful of wars between 1368 and 1841, because its emperors devised a “defensive, diplomatic imperialism” based on tribute trade — Vietnamese and Korean ambassadors would sail with their merchants to Chinese ports, bow so deeply before the emperor that their foreheads touched the ground and then sail back with gifts of silk and gold, which put everyone in a good mood. (Over the same period, northwestern China waged countless wars, mainly because agriculturalists abutted pastoralists, a classic condition for conflict.)

Less compellingly, he writes that Africa, though roiled by civil wars, has seen few interstate conflicts in the past 80 years, because leaders have accepted the borders they inherited from colonialists. Intriguing, though he doesn’t explain why this is true in Africa, but not, say, the Middle East.

Mann is more persuasive in rebutting other theorists on why nations do or don’t fight. He largely rejects the Realist school, which dominates political science and holds that, in an anarchic world, leaders make rational decisions to protect their interests. He correctly argues that this view understates the role that domestic politics play in matters of war or peace, as well as the persistence of miscalculation, emotion and sheer stupidity among decision makers. What was the coolheaded self-interest, he properly asks, that led to World War I?

He also convincingly trashes the notion, put forth by Steven Pinker and others, that wars are more rare and less savage than they once were, owing to the rise of democracy, international trade or other civilizing influences.

In fact, Mann argues, modern wars tend to be more violent, as “civilization makes killing easier, more organized, more legitimate and more efficient. They are started by nations of every political system, including democracies. Finally, though interstate wars have declined in number, civil wars have not — and many civil wars are aggravated or instigated by major or regional powers as proxy or colonial battles.

Similarly, he dismisses the widespread notion — popularized by the retired U.S. Army trainer Dave Grossman — that many soldiers chose not to fight in earlier conflicts, such as the American Civil War, because they were paralyzed by moral qualms. The prevalence of jammed and discarded weapons on the battlefield likely had more to do with the sheer chaos of shoving a bullet into the muzzle of a gun as black smoke descended all around you. Many humans, once locked onto a battlefield and handed a weapon, hesitate to inflict harm. In other words, humanity is not veering to or from peace. Which raises, again, Mann’s question: Why not?

Mann is honest enough to report that causes of war vary widely, depending on differing “ecologies, class and ethnicity, domestic politics, ideologies, emotions” and individual leaders’ “competences and desires.” Early on in the book, he paraphrases the French philosopher and historian Raymond Aron as saying, “A general theory of war is impossible” — then Mann adds, “But I will have a shot at one.” However, 464 pages later, Mann admits that the vast range in types of war “may defeat any simple theory of causes, as Raymond Aron noted.”

In the end, Mann comes up with three broad causes of war: “greed, status-honor-glory and the enjoyment of domination.” This is too simple, not only as an explanation of the world, but as a summary of his own, much more complex analyses.

He frequently dismisses the idea of “national interest” as a rationalization devised by “coteries of rulers and their advisers.” There is something to this, foreign policy being the least democratic of political activities. But does he really mean that national interests have no objective basis?

At one point, amid a (largely justifiable) tirade against the pious rhetoric sanctifying U.S. foreign policy, he writes, “Not even the Romans had such pretensions — though they did share the American pretext for war that intervening abroad was merely defending one’s allies.”

Again, there’s something to this, but tell it to the French and British, who emerged free and intact from the Nazi onslaught because America treated them as allies. Or to the Czechs, Poles and Balts, who begged to become allies within NATO after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Or to the Ukrainians, whose desperation to join the alliance is hardly a sign of submissiveness. (Mann does view World War II as “a rare just war” and denounces Putin’s war on Ukraine as a contemptible revival of imperial invasion.)

He treads shakier ground still when offering policy prescriptions. He advocates “not isolationism but peaceful interventionism,” noting that Washington could “learn a lesson from imperial China” by “paying tributes to barbarians not to attack them.” He claims that “cash can usually buy off the chances of war,” observing that the United States has given Egypt some $70 billion in aid to make peace with Israel, but spent $3.5 trillion to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The difference, though, is that Anwar el-Sadat and his successors in Cairo wanted to make peace and align with the West; the Taliban did not. This is one of several passages where Mann the sociologist should have consulted a political scientist.

Still, “On Wars” is an enlightening haul for much of its journey and a brisk read too, surprisingly so for its density. Mann likens the ruling class balance-of-power games in ancient China and medieval Europe to “mafia-like protection rackets.” Cataloging the savagery of the Catholic-Protestant wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, he writes, “ISIS executions today pale by comparison,” noting that, for early modern Christian warriors, decapitation was “the swiftest and kindest form of execution, reserved for aristocrats or those to whom the king granted leniency.”

Mann’s missteps stem mainly from the fact that his mission — to spin a formula for peace from a general theory of war — may simply be impossible.

Fred Kaplan is Slate’s national security columnist and the author, most recently, of “The Bomb.”

ON WARS | By Michael Mann | 607 pp. | Yale University Press | $40

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