History and War


         All the passages below are taken from the book ”The Lessons of History” by Will & Ariel Durant. It was published in 1968 and copyright renewed in 1996.


War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war. We have acknowledged war as at present the ultimate form of competition and natural selection in the human species. "Polemos paten panton," said Heracleitus; war, or competi­tion, is the father of all things, the potent source of ideas, inventions, institutions, and states. Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.

The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery. The state has our instincts with­out our restraints. The individual submits to restraints laid upon him by morals and laws, and agrees to replace combat with conference, because the state guarantees him basic protection in his life, prop­erty, and legal rights. The state itself acknowledges no substantial re­straints, either because it is strong enough to defy any interference with its will or because there is no superstate to offer it basic protec­tion, and no international law or moral code wielding effective force.

In the individual, pride gives added vigor in the competitions of life; in the state, nationalism gives added force in diplomacy and war. When the states of Europe freed themselves from papal overlordship and protection, each state encouraged nationalism as a supplement to its army and navy. If it foresaw conflict with any particular country it fomented, in its people, hatred of that country, and formulated catchwords to bring that hatred to a lethal point; meanwhile it stressed its love of peace.

This conscription of the soul to international phobia occurred only in the most elemental conflicts, and was seldom resorted to in Europe between the Religious Wars of the sixteenth century and the Wars of the French Revolution. During that interval the peoples of conflicting states were allowed to respect one another's achievements and civilization; Englishmen traveled safely in France while France was at war with England; and the French and Frederick the Great continued to admire each other while they fought each other in the Seven Years' War. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries war was a contest of aristocracies rather than of peoples. In the twentieth century the improvement of communication, transport, weapons, and means of indoctrination made war a struggle of peoples, involving civilians as well as combatants, and winning victory through the wholesale destruction of property and life. One war can now destroy the labor of centuries in building cities, creating art, and developing habits of civilization. In apologetic consolation war now promotes science and technology, whose deadly inventions, if they are not forgotten in universal destitution and barbarism, may later enlarge the material achievements of peace.

In every century the generals and the rulers (with rare exceptions like Ashoka and Augustus) have smiled at the philosophers' timid dislike of war. In the military interpretation of history war is the final arbiter, and is accepted as natural and necessary by all but cowards and simpletons. What but the victory of Charles Martel at Tours (732) kept France and Spain from becoming Mohammedan? What would have happened to our classic heritage if it had not been protected by arms against Mongol and Tatar invasions? We laugh at generals who die in bed (forgetting that they are more valuable alive than dead), but we build statues to them when they turn back a Hitler or a Genghis Khan. It is pitiful (says the general) that so many young men die in battle, but more of them die in automobile accidents than in war, and many of them riot and rot for lack of discipline; they need an outlet for their combativeness, their adventurousness, their weariness with prosaic routine; if they must die sooner or later why not let them die for their country in the anesthesia of battle and the aura of glory? Even a philosopher, if he knows history, will admit that a long peace may fatally weaken the martial muscles of a nation. In the present inadequacy of international law and sentiment a nation must be ready at any moment to defend itself; and when its essential interests are involved it must be allowed to use any means it considers necessary to its survival. The Ten Commandments must be silent when self-preservation is at stake.

It is clear (continues the general) that the United States must assume today the task that Great Britain performed so well in the nineteenth century---the protection of Western civilization from external danger. Communist governments, armed with old birth rates and new weapons, have repeatedly proclaimed their resolve to destroy the economy and independence of non-Communist states. Young nations, longing for an Industrial Revolution to give them economic wealth and military power, are impressed by the rapid industrialization of Russia under governmental management; Western capitalism might be more productive in the end, but it seems slower in development; the new governors, eager to control the resources and manhood of their states, are a likely prey to Communist propaganda, infiltration, and subversion. Unless this spreading process is halted it is only a matter of time before nearly all Asia, Africa, and South America will be under Communist leadership, and Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Western Europe will be surrounded by enemies on every side. Imagine the effect of such a condition upon Japan, the Philippines, and India, and upon the powerful Communist Party of Italy; imagine the effect of a Communist victory in Italy upon the Communist movement in France. Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and West Germany would be left at the mercy of an overwhelmingly Communist Continent. Should North America, now at the height of its power, accept such a future as inevitable, withdraw within its frontiers, and let itself be encircled by hostile states controlling its access to materials and markets, and compelling it, like any besieged people, to imitate its enemies and establish governmental dictatorship over every phase of its once free and stimulating life? Should the leaders of America consider only the reluctance of this epicurean generation to face so great an issue, or should they consider also what future generations of Americans would wish that these leaders had done? Is it not wiser to resist at once, to carry the war to the enemy, to fight on foreign soil, to sacrifice, if it need be, a hundred thousand American lives and perhaps a million noncombatants, but to leave America free to live its own life in security and freedom? Is not such a farsighted policy fully in accord with the lessons of history?

The philosopher answers: Yes, and the devastating results will be in accord with history, except that they will be multiplied in proportion to the increased number and mobility of the engaged forces, and the unparalleled destructiveness of the weapons used. There is something greater than history. Somewhere, sometime, in the name of humanity, we must challenge a thousand evil precedents, and dare to apply the Golden Rule to nations, as the Buddhist King Ashoka did (262 B.C.),1 or at least do what Augustus did when he bade Tiberius

desist from further invasion of Germany (A.D. 9).2 Let us refuse, at whatever cost to ourselves, to make a hundred Hiroshimas in China. "Magnanimity in politics," said Edmund Burke, "is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great empire and little minds go ill together." 3 Imagine an American President saying to the leaders of China and Russia:

"If we should follow the usual course of history we should make war upon you for fear of what you may do a generation hence. Or we should follow the dismal precedent of the Holy Alliance of 1815, and dedicate our wealth and our soundest youth to suppressing any revolt against the existing order anywhere. But we are willing to try a new approach. We respect your peoples and your civilizations as among the most creative in history. We shall try to understand your feelings, and your desire to develop your own institutions without fear of attack. We must not allow our mutual fears to lead us into war, for the unparalleled murderousness of our weapons and yours brings into the situation an element unfamiliar to history. We propose to send representatives to join with yours in a persistent conference for the adjustment of our differences, the cessation of hostilities and subversion, and the reduction of our armaments. Wherever, outside our borders, we may find ourselves competing with you for the allegiance of a people, we are willing to submit to a full and fair election of the population concerned. Let us open our doors to each other, and organize cultural exchanges that will promote mutual appreciation and understanding. We are not afraid that your economic system will displace ours, nor need you fear that ours will displace yours; we believe that each system will learn from the other and be able to live with it in co-operation and peace. Perhaps each of us, while maintaining adequate defenses, can arrange nonaggression and nonsubversion pacts with other states, and from these accords a world order may take form within which each nation will remain sovereign and unique, limited only by agreements freely signed. We ask you to join us in this defiance of history, this resolve to extend courtesy and civilization to the relations among states. We pledge our honor before all mankind to enter into this venture in full sincerity and trust. If we lose in the historic gamble, the results could not be worse than those that we may expect from a continuation of traditional policies. If you and we succeed, we shall merit a place for centuries to come in the grateful memory of mankind."

The general smiles. "You have forgotten all the lessons of history," he says, "and all that nature of man which you described. Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation; and during the prolonged negotiations (if history may be our guide) subversion would go on. A world order will come not by a gentlemen's agreement, but through so decisive a victory by one of the great powers that it will be able to dictate and enforce international law, as Rome did from Augustus to Aurelius. Such interludes of widespread peace are unnatural and exceptional; they will soon be ended by changes in the distribution of military power. You have told us that man is a competitive animal, that his states must be like himself, and that natural selection now operates on an international plane. States will unite in basic co-operation only when they are in common attacked from without. Perhaps we are now restlessly moving toward that higher plateau of competition; we may make contact with ambitious species on other planets or stars; soon thereafter there will be interplanetary war. Then, and only then, will we of this earth be one." [81-86]



  1. Our Oriental Heritage, 446
  2. Caesar and Christ, 218
  3. In Seebohm, The Age of Johnson, xiii