When centralized states began to form in the ancient world, they were faced with a problem we have just begun to solve. If a group of peaceful states were confronted by an armed, aggressive war-making state, they had only three choices: submit, flee, or imitate the war-like state and hope to win in battle. In this way the international community became militarized and has largely remained so. Humanity locked itself inside the iron cage of war. Conflict became militarized. War is the sustained and coordinated combat between groups leading to large numbers of casualties. War also means, as author John Horgan puts it, militarism, the culture of war, the armies, arms, industries, policies, plans, propaganda, prejudices, rationalizations that make lethal group conflict not only possible but also likely.
In the changing nature of warfare, wars are not limited to states. One might speak of hybrid wars, where conventional warfare, terrorist acts, human rights abuses and other forms of large scale indiscriminate violence take place. Non-state actors play an increasingly important role in warfare, which often takes the form of so-called asymmetric warfare.
While particular wars are triggered by local events, they do not “break out” spontaneously. They are the inevitable result of a social system for managing international and civil conflict, the War System. The cause of wars in general is the War System which prepares the world in advance for particular wars.
Military action anywhere increases the threat of military action everywhere.
Jim Haber (Member of World Beyond War)
The War System rests in part on a set of interlocked beliefs and values that have been around so long that their veracity and utility are taken for granted and they go mostly unquestioned, although they are demonstrably false. Among common War System myths are:
- War is inevitable; we have always had it and always will.
- War is “human nature.”
- War is necessary.
- War is beneficial.
- The world is a “dangerous place.”
- The world is a zero-sum game (What you have I can’t have and vice versa, and someone will always dominate; better us than “them.”)
- We have “enemies.”
We must abandon unexamined assumptions, e.g., that war will always exist, that we can continue to wage war and survive, and that we are separate and not connected.
Robert Dodge (Board Member, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation)
The War System also includes institutions and weapons technologies. It is deeply embedded in society and its various parts feed into each other so that it is very robust. For example, a handful of wealthy nations produce most of the weaponry used in the world’s wars, and justify their own participation in wars on the basis of the damage done by weaponry they have sold or given to poor nations or groups.
Wars are highly organized, preplanned mobilizations of forces prepared long in advance by the War System which permeates all institutions of society. For example, in the United States (a robust example of a war system participant), not only are there war-making institutions such as the executive branch of government where the head of state is also commander in chief, the military organization itself (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) and the CIA, NSA, Homeland Security, the several War Colleges, but war is also built into the economy, perpetuated culturally in the schools and religious institutions, a tradition carried on in families, glorified at sporting events, made into games and movies, and hyped by the news media. Almost nowhere does one learn of an alternative.
A single small example of just one pillar of the culture’s militarism is military recruiting. Nations go to great lengths to enlist young people in the military, calling it “the Service.” Recruiters go to great lengths to make “the Service” appear attractive, offering cash and educational inducements and portraying it as exciting and romantic. Never are the downsides portrayed. Recruiting posters do not show maimed and dead soldiers or blasted villages and dead civilians.
In the U.S., the Army Marketing and Research Group National Assets branch maintains a fleet of semi-trailer trucks whose highly sophisticated, attractive, interactive exhibits glorify warfare and are intended for recruiting in “hard to penetrate high schools.” The fleet includes the “Army Adventure Semi”, the “American Soldier Semi” and others. Students can play in simulators and fight tank battles or fly Apache attack helicopters and don Army gear for photo ops and get the pitch to join up. The trucks are on the road 230 days per year. The necessity of war is taken for granted and its destructive downside not exhibited. Photojournalist Nina Berman powerfully documented the U.S. Pentagon’s self-promotion to the American public beyond the usual TV advertisements and presence at all sorts of sporting events.
While wars are often launched or continued without majority public support, wars result in part from a certain, simple mindset. Governments have succeeded in convincing themselves and masses of people that there are only two responses to aggression: submit or fight – be ruled by “those monsters” or bomb them into the Stone Age. They frequently cite the “Munich Analogy,” when in 1938 the British foolishly gave in to Hitler and then, eventually, the world had to fight the Nazis anyway. The implication is that had the British “stood up” to Hitler he would have backed down and there would have been no World War II. In 1939 Hitler attacked Poland and the British chose to fight. Tens of millions of people died. A very hot “Cold War” with a nuclear arms race ensued. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, it has become patently clear that making war does not create peace, as the cases of the two Gulf Wars, the Afghan War and the Syrian/ISIS war clearly demonstrate. We have entered a state of permawar. Kristin Christman, in “Paradigm For Peace,” suggests by way of analogy an alternative, problem-solving approach to international conflict:
We wouldn’t kick a car to make it go. If something were wrong with it, we would figure out which system wasn’t working and why: How is it not working? Does it turn on a little? Are the wheels spinning in mud? Does the battery need recharging? Are gas and air getting through? Like kicking the car, an approach to conflict that relies on military solutions does not figure things out: It does not distinguish between the causes of violence and does not address aggressive and defensive motivations.
We can end war only if we change the mindset, ask the relevant questions in order to get at the causes of an aggressor’s behavior and, above all, to see if one’s own behavior is one of the causes. Like medicine, treating only the symptoms of a disease will not cure it. In other words, we must reflect before pulling out the gun. This blueprint for peace does that.
The War System does not work. It does not bring peace, or even minimal security. What it produces is mutual insecurity. Yet we go on.
Wars are endemic; in a War System everyone has to beware of everyone else. The world is a dangerous place because the War System makes it so. It is Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” Nations believe they are victims of plots and threats by other nations, certain that the others’ military might is aimed at their destruction, while failing to see their own failings, that their actions are creating the very behavior they fear and arm against, as enemies become mirror images of each other. Examples abound: the asymmetrical Arab-Israeli conflict, the India-Pakistan conflict, the American war on terror that creates ever more terrorists. Each side maneuvers for the strategic high ground. Each side demonizes the other while trumpeting its own unique contribution to civilization. Added to this volatility is the race for minerals, especially oil, as nations pursue an economic model of endless growth and addiction to oil. Further, this situation of perpetual insecurity gives ambitious elites and leaders the opportunity to hold onto political power by fanning popular fears, and it provides tremendous opportunity for profit for arms makers who then support the politicians who fan the flames.
In these ways the War System is self-fueling, self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. Believing that the world is a dangerous place, nations arm themselves and act belligerently in a conflict, thus proving to other nations that the world is a dangerous place and that therefore they must be armed and act likewise. The goal is to threaten armed violence in a conflict situation in the hopes that it will “deter” the other side, but this fails on a regular basis, and then the goal becomes not to avoid a conflict, but to win it. Alternatives to particular wars are almost never seriously sought and the idea that there might be an alternative to War itself almost never occurs to people. One does not find what one does not seek.
It is no longer sufficient to end a particular war or particular weapons system if we want peace. The entire cultural complex of the War System must be replaced with a different system for managing conflict. Fortunately, as we shall see, such a system is already developing in the real world.
The War System is a choice. The gate to the iron cage is, in fact, open and we can walk out whenever we choose.
The Benefits of an Alternative System
The benefits are: no more mass killing and maiming, no more living in fear, no more grief from losing loved ones in wars, no more trillions of dollars wasted on destruction and preparing for destruction, no more pollution and environmental destruction that comes from wars and preparing for wars, no more war-driven refugees and war-induced humanitarian crises, no more erosion of democracy and civil liberties as government centralization and secrecy are rationalized by a war culture, no more maiming and dying from weapons left over from long ago wars.
The overwhelming majority of people from all cultures prefer to live in peace. At the deepest level of our being, people hate war. Whatever our culture, we share a desire for the good life, which most of us define as having a family, raising children and watching them grow into successful adults, and doing the work that we find meaningful. And war grotesquely interferes with those desires.
Judith Hand (Author)
People choose for peace on the basis of their mental image of a possible and desirable future state of their living environment. This image can be as vague as a dream or as precise as a goal or mission statement. If peace advocates articulate a view of a realistic, credible and attractive future for people, a condition that is better in some ways than what now exists, then this image will be a goal that beckons and motivates people to pursue it. Not all people are enticed by the idea of peace.
Luc Reychler (Peace Scientist)
The Necessity of an Alternative System – War fails to bring peace
World War I was justified as the “war to end wars,” but war never brings peace. It may bring a temporary truce, a desire for revenge, and a new arms race until the next war.
War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then the satisfaction that he isn’t any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone’s being worse off.”
Karl Kraus (Writer)
In conventional terms, the failure rate of war is fifty percent – that is, one side always loses. But in realistic terms, even the so-called victors take terrible losses.
Losses of war
World War II
Total – 50+ million
Russia (“victor”) – 20 million;
U.S. (“victor”) – 400,000+
South Korea Military – 113,000
South Korea Civilian – 547,000
North Korea Military – 317,000
North Korea Civilian – 1,000,000
China – 460,000
U.S. Military – 33,000+
South Vietnam Military – 224,000
North Vietnamese Military and Viet Cong – 1,000,000
outh Vietnamese Civilians – 1,500,000
North Vietnamese Civilians – 65,000;
U.S. Military 58,000+
The casualties of war are far more than the actual dead. While there is controversy among those who try to measure war casualties, we warn against downplaying the numbers of civilian casualties, because that is a distraction from the long-lasting human costs of war. We propose that only a more integrative view of war casualties reflects the horrendous consequences. A thorough war casualty assessment must include direct and indirect war deaths. Indirect victims of war can be traced back to the following:
• Destruction of infrastructure
• Use of depleted uranium
• Refugees and internally displaced people
• Intra-state killings
• Victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence
• Social injustice
In June 2016, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) stated that “wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began”. At total of 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015.
Only by considering such “indirect” war casualties as actual casualties can the myth of “clean,” “surgical” warfare with declining numbers of combat casualties be rightfully countered.
The havoc wreaked upon civilians is unparalleled, intended and unmitigated
Kathy Kelly (Peace Activist)
Furthermore, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, wars seem not to end, but to drag on without resolution for years and even decades without peace ever being achieved. Wars do not work. They create a state of perpetual war, or what some analysts are now calling permawar. In the last 120 years the world has suffered many wars as the following partial list indicates:
the Spanish American War, the Balkan Wars, World War One, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Central America, the Wars of the Yugoslav Devolution, the First and Second Congo Wars, Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf Wars, the Soviet and U.S. Afghanistan wars, the U.S. Iraq war, the Syrian War, and various others including Japan versus China in 1937, long civil war in Colombia (ended in 2016), and wars in the Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Arab-Israeli wars (a series of military conflicts between Israeli and various Arab forces), Pakistan versus India, etc.
War is Becoming Ever More Destructive
The costs of war are immense on a human, social and economic level. Ten million died in World War I, 50 to 100 million in World War II. The war begun in 2003 killed five percent of the people in Iraq. Nuclear weapons could, if used, end civilization or even life on the planet. In modern wars it is not only soldiers that die on the battlefield. The concept of “total war” carried the destruction to non-combatants as well, so that today many more civilians— women, children, old men–die in wars than do soldiers. It has become a common practice of modern armies to indiscriminately rain high explosives on cities where large concentrations of civilians try to survive the carnage.
As long as war is looked upon as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.
Oscar Wilde (Writer and Poet)
War degrades and destroys the ecosystems upon which civilization rests. Preparation for war creates and releases tons of toxic chemicals. Most Superfund sites in the U.S. are on military bases. Nuclear weapons factories like Fernald in Ohio and Hanford in Washington State have contaminated ground and water with radioactive waste that will be poisonous for thousands of years. War fighting leaves thousands of square miles of land useless and dangerous because of landmines, depleted uranium weapons, and bomb craters that fill with water and become malaria infested. Chemical weapons destroy rainforest and mangrove swamps. The military forces use vast amounts of oil and emit tons of greenhouse gases.
In 2015, violence cost the world $ 13.6 trillion or $ 1,876 for every person in the world. This measure provided by the Institute of Economics and Peace in their 2016 Global Peace Index proves that economic losses “dwarf the expenditures and investments in peacebuilding and peacekeeping”. According to Mel Duncan, co-founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, the cost for a professional and paid unarmed civilian peacekeeper is $ 50,000 per year, compared to the $ 1 million it costs U.S. taxpayers for a soldier in Afghanistan per year.
The World is Facing an Environmental Crisis
Humanity faces a global environmental crisis from which war both distracts us and which it exacerbates, including, but not limited to, adverse climate change which will disrupt agriculture, create droughts and floods, disrupt disease patterns, raise sea levels, set millions of refugees in motion, and disrupt natural ecosystems on which civilization rests. We must quickly shift the resources wasted in laying waste in the direction of addressing major problems humanity now faces.
Climate change, environmental degradation, and resource scarcity are contributing factors to war and violence. Some talk about a catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change. While we should not isolate those factors as causal drivers of war, they need to be understood as additional – and probably increasingly important – elements that are part of the social, political, and historical context of a war system.
It is necessary to interrupt this vicious path that is far more threatening to humans than the direct consequences of war. Starting with the military is a logical step. Not only does the out-of-control military budget take away much-needed resources for addressing the planetary crisis. The negative environmental impact of the military alone is tremendous.
Connecting the dots – illustrating the impact of war on the environment
- Military aircraft consume about one quarter of the world’s jet fuel.
- The Department of Defense uses more fuel per day than the country of Sweden.
- The Department of Defense generates more chemical waste than the five largest chemical companies combined.
- A F-16 fighter bomber consumes almost twice as much fuel in one hour as the high-consuming U.S. motorists burn a year.
- The U.S. military uses enough fuel in one year to run the entire mass transit system of the nation for 22 years.
- During the 1991 aerial campaign over Iraq, the U.S. utilized approximately 340 tons of missiles containing depleted uranium (DU). There were significantly higher rates of cancer, birth defects and infant mortality in Fallujah, Iraq in in early 2010.
- One military estimate in 2003 was that two-thirds of the Army’s fuel consumption occurred in vehicles that were delivering fuel to the battlefield.
In a report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons made it clear that business-as-usual was not an option and that there needed to be transformative shifts including sustainable development and building peace for all.
We simply can’t go forward with a conflict management system that relies on war in a world that will have nine billion people by 2050, acute resource shortages and a dramatically changing climate that will disrupt the global economy and send millions of refugees on the move. If we do not end war and turn our attention to the global planetary crisis, the world we know will end in another and more violent Dark Age.
1. War Is Our Most Urgent Problem–Let’s Solve It
2. Read more at: Hoffman, F. G. (2007). Conflict in the 21st century: the rise of hybrid wars. Arlington, Virginia: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
3. Asymmetric warfare takes place between fighting parties where relative military power, strategies or tactics differ significantly. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan are the best known examples of this phenomenon.
4. American Wars. Illusions and Realities (2008) by Paul Buchheit clears up 19 misconceptions about U.S. wars and the U.S. war system. David Swanson’s War is a Lie (2016) refutes 14 arguments used to justify wars.
5. For exact data on arms producers by nation, see the 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook chapter “International arms transfers and arms production” at .
6. The Mobile Exhibit Company provides “an array of exhibits such as the Multiple Exhibit Vehicles, Interactive Semis, Adventure Semis, and Adventure Trailers manned by Army recruiters in order to re-connect America’s People with America’s Army and enhance Army awareness among high school and college students and their centers of influence. See the website at:
7. The photo essay can be seen in the story “Guns and Hotdogs. How the U.S. Military Promotes its Weapons Arsenal to the Public” at
8. Numbers vary greatly depending on source. Estimates range from 50 million to 100 million casualties, including the Pacific part of the war already underway.
9. Paradigm for Peace website:
10. A study found that foreign governments are 100 times more likely to intervene in civil wars when the country at war has large oil reserves. See an analysis and summary of the study in the Peace Science Digest at
11. In-depth sociological and anthropological evidence can be found in these books: Pilisuk, Marc, and Jennifer Achord Rountree. 2015. The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War
Nordstrom, Carolyn. 2004. Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century.
12. Number can vary greatly depending on source. The website Death Tolls for the Major Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century and the Costs of War Project were used to provide data for this table.
14. See 2016 “Global Peace Index Report” at
15. The estimated costs of soldier per year in Afghanistan range from $ 850,000 to $ 2.1 million depending on the source and year. See for example the report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments at or the report by the Pentagon comptroller at . Regardless of the exact number, it is clear that it is exorbitant.
16. See: Parenti, Christian. 2012. Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books.
18. Many works deal with the connections between war and the environment. Hastings in American Wars. Illusions and Realities: The Environmental Consequences of War are Insignificant; and Shifferd in From War to Peace provide very good overviews of the horrible consequences of war and militarism on the environment.
19. A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development. The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda ( )