Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about a variety of historical subjects, including unusual events and people.
Is There Such a Thing as a Good War?
This article discusses why war and not peace is the driving force behind human civilization, and how war has led to the development of almost all technology and knowledge.
In fact, when we consider human history we find that all of humanity's social and technological progress has been motivated by war, and the need to gain advantage over one's enemies. Viewed in that context, war is not necessarily bad. In fact, it may at the very least be a necessary evil.
War and Human Civilization
We are taught that war is bad, that it it is wasteful of human life and resources, that it spreads destruction and misery. All these things are true: war is to be avoided. It is immoral. It is evil. It inflicts suffering on the innocent, and destroys untold lives, causes the fall of civlilzations and debases the human spirit. But ... war is also essential to human civilization.
The very thing that threatens to destroy civilization is what drives civilization to improve its technology and social development. It is a sad fact that from the art of killing other humans, we have derived most of the tools and social organization that make up our societies.
The connection between war and the advancement of learning was noted even in ancient times. The ancient Greek writer Aristophanes stated:
"Yet, certainly, the wise learn many things from their enemies; for caution preserves all things. From a friend you could not learn this, but your foe immediately obliges you to learn it . For example, the states have learned from enemies, and not from friends, to build lofty walls, and to possess ships of war. And this lesson preserves children, house, and possessions."
Technological Progress and War
There is much truth embedded in this simple statement: cities learn how to build walls from their enemies.They learn because of war.
Now of course we no longer build walls around cities, but this is because the art of war has made walls obsolete.In other words, the science of war has led to seige engines, counter seige engines, explosives, artillery, airplanes, which have made walls and fortifications useless.
But the truth is still there: cities learned to build walls to protect themselves against attackers. To build walls, the people learned to quarry rock, they developed masonry, they developed the social organization to organize and command groups of people to get the rocks, shape them, and erect them. In so doing, cities learned geometry, mathematics, architecture and so on.
And the attackers, those who would breach the walls learned from their enemies too: they learned to build seige engines, and learned the principles of ballistics, of mathematics. They learned how to lay seige to impregnable fortresses by surrounding them and starving them into submission, and in so doing they learned how to keep large armies in the field around the cities and how to supply them with provisions for a long campaign.
To attack a city, people learned how to organize and move large numbers of men and camp followers. They developed logistics: wagons to move food end equipment, social organizations to draft soldiers, institutions such as the army to train them, chain of command, communication systems, maps, and so on.
How Wars and Aggression Drive Human Progress
War and Technology
War Drives Technolgical Advancement
And this pattern continues to the present day. Our present civilization reaps the bitter fruits of a thousand wars, most long forgotten, that have been the true mother of invention.
Our commercial aircraft can fly through crowded skies because of radar, which was developed during world war 2 to defend against Nazi air raids (a modern wall, if you will). And we have microwave ovens thanks to military research to improve radar designs. In fact we have commercial jet aircraft because of the work in world war 2 to develop jet fighters and bombers. The technology was later adapted to civilian use. The fast connections between continents made possible by jet powered passenger planes have changed our world. We could hardly imagine a world where it still took weeks to travel from San Francisco to China. And we can honestly say that the free exchange of people between countries made possible by regular air routes has gone a long way to making the world one and developing understanding and exchanges between countries and different cultures. But all this is built on a foundation of war; we simply would not have had the jet engine without it.
We have nuclear power plants because of the advancements made in nuclear energy during the Manhattan project and the race to produce the first atomic bomb. The age of computers began in the 1940s with the efforts to build code breaking machines, and developed through the cold war and today as competing nations strove to to make computers smaller and faster to handle the requirements of missile guidance systems and advanced fighter aircraft.
Even the internet, the invention which perhaps most defines our modern age, was built on the foundations of a military system designed to provide a distributed, and therefore difficult to destroy, communication system which would allow government entities to continue to communicate in the event of nuclear war.
The D Day landings required amazing feats of engineering and design: millions of workers built the landing craft, the tanks, the ships and ammunition, spurring the development of new industrial techniques and scientific advances in the fields of weather and tide prediction, engineering (everything from floating docks to undersea pipelines had to be invented from scratch).
War Is a Harsh But Good Teacher
Would we have had all of these things without war, or would we be even more advanced? It is difficult to say with certainty because war has been so pervasive in human history that it is not possible to conduct a double blind study and compare an unwarlike civilization to ours. However, the fact that most technological advancement has happened as a result of war or during arms races in preparation for war suggests that war is indeed a teacher to humankind.
Despite its title the intent of this article is not to glorify war or argue that it is morally good. It is however useful, and we need to understand its role in shaping and advancing human civilization if we are ever going to find a way out of this paradigm and learn to progress and advance though peace and cooperation. But unless we can face the reality of our nature and recognize the bones that form the scaffolding and foundation of our society, we will never be free of war and will forever be the unhappy students of this harsh teacher.
© 2009 Robert P
Robert P (author) from Canada on March 05, 2013:
I wrote it.
rob on March 05, 2013:
where did you find this article? is it yours?
Robert P (author) from Canada on December 01, 2012:
It is possible for war to be moral, but it rarely is in practice. For example, the fight by the Allies against the Nazis is generally seen as a Good War in the sense that the allies were definitely attacked and the Nazis were the aggressors. But the reality is not as black and white, because the British and the Americans got in league with Soviet Russia - out of necessity and on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus while we condemned the slaughter and genocide committed by the Germans, we were silent about equal atrocities committed by the Soviets both before the war (for example the Ukranian genocide) and during the war, in which millions of innocent civilians were slaughtered.
Robert P (author) from Canada on December 01, 2012:
Thanks. I appreciate the feedback. To me it is amazing that we seem unable to make progress without killing other humans, yet also amazing that we are able to make progress in spite of almost constant warfare.
aethelthryth from American Southwest on November 19, 2012:
Sorry, I meant to say "who started it, why, and what (if any) rules are being followed."
aethelthryth from American Southwest on November 19, 2012:
You have some good points here, which a lot of people don't seem to have thought about. However, I don't think you can sweepingly say that war is immoral. I think all you could sweepingly say is that war involves a lot of unpleasantness, which is very unevenly distributed.
But if you want to talk about the morality of war, you have to get into the details of who started it, why, what if any rules are being followed. Because even some conscientious objectors, notably Congressional Medal of Honor winner Alvin York, have decided that fighting can be a good thing if it keeps people who are doing bad things from doing even worse things.
Matthew Kirk on November 19, 2012:
Never a truer hub! I think perhaps intense capitalism (or the miracle of capitalism as a well known comic character once said) is another major driving force, but the technology itself is always based in war.
j on May 23, 2012:
boom boom boom
Robert P (author) from Canada on March 12, 2012:
Thanks for the feedback Hambali.
Hambali O.E on March 12, 2012:
Frankly, this is a nice piece but I just fear what critics can do / undo with it. Sometimes i don't like them!
Pao on February 08, 2012:
Nice! Thank you for your great perspective about war! :)
Ralph on March 24, 2011:
@quotations, your essay seems to me to be unusually well thought out and written. I would like to read more of your ideas on this.
Robert P (author) from Canada on March 24, 2011:
@Ralphoo - thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have not read the story by Greg Bear that you mentioned although I have read some of his books and have always enjoyed his writing.
Ralphoo on March 23, 2011:
I found this page (https://discover.hubpages.com/education/war-and-th... ), while searching Google for "war drives progress."
That search suggested itself after I had just been reading a novel, Hull Zero Three, by Greg Bear, in which a man wakes from suspended animation aboard a damaged starship, and must fight his way through many almost-lethal situations. He learns that he (his body) is actually just one of a series of identical copies, each of which has been thawed out whenever the previous incarnation died. Each copy leaves behind a journal, which the next copy can use to progress beyond the survival point of its predecessor.
As the ship's robots become increasing dangerous, the protagonist eventually begins to believe he is part of a war of some sort.
The plot of Hull Zero Three led me to think once again about the power of war to induce progress. I also often ask myself the question of what makes humans so different from other animals and allows us to create technology of stunning complexity and sophistication. Happening to combine the two threads, abruptly I found myself wondering, "What if the human tendency to make war turns out to have been fundametal to of our species' ability to progress so far?"
It is a thought both chilling and, in its own way, amusing -- a prime example of our recent human realization that whatever is good is bad, and whatever is bad, is good. For example, improved human health enriches our lives and lengthens our lifespan. That result is, of course, good. Yet success in keeping people alive and healthy eventually creates a catastrophe of overpopulation, leading in turn to serious degradation of our own human environment -- which is, as we all know, bad.
Naturally, therefore, your essay interests me.