Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 11:34 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 11:34 | SYDNEY

War and the 'emotive impulse'


Sam Roggeveen


This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

28 May 2010 10:31

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Hugh White's reply to Michael Wesley's post is wide-ranging, and you should read the whole thing. But it seems to me that much of the heavy lifting in Hugh's argument is being done by this claim:

...the choices people make on the brink of war are not rational judgements of costs and benefits, but highly emotive impulses reflecting most often their sense of identity.

This sounds more like a description of how violent crime or protest happens rather than how war happens. War takes a great deal of dull and sober preparation, work that tends to dilute emotional impulses. In fairness, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could probably be cited as a counter-argument here — I tend to think emotion played a sustained role in Bush Administration decision-making, as this video illustrates.

So let's grant the premise that heightened emotion plays an important role in national security decision-making. If that's true, then we need to consider the possibility that it might actually reduce the impulse for conflict, as well as heighten it. For instance, it is possible that, with birth rates shrinking as societies get richer, the public and the governing class is developing a higher sensitivity to death.

In fact, there are a number of factors possibly contributing to this sensitivity.

Consider the economic dimension: we spend massively more than 50 or 100 years ago educating and training our citizens. And in post-industrial economies, an increasing number of workers learn specialised workplace skills that are difficult and costly to replicate. Western states also invest ever-increasing amounts to keep their citizens healthy. As people live longer and stay healthier, they become more economically productive.

The increasing value of human life is felt acutely in Western military forces. Equipping a US infantryman today costs about 100 times more than in World War II, and this does not account for the far higher levels of training modern soldiers receive. The power of mass communications also creates a heightened sense of potential lost opportunity for those at mortal threat.

So I would add the increasing value of human life to Michael's list of four geo-economic factors that contribute to a reduction in the likelihood of conflict between advanced states. And I would submit that, even if Hugh is right about the role of 'emotive impulses', it's a factor that could increase the chances of peace as well as war.

Photo by Flickr user owenbooth, used under a Creative Commons license.