Book Reviews

Why Nations Go To War

Stoessinger, John George. Why Nations Go To War. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2011.

My first semester at BYU I decided to study political science. It seemed to fit at the time. It didn’t. After the first semester I knew I didn’t care for it. After the second semester I was done. What I really enjoyed was political philosophy. Surprise!

That said, some of those first two semesters were the most influential in how I viewed political affairs and in how I would later see political philosophy. In my second semester I took an introductory course to international politics (PLSC 170). It was taught by Dr. Brian Champion (still one of my favorite professors), who was the Senior Librarian for the International Relations, Political Science, and Economics departments.

One of the readings in PLSC 170 was an introductory text to warfare entitled Why Nations Go To Warby John G. Stoessinger (although the 11th edition is the most recent (2010), I read and was familiar with the 10th edition (2007) that is much cheaper nowadays to buy).  This was an incredible, informative, and influential book in my life — hence the reason for my quick write-up.

Stoessinger’s book was written in what he perceived as a vacuum caused by a failure of scholars to produce a satisfactory explanation for war.

Ever since I was a student, I have found most explanations of war somehow wanting. I read that wars were caused by nationalism, militarism, alliance systems, economic factors, or some other “fundamental” cause that I could not connect directly to the actual outbreak of a given war. Often I was told that war was an ineradicable part of human nature… The conventional wisdom left me totally dissatisfied, both intellectually and emotionally. It somehow always missed the human essence of the problem. Forces over which people apparently had no control were frequently enthroned as “fundamental” causes. Yet it was people who actually precipitated wars. This personality dimension was seldom given its due weight in traditional books on war (xiii).

This “personality dimension” is what drives Stoessinger and gives a humanity to his book that is most often lacking similar works on the subject. Indeed, personality is a strange thing when analyzing war from the top-down (leaders and their personalities) and from the bottom-up (how individuals in the aggregate respond to war in its time and how they perceive it when seen at a distance). Throughout his career, Stoessinger had interviewed many veterans of World War I who “remembered its outbreak as a time of glory and rejoicing,” thus demonstrating that “distance had romanticized their memories, muted the anguish, and subdued the horror of what followed” (xiv). It seems that time is its own natural administer of amnesia to the atrocities of war.

Stoessinger identifies many layers of analysis when approaching the causes of why nations go to war, as he approaches and analyzes 10 separate wars that were different and removed in time, technology, economic/political/social/religous pressures, situation, geography, ideology, etc. to find that “in all cases, those who began war took a beating. Neither the nature nor the ideology of the government that began hostilities made any difference” (388).

Stoessinger’s doesn’t look to the state as a primary cause, or to society, but the primary layer of analysis, the one that he finds the most effective in cutting away everything superfluous to the analysis and discussion (and that he offers the book as evidence for), is that “with regard to the problem of the outbreak of war, the case studies indicate the crucial importance of the personalities of the leaders” is the most effective way of answering the question “Why Do Nations Go To War?” (390).

In the end, and it should go without saying, we should be very careful who we elect and choose to occupy offices of government that are responsible for war-making decisions, as, according to Stoessinger, the most indicative and telling factor of war has to do with the personalities of the leaders involved.