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War as a social system

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Lewin, Leonard C. (1967) Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, New York: Dial Press. Excerpts taken from Philosophical Perspectives on Peace (1987) ed. H.P. Kainz, Athens Ohio: Ohio University Press.


Section 4

War and peace as social systems


We have dealt only sketchily with proposed disarmament scenarios and economic analyses, but the reason for our seemingly casual dismissal of so much serious and sophisticated work lies in no disrespect for its competence. It is rather a question of relevance. To put it plainly, all these programmes, however detailed and well developed, are abstractions. The most carefully reasoned disarmament sequence inevitably reads more like the rules of a game or a classroom exercise in logic than a prognosis of real events in the real world. This is as true of today’s complex proposals as it was of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s ‘Plan for Perpetual Peace in Europe’ 250 years ago.

Some essential element has clearly been lacking in all these schemes. One of our first tasks was to try to bring this missing quality into definable focus, and we believe we have succeeded in doing so. We find that at the heart of every peace study we have examined – from the modest technological proposal (e.g. to convert a poison-gas plant to the production of ‘socially useful’ equivalents) to the most elaborate scenario for universal peace in our time – lies one common fundamental misconception. It is the source of the miasma of unreality surrounding such plans. It is the incorrect assumption that war, as an institution, is subordinate to the social systems it is believed to serve.

This misconception, although profound and far-reaching, is entirely comprehensible. Few social clichés are so unquestioningly accepted as the notion that war is an extension of diplomacy (or of politics, or of the pursuit of economic objectives). If this were true, it would be wholly appropriate for economists and political [p.253] theorists to look on the problems of transition to peace as essentially mechanical or procedural – as indeed they do, treating them as logistic corollaries of the settlement of national conflicts of interest. If this were true, there would be no real substance to the difficulties of transition. For it is evident that even in today’s world there exists no conceivable conflict of interest, real or imaginary, between nations or between social forces within nations, that cannot be resolved without recourse to war – if such resolution were assigned a priority of social value. And if this were true, the economic analyses and disarmament proposals we have referred to, plausible and well conceived as they may be, would not inspire as they do, an inescapable sense of indirection.

The point is that the cliché is not true, and the problems of transition are indeed substantive rather than merely procedural. Although war is ‘used’ as an instrument of national and social policy, the fact that a society is organized for any degree of readiness for war supersedes its political and economic structure. War itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire. It is the system which has governed most human societies of record, as it is today.

Once this is correctly understood, the true magnitude of the problems entailed in a transition to peace – itself a social system, but without precedent except in a few simple pre-industrial societies – becomes apparent. At the same time, some of the puzzling superficial contradictions of modern societies can then be readily rationalized. The ‘unnecessary’ size and power of the world war industry; the pre-eminence of the military establishment in every society, whether open or concealed; the exemption of military or paramilitary institutions from the accepted social and legal standards of behaviour required elsewhere in the society; the successful operation of the armed forces and the armaments producers entirely outside the framework of each nation’s economic ground rules: these and other ambiguities closely associated with the relationship of war to society are easily clarified, once the priority of war-making potential as the principal structuring-force in society is accepted. Economic systems, political philosophies, and corpora jures serve and extend the war system, not vice versa.

It must be emphasized that the precedence of a society’s war-making potential over its other characteristics is not the result of the ‘threat’ presumed to exist at any one time from other societies. This is the reverse of the basic situation; ‘threats’ against the [p.254] ‘national interest’ are usually created or accelerated to meet the changing needs of the war system. Only in comparatively recent times has it been considered politically expedient to euphemize war budgets as ‘defence’ requirements. The necessity for governments to distinguish between ‘aggression’ (bad) and ‘defense’ (good) has been a by-product of rising literacy and rapid communication. The distinction is tactical only, a concession to the growing in-adequacy of ancient war-organizing political rationales.

Wars are not ‘caused’ by international conflicts of interest. Proper logical sequence would make it more often accurate to say that war-making societies require – and thus bring about – such conflicts. The capacity of a nation to make war expresses the greatest social power it can exercise; war-making, active or contemplated, is a matter of life and death on the greatest scale subject to social control. It should therefore hardly be surprising that the military institutions in each society claim its highest priorities.

We find further that most of the confusion surrounding the myth that war-making is a tool of state policy stems from a general misapprehension of the functions of war. In general, these are conceived as: to defend a nation from military attack by another, or to deter such an attack; to defend or advance a ‘national interest’ – economic, political, ideological; to maintain or increase a nation’s military power for its own sake. These are the visible, or ostensible, functions of war. If there were no others, the importance of the war establishment in each society might in fact decline to the subordinate level it is believed to occupy. And the elimination of war would indeed be the procedural matter that the disarmament scenarios suggest.

But there are other, broader, more profoundly felt functions of war in modern societies. It is these invisible, or implied, functions that maintain war-readiness as the dominant force in our societies. And it is the unwillingness or inability of the writers of disarmament scenarios and reconversion plans to take them into account that has so reduced the usefulness of their work, and that has made it seem unrelated to the world we know. [p.255]


Section 5.

The functions of war




The production of weapons of mass destruction has always been associated with economic ‘waste’. The term is pejorative, since it implies a failure of function. [However] ‘the attacks that have since the time of Samuel’s criticism of King Saul been leveled against military expenditures as waste may well have concealed or misunderstood the point that some kinds of waste may have a larger social utility’ (Waskow 1966, p.9)

In the case of military ‘waste’, there is indeed a larger social utility. It derives from the fact that the ‘wastefulness’ of war production is exercised entirely outside the framework of the economy of supply and demand. As such, it provides the only critically large segment of the total economy that is subject to complete and arbitrary central control. If modern industrial societies [p.256] can be defined as those which have developed the capacity to produce more than is required for their economic survival (regardless of the equities of distribution of goods within them), military spending can be said to furnish the only balance wheel with sufficient inertia to stabilize the advance of their economies. The fact that war is ‘wasteful’ is what enables it to serve this function. And the faster the economy advances, the heavier this balance wheel must be.

This function is often viewed, over-simply, as a device for the control of surpluses. One writer on the subject puts it this way: ‘Why is war so wonderful? Because it creates artificial demand … the only kind of artificial demand, moreover, that does not raise any political issues: war, and only war, solves the problem of inventory’ (Bazelon 1962, p.409). The reference here is to shooting war, but it applies equally to the general war economy as well. ‘It is generally agreed’, concludes, more cautiously, the report of a panel by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, ‘that the greatly expanded public sector since World War II, resulting from heavy defense expenditures, has provided additional protection against depressions, since this sector is not responsive to contraction in the private sector and has provided a sort of buffer or balance wheel in the economy’ (1962).

The principal economic function of war, in our view, is that it provides just such a flywheel. ….

[Hence] even in the context of the general civilian economy war cannot be considered wholly ‘wasteful’. Without a long-established war economy, and without its frequent eruption into large-scale shooting war, most of the major industrial advances known to history, beginning with the development of iron, could never have taken place. Weapons technology structures structures the economy. [p.257]

… Far from constituting a ‘wasteful’ drain on the economy, war spending, considered pragmatically, has been a consistently positive factor in the rise of gross national product and of individual productivity. A former Secretary of the Army has carefully phrased it for public consumption thus: ‘If there is, as I suspect there is, a direct relation between the stimulus of large defense spending and a substantially increased rate of growth of gross national product, it quite simply follows that defense spending per se might be countenanced on economic grounds alone [emphasis added] as a stimulator of the national metabolism’ (Pace 1957). …

But negatively phrased public recognitions of the importance of war to the general economy abound. The most familiar example is the effect of ‘peace threats’ on the stock market, e.g. ‘Wall Street was shaken yesterday by news of an apparent peace feeler from North Vietnam, but swiftly recovered its composure after an hour of sometimes indiscriminate selling’ (Deitch 1966). ….

Although we do not imply that a substitute for war in the economy cannot be devised, no combination of techniques for controlling employment, production, and consumption has yet been [p.258] teasted that can remotely compare to it in its effectiveness. It is, and has been, the essential economic stabilizer of modern societies.



The political functions of war have been up to now even more critical to social stability …

These functions are essentially organizational. First of all, the existence of a society as a political ‘nation’ requires as part of its definition an attitude of relationship toward other ‘nations’. This is what we usually call a foreign policy. But a nation’s foreign policy can have no substance if it lacks the means of enforcing its attitude towards other nations. It can do this in a credible manner only if it implies the threat of maximum political organization for this purpose – which is to say that it is organized to some degree for war. War, then, as we have defined it to include all national activities that recognize the possibility of armed conflict, is itself the defining element of any nation’s existence vis-à-vis any other nation. Since it is historically axiomatic that the existence of any form of weaponry ensures its use, we have used the word ‘peace’ as virtually synonymous with disarmament. By the same token, ‘war’ is virtually synonymous with nationhood. The elimination of war implies the inevitable elimination of national sovereignty and the traditional nation state.

The war system not only has been essential to the existence of nations as independent political entities, but has been equally indispensable to their stable internal political structure. Without it, no government has ever been able to obtain acquiescence in its ‘legitimacy’, or right to rule its society. The possibility of war provides the sense of external necessity without which no government can long remain in power. The historical record reveals one instance after another where the failure of a regime to maintain the credibility of a war threat led to its dissolution, by the forces of private interests, of reactions to social injustice, or of other disintegrative elements. The organization of a society for the possibility of war is its principal political stabilizer. It is ironic that this primary function of war has been generally recognized by historians [p.259] only where it has been expressly acknowledged – in the pirate societies of the great conquerors. [p.260]



Under this heading, we will examine a nexus of functions served by the war system that affect human behaviour in society. In [p.260] general, they are broader in application and less susceptible to direct observation than the economic and political factors previously considered.

The most obvious of these functions is the time-honoured use of military institutions to provide anti-social elements with an acceptable role in the social structure. …. It must be noted also that the armed forces in every civilization have provided the principal state-supported haven for what we now call [p.261] the ‘unemployable’. …

Sporadic efforts have been made to promote general recognition of broad national values free of military connotation, but they have been ineffective. For example, to enlist public support of even such modest programmes of social adjustment as ‘fighting inflation’ or ‘maintaining physical fitness’ it has been necessary for the Government to utilize a patriotic (i.e. military) incentive. It sells ‘defence’ bonds and it equates health with military preparedness. This is not surprising; since the concept of ‘nationhood’ implies readiness for war, a ‘national’ programme must do likewise. [p.262]

What gives the war system its pre-eminent role in social organization, as elsewhere, is its unmatched authority over life and death. It must be emphasized again that the war system is not a mere social extension of the presumed need for individual human violence, but itself in turn serves to rationalize most non-military killing. [p.263]… The point might seem to obvious for iteration, but it is essential to an understanding of the important motivational function of war as a model for collective sacrifice.

A brief look at some defunct pre-modern societies is instructive. One of the most noteworthy features common to the larger, more complex, and more successful of ancient civilizations was their widespread use of the blood sacrifice. If one were to limit consideration to those cultures whose regional hegemony was so complete that the prospect of ‘war’ had become virtually inconceivable – as was the case with several of the great pre-Columbian societies of the Western Hemisphere – it would be found that some form of ritual killing occupied a position of paramount social importance in each. Invariably, the ritual was invested with mythic or religious significance; as with all religious and totemic practice, however, the ritual masked a broader and more important social function.

In these societies, the blood sacrifice served the purpose of maintaining a vestigial ‘earnest’ of the society’s capability and willingness to make war – i.e. kill and be killed – in the event that some mystical – i.e. unforeseen – circumstance were to give rise to the possibility. That the ‘earnest’ was not an adequate substitute for genuine military organization when the unthinkable enemy, such as the Spanish conquistadores, actually appeared on the scene in no way negates the function of the ritual. It was primarily, if not exclusively, a symbolic reminder that war had once been the central organizing-force of the society, and that this condition might recur.

It does not follow that a transition to total peace in modern societies would require the use of this model, even in less ‘barbaric’ guise. But the historical analogy serves as a reminder that a viable substitute for war as a social system cannot be a mere symbolic charade. It must involve real risk of real personal destruction, and on a scale consistent with the size and complexity of modern social systems. Credibility is the key. Whether the substitute is ritual in nature or functionally substantive, unless it provides a believable life and death threat it will not serve the socially organizing function of war. [p.264]



Man, like other animals, is subject to the continuing process of adapting to the limitations of his environment. But the principal mechanism he has utilized for this purpose is unique among living creatures. To forestall the inevitable historical cycles of inadequate food supply, post-Neolithic man destroys surplus members of his own species by organized warfare. ….


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