Serialbabbler asked a very good question in a followup to a comment I made on Dan’s posting earlier this week. I originally responded in the comments, but it’s such a good question that I felt like it was worth devoting an actual blog entry to.

This is what I wrote:

You can see this simply by looking back through history at all the times that peoples’ dreams have been deferred, and noticing that not all of those deferred dreams led to war, even in cases where the injustice was truly severe. And you can see cases where war has arisen for reasons other than deferred dreams.

This was the reply:

The main problem I see with this line of thought is that it is like arguing that cigarette smoke doesn’t cause lung cancer because not all smokers develop lung cancer and not all people with lung cancer smoked.

If I were to characterize the difference here, this is how I would do it. Consider the cause of lung cancer. It is mutation. So if we wish to prevent lung cancer, we need to prevent mutation. So what causes mutation? Well, one of the primary causes of mutation is tobacco smoke. Is it easy or hard to stop tobacco smoke? You can debate the point, but it’s certainly an easily identified problem, and in principle at least it’s easy to know if you have stopped it, so stopping it is a good goal.

Now, consider war. I claim that war is caused by the belief that war is a solution to one’s problems. So there are two obvious ways to prevent war. If you remove the belief that war can solve problems, then war won’t happen. And if you can remove the problems, then war won’t happen.

So what’s different about this, as compared to lung cancer? It’s true that poverty and broken dreams are problems, and that if you remove them, war will no longer be attempted as a solution to these problems.

However, there are two problems with this approach. One is that war gives rise to poverty. Because war kills people, and destroys property, and prevents the production of necessities, it tends to be the case that there is more poverty following a war than there was prior to the war. So you have a loop – let’s stop poverty, so that we can stop war, you say, but then you have to stop war so that you can stop poverty, so that you can stop war. The linchpin here is not poverty – it is war.

The other problem is that there is really no limit to human problems. By the standards of a poor person living in India, Americans are all rich. Even the ones who live in shacks. So that person would say that America has solved the problem of poverty. But of course we haven’t. We’ve just gotten to the point where the worst-off person in America is better off than the worst-off person in India.

And yet there are plenty of people in America who, for one reason or another, will happily shoot you so as to get your money, or just because they are angry at you for being better off than they are. Why? One reason is the war on drugs. So to stop that, you’d have to stop a war. Which leads us back to the beginning of the circle again, just in a slightly wider loop this time.

My point is not that we should not fight poverty. We should. Poverty is bad whether it causes war or not. We do not need the search for peace to be our excuse for fighting poverty – we have enough reason without it.

But if we do not understand what really causes war, and address that problem directly, then we will never triumph over war. We will fight tactical battle after tactical battle, but because we have no strategy, we will never be victorious.