Lunes, 26 Noviembre 2012 15:08

G. What is War Good for?

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This essay reviews two of the most common arguments used to claim that war has somehow been good for society. The first is that war makes economic sense. We question the way traditional macroeconomic measurements are taken and show how more modern measurements reveal the true impact of war on the economy. The second argument is that of war as a means of population control, which we review using a simple cost-benefit analysis to compare war to a few alternative approaches. We conclude that war has a net detrimental impact on society, and that one major step towards achieving the two goals in question would be to eradicate war.

A.  Is War Good for the Economy?

A historicism that is often put forward in favor of war is the notion that it somehow favors economic growth. If the heads of a family had to finance a fight of military proportions with a neighbor, they would probably see it as an unproductive, irrecoverable expenditure. However, at the level of international relations, some have tried to argument that, historically speaking, war has fueled the economy in some countries. Here we are not referring merely to the booty taken by the victors from those conquered, which is arguably no true progress but only a transfer of wealth from one owner to another, minus the cost of the conquest in terms of material assets and human lives. Rather, what is proposed is that war is a means for actual economic growth. Let us see if this is true.

1.   The USA and World War II:

One example, that is cited is the Great Depression of the 1930s, from which the United States finally emerged through the enormous national effort to prepare its military machinery for World War II. Many factories that had been shut down due to the lack of finance and consumption were overhauled to manufacture arms. Raw material purchases, which had practically come to a standstill, saw a tremendous surge. Through this injection of government capital, other industries such as food, clothing, construction, and others recovered their vitality. And this in turn created numerous jobs in the different professions and trades. Almost overnight, a dispirited, weary country that had lost hope in the future regained its energy, hope and even enthusiasm, and all––as we are led to believe––thanks to the benefits of war.

2.   Gross National Product:

How are we to understand this situation, and what could we respond to such a counter-intuitive argument? First of all, we need to summarize how economic dynamism is measured. The most common approach today is the Gross National Product (GNP), a macroeconomic measurement that quantifies the sum of all economic activities in a country.[1] One problem with the GDP is that it measures all economic activities, even if they are damaging. If a single millionaire multiplies his income, the GDP goes up, even if the rest of the population is impoverished. When a country produces and consumes tobacco and alcoholic beverages, the GDP rises, although this adds nothing to the people’s quality of life. And when people get sick from smoking and drinking and go to the hospital, or when they die and must be buried, the GDP also goes up because they have generated economic activities. If there is a national disaster that destroys an area of the country, the efforts invested in recovery and reconstruction make the GDP go up. In sum, the GDP does not measure the overall wellbeing of a country but only its production and consumption.

3.   Changing Priorities:

It is logical, therefore, to assume that if a country goes to war, produces, purchases or sells weapons, hires workers for arms factories, contracts personnel for the military apparatus, and fights on the front, all of this increases the GDP. However, there are more productive ways to increase this macroeconomic measure, which do not require so much waste of material assets and human lives. For example, around the 1970s, the US economy experienced another crisis, but this time there was no major war to save it. Inspired in the success of the military industry during World War  II, the country decided to stimulate the economy by promoting another industry, in this case construction, with similar results. The crux of the matter was not the specific industry involved, but the mere fact of incentivizing any form of production.

4.   Human Development:

This fact sparked a search for alternative fields into which funds could be injected to stimulate the economy. It turned out that the more they targeted humanity’s basic needs, the greater the impacts of long-term investments. Based on this realization, new measurements of a country’s economic wellbeing were developed. The Human Development Index (HDI), for example, seeks to measure people’s options through access to opportunities for education, health, income, employment, etc. It positively assesses life expectancy or health, literacy and educational attainment, and a decent standard of living measured in per capita GDP, and negatively assesses activities that run counter to human development, such as military expenditures.

Other less well-known methodologies include the Human Freedom Index (HFI); the Capability Poverty Measure (CPM); the Human Poverty Index (HPI), later changed to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MDI); the Women’s Development Index (WDI), later changed to the Gender-related Development Index (GDI); and the Women Empowerment Index (WEI), later changed to the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM).

The difficulties encountered in strengthening the economic activities that are measured by these means are not of a technical nature. Neither do they reside in any failure to increase the GDP, which they do, and with much deeper and lasting effects than other activities such as war. Rather, the challenge is to generate the political will to prioritize them over activities that least benefit the general populace on the long term and most fill the pockets of those wielding decision-making power on the short term. And this is precisely why the latter are counted among those who most promote the hegemonic myth upon which the culture of adversarialism is built, in order to perpetuate their excessive privileges.


B.  War as a Population Control Measure

A third historicism used to advocate war has to do with its role in controlling population growth. According to Korotayev et al. [2006:87], an increase in demographic density results in an increase in the frequency of war, which in turn leads to a decrease in population density. It is true that often people will mention this argument almost in jest, but using it together with the other arguments considered in this section tends to strengthen them. Therefore, it is worthwhile to review it with the same consideration and earnestness as the other two, in order to take away what little support it may have.

1.   A Recent Concern

Actually, this is a relatively recent argument, because up until barely a century ago, population control was not deemed to be necessary. The population did not grow as quickly as today, due to the lack of the good nutrition, hygiene, health care, sanitation, and safety measures we currently enjoy. At that time, it was seen as a valuable service to produce offspring and thereby increase the population, as a means for enriching and enlarging the community to which one belonged. The loss of (primarily) men in a war was seen as a national setback, a high price to pay for the proposed end, and not an added demographic bonus.

2.   An Ineffective Strategy

Over the past 100 years, there have been worse wars, with more deaths, than in all the rest of human history. Nevertheless, over this same period we have seen a growing demographic explosion. Evidently, war is not controlling population growth, contrary to what the argument in question proposes. Why? One of the reasons is that those who die in battle tend to be the ‘dispensable sex’, because in theory, a single man could have thousands of children, which is not the case with women. According to Guinness, the world record for children per mother is 69, attributed to the first wife of Feodor Vassilyev of Russia, although she cheated and had 16 sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets. This contrasts sharply with the current global fertility rate, though, which is 2.36 children per mother on average. The world record of children per father, on the other hand, went to Moulay Ismail, the Sharifian Emperor, with 525 sons and 342 daughters, for a total of 1703 children, ¡25 times more than Mrs. Vassilyev and over 721 times the world average! Ong [1981:53] explains this from a natural selection viewpoint:

“Evolutionary selection takes advantage of the fact that men, not women, develop the size, strength and aggressiveness needed to be successful in combat. One of the reasons is that combatants are the ones most likely to lose their lives, and a species can more easily overcome the loss of its males than that of its females. A colony in which only one male and twenty females survive can, in most species, reproduce itself much more easily than a colony in which there is only one female and twenty males left.”

Therefore, if the proposal to use war as a way to exterminate the excess population were really serious, women would be sent out as cannon fodder, not men. However, international humanitarian law protects women in wartime. See, for example, the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions on the Laws and Customs of War on Land, the 1929 Geneva Convention relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949 relative to Treatment of Prisoners of War and Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, respectively, and Additional Protocols I and II of 1977.

Furthermore, the minimum draft age, according to the same international legislation, tends to be 18 years or more. In consequence, many men who die in battle have already been able to procreate, so their death has a minimum impact on population reduction. If the policy of organizing war to weed out the surplus population were serious, it would be more effective to send pre-pubes to serve as cannon fodder, before they have had a chance to reproduce. Better yet, considering that males are the “dispensable sex”, it would be better to send pre-menstrual girls, but again, international legislation protects them.

3.   Going for the Absurd

To take the same logic to the extremes of absurdity, there are cheaper ways to exterminate large numbers of children. For example, how about making a state policy of the today’s reality of letting millions of children die each year of hunger and preventable diseases? This is already done in practice, and has shown to be much more efficient than war. Every year, nearly 11 million children die before the age of five years, and malnutrition is associated with 53% of these deaths. Furthermore, it doesn’t make economic sense to spend trillions of dollars on raising, educating, specializing, and equipping soldiers, if their final destination is the slaughterhouse anyway. Or is that expense deemed the price that must be paid in order to create the public illusion that this was not really the initial purpose?

The purpose for posing these absurd alternatives is to highlight the profound inconsistencies in the argument that war is a good means of population control. Finally, one could propose that those who defend this argument demonstrate their commitment to it by offering themselves or their children for slaughter on the battlefield, as a personal act of sacrifice to save the planet. An idea may sound acceptable when it affects nameless, faceless beings on another continent, but when it affects us personally, the purported remedy may be harder to swallow.

4.   Alternative Strategies

So ultimately we are forced to seek more sensible alternatives to the demographic explosion. China’s experience in this regard is interesting, as that country was able to not only stabilize but reverse the growth of the most densely populated country in the world, and the lessons learned could be transferred to other regions of the planet. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that the same efforts of propaganda, coercion and socioeconomic incentives that are currently expended to convince youngsters to offer up their lives ignominiously on the battlefield, could be better invested in getting them to limit the number of children they have.

Even if these strategies were not applicable to other countries, the experience of the past decades has shown that the most effective, economic and humanitarian way to put a brake on population growth is through education, which has shown a clear relationship to the number of children people––especially mothers––have.[2] On average, the more education people have, the less children they have. One of the reasons for this is that better educated people tend to be more concerned with giving their children the best opportunities possible, and their salaries are often insufficient to provide for more. Another possibility is that more highly educated people have professional and personal goals that go beyond raising an unlimited number of children. Be this as it may, what is sure is that providing basic education for all––one of the millennium goals––would cost $10 billion, only a small fraction of the $1,7 trillion per year global military expenditure. The point is that the population explosion could be contained merely by ensuring high-quality education for the world’s peoples.


C.  Conclusion

In this essay we have reviewed two of the most common arguments used to claim that war has somehow been good for society. The first was that war makes economic sense. We questioned the way traditional macroeconomic measurements are taken and showed how more modern measurements reveal the true impact of war on the economy.

The second argument was that of war as a means of population control, which we reviewed using a simple cost-benefit analysis to compare war to a few alternative approaches. In conclusion, we have shown that war has a net detrimental impact on society, and that one major step towards achieving the two goals in question would be to eradicate war.



[1] The GDP measures production within a country’s borders, albeit by foreign agents. Alternatively, the Gross National Product (GNP) measures the sum of all economic activities performed by the nationals of a country, albeit outside of its national territory. However, the GDP is the more commonly cited measurement.

[2] See “Birth and Fertility Rates by Educational Attainment”, T.J. Mathews and Stephanie J. Ventura, Division of Vital Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics. URL:

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