Dan Reiter


On his book How Wars End

Cover Interview of December 31, 2009


Singing Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s famous song “War,” Edwin Starr declared, “War!  What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing.”  Some people argue that war happens because it reflects fundamental aggressiveness in human nature.  Some argue that war happens because two countries or societies simply hate each other.  And some argue that technology causes war, that once weapons are invented countries seek reasons to use them.

This book provides a different answer to this question, explaining the political function served by war.  I argue that countries fight wars to solve problems of mistrust.  This is a longstanding observation, that mutual fear causes countries to launch wars.  This book expands on past work, arguing that fear also shapes the way that countries fight and end their wars.  When belligerents fear that the other side will not abide by a war-ending peace settlement, this fear pushes them to reject negotiations and instead pursue the absolute defeat of their adversary.  Eliminating the adversary solves the mistrust problem.

That being said, though adversaries sometimes try to solve their mistrust problems by fighting wars to the finish, the book also provides caveats as to why this is not always an attractive foreign policy.  Certainly, sometimes it is the best and only thing to do—the absolute defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II being perhaps the best examples.  However, sometimes you can inflict total defeat on a rogue leader’s military, but then face a costly insurgency after the conventional war has ended.  Think Iraq and Afghanistan.  Sometimes you can use other means to deal with mistrust which are much cheaper than fighting a war, and are sufficiently effective.  We mistrusted the Soviet Union, but deterrence kept them from attacking America or its allies for decades.  And a state which appears to be untrustworthy and dangerous may actually pose much less of a threat than we had thought, thus the costs of a war to oust the leader would not be worth bearing.  Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction or connections to terrorist groups stands out as a clear example of this kind of paper tiger.

© 2010 Dan Reiter