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Letter From Military History - September 2014

By Stephen Harding 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: July 02, 2014 
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The Certainty of War

Armed conflict has always been—and, sadly, will continue to be—a recurring theme in human society. Whether comprising clashes between rival clans of hunter-gatherers, nascent city-states or multinational coalitions contending against each other on a global scale or, in recent times, low-grade but seemingly endless regional struggles or shadowy campaigns against amorphous bands of zealots, the enthusiasm with which humans make war has remained undimmed throughout history.

While the causes of warfare are legion—ranging from greed and ambition to megalomania, desperation, and cultural and ethnic differences—one human trait has arguably perpetuated the institution more than any other. That is the all-too-human tendency toward certainty, the absolute and unassailable presumption that one's cause is inherently just, necessary or even divinely ordained.

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War is accurately described as the realm of chance, in which even the best-laid plans usually go all too quickly awry, death and destruction are constants, and victory is guaranteed to no one. Yet time after time, generation after generation, human beings launch themselves into combat, certain that despite the oft-repeated lessons of history the end result of their war will somehow be better, or more honorable, or less tragic or more enduring than that of any who answered the drum's call before them.

The source of that certainty differs by personality, experience and belief, of course. A nation victorious in its last war, for example, is more likely to believe in the certainty of victory in a brewing conflict—even though its armed forces may have declined in numbers and capability since the previous triumph. Taunts and abuse suffered in childhood are likely to convince a newly powerful adult that revenge—against a person, a community, a nation or even a continent—is both just and necessary. The belief that an enemy must be engaged and defeated if civilization itself is to survive can lead the most ardent pacifist to put on a uniform and pick up a weapon. Soldiers scorned and abused by their own commanders for religious or ethnic reasons can quickly become convinced beyond doubt that desertion—even service in the enemy's army—is preferable to continued mistreatment.

And then there is the type of certainty that has sparked more division than any other cause: the unwavering belief that one's individual spiritual or political beliefs not only justify the conflict but absolve any act committed during its conduct.

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