causes of war

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Many different sorts of warfare have occurred throughout history. The causes behind them can vary, and different types of reasons might lead to different types of wars. War reasons can range from extremely simple to extremely complicated. As nations become more conscious of the devastation caused by conflicts, they increase their own supply of war weapons and military might in order to repel any potential attack. Wars are costly not only in monetary terms, but also in humanitarian terms. In spite of the massive costs associated with acts of war, people still choose war because their reasons for fighting the war are more valuable than what it may cost them. The attacking party considers the end result of the war to beneficial for them. (Howerth 1916) Some argue that each war can be considered a special unique case and hence the causes related to that are specific. This is quite true but one can draw generalized conclusions and broadly categorize the reasons into few major categories.

In order to understand what causes wars, one needs to know the levels of wars that can occur due to them. Primarily, there are four levels of wars, namely, political, strategic, operational and tactical.

Political level of wars are the most crucial ones. In today’s day and age, it is the government of a nation that decides whether to go on a war against a certain country, politics play a vital role in the occurrence of the same. A nation’s relationship with its neighboring or otherwise countries helps define political motives and hence can cause wars. The power that a government and its military has and its motives can result in making of allies and dividing the world over a certain issue. An example of this level of war is when the government of Kuwait was restored to power.

A country’s military strategy or national strategy plays a crucial role in determining the chances of occurrence of a war. When decisions are made on a strategic level, they tend to be taken by the higher most authority. (Jackson and Morelli 2009) When that happens, any action (such as war) is taken keeping in perspective the end result and how the actions will result in future.

Operational level of engagement happens when there are missions which span for few day or may be few weeks only. They can be understood as small scale campaigns which are motivated by a certain mission the waging party has in mind. They are not planned and executed by the highest authority as is the case in strategic level engagements. (Evera 2013) An example of operational level of warfare is when the republican guard was destroyed by third army.

Tactical level of engagements are typically even shorter in time duration than the operational levels. They weapons used are also not very wide scale causing massive amounts of destructions. (Harf 1974) It is the lowest level of warfare in which planning, execution and the conclusion of the whole operation takes place very quickly and does not usually have far reaching effects. An example of tactical level of engagement is when the Republican guard and the Iraqi 12th corps were attacked by VII corps in a battle.

There is no ironclad way of defining these levels of engagements and sometimes as so it happens they are quite interrelated. The various reasons of wars can vary in their intensity and can cause various levels of warfare as discussed above. There can be numerous reasons of wars at various levels but this essay intends to take a look at the various most important reasons that cause wars. In broad terms, a war is started when one of the involved party thinks that the benefits achieved through war can outweigh the cost of the war or when war is the only choice left as mutually agreeable terms (or common ground) is not achieved otherwise.

Gaining political or territorial control over a place is one of the most important reasons why wars happen all around the world. This reason can still be subdivided into many other reasons as the intention of gaining control over a land can be motivated by needs/ wants such as use for agriculture, mining of natural resources, availability of living space etc. (Healy, Brian and Stein 1973) The territory in question usually suffers the most and becomes a proxy war zone. An excellent example of this is the wars fought between India and Pakistan over the territorial control of Kashmir. In the past, World War II was primarily driven by the intent of gaining political control over other territories. (Ferris 1973)

Another top cause of wars to happen is when the party waging the war wants to benefit economically from this whole exercise. The country that is being attacked could be rich and can offer economic stability to the attacking nation when captured. Resources such as oil, gas, naturally occurring minerals etc. are too valuable especially because we have a finite supply of fossil fuels. Countries can see the other countries who are rich in such resources as a lucrative way to gain economically from their resources. (Martin 1968) Another aspect that the attacking party can have in mind is the requirement of cheap labor. Considerable economic benefits can be reaped by attacking and capturing a new market where the attacking party can sell their goods/ products. In the past, British colonized India in order to exploit its natural resources and establish trade for economic benefits. In World War II, Germany and Japan went into war in order to gain access to resources for economic benefits.

Wars motivated by religion are not new to this world. There is no shortage of historical incidents where wars happened due to different religions were fighting in order to establish superiority or to convert the other party to their own religion. In many cases, it has been seen that various sects or divisions within a religion can also fight amongst each other because of difference in ideologies. The end result that the party waging war is expecting is mainly either an increase in the followers of their own religion or establishing superiority of their own religion over the other party. One of the examples of religious wars is the riots that happened in Jos in the year 2010. The conflict occurred between Muslims and Christians. (Levy and Thompson 2011) According to official records, Muslim people massacred around 500 people. In some cases, one person consider his own race to be superior or dominant over the race of the other party. Hitler asserted the dominance of his race over Jews who according to him were the inferior race. In the past, there has been many wars that have occurred in Europe on the grounds of religion. Catholics in Europe had waged many wars against Protestants. These wars took place for a long period of time and was spanning across nearly the whole of the Europe. The China Maoist communism that took place in the year 1949 is another example of conflict of ideology between two groups.

The desire to take revenge can also be a key motivation for a war to happen. When a war happens, there is an inordinate amount of destruction that happens with it. When the defeated party gets back to its feet, then they may contemplate revenge on the attacking party and can wage a war in return. There are high chances that this kind of attack circle can continue for a long time and can cause a lot more destruction than it needed to be. One of the classic examples of revenge war is the Trojan War.

With nuclear weapons becoming a reality, most of the nations are always on their toes on whether or not the other nations can use their nuclear power against them. (Francis 1974) If a nation is found to be active in their military exercises, the other nations tend to get upset and issue warnings. When a nation senses an imminent danger that the other nation is almost certainly preparing for a war, then in some cases they may decide to wage the war first in order to preempt the attack. The party who attacks first are said to have certain advantages and everybody wants to gain that advantage especially in circumstances where they think that a war is unavoidable. The element of surprise associated with striking first gives an edge to the attacking party. One of the examples of this war reason is when Israel struck Egypt and Syria in the year 1967. Israel had the knowledge that Egypt and Syria were about to attack them so they decided to preempt their action and gain competitive edge by striking them first. (Silverstone 2007)

People of a country can also revolt against the authorities in order to show their dissatisfaction of the status quo. They may be working towards a new revolutionary idea or system which they deem better than what they have at present. The motivation of such people can again be anything. It could be series of destructive wars that the government choose to engage in or could be terrible economic conditions that are faced by revolting people. In the past, one can find many examples of revolutionary wars taking place. (Powell 2006) As an example, France got into such war during the period 1792 to 1815. In today’s world, this type of cause for war seems quite unlikely to happen as mass revolutions are now a thing of the past.

Civil wars are also quite common and they happen when there are two groups of people who have different ideologies or ways in which they think the country should be run. This clash in ideologies can grow strong over time resulting in violence and war at varying scales.

In certain cases, it is a matter of pride and glory for a country to gain control over another country. This feeling of nationalism can also cause war. Not only does the attacking party thinks it is a matter of glory but there could be racist intentions in waging a war as well. An excellent example of this is the war waged by Nazis against Russians.

With the rapid changes in climatic conditions, there is ample reason to believe that there will be another reason for wars to take place. With global warming and ice caps melting, widespread natural disasters are inevitable. When that happens, the current distribution of natural resources and greenery will get changed. With forests turning to barren lands, people will migrate to better places and these migratory pressures will cause conflict of interest and will threaten the existing political boundaries. When there is survival at stake, chances are people will resort to extreme measures like war. (Dyer 2010)

In modern times, due to the increase in interdependence of nations due to globalization and due to control measures and authorities, the acts of war have greatly reduced. As any amount of control is not able to resolve each and every conflict that exists, war as now make way to more passive forms of violence like cold war and terrorism. Although, some may argue that terrorism is not war but due to the scale of terrorist acts and the intentions behind them, they can no longer be classified as just criminal acts. There could be many ways to combat terrorism. One such offensive way of dealing with terrorism is preemptive strikes at small scales. So even if terrorism is not classified as war, it can very well lead to wars. Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Iraq etc. are suffering from side effects of terrorism. There has been quite many wars that have taken place in these places.

Some of the above discussed reasons are not very likely causes of wars in the years to come. On the other hand, as the world is rapidly changing, there would be newer reasons of conflict and hence war. Gaining an understanding of the various causes of wars serves many purposes. It helps us analyze the historical events and we can learn from the mistakes being made then. It also enables the governments across the world to make policy decisions related to international affairs in such a manner that avoids conflicts and removes causes of potential wars if any.


Dyer. G. (2010), Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, Oneworld Publications

Evera, S.V. (2013), Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict, Cornell University Press

Ferris, W.H. (1973) The Power Capabilities of Nation-States: International Conflict and War, Lexington Books

Francis, B. (1974), How Much War in History: Definitions, Estimates, Extrapolations and Trends, Sage Professional Papers in International Studies, Vol. 3, 02-030

Harf, J. E. (1974) International conflict resolution and national attributes, Halsted Press

Healy, Brian and Stein A. (1973) The balance of power in international history, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 17

Howerth, I. W. (1916), The Causes of War, The Scientific Monthly, vol. 2, no. 2

Jackson M.O. and Morelli M. (2009) The Reasons for Wars – an Updated Survey, Forthcoming in the Handbook on the Political Economy of War, Elgar Publishing

Levy, J.S. and Thompson W.R. (2011), Causes of War, John Wiley & Sons

Martin J. (1968) Power versus equality, Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association Second Conference, Vol. 1

Powell, R. (2006) War as a Commitment Problem, International Organization, 60

Silverstone, S. A. (2007) Preventive War and American Democracy, Routledge

May 02, 2023

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