The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)


53 points | by Alupis 12 days ago


  • labster 11 days ago

    This is a fascinating essay, which manages to predict the mood and military conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century quite well. It doesn't manage to be postmodern enough, which isn't all that surprising considering when it was written.

    But we now live in a world where the weapons are so good, that the next war truly could be the last one. And where the values and greatness of martial spirit led to disastrous results. I don't really feel that the values were all that great to begin with, to be honest, but I can see why some people do.

    Certainly, there have been projects to try to channel ambition and nationalism into peace, and the Olympic Games are the top example. And like a lot of modernist endeavors it works up to a point, but has obvious flaws.

    I'm not entirely sure that war is a permanent state of humanity, though. Possibly humans are still in the process of domesticating themselves.

    • perfmode 11 days ago

      This is, so far, a fascinating essay. Can't wait to get home to finish it.

      • shredprez 11 days ago

        I know commenting to agree is not encouraged on HN, but I feel obligated to. This is an extremely compelling case/strategy guide for uncompromising pacifism and I haven't ever read anything like it. Powerful in a way so much of the conversation around conflict isn't.

        To anyone seeing this comment before reading: take the time, it's worth it.

        • perfmode 11 days ago

          > "Peace" in military mouths today is a synonym for "war expected." The word has become a pure provocative, and no government wishing peace sincerely should allow it ever to be printed in a newspaper. Every up-to-date dictionary should say that "peace" and "war" mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu. It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the "peace"-interval.

    • nicolashahn 11 days ago


      War has been the natural state of man for millions of years, our short stint of civilization will not breed it out of us any time soon. There's obviously a terrible price to war, but it does have the upside of keeping a community disciplined and strong. It also has an equalizing aspect: rich and poor are shoved next to each other; identical in the trenches. Removing war without replacing its disciplining/strengthening/equalizing aspects would cause a degeneration of society.

      However, war is unsustainable in the long run, and so the author's solution is to create conscription not to fight other nations, but to fight nature. What this means: have everyone spend a couple years doing laborious tasks: construction, mining, fishing, dishwashing, etc. This can breed the "martial type of character" that would be lacking without war.

      I'm pretty in favor of the idea. I can definitely recommend the full read.

      • coderintherye 11 days ago

        >rich and poor are shoved next to each other; identical in the trenches.

        Rather than blithely shoot this down with statistics, rather I'll recommend you watch "Cross of Iron" which does a great job of exploring this topic.

        • 11 days ago
        • peisistratos 11 days ago

          > War has been the natural state of man for millions of years

          He mentions tribes, and there is no evidence of tribes existing prior to 10,000 years ago. Which is about 25,000 to 30,000 years after the cave paintings in Chauvet and El Castillo.

          Not that conflict never happens between hunter-gatherer bands, but evidence is it was, and is, fairly limited.

          Real conflict and war started ramping up 10,000 years ago, with the dawn of slave societies and empires.

          • eloff 11 days ago

            I don't buy that. Even chimps go to war between different bands, so we've likely got that in common going back at least 6-7 million years when we shared a common ancestor.

            There's not a lot of evidence for war, but there's not a lot of evidence for anything. Very little survives over time. So I don't think a lack of evidence is meaningful yet.

            • peisistratos 11 days ago

              There is evidence of war in the past 10,000 years, little before.

              Prior to 500 years ago there was little modern contact with the Americas, Australia, parts of sub-Saharan Africa etc., so observation of lack of conflict in hunter-gatherer bands there is more evidence. Obviously I mean hunter-gatherers, not the Aztec warriors.

              I don't see what chimpanzees have to do with humans, unless chimpanzees are sculpting Venus Madonnas and drawing buffalo on caves.

              • iguy 11 days ago

                But there is no such "observation of lack of conflict in hunter-gatherer bands". At least if you use sensible units, like the proportion of deaths which are due to deliberate violence, on which such bands tend to score way above modern society.

                I think this myth comes from early studies, who wanted to see this, and observed no warfare during the 6 months they spent around 20 people. Later studies asked these 20 to reconstruct their family trees & tabulate how each great-uncle died, etc.

                (The other possibility is definitional. If we define war as involving thousands of soldiers, then obviously this never happened until societies which could co-ordinate thousands of people arose. May as well define it as involving uniforms & automatic rifles, too.)

            • rjf72 11 days ago

              Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; this is even more true when appealing to prehistoric times when indeed we have very little evidence for much of anything. What we do know is that in the eras since things have become somewhat more clearly recorded that slavery, war, rape, etc have been ubiquitous. Even Native Americans, sometimes pictured as peace pipe smoking peoples in tune with and peacefully coexisting with nature, were engaged in warfare, slavery, and so on long before Europeans arrived. And as people sometimes confuse these sort of statements - that is in no way mitigating what happened to them. But rather just an accurate reflection of history.

              We can also see glimpses of prehistoric societies from looking at people who stayed isolated from modern society. The Sentinelese people are a group example as they are one of the only remaining uncontacted peoples. [1] They are a violent warfaring people whom have murdered numerous people who have gotten too close to them. And there's nothing to blame here except their, and 'our', own nature. And one annoying aspect of society is that we must adapt to the lowest common denominator in matters such as this. Groups that are unskilled in warfare are rapidly 'replaced' (to use quite the euphemism) by those that are!

              And as somebody else mentioned you can even see similar behavior in other non-human primates species from which we share a common ancestor, such as chimps. They, to this day, gather into bands in large part to go kill other bands and expand their territory. They also have a habit of engaging in some rather sadistic behavior to the losers. The only reason this warfare is not expanded to tremendous numbers is but for a lack of higher intelligence required to develop the tools and structure necessary for such. And as group sizes increase, so does the probability of splintering of a group.

              So to appeal to the noble savage requires that we go war driven -> tranquil -> war driven. And that tranquil period is, conveniently, only when we have insufficient evidence to say anything one way or the other. This is not logical.

              [1] -


              One final point should also be made since it's not commonly considered. Today live in what is almost certainly the safest period of human history - ever. Something few realize. Today there is less than 1 death per 100,000 caused by war - worldwide. The world population of 'humans' varies radically by era. But in the era's we're referencing, you'd be looking at a max population of some single digit millions. If they were comparably safe to today, you'd see some 10 or 20 people dying as a result of warfare per year - in total. I don't think it'd be be controversial to suggest that number was likely markedly higher.

              • peisistratos 7 days ago

                As I said in the other comment, the Aztecs do not figure into this, they were not hunter-gatherers. An Aztec slave empire is obviously not a hunter-gatherer band. Having a slave empire de facto means you're not a hunter gatherer any more.

                There are no modern uncontacted hunter-gatherer bands to observe. The Sentinelese have everyone from local fishermen to American Christian fundamentalists invading their island. The bands in the Amazon are being murdered by miners. Modern people attacking and threatening the Sentilenese and getting a hostile response says little - if they were invading other islands, that would be a different story.

            • msla 11 days ago

              > What this means: have everyone spend a couple years doing laborious tasks: construction, mining, fishing, dishwashing, etc.

              Taking food out of the mouths of people who'd otherwise be paid to do such work.

              Not to mention giving the government what amounts to slave labor, in the form of people who can't say no to whatever work they're assigned.

              • twic 11 days ago

                There are countries which still have conscription. In many of those countries, people can choose to do civil rather than military service. For example, Denmark:


                I am certainly not a fan of conscription (and two-thirds of Danes aren't either), but this doesn't seem to be a huge problem in practice.

              • kristianov 11 days ago


                Basically the same idea.

                • watwut 11 days ago

                  I would like to know what exactly was disciplining effect of WWI. Cause it ended in quite undisciplined mess, revolutions, high criminality, you name it. Bands of ex-soldiers and young men roaming streets beating people to push for this or that agenda - or just because they can. WWII did not made us disciplined either. It made stealing and rapes more prevalent. People were stealing to survive.

                  Also, rich and poor might be identical when side by side in trench, but I would much rather be rich during war then poor. Rich have better survival chances - less chance to be sent to trench. More money to buy food during necessary hunger. Able to bribe enemies and own government alike.

                  Btw, communism tried to do the have everyone spend doing laborious tasks: construction, mining, fishing, dishwashing thing.

                  • jmclaughlin 11 days ago

                      rich and poor are shoved 
                      next to each other; identical 
                      in the trenches. 
                    And how completely false this is. The rich can buy their way out of the trenches. The poor cannot.

                    And war is not exactly fought in trenches anymore. Ground patrols exist. But only after aerial bombardment and other force multipliers reduce the other side to an asymmetric adversary dominated by concrete walls of all things.