One of the common tropes in stories about war is that war is pointless and goes on far too long. This trope goes back at least as far as the Trojan War cycle in Greek mythology but a particularly strong version of it became prominent in twentieth-century American science fiction with works like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War. These works portrayed wars that have gone on for as long as anyone can remember and which show no signs of ever ending. The original causes for the war are long forgotten and both sides just continue to fight for no reason other than to avenge the ravages of previous battles. In more optimistic stories, all it takes to stop the carnage is for an outsider to point out to the combatants how meaningless their war is. In more pessimistic versions, the war just keeps going as the populations on both sides are blinded by warmongering propaganda and either unable or unwilling to ask what they’re fighting for in the first place. While stories of this kind may have a lot to say about what it feels like to be at war, however, they don’t match with what history shows us about the real causes of war.
Almost every society large enough to organize a substantial number of fighters, from ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to modern nations, has engaged in war. Some societies go to war readily, other reluctantly, and the immediate causes of individual conflicts vary, but certain patterns recur throughout history. Most wars ultimately come down to the need to control the resources that are essential to survival and prevent outsiders from threatening those resources. Most crucially, this means food, but other kinds of resources, such as access to trade routes, metals, and labor also contribute. People go to war because they are afraid of starving to death, not because they hate their neighbors.
The threat to survival may not always be immediate. Some wars are fought not for a direct tangible gain but to preserve reputation or prevent hostile forces from acquiring a competitive advantage. The danger that people fear when they go to war is also sometimes illusory or misjudged. Just because wars happen for a reason doesn’t mean that we all will (or should) agree that those reasons are good ones. Still, when you look behind the rhetoric and propaganda of a nation at war, you will almost always find a real fear about fundamental survival.
Ideologies, religions, political ideals, and other kinds of identities do play a role in shaping conflicts. They help to draw the lines between “us” and “them” and to justify why, in a time of crisis, “we” should live and “they” should die. Differences of identity alone, however, are not enough to cause wars. The history of the world is full of people of different faiths, ethnicities, and political persuasions living together in peace—not always harmony, but at least peace. War is the rare exception. To put it another way: war is a practical problem, not a moral problem.
Wars that arise from pragmatic fears will tend to last as long as those fears remain, or until the cost of continuing to fight outweighs the cost of accepting a settlement. History offers us plenty of examples of long wars. There were conflicts that lasted decades of more or less continual hostilities such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta or the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe. There were also conflicts that recurred between the same forces on more or less the same terms over generations or centuries, such as between the Roman and Parthian Empires or China and the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. From the point of view of ordinary soldiers and civilians living through them, any of these wars may well have seemed interminable and pointless, but behind all of them were real and practical fears of the threat that rival powers posed to control of essential resources. They continued for so long because these fears remained unresolved, not because of ingrained hostility. When they ended, it was because circumstances had changed—one power decisively defeated another, all powers were too exhausted to continue, or an outside force changed the dynamics of the conflict—not because people suddenly came to their senses and stopped hating one another.
Thoughts for writers
I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t write stories about long and pointless wars. This trope exists for a reason and it has an important place in our literature. It’s no surprise that the trope became popular among writers who lived through the Cold War and, in the United States, the war in Vietnam. Both of those conflicts seemed especially pointless to many, soldiers and civilians alike. Almost any war can seem meaningless from the point of view of the common soldier following orders and just trying to stay alive. Stories of this kind express something important about the dehumanizing effects of war and the common yearning for peace.
It’s not our job as fiction writers to try to perfectly replicate history. We have the freedom to be unrealistic, but we should know when we’re doing it. If you want to have noisy explosions in space because they make your story more exciting, go ahead and have them. If you want to write a story about vampires in Victorian London, don’t let the fact that vampires aren’t real stop you. Likewise, if you have a story to tell about war, tell it the way you want to tell it. Just be aware that actual wars begin and end because of practical need and fears, not because people just can’t get along.
Image: Modern soldiers visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, photograph by George Gieske via Wikimedia
Post edited for clarity.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.