64. Democratic societies are less likely to make war than dictatorships. What is the evidence?

War-copterD fears the insur­rec­tion of my eye­brows;
Blow us away, my storm trooper of the army of dreams, 
Lay us out in rows to moul­der.
Who will be left in this Val­halla of brave poses 
To wash the dishes, com­rade,
When the moon sets over the crim­son grass ?

[from the poem, Fire­power, by Thor]


Dis­cus­sion Notes (i.e. my take on this)

1. There is no uni­form pat­tern defin­ing what a “demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety” is. There­fore blan­ket state­ments about the rela­tion­ship between “demo­c­ra­tic soci­eties” and war are inco­her­ent.

2. Exec­u­tive pres­i­dents with author­ity to declare war may be less con­strained in some cases than prime min­is­ters answer­able to a cab­i­net and par­lia­ment. A cur­rent exam­ple: the British Prime Min­is­ter put aside his per­sonal pref­er­ence for attack on Syria after a vote in the British Par­lia­ment rejected it. The French Pres­i­dent was not so con­strained. The Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent, feel­ing moral but not legal con­straint, sought a Con­gres­sional vote. He was saved from humil­i­a­tion through medi­a­tion by a less than demo­c­ra­tic Pres­i­dent of Rus­sia. This cur­rent par­a­digm has been almost unique. Aus­tralia, Britain, Canada etc. have a record of fol­low­ing USA into wars of aggres­sion with lit­tle par­lia­men­tary dis­sent.

3. With the excep­tion of two world wars, most wars wages by colo­nial pow­ers in the 20th and 21st Cen­turies were proxy wars which did not threat­ened home pop­u­la­tions. Even two world wars did not threaten home pop­u­la­tions in the United States (which may partly account for that nation’s sense of aggres­sive impunity). In other words, even where pop­u­la­tions in these states voted for, or at least acqui­esced in, wars waged by their gov­ern­ments, there was not a sense of per­sonal risk, except amongst sol­diers and con­scripts. Very often there were indi­rect rewards in terms of employ­ment (espe­cially in US). Seri­ous oppo­si­tion only arose, as in the Viet­nam war, where mil­i­tary and con­script casu­alties became sig­nif­i­cant.

4. All wars, with­out fail and through­out his­tory, have been char­ac­ter­ized by the deploy­ment of “weapons of mass decep­tion”. That is, the lead­er­ship on both sides invari­ably claims to have God, Fate, Luck, right­eous­ness, his­tory, eco­nomic or polit­i­cal neces­sity .. and every avail­able virtue on their side. It is hardly ever the case that any of this is the real engine for war, but is usu­ally mobi­lizes enough pub­lic sup­port to enable lead­ers to pros­e­cute war with­out imme­di­ate revolt (though that may come later).

5. “Mod­ern war­fare” has been a phe­nom­e­non not only of mass-extinc­tion weapons, but also of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Until recently, both the weapons and the com­mu­ni­ca­tions were largely the prop­erty of elites who abused them with impunity. The world­wide panic of elites about “secu­rity” is really code for their real­iza­tion that both weapons and com­mu­ni­ca­tions have passed beyond state monopoly. That is, there is are new ele­ments of anar­chy at work which both dic­ta­tors and elected lead­ers fear.

6. Hand to hand fight­ing and mur­der is not a nat­u­ral activ­ity for most sober men and women (even in the testos­terone-dri­ven 16–30 age range). Any “vote for war” rapidly dis­si­pates amongst these peo­ple when faced with the real­ity. As a result, every army always has a bleak way of deal­ing with desert­ers. Under exis­ten­tial con­di­tions (e.g. your coun­try invaded) deser­tion is often pun­ished by exe­cu­tion, and a threat of mass deser­tion may be dis­cour­aged by a sec­ond army (mil­i­tary police) in the rear to coerce front line troops and shoot those who desert. In proxy wars, such as those to main­tain the Amer­i­can eco­nomic empire, it is more likely to be a jail term, or for the lucky even dis­hon­ourable dis­charge. Troops may also be drugged prior to fac­ing dan­ger (e.g. Amer­ica exten­sively doses GIs with Prozac). The con­tin­ued face to face mur­der of enemy play­ers (civil­ian and mil­i­tary) only becomes psy­cho­log­i­cally pos­si­ble by refram­ing them as sub-human. In prac­tice a toxic mix of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance and fear leads to very high lev­els of men­tal break­down on both sides. In a larger frame, it also usu­ally causes grotesque abuses of human rights, espe­cially on civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, negat­ing the claimed polit­i­cal aims of war (e.g. “lib­er­a­tion”) which becomes unat­tain­able on the ground (a major rea­son for repeated fail­ure in America’s wars).

7. Tech­no­log­i­cal war­fare at a dis­tance really started with aerial bomb­ing, has advanced to drones, and in the next major con­flict will advance to infra­struc­ture dev­as­ta­tion on cities through elec­tronic aggres­sion. This process reduces con­flict to elec­tronic game play­ing with­out direct pain or respon­si­bil­ity for the per­pe­tra­tors, and usu­ally with­out even min­i­mal under­stand­ing by these per­sons of the cul­tures they are attack­ing. The results we have seen so far, as with drone war­fare in Pak­istan, is the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of whole vic­tim pop­u­la­tions into life­long enmity for the aggres­sors – Amer­i­cans in the Pak­istani case. The choice for this kind of war­fare is polit­i­cally easy in the short term since approval by aggres­sors from home pop­u­la­tions is rarely required. The blow­back is likely to be for­mi­da­ble and long last­ing (e.g. Amer­ica has now really lost any eco­nomic and polit­i­cal prospects in Pak­istan and Afghanistan to China).

8. The wet dream of “full spec­trum dom­i­nance” in mil­i­tary con­trol is fatal to states which achieve any­thing like it, either inter­nally (as in North Korea) or exter­nally (as in the United States of Amer­ica). The fatal­ity of it is gen­er­ated from inter­nal hubris, ossi­fi­ca­tion, cor­rup­tion and decay. As in busi­ness, full spec­trum com­pe­ti­tion in ‘defense’ is the only par­a­digm which can ensure both mutual respect and a refine­ment of sys­tems.

9. Mutu­ally Assured Destruc­tion (MAD) from nuclear mis­siles has receded from the head­li­nes, and is prob­a­bly beyond the knowl­edge of younger gen­er­a­tions. That is dan­ger­ous. MAD was sup­posed to ensure a bal­ance of ter­ror between major pow­ers, regard­less of pol­i­tics, and the acqui­si­tion of Weapons of Mass Destruc­tion by smaller unsta­ble states is claimed to drive puni­tive sanc­tions against nuclear can­di­dates like North Korea and (allegedly) Iran. How­ever Pak­istan, which is an unsta­ble failed state, already pos­sesses the weapon and Israel secretly (?) retains nuclear weapons as a deter­rent. In fact the MAD threat is still ever-present from all play­ers, not least USA which is the only state to have ever used atomic bombs (against an already defeated Japan). It has just become gen­er­ally known (Reuters, Sep­tem­ber 2013 below) that in Jan­u­ary 1961 Amer­ica came within sec­onds of self-destruc­t­ing from a hydro­gen bomb which fell out of a break­ing-up B52 bomber over North Car­olina. Only a sin­gle, prim­i­tive switch saved the nation. The US East Coast would have been destroyed and world power struc­tures changed forever. In 1961 I was in my last year of high school in Syd­ney. I recall that my feel­ings and those of many con­tem­po­raries at that time were that we would be unlikely to sur­vive a decade. It cer­tainly had a major effect on my own life choices then. For exam­ple, it seemed irre­spon­si­ble, to even think of start­ing a fam­ily, or tak­ing a career seri­ously.

10. Aggres­sion seems to be a con­stant in human psy­chol­ogy, and mass aggres­sion is espe­cially pop­u­lar amongst the kinds of peo­ple who seek power. Moral sua­sion has been his­tor­i­cally inef­fec­tive in this con­text, except as a post-ratio­nal­iza­tion when the bat­tle is over. The most effec­tive brakes on war have always been cost (espe­cially bank­ruptcy), exhaus­tion and dis­place­ment. By dis­place­ment I mean redi­rected aggres­sion: notably sport for the masses, and busi­ness for the elites.


Here are some links on the War topic. This is a work in pro­gress (Sep­tem­ber 2013) – other sug­gested ref­er­ences are wel­come.

Ben­hold, Katrin (15 Octo­ber 2013) “An IRA Killer Reflects on What Drove Kenyan Gun­men”. Bris­bane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/ira-killer-reflects-on-what-drove-kenyan-gunmen-20131014-2vho9.html

Burg, Avra­ham (2012) “ Israel’s Fad­ing Democ­racy”. New York Times. online @ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/opinion/sunday/israels-fading-democracy.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Engle­hardt, Tom (26 Sep­tem­ber 2013) “Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) Amer­i­can Achieve­ments of the 21st Cen­tury”. Huff­in­g­ton Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-engelhardt/american-exceptionalism_b_3995693.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

Falk, Richard (31 August 2013). “Syria: U.S. War Mak­ing at the Expense of Democ­racy”. online @ http://richardfalk.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/syria-u-s-war-making-at-the-expense-of-democracy/

Fer­gus­son, Leopoldo and Juan F. Var­gas (May, 2013) “Don’t make war, make elec­tions”. Inter-Amer­i­can Devel­op­ment Bank, online @ http://blogs.iadb.org/desarrolloefectivo_en/2013/05/28/dont-make-war-make-elections/

Good­man, Peter (2013) “After 9/11, Amer­i­cans Under­mined National Secu­rity”. Huff­in­g­ton Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-s-goodman/911-national-security_b_3907506.html?utm_hp_ref=world

Goodreads.com (n.d.). “Quotes about Democ­racy”. Online @ http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/democracy

Green­wald, Glen and Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill (Sep­tem­ber 12, 2013). “NASA shares raw intel­li­gence, includ­ing Amer­i­cans’ data with Israel”. The Guardian, Lon­don. online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/11/nsa-americans-personal-data-israel-documents

Ianus (Jan 29, 2006). “Democ­ra­cies do make war on each other”. online com­ment from the blog of Daniel Piper. online @ http://www.danielpipes.org/comments/33034

Putin, Vladimir (Sep­tem­ber 11, 2013) “A Plea for Cau­tion from Rus­sia”. New York Times. online @ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?ref=global-home&_r=1&

Reuters Newsagency (20 Sep­tem­ber 2013) “Atom Bomb Almost Exploded Over North Car­olina in 1961”. Huff­in­g­ton Post. online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/20/atom-bomb-nearly-exploded_n_3964784.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

Roz­eff, Michael S. (July 17, 2012)”Forget Democ­racy”. online @ http://www.lewrockwell.com/2012/07/michael-s-rozeff/forget-democracy/

Rum­mel, Rudolph J. (May-June 1999). “Democ­ra­cies Don’t Fight Democ­ra­cies”. Peace Mag­a­zine. online @ https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/rummel.htm

SBS Aus­tralia (Octo­ber 30, 2012) “Insight looks at the ten­sions brew­ing in Australia’s Syr­ian com­mu­nity as vio­lence esca­lates back in their home coun­try”. Youtube video, online @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=B4dEeoL6QP8#t=314 [This high ten­sion online forum between indi­vid­u­als caught in a civil war gives more con­text to the mean­ing of war than any abstract dis­cus­sion]

Shah, Anup (Jan­u­ary 28, 2012). “Democ­racy”. Global Issues jour­nal. online @ http://www.globalissues.org/article/761/democracy

Sprit­zler, John (Octo­ber 10, 2002). “A War To Make Iraq Demo­c­ra­tic?” . New Democ­racy World. online @ http://www.newdemocracyworld.org/old/iraq-js-1.htm

Weart, Spencer R. (n.d.) “Never at War. Why Democ­ra­cies Will Not Fight One Another”. New York Times, online @ http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/w/weart-war.html

Wein­berger, Eliot (3 Feb­ru­ary, 2005) “What I Heard about Iraq”. Lon­don Review of Books, Vol.27 No.3. Online @ http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n03/eliot-weinberger/what-i-heard-about-iraq

White, Matthew (1998, 2005) “Democ­ra­cies Do Not Make War on One Another. …or Do They?” online @ http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/demowar.htm

Wikipedia (2013) “Demo­c­ra­tic Peace The­ory”. online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_peace_theory

Wikipedia (2013) “Never at War”. [analy­sis of the orig­i­nal arti­cle] online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_at_War

Wikipedia (2013) “War”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War

Wroe, David (21 Sep­tem­ber 2012) “War Foot­ing: Min­is­ter Eyes Next Hotspot”. The Bris­bane Times. online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/war-footing-minister-eyes-next-hotspot-20130920-2u5dm.html [com­ment: Here is Australia’s newly elected (2013) Min­is­ter for ‘Defence’ actu­ally look­ing for con­flict on Australia’s behalf … ]


  • com­ments: Thor May – thormay@yahoo.com; http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay ; http://thormay.net
  • dis­cus­sion top­ics blog (list of top­ics): http://discussiontopics.thormay.net/
  • topic sug­ges­tions: a) meetup.com site; or b) brisbane.discussions@gmail.com
  • top­ics already dis­cussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm


Demo­c­ra­tic soci­eties are less likely to make war than dic­ta­tor­ships. What is the evi­dence? © Thor May 2013

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