Michael Mann. Is war rational? Evidence through the ages.

via Zoom

My current research project analyzes wars through the ages:  in the Roman Republic, the histories of China, Japan and Europe, the post-colonial history of Latin America, recent wars in the Middle East, and wars fought by the United States. I focus here on decisions to make war. Though the weapons and organization of war have changed enormously through time, decision-making processes have not. In virtually all cases, the decisions were/are made by very small groups of rulers, sometimes by one person, not by the mass or the representatives of the people. I ask whether wars are rational, as the dominant Realist school in Political Science theory asserts. Rationality can be of means – carefully-considered, calculative decision-making – or ends – whether the goal of war was likely to be attained. I conclude that though some wars can be considered rational in one or both of these senses, these cases were predominantly imperial wars of aggression launched by a much stronger power against a weaker one – and in these cases it is less clear why the weaker power fights. But most war decisions are influenced by rulers’ characters, emotions, ideologies, domestic politics, and the negative side of Durkheimian solidarity (the inability to appreciate the motivations and capabilities of the alien), and because militarism becomes baked into the culture and institutions of states having had past victories. I give examples of irrational war-making, like the post-1945 wars of the United States, but will also point to general tendencies -- most rulers who initiate wars lose them, and the vast majority of states in history have disappeared through war. Irrationality rules!


Michael Mann   is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology, UCLA, an Honorary Professor at Cambridge University, and a member of the American and British Academies. He has four honorary doctorates.

His major publication project is The Sources of Social Power, a history of power in human society, dealing with ideological, economic, military and political sources of power: Volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to 1760 (published in 1986).  Volume 2:  The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760 -1914 (1993). Volume 3: Global Empires and Revolution, 1890-1945 (2012). Volume 4: Globalizations, 1945 -2011 (2013).  

He has also published Incoherent Empire (2003), a critique of the “new American imperialism” from the perspective of comparative and historical sociology; Fascists (2004), a study of fascists in six countries; and The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (2005).  Two books of essays have been published about his work, John Hall & Ralph Schroeder (eds.), The Anatomy of Power: The Social Theory of Michael Mann (2006), and Ralph Schroeder (ed.), Global Powers: Mann’s Anatomy of the 20th Century and Beyond (2016). In 2013 he was one of the five co-authors of the book Does Capitalism Have a Future? He is currently finishing a book on war.