“Why Nations Go to War” by John G. Stoessinger: A Review

Understanding the major figures involved in wars is key to understanding the causes and extent of the war.

Why Nations Go to War is a fascinating book written by John G. Stoessinger. He is more than qualified to write this book, not only is he involved in political affairs but he has lived through many of the world events discussed in his book.

His purpose, like many writers of historical books, is to illustrate some of the key events that have shaken our world, in his case the major wars. However, he does not only summarize the wars but gives some suggestions on the mysteries of why they began. This edition also concentrates on the minds behind these cataclysmic events, thus he attempts to give the reader some insight into the personalities of the people involved in these wars, which in turn allows the reader to further understand why the war might have started.

Anyone looking for a further understanding of “why nations go to war” will find this book adequate. I would also recommend it for those born after the Vietnam War, they seem to lack the general knowledge of history, myself included. However, I would not suggest that someone read this as a way to begin to comprehend history but rather to enhance their knowledge on it.

Stoessinger’s believes that understanding the major figures involved in wars is very important to understanding the causes and the extent of the war. This includes not only the leaders of the nations involved but their advisers and the generals and statesmen. Through out the book we see history through the leaders eyes and why they chose to go to war rather than another alternative.

This book reveals its theme firsthand in the chapter exploring the First World War. Stoessinger states that a leader’s perception of himself, his adversary’s character, his adversary’s intentions, his perceptions of the adversary’s power and capabilities and his capacity for empathy with his adversary are all extremely important (19) this is seen through out the book especially the first theme, a leader’s perception of himself. As well Stoessinger reveals how misperceptions are another factor to why nations go to war.

“Why Nations Go to War” takes an in depth look at World War I, World War II, The Korean War, The Vietnamese war, the war between India and Pakistan and the war between Israel and the Arabs as well as Saddam Hussein’s two wars in the Persian Gulf and finally the war in the Balkans. He also mentions briefly the war in Rwanda. Since this book is organized chronologically it seems only fitting to begin with First World War and take the reader into the twenty first century.

When John Stoessinger said that “the road to war is paved with numerous “objective causes” but the final step across the threshold is taken by an individual whose character is all important”, (212) he basically summed up his book. The book does look at personalities and how they cause or accelerate war. However, it explores other issues as well for example both the chapters on the Israeli-Arab war and the Serbs and the Croats illustrate how nationalism often spark war although the Israeli-Arab war deals with religious freedom and the Serbs and Croats deals with political and racial freedom.

The chapters however, are not dealt with equally; the Vietnamese war seems to be over analyzed while the chapter discussing Saddam Hussein is not touched upon enough. It left me with many unanswered questions such as what exactly was operation desert storm. And what did Saddam Hussein really want out of the wars he started? Perhaps Stoessinger left this chapter vague because it deals more with the personality behind the horrendous activities that took place, rather than the wars themselves, unlike the war for Yugoslavia that explains exactly why it occurred.

The use of maps helps the reader to know where the conflict took place. The North Korean map for example clearly displays the attacks which enhances the readers understanding.

Although the book is organized it mentions a lot of names and made it confusing for me to keep up with who was who and why they were significant making it at times a hard read and difficult to follow. He does however, accomplish his intent on writing which is not only to inform but to allow bringing something to the table and getting the reader thinking about the world around them. Stoessinger is consistent in his position that war can and should be avoided.

Unlike other historical books he does not try to persuade the reader to chose sides on the cases presented but instead shows how it began and the mistakes and triumphs made through out. Stoessinger has eight strong case studies with sufficient evidence to back them up. Not only are they up to date but anyone wishing to check if the evidence is reliable can simply check his notes and bibliographies provided after each chapter.

John Stoessinger attempts to discuss wars and how and why they took place and accelerated before coming to an end. However, his book was wordy and at times confusing he involves many aspects of war that are crucial to the exploration of the case; for instance in the Vietnam War where he discusses Harkins use of napalms and crop defoliation. But unless you know what those are you probably will not grasp the material and the point he is trying to make. Therefore I felt it was too technical.

I found myself having to do my own research to find out what he was talking about. I feel that because the book is very technical Stoessinger is very repetitive, but that is justifiable, how else would he get his point across? Although it is laid out nicely, makes very strong cases and gives the reader a chance to see the minds behind the wars rather than technical excuses that are often made, for example militarism, and economics, I did not like this book.

I will give it credit in that I did learn a lot from it and it has challenged my way of thinking in that I no longer see war as a pageant for nations but rather as a means for leaders to leave their mark on the world. Still, I can’t help criticizing the fact that because Stoessinger’s book is at times complicated and even confusing, he did not answer his question, “why nations go to war” clearly.

One profound remark that Stoessinger made was that “the black death that ravaged our planet centuries ago today is but a distant memory”(251) in order to suggest that war can become a thing of past if humans want it to be. However, as I read this book I noticed that many of the leaders mirrored others in the past.

For instance, Saddam mirrored Hitler and war tactics used resembled ones used in the past. The ethnic cleansing that took place in Kosovo had a chilling resemblance to the holocaust that took place years prior in Nazi Germany. This suggests to me that problems in history do not become abolished but rather they take on a new form.

The leaders and generals become wiser and more cunning; President George Bush refused to make the same mistakes that President Lyndon Johnson had made in Vietnam. However, “the human element is the crucial link in the fateful chain that leads to war” (212) and because of this I fear that history will continue to repeat itself.

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1 Comment
  1. itohan
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    nice piece

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