World war, but why?

Human history poses no question more profound than why nations go to war.

The retail violence of personal crime and individual aggression can be explained by everyday elements of greed, passion, pride and resentment, but the wholesale slaughter of organized war requires explanations of a different, deeper kind. Poets have offered answers; likewise prophets, playwrights, historians and anthropologists. Yet the mystery remains. Why do we engage in collective homicide? Is war an aberration from the human norm, or is war the norm?

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., an emeritus English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and a co-founder of Algonquin Books, has written about war in essays and reviews published over the past 20 years. His new book, "The Summer the Archduke Died: On Wars and Warriors," reproduces several of these.

The most personal describes his Charleston childhood in the shadow of the Citadel and explains how the warrior mystique appeared to a boy imbued with the ethos of the Lost Cause. The mystique had to be modified, in Rubin's case, when the Marines rejected him after Pearl Harbor as physically unfit; he spent the war huddled over an Army typewriter. The Lost Cause yielded something to the postwar civil rights movement. But the sensibilities of that Charleston boy persisted, and they inform Rubin's writing even now, 70 years later.

The title essay of his new book examines the descent of Europe into war during the summer of 1914, and in it Rubin provides one answer to the question of why war happens: the diplomats did it. He ascribes the greatest conflict in modern history till then to "a catastrophic failure of statecraft, a collapse of leadership." It's hard not to agree with this, at any rate, regarding the war's origins. Diplomats of the great powers offered their allies guarantees that they hoped not to have to redeem; their reciprocal fear of stepping back from the brink and being seen as weak inexorably drove them all over the edge.

The larger issue, though -- the nut of the war question regarding that fateful summer -- is why their nations followed them. It is beyond the scope of Rubin's book to observe that for decades tens of millions of socialists across Europe had vowed not to follow their national leaders to war but rather to demonstrate transnational working-class solidarity by boycotting any clash among the capitalists. In the summer of 1914, however, these vows evaporated under the sun of nationalist patriotism. And during the next four years, the workers of Europe killed each other by the millions. When the bloodletting ended, few of the survivors could say quite why they had done it or what they had gained.

In a separate essay on World War I, Rubin cites a statement by the young Winston Churchill, to the effect that war is the natural state of mankind. Rubin adds: "On the evidence of the century just past, it would be difficult to quarrel with him. On the other hand, if there is any hope for the future it would appear to be in our being able to throttle those natural instincts -- a process which is known as civilization."

Here Rubin succumbs to the old fallacy that civilization is unnatural -- and more to the present point that war is uncivilized. The first mark of civilization may have been cities -- the two words derive from the same Latin root -- but the second mark was surely organized warfare, by which the more successful cities defended and extended their domains. Indeed, the more civilized the city -- and subsequently city-state, nation or empire -- the more effectively it waged war. Social Darwinists of the late 19th century built a whole theory, and a justification for war, on this connection.

Others of Rubin's essays treat different topics. One on the Battle of Jutland -- World War I's largest naval battle, fought between Germany and Britain -- probes what went wrong in the plans of the opposing admirals. A retrospective on Theodore Roosevelt, America's most prominent exponent of the glories of war, follows TR from the war he missed (the Civil War: too young) to the war that made his reputation (the Spanish-American War, in which he commanded the Rough Riders) to the war that might have made him a truly great president, had he won the election of 1912 (World War I). A piece on women of the English aristocracy explains what war did to them and their class.

Where does all leave us, on the war question? Rubin is a child of the great-war era in modern history; for his generation, born between the world wars, war might well seem the default setting of humanity. But what about those of us born after 1945, who have never experienced a general conflict? Are we perhaps liberated from the war obsession, and therefore better able than our forebears to avoid big wars? Or on the other hand, might we be growing forgetful of humanity's historic penchant for mass conflict, and hence more likely to stumble -- or leap -- into it? Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian of Rome's demise (effected in large part by war), was asked to comment on the lasting significance of that millennium-old event; Gibbon responded that it was too soon to tell. History's jury is similarly out on the era of the world wars and on the underlying war question.