I'm more of a social historian than military historian, but if I understand correctly war between two factions is almost always a struggle for power.

Is that the case? Are there examples of wars started for other reasons?


There were some comments about the vagueness of the term power so I'm going to try to be more specific about it. By 'struggle for power', I mean:

  • a struggle for more energy, as in actual physical energy in some form

I understand that this sounds even more vague than the term power itself, but that's exactly the point of the question. I wonder if you can reduce human conflict to power conflict.

  • 3
    Exactly what do you mean by "power"? It is a term so vague that any motive for war could be framed as some form of "power struggle".
    – Mike L.
    Apr 3 '15 at 13:57
  • Power: 1) political or national strength 2) the possession of control or command over others; authority; ascendancy: 3) great or marked ability to do or act; strength; might; force Pretty specific term, actually. Apr 3 '15 at 14:03
  • 1
    One theory is that in Malthusian terms since you cannot produce more land, war is always about grabbing land to increase productivity. Nowadays of course land could be translated as other resources as well, such as oil.
    – Rajib
    Apr 3 '15 at 14:50
  • @CanadianCoder Not really, no. Is raiding someone for loot "power"? Forcing them to convert to your religion or system of government? What do you mean by "strength", "control", or "act"?
    – Mike L.
    Apr 3 '15 at 14:53
  • 1
    It might be more illuminating if you try to phrase this question in terms of counterexamples. What kind of motivations would, in your estimation, not count as "power" (or "physical energy" in the edit)?
    – Semaphore
    Apr 3 '15 at 18:01

When I was in college during the last millennium, there was a standard text on this. I believe it was "Why Nations Go to War" by Stoessinger; things may have changed in the new millennium. IO9 provides a traditional top 10 list, which is worth what you pay for it.

As the comments have pointed out "power" is a weasely word that can be construed to mean anything- kind of like the ultimate cause of death is heart failure, it is fair to retro-fit "power" to any conflict.

You've also used the term "factions" rather than "nations"; I'm not sure why, but let's assume that you want to include civil wars.

And finally, why people go to war is often not the reasons they state. The grade school narrative today is that the US Civil War was about slavery, but I think a responsible historical analysis would have to include conflicts that began before the Constitutional convention and that might include differing economic systems (and mutual contempt for one another's economic systems), differing alliances (and mutual contempt thereof), differing agendas (and mutual contempt), etc. Culture, tradition, and isolation all played a part; fundamentally they had divergent, incompatible visions for the future. If I wanted to, I can make the argument that the two factions went to war over the power to determine their own futures, but I don't think that would help me to understand why these two factions went to war.

The other weakness with the "power" thesis is that it doesn't help us to predict. What was it that finally forced faction X over the edge from resistance and debate to war? There are endless pages written on the significance of the Archduke Ferdinand to the start of WWI. (I don't know if it is true, but I'm told more people went to the assassin's funeral than the Archduke's.)

Matter of fact, WWI might be the counterexample you're looking for. I think the general consensus (with much debate) is that none of the players wanted war, but they all made commitments that wound up making it easier to participate in war than to avoid war. From that standpoint, WWI was not about power.

The Revolutionary war would be another good case study; neither side wanted a war. Neither side wanted "power". You could force fit the situation to claim that the Colonials wanted the power of self-determination and Parliament wanted the power of taxation, but I don't think that is a useful framework.

OP has edited the question to emphasize power as "energy" - energy was not involved in the start of any of the three wars I've discussed. (the case for backfitting energy into the any of these is even weaker than the case for power).

Final comment; there are an infinite number of analytic frameworks one can use to study history. The measure of a good analytical framework is not whether you can or cannot fit examples to the theory, but rather whether the framework improves the understanding. Does it have predictive power? does it help to isolate the critical factors from other factors which are present?

I doubt that either "power" or "energy" provide these properties.

  • Nice answer. Although, I think that the concept of power is definitely predictive. The question isn't whether it's predictive, but whether it's predictive with complete accuracy, and what the other factors are. Apr 4 '15 at 0:10
  • WWI wasn't so much about nobody wanted or not wanted the war, it was about "Germans couldn't afford to shoot second, so they HAD to shoot first" (basically, to pre-empt Russian mobilization and entry into Eastern front before Germany knocked out France).
    – DVK
    Apr 14 '15 at 18:29

Treaties sometimes obligate nations to go to war. One example is the Theater War between Denmark-Norway and Sweden in 1788. Sweden made an unprovoked attack on Russia. Russia began to demand that Denmark-Norway to invade Sweden, as was stipulated in a 1773 treaty.

By the time a statement of neutrality had been issued, several thousand soldiers had died. This war had no real effect on the balance of power between the two combatants; the war was really just about Denmark-Norway honoring the terms of its treaty with Russia.

Of course, why had Denmark-Norway signed this treaty with Russia in the first place? Well, that certainly had something to do with power. It's an issue of ultimate versus proximate causes.

There are also those who consider some wars to be domestic diversions. However, even if domestic concerns were something of a factor in the decision to go to war, it would be hard to believe that power considerations were irrelevant to the decision as well.

  • Even the example you give could be construed to have been 'power' based. Russia used its diplomatic 'power' to enforce the treaty. If it didn't have some form of power backing it, then Denmark and Norway could have (diplomatically) said lump it.
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 3 '15 at 16:58
  • @CGCampbell: Reputation is relevant here. If Denmark-Norway says "lump it," then other countries would take Denmark-Norway's word less seriously in the future. So Russia doesn't necessarily enter into the equation. But I don't know enough about the case at hand to say whether the explanation here is more reputation or power.
    – two sheds
    Apr 3 '15 at 17:58

In one of the pacific islands colonized by the Germans, one tribesmen accidentally killed a member of another tribe at a wedding with guests from all the appox 12 tribes on the island. The result was an every tribe v. Every other tribe in a 10 year civil war until the Germans kidnapped all the chiefs and threatened to kill them until there was peace. The civil war was not about one tribe conquering the other but soley about rrvenge .

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.