Book Review: Why War? by Christopher Coker

By Peter van den Dungen, World BEYOND War, January 23, 2022

Book Review: Why War? by Christopher Coker, London, Hurst, 2021, 256 pp., £20 (Hardback), ISBN 9781787383890

A short, sharp answer to Why War? that female readers may put forward is ‘because of men!’ Another answer could be ‘because of views expressed in books like this!’ Christopher Coker refers to ‘the mystery of war’ (4) and asserts that ‘Humans are inescapably violent’ (7); ‘War is what makes us human’ (20); ‘We will never escape war because there are limits to how far we can put our origins behind us’ (43). Although Why War? immediately calls to mind the similarly titled correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud,1 published in 1933 by the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, Coker does not refer to it. There is no mention either of C. E. M. Joad’s Why War? (1939). Joad’s view (different from Coker’s) was boldly stated on the cover of this 1939 Penguin Special: ‘My case is that war is not something that is inevitable, but is the result of certain man-made circumstances; that man can abolish them, as he abolished the circumstances in which plague flourished’. Equally puzzling is the absence of a reference to a classic on the subject, Kenneth N. Waltz’s Man, the State and War ([1959] 2018). This pre-eminent theorist of international relations approached the question by identifying three competitive ‘images’ of war, locat- ing the problem in essential features of the individual, the state, and the inter- national system, respectively. Waltz concluded, like Rousseau before him, that wars between states happen because there is nothing to prevent them (contrast- ing the relative peace within nation-states thanks to central government, with the anarchy prevailing among them because of the absence of a system of global governance). Since the 19th century, the growth of state interdependence as well as the increasing destructiveness of war have resulted in attempts to reduce the incidence of war by instituting structures of global governance, notably the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I and the United Nations following World War II. In Europe, century-old schemes to overcome war were finally realized (at least in part) in the process that resulted in the European Union and that has inspired the emergence of other regional organizations. Rather puzzling for a recently retired professor of international relations at the LSE, Coker’s explanation of war ignores the role of the state and the deficiencies of international governance and only considers the individual.

He finds that the work of the Dutch ethologist, Niko Tinbergen (‘of whom you are unlikely to have heard’) – ‘the man who watched seagulls’ (Tinbergen [1953] 1989), who was intrigued by their aggressive behaviour – offers the best way to provide an answer to Why War? (7). References to the behaviour of a great variety of animals appear throughout the book. Yet, Coker writes that war is unknown in the animal world and that, quoting Thucydides, war is ‘the human thing’. The author follows ‘The Tinbergen Method’ (Tinbergen 1963) which consists of asking four questions about behaviour: what are its origins? what are the mechanisms which allow it to flourish? what is its ontogeny (historical evolution)? and what is its function? (11). A chapter is devoted to each of these lines of enquiry with a concluding chapter (the most interesting one) addressing future developments. It would have been more appropriate and fruitful if Coker had taken note of the work of Niko’s brother Jan (who shared the first Nobel prize in economics in 1969; Niko shared the prize in physiology or medicine in 1973). If Coker has heard of one of the world’s foremost economists who was an advisor to the League of Nations in the 1930s and a strong advocate of world government, there is no mention of it. Jan’s long and illustrious career was devoted to helping to change society, including the prevention and abolition of war. In his co-authored book, Warfare and welfare (1987), Jan Tinbergen argued the inseparability of welfare and secur- ity. The Network of European Peace Scientists has named its annual conference after him (20th edition in 2021). It is also pertinent to point out that Niko Tinbergen’s colleague, the distinguished ethologist and zoologist Robert Hinde, who served in the RAF during World War II, was president of both the British Pugwash Group and the Movement for the Abolition of War.

Coker writes, ‘There is a specific reason I have written this book. In the Western world, we don’t prepare our children for war’ (24). This claim is questionable, and while some would concur and judge this a failure, others would retort, ‘just as well – we should educate for peace, not war’. He draws attention to cultural mechanisms which contribute to the persistence of war and asks, ‘Haven’t we been trying to disguise the ugliness of war . . . and isn’t that one of the factors that drives it? Don’t we still anaesthetise ourselves to death by employing euphe- misms such as “the Fallen”?’ (104). Quite so, but he seems reluctant to concede that such factors are not immutable. Coker himself may not be wholly blameless when he asserts, ‘there is no taboo against war. There is no injunction to be found against it in the Ten Commandments’ (73) – implying that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not apply to killing in war. For Harry Patch (1898–2009), the last British surviving soldier of World War I, ‘War is organised murder, and nothing else’2; for Leo Tolstoy, ‘soldiers are murderers in uniform’. There are several references to War and Peace (Tolstoy 1869) but none to his later, very different writings on the subject (Tolstoy 1894, 1968).

On painting, another cultural mechanism that Coker considers, he comments: ‘Most artists . . . never saw a battlefield, and therefore never painted from first- hand experience . . . their work remained safely devoid of anger or rage, or even basic sympathy for the victims of war. They rarely chose to speak out on behalf of those who have remained voiceless down the ages’ (107). This is indeed another factor contributing to the drive to war which, however, is also subject to change and whose implications, again, he ignores. Moreover, he overlooks the works of some of the greatest painters of modern times such as the Russian Vasily Vereshchagin. William T. Sherman, the American commander of the Union troops during the US Civil War, proclaimed him ‘the greatest painter of the horrors of war that ever lived’. Vereshchagin became a soldier so as to know war from personal experience and who died on board a battleship during the Russo-Japanese War. In several countries, soldiers were forbidden to visit exhibitions of his (anti-) war paintings. His book on Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign (Verestchagin 1899) was prohibited in France. Mention must also be made of Iri and Toshi Maruki, the Japanese painters of the Hiroshima panels. Is there a more poignant expression of anger or rage than Picasso’s Guernica? Coker refers to it but does not mention that the tapestry version that until recently was displayed in the UN building in New York was (in)famously covered up in February 2003, when US Secretary of State Colin Powell argued the case for war against Iraq.3

Although Coker writes that it was only with World War I that artists painted scenes ‘that should have discouraged anyone who had thought of joining the colours’ (108), he is silent on the various mechanisms used by state authorities to prevent such discouragement. They include the censorship, banning and burning of such works – not only, for example, in Nazi–Germany but also in the US and the UK up to the present time. The lying, suppression, and manipulation of the truth, before, during and after war is well documented in classical exposés by, e.g. Arthur Ponsonby (1928) and Philip Knightly ([1975] 2004) and, more recently, in The Pentagon Papers (Vietnam War),4 The Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot) Report,5 and Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers (Whitlock 2021). Likewise, from the beginning, nuclear weapons have been surrounded by secrecy, censorship and lies, including the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Evidence of it could not be shown on its 50th anniversary in 1995 in a major exhibition that had been planned in the Smithsonian in Washington DC; it was cancelled and the museum director fired for good measure. Early films of the destruction of the two cities were confiscated and repressed by the US (see, e.g. Mitchell 2012; also see the review by Loretz [2020]) while the BBC banned the showing on television of The War Game, a film it had commissioned about the effect of dropping a nuclear bomb on London. It decided not to broadcast the film for fear it was likely to strengthen the anti-nuclear weapons movement. Courageous whistle-blowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been prosecuted and punished for their exposure of official deceit, of crimes of wars of aggression, and of war crimes.

As a child, Coker liked playing with toy soldiers and as an adolescent was an avid participant in war games. He volunteered for the school cadet force and enjoyed reading about the Trojan War and its heroes and warmed to the bio- graphies of great generals such as Alexander and Julius Caesar. The latter was ‘one of the greatest slave raiders of all time. After campaigning for seven years he returned to Rome with one million prisoners in tow who were sold into slavery, thereby . . . making him a billionaire overnight’ (134). Throughout history, war and warriors have been associated with adventure and excitement, as well as glory and heroism. The latter views and values have traditionally been conveyed by state, school and church. Coker does not mention that the need for a different kind of education, of hero and of history was argued already 500 years ago (when war and weapons were primitive in comparison with today) by leading humanists (and critics of state, school and church) such as Erasmus and Vives who were also founders of modern pedagogy. Vives attached great importance to the writing and teaching of history and criticized its corruptions, asserting ‘It would be truer to call Herodotus (who Coker repeatedly refers to as a good teller of war stories) the father of lies than of history’. Vives also objected to praising Julius Caesar for sending so many thousands of men to violent death in war. Erasmus was a severe critic of Pope Julius II (another admirer of Caesar who, as pope, adopted his name) who reputedly spent more time on the battlefield than in the Vatican.

No mention is made of the many vested interests associated with, and stimulating, war, first and foremost the military profession, arms manufacturers and arms traders (a.k.a. ‘merchants of death’). A famous and much-decorated American soldier, Major General Smedley D. Butler, argued that War is a Racket (1935) in which the few profit and the many pay the costs. In his farewell address to the American people (1961), President Dwight Eisenhower, another highly decorated US army general, prophetically warned of the dangers of a growing military-industrial complex. The way in which it is involved in decision-making leading to war, and in its conduct and reporting, is well documented (including in the publications referred to above). There are many convincing case studies which illuminate the origins and nature of several contemporary wars and which provide clear and disturbing answers to the question Why War? The behaviour of seagulls seems to be an irrelevancy. Such evidence-based case studies form no part of Coker’s investigation. Strikingly absent from the numeri- cally impressive bibliography of ca. 350 titles is the scholarly literature on peace, conflict resolution and war prevention. Indeed, the word ‘peace’ is virtually absent from the bibliography; a rare reference occurs in the title of Tolstoy’s famous novel. The reader is thus left ignorant of findings on the causes of war as a result of peace research and peace studies which emerged in the 1950s out of a concern that war in the nuclear age threatened the survival of humanity. In Coker’s idiosyncratic and confusing book, references to a wide range of literature and films jostle the page; disparate elements being thrown into the mix make for a chaotic impression. For instance, no sooner is Clausewitz introduced then Tolkien appears (99–100); Homer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf (among others) are called upon in the next few pages.

Coker does not consider that we may have wars because ‘the world is over- armed and peace is underfunded’ (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon). Or because we are still guided by the ancient (and discredited) dictum, Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war). Could it be because the language we use hides the reality of war and is cloaked in euphemisms: ministries of war have become ministries of defence, and now security. Coker does not (or only in passing) address these issues, all of which can conceivably be regarded as contributing to the persistence of war. It is war and warriors that dominate history books, monuments, museums, names of streets and squares. Recent developments and movements for the decolonization of the curriculum and of the public arena, and for racial and gender justice and equality, also need to be extended to the demilitarization of society. In this way, a culture of peace and non-violence can gradually replace a deeply rooted culture of war and violence.

When discussing H. G. Wells and other ‘fictional iterations of the future’, Coker writes, ‘Imagining the future, of course doesn’t mean creating it’ (195–7). However, I. F. Clarke (1966) has argued that sometimes tales of future warfare raised expectations which ensured that, when war did come, it would be more violent than otherwise would have been the case. Also, imagining a world without war is an essential (although insufficient) precondition for bringing it about. The importance of this image in shaping the future has been convin- cingly argued, e.g., by E. Boulding and K. Boulding (1994), two peace research pioneers some of whose work was inspired by Fred L. Polak’s The Image of the Future (1961). A blood-curdling image on the cover of Why War? says it all. Coker writes, ‘Reading really does make us different people; we tend to view life more positively . . . reading an inspiring war novel makes it more likely that we can hang on to the idea of human goodness’ (186). This seems an odd way to inspire human goodness.


  1. Why War? Einstein to Freud, 1932, why-war-letter-albert-einstein-sigmund-freud Freud to Einstein, 1932, https://
  2. Patch and Van Emden (2008); Audiobook, ISBN-13: 9781405504683.
  3. For reproductions of the works of the painters mentioned, see War and Art edited by Joanna Bourke and reviewed in this journal, Vol 37, No. 2.
  4. Pentagon papers:
  5. The Iraq Enquiry (Chilcot):


Boulding, E., and K Boulding. 1994. The Future: Images and Processes. 1000 Oaks, California: Sage Publishing. ISBN: 9780803957909.
Butler, S. 1935. War is a Racket. 2003 reprint, USA: Feral House. ISBN: 9780922915866.
Clarke, I. F. 1966. Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Joad, C.E.M. 1939. Why War? Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Knightly, P. [1975] 2004. The First Casualty. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN: 9780801880308.
Loretz, John. 2020. Review of Fallout, the Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter who Revealed it to the World, by Lesley M. M. Blume. Medicine, Conflict and Survival 36 (4): 385–387. doi:10.1080/13623699.2020.1805844
Mitchell, G. 2012. Atomic Cover-up. New York, Sinclair Books.
Patch, H., and R Van Emden. 2008. The Last Fighting Tommy. London: Bloomsbury.
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Ponsonby, A. 1928. Falsehood in War-time. London: Allen & Unwin.
Tinbergen, Jan, and D Fischer. 1987. Warfare and Welfare: Integrating Security Policy into Socio-Economic Policy. Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books.
Tinbergen, N. [1953] 1989. The Herring Gull’s World: A Study of the Social Behaviour of Birds, New Naturalist Monograph M09. new ed. Lanham, Md: Lyons Press. ISBN: 9781558210493. Tinbergen, N. 1963. “On Aims and Methods of Ethology.” Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20: 410–433. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1963.tb01161.x.
Tolstoy, L. 1869. War and Peace. ISBN: 97801404479349 London: Penguin.
Tolstoy, L. 1894. The Kingdom of God is within You. San Francisco: Internet Archive Open Library Edition No. OL25358735M.
Tolstoy, L. 1968. Tolstoy’s Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence. London: Peter Owen. Verestchagin, V. 1899. “1812” Napoleon I in Russia; with an Introduction by R. Whiteing. 2016 available as Project Gutenberg e-book. London: William Heinemann.
Waltz, Kenneth N. [1959] 2018. Man, the State, and War, A Theoretical Analysis. revised ed. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN: 9780231188050.
Whitlock, C. 2021. The Afghanistan Papers. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781982159009.

Peter van den Dungen
Bertha Von Suttner Peace Institute, The Hague
This article has been republished with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic content of the article.
© 2021 Peter van den Dungen

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