Brad DeLong has a rather interesting post on rational explanations for war!
While at some level he is right – in rich democracies people are not willing to kill others nor be killed over “the language of administration in Strassburg,” the fact that there are massive numbers of intrastate wars belies the fact that there remain those willing to fight even in such an “enlightened” age. He posts a number of examples of rational wars but almost all of their rationality have little to do with the explicit substance of the wars – territory. At least that is how he is selling them, yet if one reads them closely the logic is pretty sketchy. If the goal of a diversionary war – citing Shakespeare’s “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” – is to send away individuals whom a leader can identify, wouldn’t it be less costly to simply lock up the potential troublemakers rather than start a fight with another sovereign state? More fundamentally, I think that he misses the point that the control of the state is what can lead to different cultural beliefs. The would-be martyrs of the counter-Reformation if born today would not want to fight the same battles as they did in their time simply because they would have grown up with iPods and Nintendos, and more importantly multi-culturalism and tolerance and in the wake of the genocide of WWII. It is of course possible that if one event in history was removed the timeline’s change would be so different that nothing would be recognizable, but I think that this is beside the point. People fight for the power to control textbooks and histories and opportunity structures and wealth. If the price (in terms of deaths and the perceived costs of death) rises, as is the case since 1850 and especially 1945, then the demand for war will fall.
In previous posts he has made it clear that he fears that Iraq will fall into a civil war. As an economist, he believes that actors are rational, thus he should have to come to the conclusion that people are fighting over the right to control the territory. Other explanations are less interesting and less plausible.