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Economic Causes & Impact of War

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  • 0:01 Money and Might
  • 0:37 Economic Motivations
  • 1:34 Total War
  • 2:38 Total Production
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Ever wonder why people would even consider fighting a war? Sure, there are causes like liberty and religion, but it may frighten you to hear just how many wars have been fought over money, land, and economics.

Money and Might

While it sounds jaded to say, money and might tend to go together. Today, this is especially true. It's hard to imagine a strong army without strong monetary backing. However, throughout history, economic realities have served as very substantial motivation for maintaining those large armies. Likewise, those economic realities are often dictated in no small part by the simple question of war or peace. In short, it's almost like that old question about the chicken and the egg; which came first, war or economics?

Economic Motivations

To be fair, practically every war ever fought has a significant economic element to it. Think back to the wars of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Greeks, and you will find that they were often fighting over land. Land could be developed for economic purposes but more precisely, land could be taxed. Other times, the stated point was money.

During the 16th century, the English had a de facto state of war with Spain during which privateers, or state-sanctioned pirates, were permitted to raid Spanish ships, bringing back silver from the New World. Even more recently, wars have been declared for largely economic reasons. Think past the racist propaganda of Hitler and the Nazis, and he was asking for living space, or more room to tax and develop economically. In the Cold War that followed, the West and the Soviet Block competed not only as political systems, but also as economic systems, set in opposition to each other.

Total War

From antiquity to the present day, sources leave material behind saying how devastating war is for a local economy. Rome salted the fields of Carthage to destroy its ability to plant anything in the future, hindering its economic potential. More recently, the term Total War has been used to define a situation in which war is waged not only against an army, but also its economic means.

General Sherman destroyed part of the Confederacy's ability to wage war on his 'March to the Sea,' as his men turned railway tracks into pretzel shapes. Likewise, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Sadam Hussein set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells, so as to deprive the country of the ability to make 90% of its yearly budget.

It's not always the invader with an eye to Total War, by the way. While withdrawing ahead of the German army, Soviet troops in 1941-1942 laid waste to their own countryside, even burning crops meant for their own people, so as to be sure that the invading Germans would gain no use from them.

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