The Five Secret Purposes of War

Excerpted from The Report From Iron Mountain.

Lasting peace, while not theoretically impossible, is probably unattainable; even if it could be achieved, it would almost certainly not be in the best interests of a stable society to achieve it.

That is the gist of The Report from Iron Mountain. Behind its qualified academic language runs this general argument: War fills certain functions essential to the stability of our society; until other ways of filling them are developed, the war system must be maintained—and improved in effectiveness.

The authors choose not to justify their work to “the lay reader, unexposed to the exigencies of higher political or military responsibility.” The Report was addressed, deliberately, to unnamed government administrators of high rank; it assumed considerable political sophistication from this select audience.

To the general reader, therefore, the substance of the document may be even more unsettling than its conclusions. He may not be prepared for some of its assumptions—for instance, that most medical advances are viewed more as problems than as progress; or that poverty is necessary and desirable, public postures by politicians to the contrary notwithstanding; or that standing armies are, among other things, social-welfare institutions in exactly the same sense as are old-people’s homes and mental hospitals…

In human terms, it is an outrageous document. But it does represent a serious and challenging effort to define an enormous problem. And it explains, or certainly appears to explain, aspects of American policy otherwise incomprehensible by the ordinary standards of common sense.

However disturbing the answers, only full and frank discussion offers any conceivable hope of solving the problems raised by the Special Study Group in their Report from Iron Mountain.

The Unimaginable Consequences of Peace

It is surely no exaggeration to say that a condition of general world peace would lead to changes in the social structures of the nations of the world of unparalleled and revolutionary magnitude. The economic impact of general disarmament, to name only the most obvious consequence of peace, would revise the production and distribution patterns of the globe to a degree that would make changes of the past fifty years seem insignificant…

We had originally planned, when our study was initiated, to address ourselves to these two broad questions and their components: What can be expected if peace comes? What should we be prepared to do about it? But as our investigation proceeded, it became apparent that certain other questions had to be faced. What, for instance, are the real functions of war in modern societies, beyond the ostensible ones of defending and advancing the “national interests” of nations?

Military “waste” provides the only critically large segment of the total economy that is subject to complete and arbitrary central control.

Granting that a “peaceful” settlement of disputes is within the range of current international relationships, is the abolition of war, in the broad sense, really possible? If so, is it necessarily desirable, in terms of social stability?

It is a truism that objectivity is more often an intention expressed than an attitude achieved, but the intention—conscious, unambiguous, and constantly self-critical—is a precondition to its achievement…there is no such precedent in [previously published] peace studies. Much of the usefulness of even the most elaborate and carefully reasoned programs for economic conversion to peace, for example, has been vitiated by a wishful eagerness to demonstrate that peace is not only possible, but even cheap or easy.

We have made a continuously self-conscious effort to deal with the problems of peace without, for example, considering that a condition of peace is per se “good” or “bad.”

War and Peace as Social Systems

We find that at the heart of every peace study we have examined lies one common fundamental misconception. It is the source of the miasma of unreality surrounding such plans. It is the incorrect assumption that war, as an institution, is subordinate to the social systems it is believed to serve.

Although war is “used” as an instrument of national and social policy, the fact that a society is organized for any degree of readiness for war supersedes its political and economic structure. War itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire. It is the system which has governed most human societies of record, as it is today.

The possibility of war provides the sense of external necessity without which no government can long remain in power.

Once this is correctly understood, the true magnitude of the problems entailed in a transition to peace—itself a social system, but without precedent except in a few simple preindustrial societies—becomes apparent. At the same time, some of the puzzling superficial contradictions of modern societies can then be readily rationalized. The “unnecessary” size and power of the world war industry; the preeminence of the military establishment in every society, whether open or concealed; the exemption of military or paramilitary institutions from the accepted social and legal standards of behavior required elsewhere in the society; the successful operation of the armed forces and the armaments producers entirely outside the framework of each nation’s economic ground rules: these and other ambiguities closely associated with the relationship of war to society are easily clarified, once the priority of warmaking as the principal structuring force in society is accepted.

It must be emphasized that the precedence of a society’s war-making potential over its other characteristics is not the result of the “threat” presumed to exist at any one time from other societies. This is the reverse of the basic situation; “threats” against the “national interest” are usually created or accelerated to meet the changing needs of the war system.

Wars are not “caused” by international conflicts of interest. Proper logical sequence would make it more often accurate to say that war-making societies require—and thus bring about—such conflicts.

The Secret Functions of Organized Warfare

The military, or ostensible, function of the war system requires no elaboration; it serves simply to defend or advance the “national interest” by means of organized violence.

The nonmilitary functions of the war system are more basic. They exist not merely to justify themselves but to serve broader social purposes. If and when war is eliminated, the military functions it has served will end with it. But its nonmilitary functions will not. It is essential, therefore, that we understand their significance before we can reasonably expect to evaluate whatever institutions may be proposed to replace them.

Report from Iron Mountain

These hidden functions—economic, political, sociological, cultural and ecological—are explained in The Report From Iron Mountain. While the report’s true author is a matter of dispute, its arguments are not.


  1. I agree with you Rick and your comment seems to me to be the logical foundation of the book, Pacifism as Pathology. Simply, going out and just letting your head get severely beat in, either literally or figuratively, is not going to help much in your own survival (or those close).

    This selection did give me pause to think about what always astounds me in the news, unimpeded growth in defense budgets, esp. now when stuff is hitting the proverbial fan. One of Buckminster Fuller’s more germane observations about social systems is that we cannot afford to just complain, but to actively create a new system that supersedes the older, more corrupt one. The hope is that people will recognize “the emperor has no clothes” and join the newer ranks on their own accord. I move that this process will need to occur over and over again, and more importantly, with the non-Hegelian caveat that there might be no utopia ever. I think people in the transition town/permaculture movement are attempting to create this alternative and revolutionary system.

  2. Rick,
    I would go further to say that competition is nature–not just human nature. Nature is not “broken”, and does not need to be fixed by mankind.

    Many other species of animals, from primates to insects, fight wars. I say this not to excuse or glorify state warfare, but I suspect that it is here to stay.

    Pondering war as the natural state of affairs (rather than a temporary “disorder”) gives an interesting spin to individual martial arts. It really is the study of existence itself.

  3. Sydney,
    Isn’t it curious that Gandhi is remembered as a pacifist, rather than as a strategist?

  4. I think that Gandhi was a pacifist, and a strategist.
    India has a strong warrior caste tradition and Gandhi rejected this, people might label him this or that later, but his own contexts and lifestyle speak very clearly.
    You can compete with others, or you can do something harder and compete with yourself and approach self mastery. It takes more strength to not be competitive than to be competitive, We all have the same drives, some people indulge the violent in fantasy and attempt to justify it with bullshit rhetoric about being a samurai or a noble spiritual warrior. I find it wanting of any real power, strategy or nobility.
    Then again I abhor the idea of the warrior, it is a big social joke to me. Great for kids and adults who think they are some type of jedi master. I avoid teaching anything with real content to warrior and conflict oriented mentalities and I test them with provocation to gauge what their inner content is .

    There is just as much tolerance as intolerance in nature.
    There is just as much cooperation as there is conflict.
    We should not seek to justify our actions with empty rhetoric, but instead have a foundation for action, Gandhi knew his foundation and acted. he was a good brave and strong man, but no loathsome warrior or strategist.

    Most people I know who want to be warriors just repeat things they read and hear from people they think are what they want to be. I feel sorry for many of them.

  5. I should mention that I like strategy… that last line above about Gandhi was a bit disingenuous, to me a loathsome strategist is one whose goal is to defeat others, whereas a nobler cause is found in self conquest.

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