Prior to about twenty years ago, wars could almost always be understood as depressingly rational events perceived by instigators as being in their own self interests. Certain recent wars and other acts of organized violence are astonishing in that they seem to break this age old pattern. A striking example is the series of awful confrontations in the former Yugoslavia.
If it was only an evil strongman, a Slobodan Milosevic, who instigated the bloodshed, events would have kept true to the old established pattern. Many a leader has instigated conflict, conjuring a demonized foreign or domestic enemy to rouse support and gain power. But that is not really what happened in this case of Yugoslavia. In the past, the demons were accused of posing a material threat. Hitler claimed the Jews had taken all the money, for example. Yes, he claimed they (we) were morally degenerate, etc., but that alone would perhaps not have roused a whole population to support war and genocide. The material rationale seemed indispensable.
By contrast, in Yugoslavia a large number of both middle level leaders and ordinary citizens, not limited to the Serbs or another single group, rather suddenly decided to knowingly lower their immediate standard of living, their material prospects for the foreseeable future, their security, and their effective long term options and freedoms in order to reinforce a sense of ethnic identity. This is remarkably unusual. While ethnic, religious, and regional movements have throughout history sought political independence, they have almost never before resorted to large scale violence unless economic or some other form of material degradation was a critical motivation. Had the English Crown been more generous in the matter of taxation, for instance, he might well have held on to the American Colonies.
It is often pointed out that the cultural context for conflict in the Balkans is extraordinarily old and entrenched, but there are awful psychic wounds in collective memory all over the world. There are plenty of individuals who might under other circumstances be drawn once again into conflict over the proper placement of the border between Germany and Poland, for example, but there is absolutely no material incentive at this time to make an issue of it, and every material incentive to live with the situation as it is.
Similarly, if an uninformed, uneducated population had burst into violent conflict on the basis of bizarre beliefs that the enemy posed a serious threat of some kind, perhaps abducting children to drink their blood, then that would have kept to the historical pattern as well. Neither Von Clausewitz nor any other theorist of war has claimed that war has always in fact been in the self interest of perpetrators, only that it was perceived to be so. But Yugoslavia was a nation that was relatively prosperous, well educated, and informed. Yugoslav society was not closed or controlled to the extent of other contemporary nations formed upon related ideologies. There were relatively open borders and extensive commerce, tourism, and cultural contact with the West.
And Yugoslavia was not Germany between the wars. Yugoslavs were not humiliated or frustrated relative to other populations across their borders. The material conditions were critically different. There was no sense of hopeless economic disintegration, no reason to think, "Even war would be better than this, or at least a risk worth taking."
Before Yugoslavia, war famously spared nations blessed with Macdonald's hamburger franchises. The comforting common wisdom was that economic interdependence reduced the threat of war. Economic globalism was supposed to remove the material incentives from making war, and it indeed it probably has done that.
In former Yugoslavia, an upwelling of need for absolute identity trumped rational, material self interest. This phenomenon can also perhaps be seen in some instances in the rise of Islamic militancy. The recent rise of violent events perpetrated in the name of "traditional" identities, values, and beliefs is startling. Once again, such violence has always existed, but almost always before it has been coupled with a component of material motivation. The Biblical Israelites were enslaved and subjected economic abuse, for example. The fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics seek no improved material prospects. Neither do the Taliban. Or the bombers of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
In all these cases, identity has become more important than wealth, and that is new.
Another possible explanation that haunts me is that the human spirit cannot cope with the changes technology makes to human identity. This can be as simple as MTV blasting into the lives of children who otherwise would never have known the meaning of spandex, piercing, or whatever is in fashion on a particular day. Any thinking person, though, must know that the changes to the human condition wrought by such technologies as MTV, or even abortion and birth control, are mere whispers compared to the roar of changes that will soon come to pass.