Why War Isn't Inevitable: A Science Writer Studies the Secret to Peaceful Societies

As the drumbeats for war with Iran reach bellicose heights, a new book argues that waging war is not an innate part of our nature.

Photo Credit: AFP/File - Staff Sgt. Antonieta Rico

When President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he expressed a well-worn notion about warfare: "[W]ar is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings." Today, as the drumbeats for war with Iran once again reach bellicose heights, a timely new book argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, waging war is not an innate part of human nature.

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In The End of War, veteran science journalist John Horgan applies the scientific method to reach a unique conclusion: biologically speaking, we are just as likely to be peaceful as we are to be violent. So what keeps humans bound by a seemingly never-ending cycle of war?

In a phone interview with AlterNet from his home in New York's Hudson Valley -- situated within earshot of the mortars and howitzers at West Point Military Academy's artillery range -- Horgan dispelled multiple myths about the impetus for war, the combination of which, he believes, sustains the institution of war despite rational thought and an overwhelming human aversion to killing. A longtime Scientific American writer and director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, Horgan also charts a new course for rejecting the old paradigm of war's inevitability and finally releasing mankind from its destructive grip.

Brad Jacobson: Was there an overriding factor that drove you to write this book?

John Horgan: Yeah, it was my discovery that started right after the U.S. invasion of Iraq: the vast majority of people, both American and people around the world, believe that war is a permanent part of the human condition. That we've always fought wars and we always will. I have surveyed thousands of people on this issue now, young and old. I ask people this question: Do you think war will ever end? And usually between 80 and 90 percent of the time people say, "No, war will never end. We're always going to have wars of some kind or other." And when I would ask people why they were so pessimistic, they would give me a range of reasons. Often it would be, "War is part of human nature." "War is in our genes." Or it would be an environmental explanation: war comes from the tendency of humans to overpopulate different regions, leading to a competition for resources.

There have been other surveys of people's attitudes toward war going back to the 1980s. I cited those in my book, too. And those found quite a bit of pessimism, but not nearly as much as I found over the last seven to eight years.

So I wrote the book basically to rebut this extremely pessimistic point of view, which is also held by people at the highest levels of power. I quote Barack Obama right at the beginning of my book. At the fucking Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, he's giving this incredibly pessimistic and wrong view of warfare as dating all the way back to the origin of humanity. And that leads him to say, "Let's face it, we're not going to eradicate war in our lifetimes." Even if you believe that, I think it's awful for our leader, especially someone like Barack Obama, whom I voted for in part because I thought he would not be a hawkish president and get us out of these terrible wars we've been in recently. Even if he is personally pessimistic, I want vision from him, especially when he's accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. How about a vision of a world without war instead of saying this is just the way it is and you have to accept it?

BJ: Didn't he also receive the Nobel just days after calling for a troop buildup in Afghanistan?

JH: That's right. When he was in Oslo, Norway, where he accepted the Peace Prize, this was about nine days after he had announced that he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

BJ: You also cite another line from Obama's Nobel acceptance speech, which you dispel in your book: "War in one form or another appeared with the first man." Why do you think this belief has become such entrenched conventional wisdom?

JH: That's a good question. I have been tracking the anthropology of war literature since the late 1980s. And since then, this view that war is really ancient and innate has become dominant in science. There's a group of scientists at Harvard, in particular, starting with Edward Wilson, also Richard Wrangham, Steven Pinker, Steven LeBlanc. Very influential, very smart, respected scientists who've been repeatedly putting out this idea that war, as Obama said, is at least as old as humans, and might even be older and go back millions of years to the common ancestor with chimpanzees. That theory is now accepted and has seeped down to the level of the general population. I hear it all the time. I see it cited in all sorts of popular books about human nature, human psychology, as well as about aggression and warfare.

And I think that really, as a scientific hypothesis, has a lot to do with people's pessimism these days. In addition to a more obvious reason, which would be that over the last decade we've had 9/11, followed by two very serious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the war on terror. So I think this bad scientific theory has a lot to do with people's pessimism, which is why I devote a chunk of my book to rebutting that.

BJ: I found it fascinating that you not only show in the book that humans are as equally genetically related to chimpanzees as they are to peace-loving bonobos, but also you debunk the idea that chimpanzees are necessarily innately violent to begin with.

JH: And not just violent to begin with, which they can be. The claim is more specific than that: that chimps in one group band together and raid chimps from another group. Usually it's just ambushing one or two. In most cases, it's just finding a little baby and ripping it apart.

What I found when I looked at the literature carefully is we're talking about a very small number of these incidents over the past few decades. Depending on how you count them, just a couple of dozen. And you have literally hundreds of years of human observations, if you count individual scientists watching individual troupes [of chimpanzees], but which has accumulated just a handful of these troupe raids that lead to deaths. Even anthropologist Richard Wrangham -- who's sort of the chief proponent of this idea that human warfare and chimpanzee warfare are very similar -- says that this is very rare behavior. And Jane Goodall has suggested that this behavior might be a response to changes in the way that chimps behave as a result of the encroachment of humans on their habitat, even as a result, for example, of Goodall herself putting out bananas and so forth.

So, you know, you've got this really dramatic, consequential claim about human nature and about war, this great scourge of humanity, based on really flimsy evidence. I mean I have great respect for Steve Pinker and Ed Wilson and even Richard Wrangham. But they should know better than to be putting out this theory as fact when the facts do not support it.

BJ: If humans are as genetically related to bonobos as we are to chimpanzees, why isn't that cited more often in discussions on the human impetus for war?

JH: Well, you know, bonobos are getting a lot of press lately. Peaceniks love to cite them, especially peaceniks who think that humans are innately pacifistic and gentle. Actually, I cite the bonobos research to counter all the chimp stuff. But really I think all of that is pretty much irrelevant. We really should be forgetting about the chimpanzee and bonobos stuff -- that might've evolved very recently. The way that chimps or bonobos act now might have nothing to do with what was happening millions of years ago with the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.

The literature that I think is really significant from this question about the origins of war concerns the first appearance of war in the archeological record. The point I make in my book is that, in spite of what is often said about war being very ancient going back to the beginning of humanity, as Obama said, war is quite recent. The oldest evidence for war is 12,000 years ago and even that is kind of an outlier. Really all the evidence for war starts about 10,000 years ago. And war seems to have emerged independently in various parts of the world and then rapidly spread.

So this is a cultural innovation that happened actually quite late. It happened after -- well after -- the invention of complex tools, the invention of cooking, after we see evidence for religion, after the emergence of art and music. War came after all those things, so in no way is it something that's an instinct or really deeply embedded in us. It's a very recent cultural innovation and it's not something that then became permanent in all human societies.

The fascinating thing about war, too, is that it emerges in some places and then it disappears. And some societies that were once extremely warlike can become peaceful, at least when it comes to group violence, for very long periods after that. Which again, undercuts the whole notion of war being this deeply engrained biological behavior.

BJ: So why does war happen?

JH: After biology, the next most common explanation is that war happens because humans tend to overbreed. We make too many copies of ourselves and then we start fighting over stuff -- water, game, land, women have been a source of conflict for fighting among men. Now we fight over oil and other strategic resources. After biology, this resource competition theory is by far the most common explanation of war. And often the two are combined, biology plus resource competition.

The problem is it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. I look at the evidence for the resource scarcity argument and there are some wars where there are clearly some fights over resources, over oil or land or whatever. But there are many wars that aren't. And the fascinating thing about war that a lot of people fail to understand is that war can arise for almost an infinite variety of reasons. Wars happen because maybe you just got some charismatic sociopath who convinces people in his tribe to go and kick the asses of the tribe next door. And when that happens, you have this new behavior that emerges that rapidly spreads. What does that neighboring tribe do if it's attacked by the one led by this sociopath? It either has to run away or it has to fight in self-defense. That's what makes war so insidious.

War really should be seen as a meme, as a self-perpetuating idea or behavior that becomes very persistent and deep-rooted once it emerges in a given region. And I think you can see the evidence of that over the last decade. What have been the motives behind the wars that have happened starting with 9/11? We invaded Afghanistan because we were attacked on 9/11. That was a war of vengeance. We were trying to get the guys who did it to us. The same with the invasion of Iraq. And if you didn't think Iraq was revenge for 9/11, well, it was because Saddam Hussein was threatening us. We thought he had weapons. So fear of war, in that case, caused us to launch a preemptive attack.

Now you've got the case of Iran, the drums of war are beating again. Why is that? Is it over resource competition? No, not at all. It's because we think Iran is going to attack us because they're building nuclear weapons. And of course Iran, if it is interested in nuclear weapons, is interested in them because they think we're going to attack them or Israel is going to attack them. So I think you see clear evidence even right now, if you look around the world, as war as something that perpetuates itself apart from any other causes or factors.

BJ: If the acceptance of war's inevitability is largely a meme, an idea that self-perpetuates in a culture, how do societies counter that?

JH: Yeah, Jesus, it's a good question. I think we have already seen over the last century a sea-change in popular attitudes toward war. If you go back before World War I, you can find a lot of people, prominent intellectuals and political leaders, who talked about war as something that was intrinsically good. As something that was worth doing for its own sake because it was good for the character of a nation. Teddy Roosevelt talked that way. And so did a lot of prominent intellectuals. Even [the psychologist] William James, who was a pacifist, granted that war can be very stimulating for character and marshal virtues that are admirable. All that kind of bullshit.

But the idea that war is just something that's good to do apart from any other higher goal of national purpose or so forth has really diminished. In part because the gigantic industrial scale of wars that we had with World War I and World War II, which really took a lot of the glamour out of war.

We still glorify the macho virtues of war in some ways. I think the number-one movie last week was the one about the Navy Seals who got Osama bin Laden. But it's not as deep-rooted as it once was. I feel as though there is so much exposure now to the real horrors of war, from the inevitable civilian casualties and so forth. I think morally overall people are more prepared to denounce war once and for all than they were at pretty much at any other time in recent human history.

BJ: Can you describe the implications of the fierce Amazonian tribe, the Waorani, on the ability of mankind to turn away from war?

JH: It was this tribe in Ecuadorian Amazon that was first studied more than 50 years ago by anthropologists and had extraordinary high rates of violence. They were higher than anything that had ever been measured. More than 50 percent of the population died violently, for the most part, in raids of one village on another. It had just always been that way. And of course, as I said, it becomes self-perpetuating. People in each village would be so fearful of everybody else that if you met somebody in the forest, you would immediately need to run away or you'd try to kill them. And they were constantly carrying out preemptive attacks on each other.

But they were smart enough to realize that this was crazy. It was unsustainable. But how do you get out? And these missionaries came up with an ingenious idea. They couldn't even have peace parleys because any people meeting together from different villages would be worried that the other guy would pull out a spear and stab them. And so the missionaries came up with this ingenious idea of arranging negotiations by flying a plane over each other's camps to first deliver conciliatory messages. By having people from one village vowing to the other, "Hey listen, we've got to stop fighting. What do you say?" And this gradually led to a truce. And this extremely violent society became, not completely non-violent, to be honest, but much less violent. And especially, these rates of group attacks started diminishing in frequency.

It again shows the self-perpetuating nature of war and also the ability of people collectively to come together and say -- apart from any other conditions of the society like political, demographic, or economic factors -- "We don't want to do this anymore so let's stop. It's stupid. "

And of course we've seen examples of this among very sophisticated modern states. Switzerland and Sweden both about 200 years ago decided that war was stupid and they stopped fighting. They are prepared vigorously to defend themselves. They have an army. But they haven't been involved in any war in combat.

One of my favorite examples is Costa Rica, which in the 1940s went through a terrible civil war in which the army turned against the people. After the war was over, the victors, who were very progressive, especially in retrospect, said, "We never want this to happen again. Armies in this country seem only to cause trouble. So let's get rid of the standing army and invest those resources in education and infrastructure and tourism and so forth." And as you probably know, Costa Rica is in the middle of what has been over the last half century one of the most violent places in the world. It's right next to Nicaragua, near Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. And while war is raging all around it and terrible poverty, Costa Rica has thrived. And according to lots of so-called social happiness indexes, it's the happiest place on earth. And again, it was just something they decided to do.

Some people think that for war to end we have to first create a utopia. We have to first have complete social justice and economic equality and get rid of all poverty, have complete freedom and democracy and so forth. But actually I think things work the other way. First, you get rid of war and militarism, and then a lot of these other wonderful things can happen in part as a result of that. And I think that's what Costa Rica has shown.

BJ: You also debunk the notion of man as a natural warrior, exploring the overwhelming reluctance of soldiers in major wars, including the Civil War, World War I and World War II, to fire their guns directly at the enemy, even with a clear shot and when ordered by their superiors. It was definitely eye-opening to me.

JH: It was eye-opening to me, too. And I love the fact that the person who compiled these data is a guy named Dave Grossman, who is a Special Forces colonel and an instructor at West Point. He's a soldier and a real hard-ass. And he wrote this book called On Killing, which basically makes the case and presents massive data to show that far from being innate warriors who are just dying to kill people, the vast majority of men are extremely reluctant to kill other people. And this has been a real problem for soldiers in wars going very far back, including the Civil War, as you mentioned. There's some evidence from the Napoleonic War. There was a big survey done of U.S. combat veterans in World War II and it found that lots of guys who were infantrymen -- these are kind of the grunts in Word War II -- they were not firing at all or were firing away from the enemy. They did not want to kill someone.

As a result of that the Army was horrified and they completely revamped their training to boost the firing rates of combat soldiers. They did boost the rates in the Korean War and especially in the Vietnam War. But what Grossman said is that as a result there are higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, in Vietnam, because the soldiers were reacting in horror often to all the death they were meting out.

BJ: Weren't these types of tactics to ensure higher firing rates still employed by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan? And aren't they, then, continuing to lead to higher rates of PTSD?

Yeah. And so one of the things that's happened in modern warfare of course is that you're not shooting somebody 30 passes away as often anymore. Firing or killing has become even more automated. You have bombing. You have very long-range artillery and so forth. I mean that was true by WWII as well. But it's become even more true today. And of course now you have the ultimate remote killing machine, which is the drone. You got a guy sitting in an office in Nevada and he's pulling a trigger and blowing away a supposed terrorist in Yemen or Pakistan or Iraq. And what's interesting is that there have been all these reports that drone operators -- who are so far removed from actual bloodshed, and are completely removed from any danger to themselves -- are also experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Which, again, I think shows that most people are not natural warriors. It's not something that most people want to do.

It's true also of the origins of war if you go back many thousands of years to right up to the present. There's this wonderful anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who has presented evidence about how war, once it emerged in some of these very early tribal societies, became such an important part of culture that it had a profound impact on male and female roles and identities. And it was the emergence of war that led to male macho-ness, the male embrace of the kind of warrior identity and how being really tough and aggressive was the essence of being a man. It wasn't that males are intrinsically tough and aggressive and that's why war happens. It was more that the causality, according to Hrdy, was the other way around. War emerges and then the culture tries to elevate the martial virtues because war then becomes such an important part of the culture.

BJ: You cite Abu Ghraib and the actions of, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to them, a "few bad apples," the guards who were involved in torture and abuse of prisoners and portrayed in the media as natural born monsters. But you show how many people, including Rumsfeld, failed to either acknowledge or understand that most causal factors of cruelty in wartime settings most often stem not from individuals themselves but from the fact of being immersed in a wartime setting, surrounded by war's inherent brutality, bloodshed, fear and madness.

JH: So again we've been talking about the degree to which humans are biologically predisposed to hurt each other. So one of the questions is: Are there some people who are just bad apples or sociopathic or sadistic?

In the case of Abu Ghraib, this was a real question. Were the people who committed the abuse at Abu Ghraib just bad people, bad apples? There's this wonderful book written by a very prominent psychologist named Philip Zimbardo called The Lucifer Effect. He made a very good case that it's not bad apples who generally are responsible. There are bad apples out there, but almost all war crimes, abuse and atrocities and so forth, are a product of the environment of what he called the "bad barrel," of a situation that almost forces people to act violently and cruelly toward others.

Zimbardo did this really dramatic experiment in the 1970s, one of the most famous experiments in the history of social psychology, called the Stanford Prison Experiment, where he got a bunch of good, clean-cut Stanford students to pretend to be guards and prisoners in a fake prison in the basement of a Stanford building. And within a couple of days the guards were acting like absolute sadistic beasts to the prisoners, who were just other Stanford students. These weren't sociopaths. These were kids who were just playacting in the beginning but then quickly got into their roles so much that things really got of hand.

I think it's a very persuasive piece of evidence. You know, war is like the ultimate bad barrel. Once a war breaks out, then good, humane, decent people, in spite of themselves, often end up acting like absolute monsters. And it's not something innate. It's not something that's always there in their genes. It's something that's brought out by war itself.

BJ: What is the case for the very small percentage of people who enjoy killing or feel no compunction to kill as being the driving force of war throughout history?

JH: Well, this emerged from a study by a couple of psychiatrists after World War II of combat veterans. They found that the vast majority of people after continuous combat for 60 days basically go crazy. But a very small percent, about 2 percent, are having a great time.

There are some people who would say these natural-born killers or sociopaths are responsible for all war. And some of them end up being leaders, like Stalin and Hitler. Except that the evidence for that is not really good. You can't underestimate the degree to which these people actually do contribute to certain wars. Another case, for example, is the Rwanda genocide [where a small percentage of people actually carried out the majority of the killing].

But I think that when you look at the totality of war through history, including wars that are happening right now around the world, that explanation doesn't work very well. It's not like all the American soldiers who are volunteers now in Iraq and Afghanistan are sociopaths. War is more about conformity, or at least as much about conformity as it is about innate aggression and hostility.

Modern warfare is so disconnected from the kind of basic male aggression that leads to bar fights or hockey fights and that sort of thing. It really needs to be explained more by political, social and cultural factors. It's much more often that war turns people into sociopaths than sociopaths causing war.

BJ: What about the idea that if there were more women running countries then that would lead to the end of war?

JH: It has a lot of appeal and I kind of was favoring that for a while in the way that I thought if all nations were democratic, then there would be no war. The only problem is that there's so much counter-evidence. The United States has remained extraordinarily belligerent and militaristic even as women's rights have advanced. We haven't had a female president yet, but we've had some very powerful female figures in politics, including Hillary Clinton, who, as far as I can tell, is probably more hawkish than Barack Obama himself. And you also have somebody like Condoleezza Rice. And there are very militaristic female war leaders throughout history.

BJ: One main criticism of your book is that you give short shrift to the power and influence of the military-industrial complex, of weapons manufacturers and their lobbyists and friends in government. How do you respond to that?

JH: Yeah, I think that's a valid objection to my book. The military-industrial complex is extremely important. Some people broaden that and say, "You're not going to get rid of war as long as you have capitalism because we'll always have war profiteering, where people are going to benefit too much from war for it to go away." My response to that would be that the great titans of capitalism right now are companies like Amazon and Google and Apple. Haliburton is like loose change in the pocket in one of these companies. It's tiny. Even big aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin are tiny compared to these other companies that just see the rest of the world not as places to be conquered through war but as potential markets. They don't want war. They want free trade and commerce. This is the impetus behind globalization.

Globalization can lead to problems. It can lead to economic exploitation and so forth. But capitalism, in general, and I hate to say this -- I'm like a liberal socialist myself -- can be a very progressive force, a profoundly antiwar force that I think, with courageous political leadership, will make the problem of the military-industrial complex go away very rapidly. It's happened in the past. It happened after the Civil War. It happened after World World I. The problem is that since World War II the military-industrial complex has become very powerful and entrenched. But I think with enough collective will of the people and some decent political leadership, that's not going to be a problem.

BJ: Who is Gene Sharp and how has he influenced your thoughts on war?

JH: He's one of the great minds and great moral leaders of our time. He's a political scientist who started in the 1970s. He's churned out an enormous number of papers and books on the power of nonviolent activism to bring about extraordinary political change -- toppling dictators, overcoming injustice within a society. He's looked not only at the obvious examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but at many other examples through history and compiled all these techniques that people can use to accomplish pretty much any political-social goal in their society. Very quietly he has had an enormous influence on world affairs. Just recently he's gotten a lot of attention because it turns out that activists in Tunisia and Egypt, people who were part of the Arab Spring, had adopted some of Sharp's techniques.

I wish his writings were better known because I think the world would be a better place. Obviously there is still a lot of tyranny and injustice in the world. But Sharp holds out the hope that that can be overcome nonviolently and that the consequences of nonviolent revolution are almost always much better than violent revolution.

BJ: What type of action do you hope your book inspires?

JH: I mention somewhere in the book and would like this to be discussed among progressive activists: What should your priorities be? You know, do you work on environmental issues, against global warming? Against poverty and world hunger? Do you work on the advancement of women's rights? I mean all those are worthy causes. But I actually think that in terms of leverage, of focusing on one thing that can then have a cascade of other positive effects, focusing on militarism and war should be the priority. Because if we can really reduce the militarism of this country, really cut back on our military budget, get rid of nuclear weapons and create a more rational international policy, then I think that a lot of these other things will be much easier to address. Environmental issues, economic injustice issues, female inequality, all those sorts of things.

Brad Jacobson is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and contributing reporter for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @bradpjacobson.