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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.

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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?

 
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