Myth: War Is Inevitable

Myth: War is Inevitable
Fact: War is a human choice not limited by any law of nature or biological determinism.

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If war were inevitable, there would be little point in trying to end it. If war were inevitable, a moral case might be made for trying to lessen its damage while it continued. And numerous parochial cases could be made for being prepared to win inevitable wars for this side or that side. In fact, governments do just this, but their premise is in error. War is not inevitable.

Even violence on a small scale is not inevitable, but the incredibly difficult task of ending violence is a million miles past the simpler, if still challenging, task of ending organized mass slaughter. War is not something created by the heat of passion. It takes years of preparation and indoctrination, weapons production and training.

War is not ubiquitous. Nothing resembling current forms of war existed centuries or even decades ago. War, which has existed in almost completely different forms, has been mostly absent throughout human history and prehistory. While it is very popular to remark that there has always been a war somewhere on earth, there has always been the absence of war a great many somewheres on earth. Societies and even modern nations have gone decades and centuries without war. Anthropologists debate whether anything even resembling war was found in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, in which humans evolved for most of our evolution. Quite a few nations have chosen to have no military. Here’s a list.

Developing ways to avoid generating conflicts is part of the answer, but some occurrence of conflict (or major disagreement) is inevitable, which is why we must use more effective and less destructive tools to resolve conflicts and to achieve security.

Institutions that lasted for many years, and which were labeled inevitable, natural, essential, and various other terms of similarly dubious import, have been ended in various societies. These include cannibalism, human sacrifice, trial by ordeal, blood feuds, dueling, polygamy, capital punishment, and slavery. Yes, some of these practices still exist in greatly reduced form, misleading claims are often made about the prevalance of slavery, and a single slave is too many. And, yes, war is one of the most troublesome institutions about which to be satisfied with only mostly ending. But war is dependent on major institutions like those that have been fully ended in some of these other cases, and war is not the most effective tool for eliminating smaller scale violence or terrorism. A nuclear arsenal does not deter (and can facilitate) a terrorist attack, but police, justice, education, aid, nonviolence — all of these tools can complete the elimination of war. What could begin it would be bringing the world’s biggest investors in war down to the level of those below them, and ceasing to arm others through global weapons dealing. As things stand, 96% of humanity is ruled by governments that invest radically less in war and proliferate dramatically fewer weapons of war than does the United States. If war is “human nature,” it can’t be war at the U.S. level. In other words, if you want to use the phrase “human nature,” which has never been given any coherent definition, you can’t use it for what 4% of humanity happens to do, much less what a relative handful of powerful people among that 4% of humanity happens to do. But scaling the U.S. back to the Chinese level of investing in war, and then the two of them back to the Saudi level, and so forth, would likely create a reverse arms race that would render verbal persuasion of the case for abolishing war superfluous and much more persuasive.

Our Genes:

War, as anthropologists like Douglas Fry argue, has likely only been around for the most recent fraction of the existence of our species. We did not evolve with it. But we did evolve with habits of cooperation and altruism. During this most recent 10,000 years, war has been sporadic. Some societies have not known war. Some have known it and then abandoned it.

Just as some of us find it hard to imagine a world without war or murder, some human societies have found it hard to imagine a world with those things. A man in Malaysia, asked why he wouldn’t shoot an arrow at slave raiders, replied “Because it would kill them.” He was unable to comprehend that anyone could choose to kill. It’s easy to suspect him of lacking imagination, but how easy is it for us to imagine a culture in which virtually nobody would ever choose to kill and war would be unknown? Whether easy or hard to imagine, or to create, this is decidedly a matter of culture and not of DNA.

According to myth, war is “natural.” Yet a great deal of conditioning is needed to prepare most people to take part in war, and a great deal of mental suffering is common among those who have taken part. In contrast, not a single person is known to have suffered deep moral regret or post-traumatic stress disorder from war deprivation.

In some societies women have been virtually excluded from war making for centuries and then included. Clearly, this is a question of culture, not of genetic makeup. War is optional, not inevitable, for women and men alike.

Some nations invest much more heavily in militarism than most and take part in many more wars. Some nations, under coercion, play minor parts in the wars of others. Some nations have completely abandoned war. Some have not attacked another country for centuries. Some have put their military in a museum.

In the Seville Statement on Violence (PDF), the world’s leading behavior scientists refute the notion that organized human violence [e.g. war] is biologically determined. The statement was adopted by the UNESCO.

Forces in Our Culture:

War long predates capitalism, and surely Switzerland is a type of capitalist nation just as the United States is. But there is a widespread belief that a culture of capitalism — or of a particular type and degree of greed and destruction and short-sightedness — necessitates war. One answer to this concern is the following: any feature of a society that necessitates war can be changed and is not itself inevitable. The military-industrial complex is not an eternal and invincible force. Environmental destructiveness and economic structures based on greed are not immutable.

There is a sense in which this is unimportant; namely, we need to halt environmental destruction and reform corrupt government just as we need to end war, regardless of whether any of these changes depends on the others to succeed. Moreover, by uniting such campaigns into a comprehensive movement for change, strength in numbers will make each more likely to succeed.

But there is another sense in which this is important; namely, we need to understand war as the cultural creation that it is and stop imagining it as something imposed on us by forces beyond our control. In that sense it is important to recognize that no law of physics or sociology requires us to have war because we have some other institution. In fact, war is not required by a particular lifestyle or standard of living because any lifestyle can be changed, because unsustainable practices must end by definition with or without war, and because war actually impoverishes societies that use it.

Crises Beyond Our Control:

War in human history up to this point has not correlated with population density or resource scarcity. The idea that climate change and the resulting catastrophes will inevitably generate wars could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not a prediction based on facts.

The growing and looming climate crisis is a good reason for us to outgrow our culture of war, so that we are prepared to handle crises by other, less destructive means. And redirecting some or all of the vast sums of money and energy that go into war and war preparation to the urgent work of protecting the climate could make a significant difference, both by ending one of our most environmentally destructive activities and by funding a transition to sustainable practices.

In contrast, the mistaken belief that wars must follow climate chaos will encourage investment in military preparedness, thus exacerbating the climate crisis and making more likely the compounding of one type of catastrophe with another.

Ending War Is Possible:duel

The idea of eliminating hunger from the globe was once considered ludicrous. Now it is widely understood that hunger could be abolished — and for a tiny fraction of what is spent on war. While nuclear weapons have not all been dismantled and eliminated, there exists a popular movement working to do just that.

Ending all war is an idea that has found great acceptance in various times and places. It was more popular in the United States, for example, in the 1920s and 1930s. Polling is not often done on support for the abolition of war. Here’s one case when it was done in Britain.

In recent decades, the notion has been propogated that war is permanent. That notion is new, radical, and without basis in fact.

Read “Why We Think a Peace System Is Possible.”

23 Responses

  1. . Religion fuels all the wars…
    RELIGION = ADDICTION to being LIED TO, an ENFORCED PSYCHOSIS, and desire to MURDER EVERYONE in the universe… i.e. Noah’s Ark (99.9999% killed), Armageddon (100% killed), Left Behind books & movies (100% killed)… religics love that stuff…

    1. Religion fuels all the wars…

      Not necessarily. I think that the ideology of tribal conflict fuels wars i.e. blue vs red.

      Religion can also be used to dampen conflict e.g. 2 warring tribes united under the banner of the same religion.

      There are many elements of the Golden Rule within religions that promote peace.

      The society has to expend effort in order to fuel that instead of conflict resolution by violence.

      Even our societies today have the Military-Industrial Complex & lionise it.

    2. It is neither tribalism or religion that fuels war. Both religion and tribalism rose up during the agricultural revolution along with (believe it or not) the construct of gender. This led to the current androcentric culture that equated masculinity with square-jawed, beetle-browed aggression and domination.

  2. I would love world wide peace,but then how do you deal with the likes of ISIS,or the rise of dictators such as Hitler? Peace marches would not have placated Hitler.

    1. You simply stop funding them. Anyone concerned with ISIS should be demanding an investigation of who funded them. As soon as Obama was no longer able to call for the ouster of Assad, the funding to ISIS dried up and they shriveled. The players in the region who were using ISIS as a proxy no longer had a use for them.

      Same with Hitler. Look into Prescott Bush, who funded Hitler, then read Anthony Sutton’s excellent work “Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler.” Hitler was initially helped into power by agents of the British Empire who thought he would first clash with Stalin and the Soviets. Like Saddam in Iraq against Iran, the West saw him as the enemy of the enemy. It was only after Hitler signed the non-aggression pact with the Soviets that the British finally listened to Churchill and realized he had been right about Hitler. The British have a long history of financing one side (or both sides) of a conflict to indirectly bring down their competitors.

      The other thing we tend to forget is that involvement in WW1 paved the way for Hitler. Those who use Hitler as the argument for intervention are always being dishonest, ignorant or both. Interventionism created Hitler. Hitler is the perfect example of what happens when “democracy” is imposed from without.

  3. I believe very strongly in this vision of a world without war.

    I do, however, want everything to be accurate. Slavery has not ended.
    There are still at least 35 million people in some sort of slavery on this planet every year.

    War is a huge factor in human trafficking, as evidenced by the refugees fleeing current war torn regions and being abused by traffickers in the Middle East, Europe, Central America, Mexico, and The U.S.

    War leaves a population vulnerable to exploitation. Women and children are kidnapped and forced to become sex slaves or marry their attackers during times of war. This is currently happening at an alarming rate in South Sudan.

    Please update this as we can not claim we have abolished slavery completely.

    Thank you. And thank you for all that you do. May we all one day live in peace.

  4. the problem with this ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) supporters and symphatizers is that most of them are too blind to follow false ideology (religious dictatorship). and there’s the endless fanaticism of glorifying a collective sense of brainwashed new world order belief concept which is just so plainly annoying. if we could only battle this war without the use of artillery and deadly weapons instead of wasting lives for the sake of false religion, false politics, & false pride then everything would surely be sensible in this world. it’s a sad and brutal truth that this all just caused by unjustified greed of resource (oil), revenge (casualties of war) and political stance of both nations. nobody wants another World War to happen again but everyone seems to be too focused on killing each other. Let’s just hope that we won’t end up a collateral damage to our own ignorance, history keeps on repeating and humanity never ever learns.

  5. Sorry, but societies have been waging war since the dawn of humanity. There is evidence that stone-age tribes fought each other over hunting grounds, to say nothing of the war of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Medieval Europe, and basically everyone else. There’s ancient Mesopotamian records of a war from 3200 BC for crying out loud. So yeah. Not saying war is good, but it has been around since before civilization. Read “War Before Civilization” for more info.

    1. Naivety is a hell of a drug.

      Keep lying to yourselves. War is terrible, but so are many other things under the sun. The only way to rid of war is to exterminate all humanity. Even that isn’t an escape because there are animals that participate is war and violence. Or, maybe you’d just like to see all life extinguished? That’s bordering on psychopathic behaviour.

      Just face it. We all have to die some day – some young, some old. May as well die doing something you see fit.

      1. 1) War is not inevitable.
        2) The very rich profit from war, the very poor loose, mostly their lives;
        3) Animals do not wage war except chimps, and then on a very limited basis;
        4) Your logic falls into the classic fallacy of all or nothing.
        5) We have no idea of how many wars have been averted by negotiation.
        6) Another fallacy of your logic is that if we accept your first assumption that we’d like life extinguished by abolishing war then we must exterminate life: The fallacy of the un-substantiated connection. Your arguments against war are as illogical as war itself. You must work for an arms dealer.

        1. agreed with number 1, number 2, but for number 3, i do agree that animals don’t wage war except for us humans plus were the only species to have war where no other species have war, agreed with number 4, agreed with number 5, and agreed with number 6.

    2. Archeological records demonstrate that not all civilizations who flourished in the past knew war, and the argument can be equally made that “advanced” civilization without war existed and thus can exist today.

      For example, the Indus Valley civilization – which lasted 4000 years, or 2000 years depending on which period one consider, with a peak cities-dwelling population estimated to a whopping 5 millions – shows no trace of violence or defensive work.

      In such topics as War and Peace, beware of ideology-motivated and culturally-impregnated interpretative bias.

    3. Sorry. Ancient Greece, Mesopotania, and Egypt were not stone-aged. They were Bronze age…big difference and about 7000 years later. There is no scientific evidence that Paleolithic humans waged war. In fact there wouldn’t have been any reason to wage war since population densities were exceedingly low and cooperation was a better survival strategy than war. In terms of hunting, women’s gathering accounted for 70% to 100% (at times) of the calories consumed by the band. Meat was nice, but not a reason to risk being killed over.

  6. I do believe that war is inevitable. Not due to religion, as many are determined to tell us. ISIS is not the cause of war, nor is Christianity, nor any other religion or culture in particular.

    Conflict is a state of nature. All creatures are territorial, and fight if threatened. It is innate. This has played a part in human warfare since long before organized religion gave humans a convenient excuse. With our outsized brains, we often decide that we need more territory, more resources, more money, more food, etc. Thus empires and conquests. Or droughts and natural disasters push humans into the territories of other groups, causing conflict.

    Theoretically, we could just allow other people to enter ‘our’ territory and become part of us. But xenophobia is also innate – all humans fear ‘the other,’ for reasons such as loss of culture, identity, control, racial purity, money, land, language, or many other real and imaginary reasons.

    Call me a pessimist, or call me a realist. But I don’t see any progress over the time of the existence of humans on earth toward universal peace and harmony. Humanity does not evolve; it cycles. Times of war, times of peace, repeat. The only times in history with prolonged peace of a sort were times of empire, when one force had so thoroughly subjugated other groups that war was not possible, i.e., the Pax Romana. It cannot and did not last.

    Just my own thoughts on the matter. Maybe this is the wrong forum on which to air them.

  7. Hi Jeff,
    I totally disagree and would like to respond to a couple of your assertions. Assuming that ‘conflict is a state of nature’ does not presume that harmony and/or order aren’t also ‘states of nature’. Your arguments that claim that violent responses and xenophobia are innate implies that humans have no choice but to be so, and that simply isn’t true as violence and ‘othering’ are learned behaviors and attitudes. You always have a choice and can let others know that nonviolence and acceptance are always an option. Choose compassion.

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