The argument of this paper is that for a long time we in the peace movement have been looking in the wrong places when we’ve been looking for the deepest roots of war. This has led to misdirection in creating strategies for abolishing war.
The common argument against the effort to get rid of war is that violence is innate in human nature, and that therefore there will always be war.
I would like to suggest that arguing against this position is the wrong move.
If we as abolitionists allow ourselves to be trapped arguing about violence-as-part-of-human-nature, it will be very difficult to move forward.
The first thing we need to do, I suggest, is separate ‘violence’ from ‘war’.
The most constructive way of responding to the argument that ‘violence is inherent in human nature’, I suggest, is to point out that: ‘War is not primarily about violence.’
Our starting point should be that, whether or not violence is inherent in human nature, war can and should be abolished. To put it in stronger terms, even if we are ‘inherently violent as a species’, that is not the reason wars happen, and it does not pose an obstacle to the abolition of war.
The reason people generally think that ‘violence is inherent’ may well be that they experience their own anger and rage and desire for violence, every day. They stand in a queue and someone takes forever at the counter, and they want to bash someone over the head. They get stuck in a traffic jam and someone honks their horn over and over again, and they want to get out and bash someone in the face. Every day, most people experience frustration and a resulting desire for some kind of violent satisfaction. Much of mainstream entertainment is based on fantasies of violent satisfaction.
The fact that we control ourselves, and virtually everyone who feels this way controls themselves and does not commit physical violence, is a less powerful emotional experience, and therefore the lasting impression (and interpretation of human nature) is not that almost everyone is capable of restraining their violent tendencies in almost all circumstances.
We are all familiar with the moment of rage in which we wish someone else was not there. But this feeling of rage has nothing to do with why wars happen.
Wars are industrial processes.
Wars are fought using machines and supplies that are made in factories by patient careful workers. Bullets are not made by people in a rage. Wars are fought using technologies that are developed in laboratories by calm and thoughtful researchers. Nuclear bombs are not constructed in a red haze of fury. Wars are fought by soldiers, pilots and sailors who are trained over many years in a deliberate educational process. Torpedo loading, flight checks, and squarebashing are not drills learned by women and men shaking with fury. Wars are fought on the basis of logistics. Meals are not cooked, fuel is not delivered, intercontinental supply lines are not managed by people who are feeling that visceral urge to smash someone in the face. Wars are fought using funds raised through complex funding and financial management systems. Taxes are not raised and budgets are not compiled by people ready to scream with anger.
Anthropologists Clifton B. Kroeber and Bernard L. Fontana comment: ‘It is a large step from what may be biologically innate leanings toward individual aggression to ritualized, socially-sanctioned, institutionalized group warfare.’ These words are quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich’s valuable book Blood Rites: origins and history of the passions of war (1997). Ehrenreich points out: ‘Most of war consists of preparation for battle – training, the organization of supplies, marching and other forms of transport – activities which are hard to account for by innate promptings of any kind.’ She then quotes an anthropologist of war, Clark McCauley: ‘The hypothesis of a killer instinct is not so much wrong as irrelevant.’
Even at quite low levels of technology, war is a ritualized, socially-sanctioned, institutionalized group activity, based on taxation/fundraising systems, combatant training, weapons development, (food) supply management and a chain of command. Out of all these group activities and structures, only one small part invokes that sense of killing rage: (part of) the training or preparation of combatants.