This violation of conscience may occur as much in the pacifist society as in the munitions factory or the research laboratory.
Having said this, different institutions and different social frameworks make different kinds of behaviour more or less likely. In professor Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, college students were randomly allocated the roles of guard or prisoner in a mock prison. Zimbardo wrote later: ‘We selected only those judged to be emotionally stable, physically healthy, mature, law-abiding citizens.’ The two-week experiment was terminated after six days and nights because of the escalating abuse of the prisoners, and the evidence of unbearable psychological distress. Zimbardo wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (2007) that the Stanford Prison Experiment was ‘a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are contrary to their nature.’
An extremely important study into war was carried out by anthropologist Douglas P Fry, in his book Beyond War: The Human Potential For Peace (2007). Fry investigated the historical evidence for war, finding that though anatomically modern humans have existed for 200,000 years or so, the earliest possible evidence for war came only 14,000 years ago. (Evidence could consist of unambiguous fortifications, specialized weapons such as clubs and daggers not used in hunting, depictions of martial scenes in art work, substantial number of burials with projectile points either embedded in bones or lying within the frames of skeletons, massive fires followed by change in cultural artefacts, reduced number of male remains in cemeteries, suggesting significant male death elsewhere.)
By examining the scholarly record, Fry discovered that the majority of simple hunter-gatherer societies (less than 50 members) studied in modern times (13 out of 21) do not practice war. In the next most complex form of human society, tribes, war is not typical, though feuding is. A tribe is defined as a group of 100 or more members, with weak leadership and a lifestyle based on horticulture or herding.
Fry distinguishes ‘feuding’ from ‘war’. A feud is a blood revenge attack after a murder. It is directed at the murderer or their family. It is not directed at all members of a group or tribe. A war, on the other hand, is ‘relatively impersonal lethal aggression between communities’.
Fry quotes approvingly this definition of war by Roy Prosterman:
‘A group activity, carried on by members of one community against members of another community, in which it is the primary purpose to inflict serious injury or death on multiple nonspecified members of that other community, or in which the primary purpose makes it highly likely that serious injury or death will be inflicted on multiple nonspecified members of that community in the accomplishment of that primary purpose.’
War is a group activity against another group, not a family activity against another family. It is also indiscriminate, so that all members of the enemy community may be subject to lethal force.
War only becomes a typical activity when we reach more complex societies, such as chiefdoms (hierarchies where chiefs enjoy special privileges, and a lifestyle often based on farming or fishing) and complex hunter-gather societies (forms of chiefdom with rulers, commoners, sometimes slaves also, based on exploiting rich natural resources such as salmon runs on the North American northwest coast).
The next most complex society is the state. In a state, rulers enjoy considerable coercive power, based on centralized political and military institutions and bureaucracy; there is urbanization, economic specialisation and social class distinction, and the large-scale irrigation of crops with a lifestyle based on agriculture (and later industry). With these societies, war is typical form of group activity.
Fry quotes anthropologist Jonathan Haas, drawing the obvious conclusion: ‘The level, intensity and impact of warfare tend to increase as cultural systems become more complex.’
The critical factor, I suggest, is not the increasing complexity of cultural systems, but the increasing authoritarianism and inequality of the systems. As class stratification increases, and as power and wealth are concentrated, so indiscriminate, anonymous group violence becomes more and more prevalent.
Fry found evidence of 70 non-warring societies; societies which deliberately avoided group-on-group violence. The Semai of Malaysia neither war nor feud. Even when confronted by slave-traders, ‘the Semai response was always a disorganized and headlong flight into the forest.’ Fry notes that ‘the social organization of simple nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, the only form of social organization for the vast majority of human prehistory, is simply not conducive to making war.’ In these ‘bands’ of people, individuals easily move from one band to another, there are few if any family/kinship or other subgroupings, and there is little if any clear leadership of bands.
This links to Zimbardo’s point about different social structures evoking different behaviours from the same people.