Is War Inevitable?

No, of course not.  War is a human behavior, and we choose our behavior.  By simple logic, it follows that we can eliminate war.  Totally and permanently.

I’m sure your initial reaction is, that’s a very bold statement.  Yes, it is.  After all, throughout history, human warfare has been so pervasive that the idea of eliminating it is at best theoretical, and some might argue naively wishful. Yet, I would argue that there’s substantial empirical evidence that humans can unlearn this behavior. We have, by and large, unlearned the negative behaviors of slavery and burning people at the stake. Oh, some of that still goes on, but it’s not state-sponsored or socially acceptable in most places anymore, and exists only in isolated pockets. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that human civilization is constantly evolving, and with it, human behavior is changing as well.

This article is a followup on my article about politics, in which I expressed an optimistic view of humanity’s future. In my reply to a reader comment to that article, I argued that even though human nature is immutable, culture and behavior can change. That’s the basis for my optimism. I also argued the easiest way to do this is by promoting personal values that extend beyond selfishness and embrace the well-being of humanity in its entirety. The reasoning is that if we can teach ourselves to do this, the temptation to exploit and harm others will drop away.

After much thought, I’ve concluded that human violence has two wellsprings, greed and fear. Certainly, many wars have been fought for conquest, which is always about material gain. Thus, a de-emphasis of materialism and a greater emphasis on “spiritual goods,” e.g. love for our fellow man, in our cultural and individual value systems should tend to defuse our inchoate impulses of exploitive coercion. Most of us aren’t muggers or armed robbers, so it should be possible to train our governments, which consist of people like us,  to not behave like muggers or armed robbers. We have to deprogram our culture from acceptance of military “solutions” to the realization that mugging and robbing on the international scale are no more acceptable than in Central Park. It’s a large task, to be sure, but in theory, doable.

Of course, in some places this requires the intermediate step of making governments responsive to their people. That’s not really a serious obstacle; on a historical scale, autocracies tend to have relatively short shelf lives. And the information age seems to be dramatically accelerating the historical trend toward greater accountability of rulers to the ruled.

Fear is a harder thing to deal with. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in the context of the START negotiations, the troubles on the Korean peninsula, and so on. For example, as long as there’s even one country like North Korea on the planet it’s hard to contemplate giving up all of our nuclear weapons. The visceral birdie in my gut wants to say the cabal of military potentates pulling on Kim Il Jong ‘s puppet strings may not understand Woodstock and free love and all that, but our 5,000 nuclear warheads is a concept they comprehend.

But even without North Korea, how could we give up all our nukes if Russia kept even one? Or, for that matter, if Israel kept theirs? Allies today, enemies tomorrow, you know how that goes. Our nuclear weapons came into existence because our government mistakenly believed that Germany was on the verge of acquiring the A-bomb, making it imperative that we get there first. We now know the Germans were never close to getting the A-Bomb.  After the war, the Soviets did get it, but only because we had it, making it possible for them to steal the technology from us. If we hadn’t been so afraid of a German bomb that didn’t exist, there might not have been a U.S.-Soviet arms race that produced 50,000 nuclear warheads and spoiled the environment with a gigantic toxic mess. Such is the influence of fear on human affairs.

On the face of things, fear also prompted George W. Bush’s preemptive war against Saddam Hussein, ostensibly to protect ourselves from WMDs that Hussein didn’t have. It’s useless to talk about the human lives this miscalculation cost. The point is, such mistakes shouldn’t be acceptable, but in fact the world’s decision-making system is biased toward going to war by mistake. You know, better safe than sorry.

A lot of things factor into warmongering. Xenophobia, tribalism, cabin fever, coveting resources, to name a few. None of these things are inevitable. Tribalism, the force tearing apart Afghanistan and Iraq, is a cultural phenomenon, a learned behavior, which therefore can be untaught, or better yet, not taught in the first place. Same with xenophobia and the nationalistic thinking from which it springs; this, also, is a taught behavior that can be dealt with by not teaching it. I submit that every single human impulse toward war-making is a behavior that can be untaught.

Perhaps the case of slavery can provide us with clues on how we can eliminate war. Slavery didn’t (mostly) disappear because of any change in the power relationship between enslavers and enslaveds. Slavery wasn’t (mostly) eliminated by slave rebellions. It simply went from being acceptable to being unacceptable in the minds of most people. A cultural change did it in. You don’t even have to work very hard at changing individual behavior, because if you can change the culture, behavioral conformity to the new cultural norms will follow of their own accord.

I want to point out here that this process requires some patience. Cultural and behavioral changes on a mass scale usually don’t happen overnight, or without resistance. It often takes several human generations. The reason for this isn’t hard to understand. People tend to be entrenched in their thinking. That being so, Einstein once observed that the way you get a new scientific theory accepted is to wait for the proponents of the old theory to die off. To a great extent that’s also true of what it takes to change ingrained social habits. One reason we don’t burn heretics at the stake anymore is because all the people who supported that policy are now dead.

It’s a lead-pipe certainty that none of today’s warmongers will be around 100 years from now. So it’s pretty much a no-brainer that if we teach future generations not to be warmongers, in time there won’t be any warmongers. So, if the key to changing mass social behavior is changing the cultural norms on which it is based, one of the places you do that is the classroom.

I’m a firm believer that the arts have a very important role to play in bringing about the kind of cultural changes that can make a better and more peaceful world. Picasso has been dead for years now, but his painting “Guernica,” a screaming protest against bombing civilians, still hangs in the  Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, and still screams its protest against a behavior that governments, including ours, still engage in. Bombing of cities and villages, you may say, isn’t going away; but neither, I would say, is “Guernica.” It’s a difficult protest to ignore, given that most of the world is aware of this painting and what it represents. If you think “Guernica” doesn’t embarrass politicians hell-bent on taking military action, go to Wikipedia and read about how the Bush administration insisted on covering up the copy in the U.N. building when Secretary of State Colin Powell went on TV to deliver his rationalization for invading Iraq so TV viewers couldn’t see it. If the artwork didn’t bother them, why did they cover it up?

Protesting against war is a favorite theme of pop musicians. Pop music is perhaps the most pervasive art form in the world today. These musical protests, as numerous politicians have learned, are awfully difficult to suppress. Antiwar art also exists in literature, films, and other forms of expression. The constant raising up of these social disapprovals is a force for cultural change which, over a long period of time, like wind eroding mountain peaks, is having an effect on human culture and mass behavior.

I honestly think that if we could get rid of slavery and burning people at the stake, then we can get rid of war, too. The mechanics of the process are basically the same. And given the existence of these and other historical precedents, it’s not only feasible to believe in the possibility, but to a rational mind the eventual extinguishment of war seems inevitable. This presupposes that war is not a product of unchangeable human nature. In fact, I see nothing in human nature that makes war immutable or inevitable. All indications are that it’s a learned behavior, and therefore can change.

The important point I want to make is that trying the change the culture that gives politicians and governments “permission” to wage war is worth the effort because history teaches us that there is a high probability of such efforts paying off over the long run. In other words, writers and artists and musicians and humanitarians should keep up the pressure. It truly looks possible that, through self-teaching, we can evolve our way out of the psychology and cultural behaviors that heretofore have trapped our species in fratricidal conflict.

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  1. 1

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