How appeal to national ideals sold Operation Iraqi Freedom

Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.

Why war is wrong, part 3: support the troops

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon

Soldiers  are agents of the state and agents of war. As such, they are outside of peaceful society. Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly and kill people without knowing who they are. They have their most important human qualities, such as compassion, squeezed out of them through indoctrination. They are put into uniforms to strip them of their individuality and thus their ability to act independently of orders. They are forced to conform. They are chosen when they are young: able to kill but less able to think critically about killing. After they kill, they turn into nervous wrecks. Saddest of all, they believe they are keeping us safe. Well, some of them do.

I wonder what the “Support the Troops” people think when they find out some soldiers have been killing civilians for sport. (See here and here.) And though most are isolated incidents, like collateral damage (a euphemism for killing civilians accidentally, such as these nine children killed from a helicopter in Afghanistan), friendly fire (a euphemism for soldiers’ killing their fellows) and rape (See here and here.) (sometimes a deliberate policy of intimidation or ethnic cleansing), they are inevitable in war. Do you know why? Because when people are given the kind of power over others that a big gun or an army grants you, many of them will choose to use that power however they want. We call soldiers brave, but how brave is it to beat, rape and kill unarmed men, women and children? How brave is dropping bombs on or shooting cruise missiles at people? These people are heroes?

Let us briefly examine the killing of innocents. It occurs in every war. The soldiers and civilians in the country prosecuting the war have been told that they are at war with an entire country, and as such, civilian casualties are easier to stomach. Their media report little in the way of dead innocents, and use a variety of euphemisms to soften the blow when they do. In Afghanistan, for instance, thousands of innocent people have died from air strikes (3000 in the first six months alone, though estimates vary).  (It makes one wonder if there is really such a thing as targeted, “smart” weapons; and if not, what it is we are paying billions of dollars to develop.) How many newspapers reported the figures at the time? Perhaps they were afraid of looking unpatriotic. If patriotism means dropping bombs on people, or letting it go unreported, you can have it. However, we could still kill people who are harming innocents—the only enemies we should ever have—and leave innocents alone. We do not need a state to have special ops teams that get into tight spots to cut the head off the snake. We will always have people who want to do this type of work. Large-scale wars are just not necessary. But while they continue, expect hundreds of innocent people to get caught in the crossfire every year from it.

I also wonder what “Support the Troops” really means. Which troops? All of them? What about the racist ones? What about the ones who are just mindless killers? We should support even the ones who deliberately kill innocent civilians and take trophy photos with them? Putting a sticker on your car is cute and all, but the idea “Support the Troops” lacks all nuance. (A politician’s idea of supporting the troops is to use them and get photographed next to them.) Besides, are these the same troop-supporting people who do not take their governments to task for reducing funding for body armour, pensions, medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans? Did you know that 17.4% of soldiers in Afghanistan report acute stress? Did you know that some 20% of suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up less than 1% of the population? Between 100,000 and 200,000 Vietnam vets have killed themselves. Plenty of suicides take place among current soldiers as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder is believed to afflict up to 30 percent of close to 2 million active-duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unemployment among young male veterans is now more than 22 percent, and hundreds of thousands of US military vets are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I don’t think we should have any troops, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Don’t expect government to make it happen, either. Government is bankrupt, morally and now economically. Finally, if you really want to support the troops, take away the government’s ability to send them to their deaths in pointless imperial wars.

What is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Or insurgents or enemy combatants or whatever word the propaganda machines are using this week. Well, let’s see. First, soldiers are employed by a state and terrorists are not. That means soldiers are pursuing the state’s interests and terrorists are pursuing private interests. Most wars are concocted by elites and wrapped in flags and slogans. Flags lend wars and the actions of soldiers legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. They get it: soldiers=good, terrorists=bad. Terrorism, on the other hand, is usually born of desperation. Therefore, in general, terrorists have real grievances and soldiers take for granted that their commanding officers have the best interests of the country at heart. To argue that terrorists are less moral than soldiers because they target civilians is wrong because soldiers sometimes target civilians, sometimes as an aim of war and sometimes for fun; and those branded as terrorists sometimes target agents of the state (as when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, and Bill Clinton declared it “an act of terrorism”).

And when there are such abuses, we rightly call for the guilty soldiers to be prosecuted. What tends to happen, though, is that the military will throw the book at a few soldiers whose abuses have been made public, and it will attempt to cover up any more so the military’s image remains professional and just (much like they try to cover up images of coffins with flags draped over them). (The Iraq War Logs have revealed plenty of examples.) One point of the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is that individual responsibility, asking who did the crime, should not be the only consideration when apportioning blame. An additional question is, who created the conditions where all this was allowed to happen? Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate sidestepping of international law and basic human morality trickled down to his army in Iraq, which is how we got Abu Ghraib.

Soldiers are lied to. They are told that their actions, whether occupying a foreign country, shaking down a village, killing whomever they are told to kill without question, are all in the service of a good cause. Soldiers are not only taught to kill, and that killing is right, but to believe in the utmost honourability of their organisation and their superiors, and thus the uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of their orders. That’s called indoctrination. But I guess since we are mostly taught not to question through government-run schools, what would we expect? Besides, many people who go into the military want to follow authority and want to kill. But why should we pay for their training, their guns, tanks and bombs?

But not all soldiers want to kill. Most are persuaded, much like the public is, that, in extreme circumstances, it is noble to kill. I am not a big fan of killing anyone, but of course I can understand that killing can be the right thing to do: if you are defending your own life or the life of an innocent, it may be necessary to kill someone. But states do not fight defensive wars very often anymore. The US has not fought a defensive war for 200 years. (Contrast that with the evil Iran, which has not fought an aggressive war in 200 years.) Wars against terrorism are usually results of state, not terrorist, aggression. Every war for humanitarian ideals (if there has ever truly been one) has just set the intervening powers further down the road to the next imperial war by enlarging the state, legitimising aggression and spreading the lie that war is not so bad on the people. Soldiers need to begin to think very critically about their role as agents of the lies, the plunder and the killing.

One problem is that the US, British, Canadian and other public constituencies do not care enough about the turmoil abroad caused by their governments’ policies. Most of them will never fight in a war, nor will they see the war brought home to them (until the next terrorist attack, at any rate; and then they will not realise the war was the cause of it). Many of them do not care what happens abroad, as long as they can keep the car full of gas. Many others support these wars, believing they are self-sacrificial and good for everyone. When the public is not exposed to the bloodshed and the costs of war, it can give its seal of approval willingly.

Why war is wrong, part 2: counting the costs

When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill

Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.

The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?

In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.

One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?

In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.

The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.

Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.

So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.

Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?

That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.

All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.

Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.

You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.

Why war is wrong

“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.”  — Bertrand Russell

In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.

Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.

Part 1: Democratic Wars

Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.

What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote

Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.

Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.

The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.

My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.

The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.

Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.

People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.

People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.

The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.

Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.

(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)

The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,

in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.

And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.

More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.

The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.

Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!

The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.

The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.

Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?

We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)

Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power.  Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.

Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.

Cool heads must prevail in the Israel-Egypt-Gaza conflict

When conflicts arise, as they inevitably will, we should maintain perspective. When I attack you in order to take your money or your land, it is clear who the enemy is, and you have a legitimate claim to self defense. But not all conflicts are that simple. In many cases, the attack that riles us is a case of revenge. Revenge can be considered justified by anyone who believes they have been wronged in the past. If you took my land five years ago, I might take revenge on you today. Many nationalists believe that revenge can take place hundreds of years after the initial wrong, as the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Our memory of the wrongs of others is comprehensive, and we tally the score of every misdemeanor to prove our enemy is our enemy. However, our memory of our own wrongs is highly selective. To us, any action taken against us or our national groups is an inexcusable act of aggression. If we keep in mind our mental limitations, we can control our reactions and reduce the severity of the conflicts in which we find ourselves embroiled. This week, an incident in southern Israel sparked a dangerous conflict that can only be understood with calmness.

It is difficult to know what has happened, as we rely purely on official Egyptian and Israeli accounts. Many people who would agree that we cannot simply believe everything governments tell us do not think critically about every government press release, especially when emotions run hot. Some media assume government information is true and present it as such, instead of doing the journalism themselves. We should not claim to know anything for sure. As far as one can determine, some Palestinians attacked a bus in southern Israel, killing eight Israelis, mostly civilians, and wounding more, in a coordinated terrorist attack. (Regular readers of this blog will know I do not throw around the word “terrorist”. It is appropriate in this case. And saying “the Israelis are the real terrorists” may have some truth to it, but it does not help our understanding of the situation.) The attack came from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and was blamed on the Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian terrorist group operating from Gaza. How did they get into Egypt?

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chased the militants into Egypt. Egyptians are calling this a violation of Egyptian sovereignty and of the Camp David Accord, which it was. But what were the terrorists doing in Egypt? The IDF then killed and wounded some Egyptian soldiers (the number of which depends on the source). Did the Israelis target the Egyptians? Did the Palestinians use the Egyptians as cover? Or were the Egyptians covering for the Palestinians? If so, they violated the spirit of the Accord as well. These questions will probably never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, except in the minds of those who are willing to accept arguments that justify their prejudices. How can we fairly apportion blame under such conditions?

That evening, the Israeli Air Force bombed the homes of the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees and killed five of them, plus a boy. Assuming this information is correct, the killings were targeted, thereby minimising civilian deaths, and legitimate, in response to terrorism. Dozens of rockets have hit southern Israel since Thursday. For all its faults, Israel sometimes acts purely in self defense.

What should be done? Demanding official apologies, as Egyptians have done of Israel, will help nothing. The dead will not come back to life, nor will there be fewer deaths in future. The attitude that accompanies the demand for an apology is one of blame: it is entirely their fault. Assigning blame paints others into a corner, making them more self righteous and defiant. It tends to reduce conflict only if employed after the conflict is over and when there is a clear aggressor, as when Germany and Poland coordinated efforts to educate schoolchildren on the Second World War.

Should we hate the other? History shows that hate, like revenge, keeps conflicts going until one side is dead, unless the hate can be suppressed long enough to see the long-term benefits of peace. It does not help us as individuals, either, as it consumes and destroys us, making us neither safer nor wiser.

Some Egyptians say their government should reject the Camp David Accord, a treaty that has brought peace to Egypt for three decades. Why would they want to reject it? To go to war with Israel again? The IDF is perhaps the sleekest and deadliest military in the Middle East. I hope Egyptians are not so angry they become suicidal. As I have written elsewhere, the ending of a peace treaty (like the recalling of an official envoy, which Egypt did yesterday) does not mean war is inevitable or even desirable. It is more like an insult. Nonetheless, the existence of a treaty lends legal legitimacy to the state of peace and its violation by any party would mean international condemnation. I am not accusing Egyptians of wanting war; indeed, I would be surprised if more than a few people truly wanted it. But war is not usually a sudden action in response to something small, as it is when swatting a fly. Rather, it tends to come at the end of a spiral of conflict propelled by anger, accusation and propaganda.

Besides, while Israel is not likely to attack Egypt any time soon, it could well wreak havoc on the Gaza Strip again. Provocation from Egypt, whether in the form of young Egyptians’ attacking Israeli embassies or perceived Egyptian complicity in terrorism against Israel, will make the task easier. Like Operation Cast Lead, any major assault on Gaza will be a signal to the surrounding states that Israel can hit hard and fast, suffer minimal casualties and experience little guilt.

Times are tense in the Middle East. Israelis have seen polls of Egyptians indicating that most of the latter would like to rescind the peace treaty between the two countries. Israelis are afraid that the attack on its embassy and its borders could mean it is under greater threat internationally than any time since the international terrorist attacks of the 1970s. And the (supposed) opening of the Rafah crossing of the Gaza Strip could mean Gazan militants pouring into Egypt and attacking Israel from there. Egyptians have no love for Israelis, whom they see as the occupiers of Palestine, the oppressors of Palestinians and the murderers of Egyptians. These attitudes are not helpful.

The best way to prevent the escalation of this conflict is to remain calm, and work to understand one another. This is easier said than done. Governments and their multimillion-dollar communications budgets are adept at making us think we are thinking for ourselves when we are, in fact, being fed information and told how to think. We need to learn to think critically and listen to our enemies. We must avoid giving in to anger and hatred and fear, and instead choose our actions carefully. Otherwise, we will drag ourselves and innocent others into endless conflict.

Are we inherently warlike?

The biological roots of war seem to run deep. Biology can answer some of our questions about the reasons we go to war and commit acts of violence against one another. This post reviews two books that consider the effects of our biology on our apparent propensity to war. It is possible, however, that the premise that we are prone to war is mistaken, and we will consider evidence for that as well.

In Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden attempt to explain the roots of modern warfare by looking at human biology. First, killing seems to have an adaptive function, meaning, in the end, that men who kill end up having more children, and thus passing on their genes. The most competitive and aggressive males tend to make the largest contribution to the human gene pool, thus reinforcing our tendencies to violence. For instance, some 8% of Central Asians can trace their genes to Genghis Khan. Because evolution favours only those who reproduce, for men “at the bottom of the social pile” it is rational to risk everything, including violent death, when the alternative is not to pass on their genes.

95% of human history has been spent living and fighting in small clans. Now we live in a modern age that does not require the same aggressive behaviour, and we benefit far more from cooperation than violent competition, but nature is slow to evolve. Culture, however, evolves quickly, and its influences on our behaviour can help us “rein in our Stone Age behaviours”, such as murder and rape. Rape is common during wartime, and logically a man’s reproductive success will increase if he kills other men and rapes women. “This does not mean that men have evolved to rape,” say Potts and Hayden, “but it does suggest that many if not all men have at least the biological potential to experience the aggression, loose emotional control and dissociation from empathy that presumably underlie the act.”

Testosterone is one factor that might account for aggression, particularly differences in aggression between men and women. Testosterone is twenty times higher in men than in women. It accounts for men’s greater muscle strength, drive for status and aggression, as well as weaker control over their impulses. Unmarried men aged 20 to 24 are three times as likely to murder someone as married men of the same age. Studies also find high levels of testosterone in men convicted for violent offenses. Testosterone increases among male soccer players before and during a game. They fall among losers, but the winners experience elevated levels sometimes for days after the match. Even the fans experience rising testosterone, as we identify so strongly with our side, even when we are not fighting. High testosterone correlates strongly with assertiveness, competitiveness and the desire to manipulate others.

Chimpanzees–but bonobos too

Potts and Hayden draw much of their writing from observations of chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees from about five to seven million years ago, and according to biologists, 99.6% of our DNA. Some chimp behaviour is a mirror to our own, particularly the hunting and killing–sometimes with appalling brutality–of members of the same species. Chimpanzees jockey for influence and status, impose hierarchy and reward loyalty. They also work to establish peace after fighting. In what Potts and Hayden call “the chimpanzee equivalent of international relations” we can see a reflection of human war. Each chimpanzee troop recognises its territory and borders, which it patrols. All adult male chimps display a keenness to participate in team raids on others’ territory that could end in bloody, torturous death. They fight over territory and access to resources. As a troop’s territory grows, so too does its access to food and mates, and as such expanding territory through team aggression is a way to have more offspring that survive. Surprise attacks and the use of overwhelming force are features of chimpanzee “wars”. Such brutality in chimps, as in humans, depends on the ability to turn off empathy for the enemy. Chimps display generosity to others in their ingroup, which comprises their blood relations, and hostility to their outgroup. Humans are much the same, except that our associations need not be familial. Nationalism, or its counterparts in race, religion and other associations, creates a sense of family that we are willing to kill for.

Chimpanzees even “de-chimpanzee-ise” in the same way we dehumanise. “Indeed, it might well be impossible for an intelligent, highly social animal to kill its own kind systematically unless it evolved some sort of neural machinery to de-identify those it is about to kill.” Combine the dangers of dehumanisation with our desire to go along with our group and deference to authority, and humans can become mindless killing machines.

Douglas P. Fry, however, questions the usefulness of comparing humans with chimps. ”At best, chimpanzees provide only tangential insights about human behaviour in the evolutionary past.” The idea that chimpanzee raiding has the same root as human warfare may be to obscure the differences between the two species (they have evolved separately for millions of years, after all) and ignore humans’ similarities to bonobos, to which they are roughly equally related. “Linking humans to chimpanzees instead of to bonobos is an arbitrary decision that is begging for a convincing rationale.” Bonobos do not engage in raiding. Fry quotes Frans de Waal, who in Our Inner Ape says “I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation.”

Creating the ingroup

Much of Potts and Hayden’s comparisons of humans with chimpanzees considers raids. Both humans and chimps engage in violent raids on enemy territory. War may be just an extension, an “evolution”, of team raids. Though wars can involve millions of people, fighting units (to whom loyalty is apportioned most strongly) are often small groups, like raiding parties. Fighters are the same age and condition, bonded by a sense of kinship. Raids are dangerous and depend on being able to trust every member of the team, so it is not surprising that the sense of honour is strongest among young men at the prime of their physical strength. Virtues such as loyalty, courage and camaraderie, essential to a psychological understanding of war, evolved as ways for us to protect those in our family. As Richard Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene, because our bodies are just vehicles for our genes, we will go to great lengths, including self-sacrifice, to protect our genes. Our genes are carried by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and so on. Therefore, we will sacrifice to save them. We can have the same feelings toward anyone we consider equivalent to kin: our friends, nation or team.

This transfer of feelings of kinship to non-blood-related associates manifests itself most evidently in the “band of brothers”. Relations in small military units are characterised by mutual support and respect, deep loyalty and shunning of anyone not seen as contributing. Men might go to war for idealistic patriotism, financial need, conscription and so on; but when the guns start firing, it is about your team.

In fact, any shared experience can create an ingroup. German and British soldiers notably left their trenches during Christmas of 1914, exchanged food and played football. They saw themselves, however briefly, as sharing the experience of being in the trenches, rather than as polar opposites bound to kill each other. (And why not, given that most of them would have had more in common with each other than with their generals.) Military trainers understand this, and as such, training usually disorients, exhausts and demeans recruits while breaking their links with the outside world. “[T]he main point is to awaken and intensify the instinctive predispositions of team aggression, producing warriors imbued with intense loyalty to those who have gone through the same training.” (Watch Full Metal Jacket for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

The important thing, of course, is to get ’em while they’re young. When boys hit puberty, the “innocence” of childhood turns into the sexual drive, competitiveness and risk-taking behaviours of early adulthood. “Their experience is limited, the drives are strong, and the rewards can seem great and death remote.” Growing up and living in the right conditions, young men could become master chess players or manipulated as a lethal force. Turning ex-child soldiers into normal boys again is an uphill battle waged against memories of the thrill and camaraderie of blowing things up with friends and wielding absolute power of life and death over terrified masses.The Nazis involved boys in military training from an early age. By 1936, 90% of German boys were in the Hitler Youth, and a few years later, 900,000 of them took part in a Nuremberg rally. It was a camping holiday filled with games and singing. What boy would not have enjoyed it? The Nazis actively encouraged the natural tendency for boys to rebel against their parents. Obedience to the group (and the Führer, of course) was essential, and cowards were ostracised. They fought furiously as part of the Wehrmacht as Hitler became more desperate and recruited younger soldiers, believing in “final victory”, while more mature minds knew it was naive. (Mao’s charisma and ideals–not to mention propaganda–recruited millions into the Red Guard in China during the Cultural Revolution.) These leaders understood human nature and how to manipulate it.

Potts and Hayden are disappointingly brief and non-committal on the biological roots of terrorism. Terrorism is more like tribal raiding than conventional war. They describe it as “a particular kind of team aggression–built very much upon ingroup identity, the desire for revenge, and a lack of empathy for the outgroup–[that] has taken on a profile out of all proportion to the number of warriors involved.” They touch on suicide bombing, as it is hard to see at first how suicide attacks could represent a successful evolutionary strategy. The sexual allure of the suicide bomber might suggest that embracing death can create new reproductive opportunities. It could also be altruistic behaviour that aids the survival of the killer’s genes. It may only be a stretch of the imagination (but not of the genes) to extend that idea to the entire national group.

The Yanomamo–our modern ancestors?

”It has become almost obligatory to mention the South American Yanomamo in any evolutionary discussion of warfare,” says Douglas P. Fry. The Yanomamo are an ethnic group in the Amazon who have fascinated anthropologists with their apparently violent ways. “Violence is ubiquitous in Yanomamo society,” claim Potts and Hayden. Yanomamo men are said to beat their wives as a warning to stay away from other men and capture women as wives in raiding parties. Men hold chest-pounding duels, wherein one men runs up to the other and punches him in the chest as hard as possible. (This form of non-lethal fighting is probably an antidote or alternative to more pernicious violence. After all, some men engage in hand-to-hand combat with their friends for fun.) Like their discussion of terrorism, the authors’ look at the Yanomamo is somewhat superficial, not explained clearly in evolutionary terms and better examined elsewhere.

In Beyond War, Fry takes up the claims against the Yanomamo. Commentators tend to assume the Yanomamo accurately represent our putatively-warlike ancestors, even though they are sedentary horticulturalists and our ancestors were hunter-gatherers; and despite the fact that bands (like our ancestors) do not form coalitions as readily as tribes (which are bigger, like the Yanomamo). Arguments from Yanomamo violence also tend to ignore differences in social organisation, and Yanomamo social organisation did not exist in ancient times. In his discussion of them, Fry points out that much of what is “known” about the Yanomamo comes from a study by Napoleon Chagnon, which has been much contested since. Chagnon found that unokais, Yanomamo men who have participated in killing and undergone a purification ritual, tended to have more than two and a half times the number of wives and three times the number of children as non-unokais of the same age. Fry takes issue with this study, pointing out that the two sample groups were not of the same age, and that the unokais as a group are at least 10 years older than the non-unokais. Neither did Chagnon’s study take into account that tribal leaders tend to have more wives and children than other men. There may be no difference between the reproductive success of those who have killed and those who have not.

Is war in our nature?

Fry, in fact, is not convinced that we evolved a propensity to war at all. The widespread (not universal) occurrence of warfare does not mean engaging in warfare is adaptive or provides reproductive benefits. Moreover, it seems to have occurred only very recently in human history, and was not present hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The fact that men are bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women is also no indication that they are adapted to war. These differences hold true over innumerable animal species that lack anything resembling war. Since male aggressivity is flexible, and can manifest itself in sports, business, and so on, it is the environmental conditions under which violence and war occur that need to be taken into account when considering human nature and violence.

Contrary to what Konrad Lorenz said in his influential tome On Aggression, human aggression is not inevitable, and contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans are not warlike by nature. Saying that we are means there is no point trying to reduce or eliminate war. Why attempt the impossible? But these are simply cultural beliefs that we are socialised to hold.

Fry takes a macroscopic anthropological view of human aggression, suggesting war can be replaced by “more effective, less brutal ways of seeking security, defending rights and providing justice for the people of this planet.” All humans seek justice, though their methods vary. Some favour violence and some don’t. Much of the violence humans inflict on each other, which may have been called “senseless” or “evil”, is a consequence of the desire to right wrongs.

War is part of our culture

The media distort our perceptions of the amount of violence in society because so much of what we watch features violence. And yet, most adults spend almost every day without purposefully inflicting injury on others, being the victim of aggression or even witnessing someone else’s victimisation. Not only is this true of us in our culture, but the same holds even for the most statistically violent cultures in the world. The cross-cultural data show that “violence [is] the shocking exception” among the countless peaceful solutions we find to our conflicts such as negotiating, agreeing to provide compensation for damages, reaching compromises, forgiving and reconciling with friends and strangers alike. “Humans have a solid capacity for getting along with each other peacefully, preventing physical aggression, limiting the scope and spread of violence, and restoring peace following aggression.” These findings should not only change our understanding of war but our ideas about the necessity of standing armies, the purpose of military intervention and the possibility for non-violent conflict resolution.

We project backwards. Because we are accustomed to seeing war in our world, we assume that war is eternal. In 1925, Professor Raymond Dart discovered fossil skulls from two to three million years ago he named Australopithecus africanus. He interpreted fractured skulls and shattered bones as proof that our ancestors killed and ate each other. But his extrapolations were disputed. Some of the shattering of the bones was undoubtedly due to the rock and dirt that pile on top of bones during fossilisation. Large predators plausibly account for the holes in the skulls. Dart believed, like most of his contemporaries, that man was inherently warlike and vicious. After all, World War One had ended only a few years earlier. A violent world was the world with which Dart was most familiar. But it is not necessarily the world of the australopithecines. Dart himself, in fact, accepted the alternative explanations when he realised they were more likely. We view our world as simply a technologically advanced version of the ancient world, but there is no reason why we should limit our imaginations this way. (Potts and Hayden mention Dart but do not discuss the controversy of his initial beliefs.)

Some anthropologists who claim that war is universal tend to include homicide in the definition of war. But homicide and war have different causes. Meanwhile, as Fry quotes Johan van der Dennen, “[p]eaceable preindustrial people constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare, and they are thus either explained away, denied or negated.”

Do all cultures have war?

Studies show that nonwarring societies do exist. The very fact that they exist seems to disprove, or at least call into question, the idea that man is naturally warlike. All human societies have believers in the supernatural, music and property, as well as rape, revenge and murder. Not all societies have warfare. In fact, at least 70 cultural groups do not engage in war at all. Apart from many smaller groups such as the Semai of Malaysia or the Amish, one could cite Sweden and Switzerland, having gone many years without war, Iceland, 800 years without war, and Costa Rica, which disbanded its military after World War Two.

One of many examples of cultural groups who have not developed war is Australian Aborigines. Aborigines, under very different conditions from our own, developed relatively peaceful cultures. Bands that could have fought traded instead. They tended to respect each other’s territory. Band membership was open and fluid, and people had relatives and contacts in other groups (which is one reason I doubt the US and China will go to war). They also had advanced dispute-resolution mechanisms, such as duels, contests, meetings and reconciliation ceremonies.

Potts and Hayden consider archaeological and anthropological evidence but in less detail. They discuss several individual cases of group violence, arguing that the evidence that man has a penchant for blood is “abundant”. Fry’s approach seems to take a wider look but both points of view may be valid.

Can we move beyond war?

Not only is war unnecessary and lethal, it is possible to change our behaviour. Humans are so flexible that they can do various jobs in all kinds of societies and cultures. Says Fry, “the transition from the millenia-old lifeways of the nomadic forager band to the conditions of the urban, industrial nation is truly staggering. Yet we high-tech folks of the twenty-first century rarely pause to consider the immense plasticity in the nature of our species that allows a hunter-gatherer primate to live in this Internet world of strangers, stock exchanges and cruise missiles.” As long as we know it is possible to end war and make peace, we are capable of it.

What’s wrong with the world: a view from the sky

On the surface of the Earth, we can only see things that are around us and above us. As we wander the world, we meet many people, see new sights and have new thoughts. But being on the surface too long limits our vision.

Up close, we see the little differences between us. Because we cannot see very far along the expanse of the Earth, we do not get the chance to learn about people distant from us; and sometimes we come to fear them. Even the smallest differences lead to discrimination, because we believe that our ways, ideas and beliefs, the ones we know best, are best. We think what we care about are the most important things in the world, and that what we think about them is right.

The ground we live and walk on is sacred to us, because it is the place of our ancestors. Anyone other than us who occupies and thus desecrates the land we cherish because we know it best must be killed. We build walls and barriers and draw long lines around what is ours. All the earliest religions were and many of today’s are based on the land. In addition to the old religions, most of the world’s citizens espouse a modern religion: the worship of the collective.

Because humans cannot see very far over the wider community of all life on Earth, we choose groups that we are most aware of. We do not care what our groups are based on, whether race, language, membership in the same country, possession of revealed truth or shoe size. We simply feel the need to belong. Because of this need and people who know how to manipulate it, we now live in a world divided into 200 political entities that cover the surface of the Earth like a skin disease, any of which you can be denied entry to if you are from the wrong one. Their members tell and retell stories of heroes long ago, filling hearts with pride; of battles between good and evil, of tragedies and victories, and how to apply their lessons to the people around us. Some people are so compelled by the need to belong, or so indoctrinated, or so lacking in critical thinking that they are willing to commit any kind of atrocity in the group’s name.

The people we meet might not say the words we want them to say, so we stop listening and stop respecting them. When we do not listen to or respect people, we do not understand them, and we might hurt them. If we hurt them, they will hurt us back. This idea seems obvious, but it is forgotten every day. When people do hurtful things to our group, or someone we see on the television, we forget to listen and demand revenge. Revenge is rational, as it is designed to prevent further violence against oneself. However, revenge tends to come back and bite.

From the sky, however, people are dots. Whether holding a gun or a shovel, whether going to war or playing soccer, they all look the same. There is no good or evil in the sky. It doesn’t matter what you think about what is happening on Earth because you have no influence on it. The realisation that you do not have to control everything you care about liberates you. The ground you can see all looks the same too, no sacred places anywhere, just beautiful colours. There are no lines except rivers, no walls except mountains. From the sky, you can count the history of the Earth’s surface in millions of years, and the stories you tell are of the formations of mountain ranges, seas and continents. When we rise above, we can achieve the calmness necessary to see through the clouds of our groups and our differences and learn that we are all basically the same.