War is a fact of human nature. As long as we exist, it exists. That’s how the argument goes.
But longtime Scientific American writer John Horgan disagrees. Applying the scientific method to war leads Horgan to a radical conclusion: biologically speaking, we are just as likely to be peaceful as violent. War is not preordained, and furthermore, it should be thought of as a solvable, scientific problem—like curing cancer. But war and cancer differ in at least one crucial way: whereas cancer is a stubborn aspect of nature, war is our creation. It’s our choice whether to unmake it or not.
In The End of War, Horgan examines dozens of examples and counterexamples—discussing chimpanzees and bonobos, warring and peaceful indigenous people, the World War I and Vietnam, Margaret Mead and General Sherman—as he finds his way to war’s complicated origins. Horgan argues for a far-reaching paradigm shift with profound implications for policy students, ethicists, military men and women, teachers, philosophers, or really, any engaged citizen.
Today we’re running an excerpt from this compact, methodical treatise. To purchase the The End of War, please visit our store.
LIVING IN WARTIME
I have never served in the military, shot at someone, or been shot at. And yet like everyone else alive today, I have always lived in war’s shadow. My grandfather and father were both Navy men. My grandfather, who fought in both World Wars, commanded a troop carrier during the Allied invasions of Salerno and Anzio and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1989. My father attended the Naval Academy and served on a destroyer in World War II. In August 1945, his ship picked up survivors of the Indianapolis after it was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Out of 1,196 men on the ship, 880 died, many of them eaten by sharks. Shortly before being sunk, the Indianapolis had delivered parts of Little Boy, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, to a U.S. air base.
When I was a boy, my father let me play with a Japanese rifle, with the bayonet attached, that he had brought back from the war. The sonic booms of military jets rattled the windows of our house in suburban Connecticut. At my elementary school, teachers instructed my classmates and me to cover our eyes and duck under our desks if we saw a big flash outside. When I graduated from high school, the Vietnam War was raging. I avoided the draft by drawing a high number in the lottery.
Years later I became a science journalist, and I gravitated toward war-related topics. I reported on debates among anthropologists over whether war stems primarily from nature or nurture. I took field trips to the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories, where nuclear weapons are designed, and to the Nevada Test Site, a stretch of desert pocked by the craters of hundreds of nuclear detonations. In 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, I traveled to Kuwait to investigate the environmental effects of the oil wells set aflame by Iraqi troops. I toured the “highway of death” north of Kuwait City, where U.S. planes strafed and bombed Iraqis fleeing back to Baghdad. The bodies had been removed, but the shattered Iraqi trucks, tanks, and troops carriers still reeked of rotting flesh. Sometimes the smoke from the oil fires grew so thick I couldn’t see my notebook.
Even in Philipstown, the idyllic township in the Hudson Highlands where I have lived since 1990, war intrudes. You can occasionally hear the thunder of mortars and howitzers from the artillery range at the West Point Military Academy, across the river from us. If the wind is blowing in the right direction, the rat-tat-tat of small-arms fire drifts northward from Camp Smith, an Army training base south of Philipstown where troops practice anti-insurgency maneuvers.
On September 11, 2001, I climbed a hill near my home and looked south toward the New York skyline. I could see only smoke where the Twin Towers had once been visible above the horizon. As I made my way back home, my thoughts turned to my kids, Mac (who was eight then) and Skye (who was six). What would I tell them about this terrible event? How would this affect their lives? Peace seemed awfully remote on 9/11, and during the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In spite of these setbacks, I have faith that Mac and Skye will live to see a world without war.
Not many people share this faith. I first realized how pessimistic most people are about the prospects for permanent peace in 2003, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. An Episcopal priest in my hometown, Frank Geer, asked me to speak to his congregation about whether war is “in our genes.” I told Frank’s parishioners that war seems to be both primordial and perhaps partially innate; chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, engage in deadly group raids, and so did prehistoric humans. Some men seem to get a kick out of killing; the New York Times had just quoted an Army sharpshooter saying, “We had a great day. We killed a lot of people.” Nonetheless I ended with the obligatory upbeat coda: if the capacity for war is in our genes, so is the capacity for peace. We will end war someday, I said. The only question is how, and how soon.
I expected my neighbors to share my hope, just as most shared my dovish politics. But when I asked the sixty or so audience members if they thought humanity would ever abolish war, only a dozen—hesitantly—raised their hands. This was no anomaly. Ever since that evening, I’ve obsessively asked people whether they think war will end, once and for all. I’ve carried out polls whenever I have a captive audience—at talks I’ve given around the U.S. and in Europe, on the internet, at parties, even in the street. Over 80 percent of those I’ve queried—liberal, conservative, male, female, affluent, poor, educated, uneducated—say that war will never end.
A survey I carried out for the show “RadioLab” was typical. I approached a score of pedestrians on the streets of Hoboken, where I teach, and asked them if humans would ever stop fighting wars. I got three tentative Yeses and seventeen immediate, adamant Nos. “No,” replied Mark, a sixty-year-old dentist, “because of greed, and one-upmanship, and the hierarchy of power, in which everybody wants more.” War “is a universal law of life,” agreed Patel, a twenty-four-year-old computer scientist. “To get something, you have to fight for something.”
Young people seem especially fatalistic. I teach a course called “War and Human Nature” at my university. One assignment requires my students to ask ten or more classmates: “Will humans ever stop fighting wars, once and for all? Why or why not?” More than 90 percent of the four hundred or so respondents said “no.” The justifications were diverse: “We’re naturally evil” was especially common. “People are always going to hate and try to destroy ‘inferiors.’” “Monkeys fight with each other and because humans are animals too, we follow that pattern.” “Men are power crazy and women are not in power.” “People would just get bored with no war.”
Even more disconcertingly, some of those who answered “Yes” revealed in their explanations that they were actually pessimists: “Yes, because in the future the human species will unite to fight alien species.” “Yes, but it will only happen under the same one religion, because one’s beliefs are a driving force.” “Yes. When someone (Korea) launches a nuclear weapon. Then we’ll all stop messing with each other and keep it cool.” “Yes. Humanity will end wars once everyone is killed.” So, war will cease after we band together to fight alien invaders, we all convert to the same religion, we undergo a nuclear attack, or we all die.
Many authorities on war share this lack of faith. One of the Hudson Highland’s chief cultural attractions is the West Point Museum of the U.S. Military Academy. The museum offers a tour of the entire history of weaponry: Paleolithic stone axes, slings, chariots, crossbows, cannons (which during the Civil War were forged in Philipstown, where I live), blunderbusses, pistols, grenades, mortars, howitzers, machine guns, tanks, and bombers. The tour culminates with a replica of Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The displays are weirdly reminiscent of those showing the evolution of life, with increasingly deadly weapons substituted for organisms.
Proclamations throughout the museum heighten the sense of war’s inevitability. One, unattributed, reads: “Unquestionably, war-making is an aspect of human nature which will continue as nations attempt to impose their will upon each other.” Others quote Churchill: “Nothing is worse than war? Dishonor is worse than war. Slavery is worse than war”; Thucydides: “Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on”; and Plato: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Actually, the museum got this final attribution wrong. The philosopher George Santayana uttered these words as a bitter rebuke to descriptions of World War I as “the war to end all wars.”
The U.S. Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, also seems to lack faith in our ability to overcome war any time soon. On December 1, 2009, I heard a fleet of helicopters thrumming past my home, bearing Obama and his retinue to West Point. There, Obama told an assembly of cadets that, after months of deliberation, he had decided to send thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan. Nine days later, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, Obama declared: “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” He added: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Obama seemed to be echoing the message promoted at the West Point Museum: We have always fought, and we always will.
To purchase the The End of War, please visit our store.