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. In this compact, methodical treatise, Horgan examines dozens of examples and counterexamples — discussing chimpanzees and bonobos, warring and peaceful indigenous people, World War I and Vietnam, Margaret Mead and General Sherman — as he finds his way to war’s complicated origins. John Horgan sat down with McSweeney’s editor Jesse Nathan to discuss his new book, The End of War.
McSWEENEY’S: In The End of War you argue that war is not, in fact, ingrained in human nature. Do you consider yourself starry-eyed? Idealistic?
JOHN HORGAN: Actually, I consider myself to be pretty hard-nosed and skeptical about some human aspirations. My first three books were about how we face fundamental limits in what we can know about nature, ourselves, and ultimate reality. But in the same way that my research made me pessimistic about these endeavors, it made me optimistic about the prospects for eradicating war. When I would tell people I was working on a book about the possibility of ending war once and for all, they often looked at me with amusement, as if I’d confessed to belief in ghosts or angels (although I suspect more people believe in ghosts and angels than in a world without war). But once I gave them some details of my argument, they usually got very interested.
McSWEENEY’S: How did this book originate?
HORGAN: I’ve been obsessed with the craziness of war since I was a boy, when I first learned that at any moment nuclear bombs could wipe out humanity and even all life on earth. I’ve covered war-related topics throughout my career as a journalist. But I started thinking about writing this book four or five years ago, when I realized how many people think that war is a permanent part of the human condition.
McSWEENEY’S: Does The End of War serve as a prediction about our future, or is it more of an effort to articulate a choice we have?
HORGAN: Both. I predict that if we see war as a choice, and not as something that is foisted on us by forces beyond our control, and if we do all we can to end war, we will succeed.
McSWEENEY’S: You interviewed a lot of people in the course of your research. Does anyone stand out?
HORGAN: I was especially delighted to interview the legendary political scientist Gene Sharp, who has devoted his career to pointing out all the ways in which nonviolent actions can bring about dramatic political changes. Sharp’s writings have inspired lots of successful nonviolent movements, including the uprisings that toppled repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and even Occupy Wall Street. Some people revere him, with good reason, as an almost saintly figure, but in person he is a tough, no nonsense curmudgeon. He is so unflinchingly unsentimental about humanity, and clear-eyed about just how selfish, cruel, and stupid we can be. And yet far from succumbing to cynicism and pessimism, Sharp is an idealist, who has dedicated himself to helping us overcome our worst tendencies and create a better world.
McSWEENEY’S: What was your greatest discovery?
HORGAN: Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the oldest evidence for warfare—organized fighting between two or more groups—dates back only ten- or twelve-thousand years. I’d simply accepted, and had even helped promulgate, the claim of scientists that group violence dates back hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of years.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you identify as a pacifist?
HORGAN: I used to think of myself as a pacifist, and I have tremendous admiration for pacifists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But I’ve reluctantly come to believe that in certain situations, which I call damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemmas, we might need to use violence to prevent greater violence and suffering. But we need to do so in a way that does not glorify or legitimize violence, and only after all nonviolent solutions have failed. As much as possible, our actions should be consistent with the larger goal of ending war once and for all.
McSWEENEY’S: You come from a military family. Why didn’t you join the military?
HORGAN: There was no chance of that. I grew up in the sixties, and I was a typical counterculture kid, who questioned the values of his elders. Also, when I turned eighteen in 1971, the Vietnam War was still raging, and like many people in my generation, I thought the war was immoral or worse. “Not even wrong,” as I say in my book. I rejected not just that war, but militarism in general.
McSWEENEY’S: What can any one person really do to help bring about the end of war?
HORGAN: Talk to others about your views of war, and if they’re fatalists, try to convince them that they should be optimists. Seek out and support groups and political leaders who are seeking an end to war and militarism, or start such a group, or become such a leader yourself.
McSWEENEY’S: If we’re truly rational creatures, why haven’t we rid ourselves of war long ago?
HORGAN: Of course there have always been visionaries, from Buddha to Einstein, who have recognized the insanity of war. But the militarism meme is deeply entrenched in most societies, and it manages to convince even very smart people that war is rational. We reason that the best way to achieve peace is to arm ourselves and even attack potential enemies before they attack us. We need to recognize the fallacy of this sort of logic, which in the nuclear era poses a threat to our very existence.
McSWEENEY’S: Are there examples of warring cultures that have found a more peaceful way to exist?
HORGAN: The Waorani, a tribal society in the Amazonian rainforest, were at one time the most violent people known to anthropologists. They came to recognize that warfare threatened their very existence, and yet people in different villages feared each other so much that they didn’t dare to meet to negotiate a truce. But then missionaries came up with an ingenious solution to help them out of their impasse. (Read Chapter Five, which is called “Choosing Peace,” if you want to know what the solution is.)
McSWEENEY’S: How do you respond to environmentalists who warn that population growth plus global warming, if unchecked, might lead to violent clashes over food and fresh water?
HORGAN: I think these sorts of scary predictions are counterproductive. If you scare people in this way, they might arm themselves for the approaching apocalypse instead of trying to live in more sustainable ways. There is not a strong correlation between war and resource scarcity. We should pursue environmental goals for their own sake, not to avoid war.
McSWEENEY’S: How long will it take for us to achieve a world without war?
HORGAN: Not long at all. If political leaders and citizens are committed to the goal of ending international war, and finding nonviolent means of resolving disputes, they can end armed conflict at any time and start cutting back on their armies. Those who find this possibility unlikely should consider the remarkably rapid—and nonviolent!—end of the Soviet Union, one of the most powerful, oppressive regimes in history