Five Questions on War

Margaret MacMillan

Is war the natural state for humanity?
Prussian troops during their war with France in 1870.
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Five Questions on War: 1. Does our biology explain why we have war? 

Mongol troops besiege Baghdad in 1258

I say No: war is not engrained in us (but feel free to disagree with me and lots will).  Biology might explain why we sometimes lash out violently when we are angry or afraid, but not why we have wars. War is not a fist fight between individuals, or a brawl outside a bar. It is organised violence by an organised group, call it clan, tribe, horde, or nation. And that organised group has a purpose in mind.  War uses violence but it does so in a purposive and directed way. A gang that rushes helter-skelter at the enemy without ensuring it has the necessary weapons and the experience and knowledge of how to fight is not going to last very long against a more organised force.

Evolution has left us, in any case, with contradictory impulses. Yes, as individuals we can be violent but we also have a strong instinct of self-preservation.  One of the reasons the military take training so seriously is that they know that it is not natural to risk one’s life or to remain disciplined under great pressure.  And we ought to take into account culture as well as biology.  Some cultures inculcate habits and qualities—physical courage, a willingness obey orders or to sacrifice oneself– that fit the military well. Such societies, ancient Sparta or Rome, the Aztec, the Mongol or more recently Prussia, valued and admired war and were good at it, often better than their neighbours. We should also remember, however, that the values change over time. Sweden and Switzerland, whose fighters were the terror of Europe in early modern history, are now peaceable and contribute much to the humanitarian causes including the attempts to limit and outlaw war.

2. Have human beings always made war?

Another tricky one which has given rise to much debate.  Some of us, influenced perhaps by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like to think of a world in the far distant past where groups foraged and hunted for their sustenance, where war was not necessary because nature provided enough for everyone.  Before our ancestors settled down and became agriculturalists there was no way to accumulate wealth and no class divisions where the powerful lived off the labour of the poor.  The serpent that ended this early Edenic human history, so the story goes, was agriculture and permanent settlements.  People had more to defend and could no longer pick up and leave and so we had war.  As societies became more organised, they got better at making war. Is that picture right? We may never know or at best make educated guesses because the further back we go the less evidence we have. Early agricultural settlements around the world often had walls which suggest enemies. And archaeologists have found mass graves where the skeletons bear the marks of trauma which suggest conflict. Some of the earliest cave paintings appear to show warriors. Once we get to written records and sculpture, we can find plenty of evidence that wars happened among organised societies around the globe.

3. So does that mean the more organised the society the more it is likely to fight a war?

Not necessarily. Organised societies are better at fighting wars because they can mobilise their resources, from the people to fight to the materials and technology to produce weapons.  Fighting wars can in turn drive even more organisation such as bigger and more efficient bureaucracies and stronger central governments.  As the sociologist Charles Tilly put it ‘War made the state and the state made war’. Yet states may not choose to go to war. Some societies are lucky enough not to have threats to their existence or others may not value war as a tool of state or a good in itself. Again, culture matters. Think of Germany and Japan. Before the Second World War both were highly militarised societies led by elites who were prepared to wage aggressive wars of conquest. It is unthinkable that either country would start a war today for they are so different from the past. We know too what happens when governments try to fight wars that their peoples don’t support. A key factor in forcing both France and the United States to end their wars in Indochina was growing domestic opposition.

4. If women ran the world would it be more peaceful?

Empress Maria Theresa

Aristophanes wrote a play about what might happen if women took the initiative: his heroine Lysistrata succeeds in ending Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta by persuading the women on both sides to withhold sex from their men until the latter make peace.  That was a pleasant fantasy but history has many examples of women who have taken a leading role in peace movements or in attempts to outlaw certain kinds of weapons or even war itself. On the other hand, there are plenty of women leaders who took their countries to war – think of Elizabeth I, Maria Theresa, Golda Meir, or Margaret Thatcher. Or women have shamed men into fighting such as those who handed out white feathers during the First World War to men of military age who were not in uniform.

When it comes to women as warriors we get back to the debate over biology versus culture.  While women in the vast majority of societies around the world have not traditionally been expected to fight, is that because they are not good at it or because those societies have been patriarchal and expected only men to fight?  The evidence suggests the latter. There are enough examples of women who disguised themselves to fight in wars of the past. Recent archaeological evidence indicates that the Amazons were not just a myth but based on reality and that there really were Viking warrior women. In the Second World War Soviet women fought as bravely as men as bomber pilots, snipers or gunners and today a number of armed forces have women in combat roles.

5. Can we look forward to a world without war? 

We can always hope, can’t we? More, we ought to hope because if we assume war will always be with us, we may not do enough to try and prevent it. The First and Second World Wars were so encompassing and devastating to the world and the societies that fought them that a new term – total war – had to be found for them. They taught the world some salutary lessons. We learned that wars can rapidly run out of the control of those who started them and we found out how difficult they can be to stop. After both world wars leaders and their publics tried to find ways to build international institutions, norms and practices. The League of Nations after 1918 and the United Nations after 1945 were meant to prevent war and, to encourage disarmament and to build a fairer and more just world so that some of the causes of war could be removed. As time has passed and the generations succeed each other we have lost that sense of urgency and become complacent. We assume major war cannot happen to our world. That is what so many thought in Europe in 1914. History cannot predict the future but it can give us much needed warnings.

Margaret MacMillan is professor of History at the University of Toronto and emeritus professor of International History at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paris 1919: Six Months that Change the World and The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. War: How Conflict Shaped Us is her latest book.

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