Early in 2003, Frank Geer, an Episcopal priest in my hometown, invited me to speak at the old stone church where he serves as pastor. At the time, everyone was fretting over whether the United States was going to invade Iraq, so Frank suggested a war-related topic. I decided to address a question that had long preoccupied me: Is war in our genes?
By the time I arrived at St. Philip’s Church on the evening of March 31, 2003, U.S. ground troops had already swept into Iraq and seized Baghdad. In my talk, I noted that scientists had uncovered evidence of lethal group violence deep in our evolutionary past. “Our history and prehistory,” I said, “are soaked in blood.” Some studies indicated that natural selection bred a propensity for violence into male ancestors. I quoted Sergeant Eric Schrumpf, an army sniper in Baghdad, who had told the New York Times, “We had a great day. We killed a lot of people.” Worried that I was compounding everyone’s gloom, I offered an upbeat coda. “If the capacity for war is in our genes,” I said, “so is the capacity—and the desire—to end war. We will abolish war someday. The only question is how, and how soon.” I admitted, however, that wishful thinking might be clouding my judgment. Right up until the United States invaded Iraq, I hadn’t believed it would happen.
Before my neighbors went home, I asked how many thought that one day humanity would stop fighting wars once and for all. To my surprise, only a dozen of the sixty or so people in the audience, most of them liberal peaceniks like me, raised their hands. At least I hadn’t been preaching to the converted.
Since that evening, I have done much more research on the roots of armed conflict, while continuing to probe people’s attitudes toward war. I’ve called for a show of hands while lecturing in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, New Mexico, England, and Portugal. I’ve queried people on the Internet, as well as almost five hundred students at the college where I teach in Hoboken, New Jersey. More than 80 percent of the responses have been negative: war will never end. A poll I carried out for the NPR show Radio Lab was typical. I approached a score of pedestrians on the streets of Hoboken and asked them if humans would ever stop fighting wars. I got three tentative yeses and seventeen immediate, adamant noes. “No,” replied Mark, a sixty-one-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.”
Some prominent pundits are equally fatalistic. In his book Carnage and Culture, historian Victor Davis Hanson derides the end of war as a “fantasy.” War “seems innate to the human species,” he writes. “Nations, clans, and tribes, it seems, will continue to fight despite international threats, sanctions, and the lessons of history.” In Errol Morris’s documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who as secretary of defense oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, interrupts his breast-beating to intone, “I’m not so naive or simplistic to believe that we can eliminate war. We’re not going to change human nature anytime soon.”
Popular culture amplifies these pessimistic assertions. War invariably wracks our future in science-fictional films like The Terminator, television shows like Battlestar Galactica, video games like Metal Gear Solid. My teenage son, Mac, like many boys his age (and like his father) an avid consumer of violent media, recently drew my attention to an episode of the cartoon show South Park that bears on my hopes for a peaceful world. Cartman, the most foulmouthed of the show’s diminutive characters, buys sea monkeys and places them in an aquarium. The sea monkeys split into two societies that worship rival Gods and suicide-bomb each other to death. Cartman’s friend Kyle laments, “I guess this proves that war is the natural order of life.”
Even President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has expressed fatalistic sentiments. During his acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, he asserted that “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.” This speech upset me even more than Obama’s decision just eight days earlier to send thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The fact is that research on warfare simply doesn’t support the claim that war is so deeply rooted in our nature that we can never stop fighting.
Photo: Lillis Werder
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