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.
Hawks versus Doves
Scholars from a wide range of disciplines—anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, genetics, psychology, and neuroscience as well as history, political science, and economics—are investigating war. “Thirty years ago all the anthropologists studying war would have fit in one room,” wrote anthropologist Brian Ferguson recently. “How times have changed!” The field is, naturally, contentious. Anthropologist Keith Otterbein divides researchers into two camps: “hawks,” who stress the ubiquity of war in human history and prehistory and often suggest that human pugnacity is innate; and “doves,” who assert that war emerged only within the last ten thousand years in response to changing environmental and cultural circumstances.
This dichotomy dates back centuries. The ur-hawk was the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who characterized life before the advent of state-imposed law and order as “poor, nasty, brutish, short”—a “warre of every man against every man.” A century later Jean-Jacques Rousseau retorted that humans in their natural condition—before they were corrupted by civilization—were “noble savages” at peace with each other and with nature.
Over the past few decades several lines of evidence have bolstered the hawk position. One involves fieldwork by anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon among the Yanomamo, a tribal people dwelling in Amazonia. In his 1968 book, Yanomamo: The Fierce People, Chagnon describes Yanomamo men from rival villages engaging in lethal raids and counterraids, often triggered by disputes over women. Published during the Vietnam War, Chagnon’s work provoked widespread debate and became one of the best-selling ethnographic works of all time. In 1988 Chagnon provoked headlines again with a report that Yanomamo killers have, on average, twice as many wives and three times as many children as non-killers. When I interviewed Chagnon for Scientific American, he called the non-killers “wimps.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of archaeological and ethnographic surveys have indicated that the Yanomamo are not atypical. In his 2003 book, Constant Battles, archaeologist Steven A. LeBlanc asserts that more than 90 percent of pre-state, tribal societies engaged in at least occasional warfare, and many fought constantly. Tribal combat usually involved skirmishes, raids, and ambushes rather than pitched battles, but over time the fighting could kill 25 percent or more of the population. These findings, LeBlanc proclaims, demolish the Rousseauesque “myth of the peaceful savage.”
Another dramatic discovery came in the mid-1970s. Prior to that date, biologists had believed that only humans, out of all primates, engage in lethal group aggression. Then researchers at Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania, watched a band of male chimpanzees ambush and kill a chimp from another troop. Subsequent observations established that male chimps routinely team up to patrol their territory. If they catch a male chimp from a neighboring troop, they beat him, often to death. Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives; our lineages diverged as recently as five million years ago.
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who studied at Gombe in the 1970s, spells out the significance of these findings in his 1996 book, Demonic Males. “Chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war,” Wrangham asserts, “making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” Citing the example of the Yanomamo and other violent tribes, Wrangham contends that natural selection favored ambitious, aggressive males. “Males have evolved to possess strong appetites for power,” he writes, “because with extraordinary power comes extraordinary reproductive success.”
This emphasis on war’s biological basis dovetails with a broader scientific trend toward explaining our behavior in terms of nature rather than nurture. Practitioners of evolutionary psychology claim that many traits thought to be entirely cultural—our political predilections, our religious yearnings, even our tastes in art and music—stem from adaptations embedded in our ancestors by natural selection. Meanwhile, during the past two decades geneticists have linked specific genes to virtually every possible trait and disorder, from high intelligence to obsessive gambling. Researchers in New Zealand recently claimed to have found a “warrior gene” that occurs with disproportionate frequency in the Maori, a tribal people renowned for their truculence.
Hence evolutionary psychology and human genetics, proclaims psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2002 best seller, The Blank Slate, have resolved the age-old nature-nurture debate decisively in favor of nature. According to Pinker, studies of the Yanomamo and other groups have also revealed that “Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong” about the origins of warfare. “The forces of evolution, not just the idiosyncrasies of a particular human culture, prepared us for violence.”
This hawkish theme animates a slew of other recent books, with titles like The Dark Side of Man, War Before Civilization, War in Human Civilization, Evil Genes, and War and Sex. “There is something about human nature, something inside us, that binds us to war,” declares philosopher David Livingstone Smith in his 2007 book, The Most Dangerous Animal. The message that the public—and apparently even President Obama—is taking from these books is that we have always fought, and we always will, because war is in our genes.
Doves Fight Back
When I spoke at St. Philip’s church in 2003, I feared the hawks might be right, even though I rejected fatalism. But the research I’ve done since then, and my interviews with prominent doves, have convinced me that hawks have exaggerated levels of violence among our ancestors and primate cousins. Anthropologist Robert Sussman of Washington University accuses hawks of promulgating the “five o’clock news” view of human nature. Just as evening news shows follow the dictum “If it bleeds, it leads,” Sussman says, so hawk accounts of human behavior give disproportionate attention to conflict. “Statistically, it is more common for humans to be cooperative and to attempt to get along than it is for them to be uncooperative and aggressive towards one another.”
Other scientists point out that no archaeological or fossil evidence supports the claim that our ancestors have been killing each other for millions, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. The oldest unambiguous homicide victim was a young man who died in the Nile Valley twenty thousand years ago; his skeleton has three spear points embedded in it. The oldest clear-cut evidence of lethal group violence is a grave site in Sudan along the Nile River; the fourteen-thousand-year-old site contains fifty-nine skeletons, about half of which bear marks of violence, such as stone-projectile points stuck in them. Most of the other evidence for early warfare in Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Americas is less than twelve thousand years old, says Ferguson. The evidence consists of mass graves of skeletons with crushed skulls, hack marks and projectile points embedded in them; rock art depicting battles with spears, clubs, and bows and arrows; and settlements clearly fortified for protection against attacks. Addressing whether he is unfairly equating absence of evidence of war in earlier periods with evidence of war’s absence, Ferguson responds that in many regions “we have good recovery of skeletons and settlement data, and the signs of war aren’t there.” Elsewhere, “unmistakable” evidence appears in a region and persists unbroken for long periods. For instance, once war broke out about ten thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, it never stopped. Ferguson suspects that the key to war’s emergence was the organization of humans into hierarchical societies ruled by powerful leaders, who seek to gain more power through violence. “Leaders often favor war,” he says, “because war favors leaders.”
Archaeologist Jonathan Haas of the University of Chicago concurs that “there is negligible evidence for any kind of warfare anywhere in the world before about 10,000 years ago.” Although warfare then became widespread, it has always fluctuated in intensity from region to region and across time. “Groups that are at war in one era or generation may be at peace in the next.” This pattern, Haas argues, contradicts the “preposterous” notion that warfare is so innate that it is inevitable. “If war is deeply rooted in our biology, then it’s going to be there all the time,” Haas says. “And it’s just not.” War, Haas adds, is certainly not innate in the same sense as language, a trait possessed by all known human societies at all times. The research of anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember, who oversee Yale University’s Human Relations Area Files, a database on 360 cultures past and present, corroborates Haas’s contention. More than 90 percent of these 360 societies have engaged in warfare, but some fight constantly and others rarely, while a few have never been observed fighting. “That suggests to me that we are not dealing with genes or a biological propensity,” Melvin Ember says. The Embers have found correlations between rates of warfare and environmental factors, notably droughts, floods, volcanoes, insect infestations, and other events that provoke fears of famine.
One of the best-known critics of the hawk position is primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies captive chimps and monkeys at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Georgia. The dove counterpart to Wrangham, de Waal draws attention to bonobos, or “pygmy chimps,” which are darker-skinned and slimmer than ordinary chimpanzees and have markedly different lifestyles. Observations carried out during the past two decades have revealed that bonobos exhibit “no deadly warfare,” comments de Waal, “little hunting, no male dominance, and enormous amounts of sex.” Sexual interactions, de Waal suggests, reduce violence both within and between bonobo troops, just as intermarriage does between human tribes. Bonobos are just as genetically related to us as chimpanzees, de Waal asserts, and hence “exactly, equally relevant to this whole discussion” about the origins of warfare. “Just imagine,” he writes, “that we had never heard of chimpanzees or baboons and had known bonobos first. We would at present most likely believe that early hominids lived in female-centered societies, in which sex served important social functions and in which warfare was rare or absent.” Warfare, de Waal concludes, “is not inevitable.”
Biologist Robert Sapolsky accuses hawks of underestimating the power of culture to change primate behavior. Since the early 1980s, Sapolsky has been traveling to Kenya to spy on what he calls “Forest Troop,” a group of baboons living near a garbage dump. Because they would have to fight baboons from another troop camped nearby, only the toughest males of Forest Troop frequented the dump. In the mid-1980s, all those males died after contracting tuberculosis from contaminated meat at the dump. The epidemic left Forest Troop with many more females than males, and with noticeably less belligerent males. Conflict within the troop dropped dramatically; Sapolsky even observed males grooming each other, which he says is “nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.” This sea change has persisted through to the present. “Is a world of peacefully co-existing human Forest Troops possible?” Sapolsky asks. “Anyone who says, ‘No, it is beyond our nature,’ knows too little about primates, including ourselves.”
Hawks and Doves Agree!
So how do hawks react to these attacks on their perspective? To be sure, hawks quibble with doves over levels of violence among ancestral humans, modern hunter-gatherers, bonobos, and other groups, as well as over the relative contributions of nature and nurture to aggression. But hawks agree with doves on two crucial points: biology alone cannot explain the on-again-off-again pattern of warfare, and war is not so innate that it is inevitable. “We have will, we have moral systems, we have institutional arrangements,” Wrangham admitted, when I interviewed him for the Internet show Bloggingheads.tv. “We can get away from our biology, and we do all the time.” Even male-chimpanzee violence, he notes, is not entirely “instinctual” but has an element of calculation; only when they have an overwhelming advantage do chimps attack members of another troop.
Chagnon, similarly, has always denied that Yanomamo males are compelled to fight by a “war gene” or instinct. Truly compulsive, out-of-control killers, Chagnon says, are quickly killed themselves; successful warriors are usually quite cautious. Moreover, many Yanomamo warriors have confessed to Chagnon that they loathe war and wish it could be abolished from their culture—and in fact rates of violence have recently dropped dramatically as Yanomamo villages have accepted the laws and mores of the outside world.
Warfare is “not so hardwired that it can’t stop,” agrees LeBlanc. Many formerly warlike societies—notably Nazi Germany and imperial Japan—have embraced peace after it was imposed on them, and some have done so voluntarily. Vikings were once the scourge of Europe, but their Swedish descendants have not fought a war in almost two hundred years. “We are definitely malleable and susceptible to cultural influence,” LeBlanc says. Asked if humans can stop fighting wars once and for all, LeBlanc replies, “Yes, I think it’s completely possible.”
The Modern Decline of War
Pinker, who derides Rousseauesque thinking in The Blank Slate, also rejects fatalism. The notion that war is inevitable, he says, is based on “a very primitive understanding of how evolution would affect behavior. Namely, that we’re some kind of automata where aggressive genes force us to pick up knives and guns like zombies and attack each other without any thoughts going through our heads.” Cultural factors, Pinker points out, are already helping us solve the problem of war. “We are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth,” he declares. Hard as it may be to believe, he says, humanity as a whole is less warlike than it used to be. Counting casualties always involves guesswork, but scholars have estimated that the wars of the twentieth century killed as many as two hundred million people. As staggering as that number is, it comprises only about 2 percent of all twentieth-century deaths; by comparison, smallpox alone killed as many as five hundred million people before being eradicated in the 1970s. The death rate from war in the last century, asserts archaeologist Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization, is an order of magnitude less than the rate among tribal societies such as the Enga, of New Guinea, and the Yanomamo, whose weapons consist only of clubs, spears, and arrows rather than machine guns and bombs.
If war is defined as an armed conflict between two or more nations resulting in at least a thousand deaths per year, there have been few wars since World War II—and no wars at all between first-world, developed nations. Most conflicts now consist of guerilla wars, insurgencies, and terrorism—or what political scientist John Mueller calls “the remnants of war.” Mueller rejects biological explanations for the trend, noting that “testosterone levels seem to be as high as ever.” He asserts that “a continuing decline in war does seem to be an entirely reasonable prospect.”
“Wars grab headlines,” the United Nations declares in its recent report The Global Burden of Armed Violence, which presents statistics culled from a variety of major databases, but war-related deaths are “remarkably low in comparison to historical figures.” Since 2004, the report estimates, 50,000 soldiers and civilians have died violently each year in armed conflicts, including civil wars and terrorism; if deaths from war-related disease and famine are included, the total rises to 250,000. In contrast, war killed as many as 2 million people annually in the first half of the twentieth century and 500,000 per year in the second half. Many more people worldwide are now killed each year by automobile accidents (1.2 million) and cancer (8 million) than by war.
In a recent essay, Pinker describes the decline of violence as a “fractal” phenomenon, ranging from international war down to interpersonal violence. For example, since the Middles Ages homicide rates in Western Europe, one of the few regions with reliable historical records, have fallen by more than an order of magnitude. Pinker identifies several possible reasons for the modern decline of violence: First, the creation of stable states with effective legal systems and police forces has eliminated the endless feuding that plagues tribal societies such as the Yanomamo. Second, increased life expectancies make us less willing to risk our lives by engaging in violence. Third, as a result of globalization and communications, we have become increasingly dependent on—and empathetic toward—others outside our immediate “tribes.” “The forces of modernity are making things better and better,” Pinker says.
This analysis turns the myth of the peaceful savage on its head, suggesting that modern civilization, rather than inflicting the problem of social violence on us, is helping us solve it. At its best, civilization provides us with institutions that resolve disputes by establishing laws, negotiating agreements, and enforcing them. War, rape, and murder are “all much less common in state societies today,” the geographer Jared Diamond tells me, “than in the New Guinea tribal societies where I’ve worked. One could say that a major reason for the existence of states is to reduce the frequency of war, rape, and murder.” He adds, “War is preventable, it’s not inevitable.”
War as a Solvable Problem
In short, many lines of evidence contradict the belief that war is a biologically determined constant of the human condition. Hawks and doves alike agree that war—while underpinned by biology, as all human behaviors are—is triggered by mutable cultural and environmental conditions, and that much can be done, and has been done, to reduce the risk of war.
To be sure, if war is not inevitable, neither is peace. Al Qaeda could detonate a nuclear suitcase bomb in New York City tomorrow, reversing the recent decline in war-related casualties. Nations around the world still maintain huge, deadly arsenals, including weapons of mass destruction, and wars still ravage the Middle East, Central Africa, and other regions. Other obstacles to peace include climate change, which could produce ecological crises that trigger social unrest; overpopulation, particularly when it produces a surplus of what some demographers call “bare branches”—unmarried, unemployed young men who are associated with conflict; the spread of violent religious extremism; and the wide availability of AK-47s and other “small arms,” which produce most war fatalities. “This past year saw increasing threats to security, stability, and peace in nearly every corner of the globe,” declares the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in its 2009 Yearbook.
So what can we do to further reduce the risk of war? Some scholars, notably Yale historian Bruce Russett, maintain that the best way to promote peace is to promote democracy. Russett has shown that during the past two centuries democracies such as the United States—while they often fight non-democracies—rarely, if ever, fight each other. The number of electoral democracies has risen from 20 in 1945 to 119 today, according to Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog group; this trend has almost certainly contributed to the recent decline in international war. The more democratic the world becomes, the less likely it is to produce violent tyrants such as Hitler, Pol Pot, or Idi Amin.
Promoting women’s rights may also make us more peaceful. Many studies have demonstrated that as female education and economic opportunities rise, birth rates fall. Stabilized populations decrease demands on governmental and medical services and depletion of natural resources and hence the likelihood of social unrest. Lower birth rates also reduce bare branches, the young men associated with higher rates of violent conflict both within and between nations. “Education of girls is by far the best investment you can make” to promote peace in developing nations, says anthropologist Melvin Konner of Emory University.
Other proposals for reducing conflict include finding cheaper, cleaner sources of energy, which can boost economic development without degrading the environment; transforming the United Nations into a more effective global peacekeeping force; and curbing the proliferation of weapons, especially those that can cause mass destruction. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in part because of his commitment to ridding the world of all nuclear arms.
Of course there can be no single solution for eradicating war, which, it seems fair to say, is overdetermined. That is, it can spring from a multiplicity of causes, any combination of which may be sufficient but not necessary for war to occur. If war is overdetermined, peace must be, too. Moreover, war keeps changing as a result of demographic, political, economic, technological, and even ecological trends. We should nonetheless view war not as a permanent feature of the human condition—stemming from our genes or from original sin—but as a solvable, scientific problem. War is certainly a dauntingly complex phenomenon, with political, economic, and social ramifications. But the same could be said of global warming, overpopulation, and AIDS, all of which are being rigorously addressed by scientists. Pinker argues that war receives too little scientific attention—in spite of the recent upswing in research—given the magnitude of the problem. “If I want to look at the effect of color on visual attention, there are 4,000 papers on that,” Pinker says, whereas there are far fewer rigorous, empirical papers on “what kinds of governments invade each other.”
When I proposed treating war as a scientific problem, at a recent conference in Portugal, I was chided by physicist Freeman Dyson, who spoke right after me. War is far too important, Dyson said, to be left to scientists; it is a political and social problem that all people must work together to solve. Dyson is right: scientists alone cannot solve war. But, through empirical studies, scientists can help identify potential solutions for citizens and political leaders to consider.
Peace is a challenge at least as worthy of pursuit as a cheap, clean, renewable source of energy or cures for AIDS or cancer. War research would be the ultimate multidisciplinary enterprise, drawing upon such diverse fields as game theory, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, theology, ecology, political science, and economics. The short-term goal of researchers would be to find ways to reduce conflict in the world today, wherever it might occur. The long-term goal would be to explore how nations can make the transition toward eliminating or at least greatly reducing armies and arsenals, especially weapons of mass destruction. We can eradicate war, William James once asserted, only by finding a substitute, “the moral equivalent of war,” to challenge and engage young men. James proposed enlisting them in a “war against nature,” engaging in perilous occupations such as mining, logging, and ocean fishing. I have a better idea: make the quest for peace the moral equivalent of war for all young people, male and female.
Defining “The End of War”
Speaking at American University in June 1963, President John Kennedy rejected fatalism toward war. “Too many of us think [peace] is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable—that mankind is doomed—that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that. Our problems are man-made—therefore, they can be solved by man.” He added, “There is no single, simple key to this peace—no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation.”
The claim that war is inevitable is wrong on both empirical and moral grounds. Empirical because research demonstrates that war and other forms of lethal social aggression stem less from some hardwired instinct than from mutable cultural and environmental conditions; much can be done, and has been done, to reduce the risk of war. Moral because the belief that war will never end helps perpetuate it. The more certain we are that the world is intrinsically, irredeemably violent, the more likely we are to support militaristic leaders and policies. Our first step toward ending war is to believe that we can end it.
By “the end of war,” I mean first and foremost the abolition of international war, in which nations deploy lethal force or the threat thereof to resolve disputes. I also mean disarmament. Nations would possess only armed forces necessary for self-defense and internal policing purposes, to protect themselves from violent individuals or groups. Weapons of mass destruction—including nuclear, biological, chemical, and “conventional” arms that can inflict enormous damage—would be banned. My hope, and expectation, is that military clashes between nations would become as inconceivable as war is now between the United States and Canada, or even New York and New Jersey. Eventually other forms of large-scale violence—genocide, civil wars, insurgencies, terrorist attacks—would become rare as well.
Philosopher Michael Walzer dismisses world peace as a utopian or even religious fantasy that can never be attained. “In our myths and visions, the end of war is also the end of secular history,” Walzer, a self-described liberal who opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, writes in Just and Unjust Wars. “Those of us trapped within that history, who see no end to it, have no choice but to fight on, defending the values to which we are committed, unless or until some alternative means of defense can be found.”
But the end of war does not mean the end of all conflict, as fatalists often imply. If large-scale military violence ceases, the world will still be wracked by economic, political, ethnic, and religious disputes. Most people will resolve differences through debate, negotiations, elections, contracts, and courts, without killing each other by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions. The European Union provides demonstrative proof that such a near-peaceful society is possible. So does the United States. Americans are an enormously diverse and fractious bunch. We argue, loudly, over every possible issue, including war itself, and yet, with rare exceptions, we do not bomb and shoot each other when we disagree.
The political scientist Randall Forsberg, who spearheaded the nuclear-freeze movement in the early 1980s and continued to promote schemes for international disarmament until her death, in 2007, notes that “ridiculing the idea of the abolition of war has become a habit of modern culture.” The reason, she explains, is that “we mistakenly confuse the end of war with utopia.” Ending war between nations, she points out, “would not end conflict, starvation, crime, corruption, pollution, disease, and so on: it would merely rid the world of one more pernicious custom, freeing up time, energy, and resources to address other problems.” Someday we will reject war, Forsberg believed, just as we have rejected loathsome practices such as human sacrifice, slavery, dueling, and cannibalism.
Curing Cancer versus Ending War
Optimists have proclaimed the imminence of peace many times in the past. “Over the past two centuries,” comments historian Donald Kagan, “the only thing more common than predictions about the end of war has been war itself.” In his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant expressed the hope that representative government would bring an end to war. In 1848 John Stuart Mill suggested that commerce between nations was “rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which act in opposition to it.” British journalist and politician Norman Angell offered similar arguments, in 1909, in his international best seller The Great Illusion, which asserted that the nations of Europe no longer had any rational reason to fight.
Never mind that World War I actually bore out Angell’s claim that war’s destructive consequences vastly outweigh any benefits. All the past prophecies of world peace raise a legitimate question: If a predicted event keeps failing to occur, at what point should we stop believing that event will ever occur? It depends on what’s being predicted. Some goals are so reasonable, as well as desirable, that we should never stop trying to achieve them, no matter how often our hopes are dashed.
Chemist Linus Pauling, the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes, devoted himself to ending both war and cancer. The first of these Nobels he won in chemistry, in 1954, for explaining the chemical bond in quantum terms. He also helped found molecular biology and genetic medicine with his pioneering work on the structure of proteins and antibodies and diseases such as sickle cell anemia. In 1962 he won his second Nobel for helping to bring about a U.S.-Soviet ban on atmospheric nuclear testing. In the final decades of his life, Pauling advocated massive doses of vitamin C to prevent and treat cancer.
In his 1958 book, No More War!, Pauling wrote: “We are living through that unique epoch in the history of civilization when war will cease to be the means of settling great world problems.” He urged the United Nations to form a “World Peace Research Organization” dedicated to solving “problems of the kind that have in the past led to war.” Twenty-five years later, in the preface to the 1983 edition of No More War!, Pauling expressed hope that in another twenty-five years there would be “no need to republish the book, because the goal of world peace will have been achieved, militarism and nuclear weapons will have been brought under control, and the threat of world destruction will finally have been abolished.” But the fiftieth anniversary of the book has come and gone, and we still live in the shadow of war and militarism.
Cancer also continues to ravage humanity, in spite of the efforts of Pauling (felled by prostate cancer in 1994) and many other scientists to find a cure. Given the poor record of cancer research, we should certainly be skeptical when scientists say they have discovered a cure for the disease, as they have countless times during the past few decades. But we should not mock them or tell them to abandon their search just because they have failed so far. Cancer is such a scourge that we never can—or should—cease trying to overcome it. The quest for a cure is noble.
Like cancer, war causes immense suffering, and it diverts vast amounts of human intelligence and other resources away from other problems. But war and cancer differ in one crucial way: whereas cancer is a stubborn aspect of nature that in many respects lies beyond our control, war is entirely our creation. War can end tomorrow through a simple act of will on the part of a relatively small number of leaders and combatants around the world. That gives us an even greater responsibility to persist in our efforts to abolish war, no matter how often our hopes are thwarted. Even Kagan, an arch-fatalist, acknowledges, “It would be wrong to despair of reducing the danger and frequency of wars.”
Living in War’s Shadow
I have never served in the military, fired a weapon at someone, been fired at. No loved ones or close friends have been casualties of war. And yet, like everyone else alive today, I have always lived in war’s shadow. My grandfather and father, John Sr. and John Jr., were both navy men. My grandfather fought in both world wars and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. My father attended the Naval Academy and served on a destroyer in World War II. As a boy, I played with a Japanese rifle, with attached bayonet, that my father had brought back from the war. When I was in elementary school, in the late 1950s, the sonic booms of military jets rattled the windows of our house in suburban Connecticut. My teachers instructed my classmates and me to cover our eyes and duck under our desks if we saw a big flash outside. In 1971, when I graduated from high school, the Vietnam War was raging. I avoided the draft only by drawing a high number in the lottery.
For the past two decades, my family and I have lived in the Hudson Highlands, about forty miles north of New York City. Even in this idyllic spot, where the mighty Hudson River courses through steep, densely wooded hills, we cannot forget the violence of the world. We occasionally hear the thunder of mortars and howitzers from the artillery range at West Point, directly across the river from us. If the wind is blowing in the right direction, we can even hear the rat-a-tat of small-arms fire from Camp Smith, a National Army Reserve base four miles south of us, where troops bound for Iraq practice anti-insurgency techniques. Near Camp Smith squats the Indian Point nuclear-power plant, ringed with razor wire and guards toting assault rifles.
On September 11, 2001, a jumbo jet roared just a few hundred feet above Indian Point’s domed containment vessels. On that crisp, cloudless morning, my wife, Suzie, and I, after hearing the horrifying initial news reports from Manhattan, climbed a hill from which the city’s skyline is visible. By the time we reached the hilltop, we could see only smoke where the Twin Towers had stood. As we made our way back home, our thoughts turned to our kids, Mac, who was eight then, and Skye, who was six. Should we pick them up from school? What would we tell them about this terrible event? How would this affect their lives?
In the halcyon years before 9/11, I had come to believe that my children would grow up without the fear of war that had pervaded my childhood. Wasn’t that the “peace dividend” that the end of the Cold War was supposed to bequeath us? The end of the threat of nuclear war and even, eventually, war in general? After 9/11, I realized that peace might be more difficult to attain than I had expected. But since then, as a result of my research on warfare—and perhaps because of some genetic program triggered by fatherhood—my conviction has grown stronger than ever that Mac and Skye will live to see a world without war.
Some days, that conviction is sorely tested—for example, when I began teaching a course called War and Human Nature, in 2006. On the first day of class, I asked the sixteen students whether they thought war would ever end. Eleven said no, five yes. But two of those who had answered yes said war would end after a global nuclear war; one said war would end after everyone converted to the same religion. When I asked the pessimists to explain their perspective, they responded with different versions of the idea that war is “in our genes.” I vowed that by the end of the semester I would convince them that war is not an inevitable consequence of our innate aggression. They looked dubious. I asked them how many of them had been in a physical fight within the previous five years, and to my dismay virtually all of them—including several females!—raised their hands.
I spent the train ride home jotting down arguments that might make my students more optimistic. When I walked into my house, I found Mac in the living room, gleefully assembling an airsoft sniper rifle—an electric-powered BB gun modeled after the M-4 used by many U.S. troops—that had just arrived in the mail. Mac now participates in airsoft war games with scores of other camouflaged enthusiasts—many of them veterans of real combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—in wooded preserves in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. He also eagerly consumes documentaries and books about war. Once, when I expressed puzzlement over his fascination with war, Mac pointed out that my grandfather and father were both soldiers who had fought in wars; I, the peacenik, am the oddball. Plus, I like war movies, and I play hockey!
But when my faith in a warless future wavers, I remind myself that just two decades ago humanity still faced the threat of a global nuclear holocaust that could destroy all life on earth. Then, incredibly, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended peacefully. Apartheid also ended in South Africa without significant violence, and human rights have advanced elsewhere around the world. Meanwhile, science is helping us find ways to thrive without fouling our land, air, and water, or ravaging the rest of nature. Given all these achievements, surely we are intelligent enough to solve the problem of war.
I take heart from the optimism of scientists like evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. In his 1978 best seller, On Human Nature, he presents a hawkish view of human conflict: “Are human beings innately aggressive? This is a favorite question of college seminars and cocktail party conversations, and one that raises emotion in political ideologues of all stripes. The answer to it is yes.” Warfare, Wilson writes, “has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states.”
I recently invited Wilson to my school to give him an award for his conservation work, and I asked if his views on warfare had changed over the years. He replied that he has not budged from his long-standing position that war has deep biological roots. He pointed out, however, that he has always emphasized the “lability” of group aggression, which takes different forms and even vanishes under certain circumstances. He is therefore confident that we will find ways to cease making war on each other as well as on nature.
“I’m optimistic about saving biodiversity,” Wilson told me. “And I think that once we face the problems underlying the origins of tribalism and religious extremism—face them frankly and look for the roots—then we’ll find a solution to those, too, in terms of an informed international negotiation system.” Wilson paused and added, “We have no option but optimism.”
Photo: Lillis Werder