Warfare provides people with a semblance of psychological positivity in oppressed societies where other outlets are lacking
Since it is 100 years ago this week that Britain entered the first world war – and at the moment the world seems to be especially ridden with conflict – it’s an opportune moment to reflect on why human beings seem to be unable to stop fighting wars.
In most cases wars are initiated by governments, not by populations. And, most of the time, they are the result of disputes over resources and land, or of a government’s desire to increase its influence and power.However, looking back over the history of warfare, what is most striking is how willing most people have been to fight in wars, or at least to support them.
When Great Britain joined the first world war, in August 1914, massive crowds celebrated outside Buckingham Palace. This celebratory mood was widespread throughout Europe. Writing of the German people’s response to the war, the historian Alan Bullock described “an unparalleled sense of national unity, which those who experienced it never forgot, an exalted sense of patriotism”.
The early American psychologist William James once suggested that war is so prevalent because of its positive psychological effects. It creates a sense of unity in the face of a collective threat. It binds people together
– not just the army engaged in battle, but the whole community. It brings a sense of cohesion, with communal goals, and inspires individual citizens (not just soldiers) to behave honourably and unselfishly, in the service of a greater good.
It supplies meaning and purpose, transcending the monotony of everyday life. Warfare also enables the expression of higher human qualities that often lie dormant in ordinary life, such as courage and self-sacrifice.
This seems tantamount to suggesting that human beings fight wars because we enjoy doing so. It’s easy to see how James’s ideas could apply to the large numbers of young British men volunteering to fight in Syria in recent months.
These young men see themselves as fighting a just cause with fellow Muslims, but they’re surely also seeking the sense of being more alive that James describes: a sense of cohesion and honour, which they – perhaps romantically – feel is more attainable in war than at home in the UK.
James’s argument is that human beings need to find activities that provide the same positive effects of warfare but which don’t involve the same devastation, or as he calls it, “the moral equivalent of war”. In other words, we have to find alternative activities to give us that sense of feeling alive, of belonging and purpose.
In stable, peaceful and more economically developed countries, such as the UK and the US, life is so rich and varied that there are many ways of satisfying these needs – through sport, our careers, entertainment and hobbies.
However, in other parts of the world where life is especially hard – when people live in poverty and are oppressed, and where there is little hope for the future, such as in Gaza, Palestine and many parts of Africa – it’s harder to satisfy those impulses.
Warfare may serve as a lowest common denominator to provide a semblance of psychological positivity, an attempt to live on a “higher plane of power”, in James’s words, with a sense of cohesion and purpose. If these needs are unsatisfied, and if there is an obvious enemy or oppressor to direct them towards, then warfare is almost inevitable.
This isn’t to say that a warring party may not have a just cause, and this argument doesn’t explore other important social and psychological factors involved in war, such as social identity and moral exclusion.
However, it does show that any stable, lasting peace depends on creating societies with a richness of opportunity and variety that can meet human needs. The fact that so many societies throughout the world fail to do this makes our future prospects of peace look very bleak
When and why did we invent war?
Human history is filled with conflict. Some of that conflict takes place on a small level involving only a few people -- sometimes the battle takes place within a single person's mind. But other conflicts span regions and can stretch on for decades.
Over the centuries, humans have described war as everything from a glorious struggle to a pointless, violent and inhuman activity. Have we always made war upon one another?
To answer the question, we first must define war. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, war is the "state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations." That definition helps us narrow down when humans invented war.
If we're talking about states or nations, we must focus on early civilizations. Before civilization, all humans were tribal and at least somewhat nomadic. It was only after we developed agriculture and settled down that we could build the resources needed for war.
That's not to suggest there were no conflicts among humans before civilization. It's likely that tribes fought one another or that internal struggles within a tribe ended with a physical confrontation. But while those struggles may have been violent in nature, they don't meet the definition of war.
Once we developed agriculture, humans were able to form larger communities. We were no longer restricted to living as small, mobile tribes. But building a community carried with it some dangers. It meant that people were producing resources
-- resources that other people might want or need. Early civilizations had to fight off bands of raiders to protect their land. As these communities became better at repelling raiders, they began to develop the tools and techniques that would later serve the basis for warfare.
Looking back to the cradle of civilization, we see that not everything was terribly civilized. In the land of Sumer, where modern day Iraq is now, there were several city-states. Each city-state was independent of the others, though throughout history they would occasionally create a united front against a common enemy.
But the city-states were prone to fighting each other. War was common in ancient Sumer. Techniques humans had learned to make tools were used to build weapons
Inventions like the wheel became important for designing vehicles of war such as chariots. The earliest records of war date around 2700 BC. The ancient Sumerians carved battle records onto stone tablets
The conflict was between the Sumerians and the neighboring Elamites, who lived in what is now Iran. We can't say that the battles between the two nations were part of the first war ever fought -- the earliest conflicts likely began 10,000 years ago in the late Paleolithic or early Neolithic periods, but we have no records from that time
Around 2700 B.C., the Sumerian king Enmebaragesi led soldiers against the Elamites and won, looting the nation in the process. It looks like the reason for the earliest war was that the Elamites were a potential threat to the Sumerians and they had resources the Sumerians wanted [source: HistoryNet].
For war to exist, nations or states must retain a sense of independence and detachment from other communities. Without this independence, there is no us-versus-them mentality.
As long as there is differentiation between communities, there is the potential for conflict. Nations that perceive a threat from a foreign state may initiate war in an attempt to head off future conquest.
Or a community might wage war in order to access resources that another community possesses. Ultimately, war requires that we identify ourselves as belonging to one group while simultaneously excluding other people.
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