Natural Born Warmongers?

“War is both intensely horrible and exquisitely pleasurable. It is horrible because of the danger and suffering that soldiers and civilians endure, and the unavoidable guilt that comes with killing. It is pleasurable because –- like all pleasures –- it is something that benefitted our ancient ancestors who were victors in the bloody struggle for resources. The joy of war is the joy of the hunt, of bringing down game, of ridding the world of a man-eating monster or obliterating a plague… We will never stop men from enjoying war, and trying to do so is a fool’s errand. The most that we can hope for, in the end, is for men to detest it more than they enjoy it, and the only way to shift that balance is to expose the self-deception that makes killing bearable.” (David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, p 215)

David Livingstone Smith’s new book is best described as an account of war from a neurobiological, psychological, anthropological, and evolutionary perspective, and a disturbing one that won’t leave you feeling optimistic about improving ourselves. As he sees it, there are three components to the question “Why do we war?”. They are: (1) “What triggers war to begin with?” (2) “How does war benefit a species in the long run?” (3) “What is psychologically appealing about war?” The first two are easy to answer, while the third is rather complicated, and the point of the book. Let’s take them in turn.

(1) What triggers war? No mystery here: the need for resources. Just as chimpanzees attack one another in order to secure and protect resources for themselves and their kin, so do we. By intimidating or killing rivals, we gain territory, fossil fuels, or whatever we’re after. The difference between us and chimps, of course, is that as a conceptual species we fight for ideas of resources as often as material ones, even abstract ideas like national honor or spiritual righteousness.

(2) How does war contribute to a species’ reproductive success? The answer again is obvious: because the most efficiently brutal men survive. Our weaker and more pacifistic ancestors got killed and withered on the evolutionary vine. Genetic history is always written by the victors, and because warrior heroes usually make attractive mates, they also have more reproductive success than other men. So for better or worse (the latter, as far as I’m concerned), our homicidal impulses have been handed down to us through natural selection.

We have very strong homicidal impulses, and it’s dangerous to deny this fact just because it may be uncomfortable. As Smith notes, studies show that 91% of men and 84% of women admit to daydreaming about killing people they dislike. Film and literature testify to our collective homicidal fantasies where violence is pervasive, in even the best classics like The Iliad, the Bible, and (especially) the Qur’an and Hadith.

At the same time, less than .005% of American people who daydream about murder go on to commit it. (Even in a place like Jamaica, which has the highest murder rate in the world, less than .06% of people are killers.) So despite our homicidal impulses, we also have a strong aversion to killing, and it’s not just fear of criminal punishment. If it were, then soldiers would readily succumb to homicidal mania when given a license to kill. But that doesn’t happen. Soldiers are routinely traumatized and guilt-ridden from taking lives. They vomit from stress, have tremors, convulsions, and are often scarred for life. How did this evolution occur?

Smith explains that our ability to attribute essences to things (by virtue of our capacity for concepts) keeps our homicidal impulses in check, and even goes against them. Our ancestors played by chimpanzee rules — ruthlessly killing outsiders without qualm — until they mastered thought, and it gradually began to dawn on them that all human beings are members of a single kind. Yes, we continue to think ethnocentrically, xenophobically, and nepotistically, but now in tension with the idea that human beings are biologically the same. Natural selection has bred ferocity into us, but our aggressive urges are opposed by an equally profound aversion to killing members of our own species. We are neither natural born killers nor peace-lovers, but something more complex.

(3) So –- to address the third question now — what is it about the human psyche that allows us to overcome our aversion to killing and give free rein to our homicidal urges in war? Just because the function of war is to win resources, that’s not what soldiers typically have in mind when they march off to battle. And although war enhanced our ancestors’ reproductive success, that doesn’t mean we go to war because we want to spread our genes. We keep going to war because, deep down inside, we love killing, once we cope with our aversion to it. But how do we do that?

Smith lights on various ways. There’s drugs and alcohol. But although frequently used, that’s not the main way soldiers cope with war. There’s dissociation: becoming distant and numb so that we lose our sensitivity to pain. But again, that only takes soldiers so far. Killing from a distance certainly helps: it’s much easier to kill people when we don’t have to look into their eyes, or get close to them, when doing it. That’s why aerial bombardment, artillery, and chemical weapons are a godsend. But most importantly, most necessarily, we rely on self-deception: we dehumanize and demonize our enemies. Thinking of them as a virus or a bunch of dogs enables us to take their lives as casually as we would swat insects, and unleash our natural aggressions with a clean conscience — even up close. This is a widely recognized but understated phenomenon. As Smith says, “It has become a cliché. Like all clichés, we seldom if ever pause to consider it seriously.” (p 184) Dehumanizing the enemy goes way beyond rhetoric. It’s the way we subconsciously tell ourselves that genocide is okay, and indeed something that can be enjoyed.

For at this stage many of us discover that we are in fact natural born killers. Winston Churchill said he loved war: “I know it’s smashing and shattering lives of thousands every moment, and yet I enjoy every second of it.” Many soldiers grow to like killing so much that they feel intoxicated by the sight of bloodshed and sound of hideous screaming. Others describe the experience of slaughter in erotic terms, such as Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo: it “was like getting screwed for the first time”, an “ache as profound as the ache of an orgasm”. Citations like these are sobering. I consider myself close to being a pacifist, but what would happen if I were thrown into the nightmare of prolonged combat? How much would it take to unleash my killer instincts? Would sadistic aggressions flood to the surface and make a mockery of my pacifist values? How traumatically would that effect me long-term?

There’s no room for false hope here, and Smith concludes realistically: “Taking my cues from the past, I am far from optimistic about the future.” (p 212) He allows some cautious optimism though. As indicated in the top citation, it’s futile to try stopping us from enjoying war, but perhaps we can at least learn to hate it more than we enjoy it. Coming to terms with our self-deception, and becoming intolerant of the way we dehumanize our enemies, would be a promising step in this direction.

To be sure, there are other factors Smith needs to consider. Soldierly altruism is one. This blogger, for instance, rightly emphasizes that we use a naturally selected altruism to compel each other to go to war, and that soldiers initially volunteer for nation and ideals, then fight for each other more than that. Altruism is of course compatible with a love for killing enemies, but the former needs emphasis. There is also the power of abstract ideologies, especially religious ones, which can either encourage or constrain our violent impulses. Islam encourages it with a vengeance; Jainism reins it in without exception. But on whole, Smith presents compelling reasons why we war, and I recommend his book highly.

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