Thursday, 10 July 2014

HUMAN NATURE AND WAR: A Historical-Philosophical Perspective

Introduction: Human Nature and War
The subject of war is one that scholars in different fields have studied throughout history. Even today, anything to do with war – from large defense contractors to motion pictures and video games - is big business. What does this say about the fascination of people with the ultimate form of mass destruction?  Philosophers, priests and poets have all dealt with the topic and how it is a reflection of who we are as a species. In modern times, psychologists and varieties of social scientists have made their contributions, as have celebrated writers like Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemmingway.  For novelists to be devoting so much work to this topic, it reveals that it goes to the heart of our societal structures and how they shape the nature of human beings that in turn shape those structures.  
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt deal with war as a perverse force that affords meaning to an otherwise alienating life in a world of nihilism. Existentialist interpretations of war as something that can be fulfilling against the background of mass politics and mass alienation is something to contemplate, although by no means should one fall into the trap of assuming that human beings are not conditioned into accepting war as natural like the weather. 
Perhaps there is something fascinating about war, given that Hollywood has devoted billions of dollars producing war films depicting nothing less than the worst in human nature, yet, managing to romanticize and honor it as though to tell the audience that mass destruction is just another aspect of life. After all, if human are innately aggressive like other animals. War makes perfect sense.   Of course we are not so sure what other species regards mass destruction as an honorable enterprise and takes pride at it, deriving a sense of power as though it is a godly trait to kill people for no reason other than the government said “they are the enemy”.  Some psychologists blame not the soldiers doing the killing, but the personality disorders in the leaders. After all, it could not possibly be the fault of the Nazi soldier carrying out atrocious acts in WWII, but it was all Hitler and the blame stops there and goes no father. 
Thinkers embracing pessimistic assumptions about human nature – Machiavelli, Hobbes, for example – conclude that human beings are capable of just about any atrocity the mind can conceive, so aggression in human nature finds expression in all forms, including war.  Life itself is a struggle, according to Thomas Hobbes who lived during the bloody English Civil War (1642- 1650) witnessed the destruction of his country owing to a war based on political, religious and socioeconomic differences that failed to find consensus until the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Unlike Hobbes who saw war as an innate or instinctive human trait, perhaps because human beings fall from grace and committed sin against their own creator according to Christians, Jon Locke living a generation after Hobbes insisted that war is an aberration of the human condition while harmony is the norm.  
Needless to say, the topic is far too complex for any one academic discipline to explain without taking into account every other’s perspective. In the absence of devoting an encyclopedia to this topic, it is simply not possible to do justice to it. For that reason, I will focus my analysis here on certain aspects that reveal underlying causes of war and its continuity in society throughout the history of the world. 
Ancient Beliefs about War: Classical Greece, Rome, India and China
Wars – organized and institutionalized conflict under the aegis of the state - began with the dawn of civilization when the earliest tribal invaders known as Sumerians took over the lower Mesopotamian region, an area that has endured thousands of wars in the last five thousand years and remains in turmoil to this day.  Unlike modern day politicians making pretenses about the causes of war, ancient Sumerians were honest about why they engaged in conflict with other tribes and city-states; the goal was to capture trade routes, loot them, secure slaves for labor, and impose hegemony upon them. 
The war s between Athens and Sparta – Peloponnesian Wars – created a pacifist trend as revealed in the works of Thucydides (Peloponnesian Wars), Aristophanes (Lysistrata, 411),  and Euripides (Trojan Women, 415 BC) all critical of militarism amnd from the perspective of the victims rather than the conquerors.  Plato and his pupil Aristotle argued that war was an integral part of state structure, a concept that Alexander the Great put into practice by ruling through perpetual warfare.  
The concept of honor and duty in war was introduced by the Hindu faith and later by the ancient Greeks. In the Homeric epics – Trojan War - war becomes a virtue, while the ancient Spartans, themselves invaders of the indigenous population of southern Greece, linked warfare to the highest noble aspect of human nature and the greatest pursuit for humanity. By the fifth century B.C., Athens under a democratic city-state, discovers that war can be justified in the name of freedom and democracy – as we see in the work of Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue. The concept of war for the sake of freedom and democracy became popular with the US from the Woodrow Wilson presidency (under missionary diplomacy) until the present when every military and covert intervention that the US has undertaken is nothing less than a crusade to “save the people invaded and placed under some type of hegemonic control”.
To explain why human beings kill each other in organized conflicts sanctioned by the state, philosophers and scholars of various disciplines argued that it is inevitable to have organized conflict between societies because it is a reflection of innate aggressive traits in human nature, and symptomatic of military, political, economic and social conditions that reflect antagonism rather than harmony and coexistence.  Plato, Aristotle, Roman and Christian thinkers accepted the view of war as necessary, even acceptable, as did the Hindus in India.  In China, however, the status of the soldier was lowly, equated with that of a dog, despite the fact that China also has a long history of organized conflict and internal colonization, just like Russia – Eurasia. 
Closer to the Spartan worldview on war, the Roman intellectuals and politicians identified war with civic duty, and the soldier is a symbol of reverence rather than a necessary evil as some Chinese intellectuals saw it. Death in the battlefield was a virtue, rather than a dreaded reality. Despite an ideology of war that the political social and military elites used to justify it, the fundamental causes and goals were no different for Rome than they were for Sumeria and Athens. As was the case in Athens, there were pacifists in Rome. Philosophers of Stoicism, a cosmopolitan school of thought reflecting the cultural structure of Rome, contended that all humanity is one. Therefore, war is unacceptable because it destruction of humanity. However, this was in the early stages of Stoicism. Once Stoicism became the official school of thought for the Roman Empire, war became acceptable. 

Dating back five thousand years, Hinduism does not object to armed conflict if it is carried out in the name of protecting property and people from evil and injustice. Hinduism as well as Buddhism as an offshoot after the 6th century BC adamantly oppose war for the purpose oppressing people and causing violence against them. More so with Buddhism, non-violence is essential for spiritual transcendence and salvation possible only through meditation and wisdom.  

Like most religions, Hinduism condemns war on moral grounds but also insist it is a matter of honor and duty, while cowardice is infamy. Hindus throughout their history conducted  warfare, despite the taming influence of some pacifist voices against it. In a conversation regarding the morality of war between Ajuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu “Bible”), the following passages reveal the contradictions.  “I do not see how any good can come from killing my own kinsmen in battle, nor can I desire any subsequent victory…I would consider it better for the sons of Dhrtarastra to kill me than to fight with them. … Consider your specific duty, you should know that there is no better engagement for you than fighting for religious principles. If however, you do not fight this religious war, you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter.”

While Hinduism like all religions respects all life, this does not mean that the followers and especially the leaders who espouse religious doctrines and a body of ethics rooted in pacifism follow such a path. On the contrary, religion is invariably used to justify mass violence. A power-rooted if not crusader mentality takes precedence in those who rule because the ethics of pacifism entails weakness, if not manipulation or some type of subjugation by the strong. The great warrior king Ashoka (269-232 BC) is a good example in ancient Indian history as one of the bloodiest rulers who in embracing Buddhism realized that there is no glory, victory or justice in war.

Pacifism was an underlying pacifist trend among all religions, but most pronounced about the oneness of humanity so characteristic of Indian religions can be found in Guru Nanak (1469-1534), the first Sikh Guru who wrote a hymn regarding the sacredness of life and peace.
‘No one is my enemy
No one is a foreigner
With all I am at peace
God within us renders us
Incapable of hate and prejudice.’

The importance of non-violence and the equality of all humans is a belief that decries war while promoting the spiritual reverence of humans and their creativity that wars obviously destroy. If human beings are special because of their creative potential, then war is their enemy.  

Some scholars contend that China’s history is not militaristic, like that of the West. However, China had its share of wars, especially from the 10th to the 13th century, an era that coincides with the zenith of Arab civilization. Wars also characterize Chinese history during the Ming dynasty from the mid-14th to the mid-17th century, an era when Europe experiences its Commercial Revolution and expands outward in search of colonies. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu outlines various aspects of warfare that influenced the Chinese from ancient times to the present. China’s wars focused on its internal politics and internal colonization similar to Russia, and mostly of defensive mode against Japan and the West. This is unlike the West where the object was to take trade routes and conquer colonies. 

The Han Dynasty (206BC-220 AD) may be pointed to as an exceptionally enlightened, but it lived and declined by the sword as the Roman Empire. China’s history is one of wars, especially from the 10th to the 13th century, an era that coincides with the zenith of Arab civilization. Wars also characterize Chinese history during the Ming dynasty from the mid-14th to the mid-17th century, an era when Europe experiences its Commercial Revolution and expands outward in search of colonies.  
Living in China five centuries before Christ, Confucius provided a moral guide for institutional and individual practices. A moral guide that has prevailed in much of East Asia for twenty five centuries, the system Confucius laid down has had far reaching influence in East Asia for the past 25 centuries. Unlike Christ, Mohammad and the Buddha, Confucius did not focus on afterlife. It is believed he stated that he would only worry about the “next world”, only after figuring out the proper way to live in this one.  More interested in social relations and maintaining order in society without overturning the status quo, he believed that war has no place in society if everyone just follows their proper role – clearly an optimistic way of thinking. If there is war, then Confucianism has failed. 
Confucianism has shaped a certain perception of Chinese security strategy, symbolized by the defensive, nonaggressive Great Wall. Many believe China is antimilitary and reluctant to use force against its enemies. It practices pacifism and refrains from expanding its boundaries, even when nationally strong. They adopted defensive strategies when their country was weak and pursued expansive goals, such as territorial acquisition, enemy destruction, and total military victory, when their country was strong. Despite the dominance of an antimilitarist Confucian culture, warfare was not uncommon in the bulk of Chinese history. Grounding his research in primary Chinese sources, Wang outlines a politics of power that are crucial to understanding China's strategies today, especially its policy of "peaceful development," which, he argues, the nation has adopted mainly because of its military, economic, and technological weakness in relation to the United States.
Ancient Rome and Medieval Christianity
The Roman militarist ideal, also found in other ancient societies, becomes an important legacy of Western Civilization passed on through Christianity. The history of Rome was roughly 1000 years of war with interval of peace, a history that left a legacy on the Barbarians who inherited Rome’s militarist legacy and passed it on to European Christendom.  Like Stoicism in its early stage, Christianity was pacifist and more non-violent than any humanist philosophy. However, in its institutional stage, Christianity advances numerous justifications for war, adding God into the equation, making it war a holy affair instead of a secular one as it really is. St. Augustine, a Platonist, was the first Christian theologian to advance arguments in favor of war, arguing that defense necessarily entailed going to war. 
St. Thomas Aquinas, an Aristotelian, argued that peace is preferable, but war is necessary to defend the integrity of the realm. Between Augustine writing during the Fall of Rome in the 5th century, and Aquinas writing in the late Middle Ages, St. Gregory of Tours and Einhard, both representing Barbarian Christendom, argued that war was moral only if carried out in defense of the faith and its institutions, but immoral for any other reason.  Religious institutional interests transcend any other consideration, including individual life. Therefore, killing Barbarian pagans who refuse to yield to Christianity is moral, whereas harming Christians or church property in the course of war is immoral. This was the birth of Christian ‘exceptionalism’ that would lead to Christian imperialism and it would be used as the doctrine to justify the crusades from the 11th to the 13th century.  
To glorify God the Papacy and Christendom, many thousands of European knights rushed to “save the Holy land”, a place dripping with blood for more than a thousand years.  Of course, the real goal of the crusaders was to capture trade routes of the Near East, the Arab gold trade and set up colonies at the core of Muslim territories, not far from Byzantium.  Crusader thinking about trade, gold and hegemony finding expression in religious wars would ultimately shape European thinking about wars of colonization in the 15th, 16th and 17th century.

A significant consequence of religious wars between Christians and Muslims – the Crusades -  was not just the wars of colonialism by Portugal and Spain in the late 15th and early 16th century, but northwest Europe and Russia. Northwest Europe’s colonial exploits through warfare are well documented, as they launched a new era in North-South, East-West divisions of the planet, along with racism thinly veiled behind the cloak of Christianity and Western civilization. Russia too began wars against Muslim-dominated Ottoman Empire, and just like its European counterparts, Russia under Catherine the Great in the 18th century (Enlightenment) passed laws legally discriminating against minorities, including Jews. In other words, wars against distant lands and non-Christian religions had reverberations back home where war became both a catalyst for national unity and conformity to the regime, as well as a pretext for the domestic elites to consolidate power and isolate minorities deemed a threat to the status quo.
Were there any voices of reason and pacifism amid such strong institutional tides of war from the Iberian to Eurasia? In 1510, Dutch theologian Disiderius Erasmus published ANTI-POLEMUS, or the PLEA OF REASON, RELIGION, AND HUMANITY AGAINST WAR. Arguing that war was antithetical to human nature because people are not born with an innate proclivity to destroy, Erasmus believed that humans wish to love and serve their fellow man. A Christian humanist, Erasmus represented a minority view, considering that German theologian Martin Luther  had no problem with war as long as it was NOT carried out by the Church or against Christians. Luther made an exception even for Christians during the German Peasants War in the mid-1520s.   
A few decades later, Marx and Engels argued that war s an instrument of the elites trying to exert control over the masses at home and abroad. According to Marist thought, war is symptomatic of the class system in which the socioeconomic elites control the state and determine policy to advance their interests against the working class that does the actual fighting, killing and dying in war. A few decades after Marx and Engels, V.I. Lenin (Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism) argued that war is inevitable owing to the global struggle for markets between the hegemonic nation-states. This thinking makes sense if one considers that Lenin was a product of the Age of New Imperialism (1870-1914) that witnessed a series of regional conflicts ultimately leading to the First World War. 
If we accept that WWI led to WWII, then 19th century wars of Imperialism were the genesis of 20th century global wars. The Marxist-Leninist war theory includes social, economic, political and cultural factors, rather than isolating causes of war on human nature or environment as determining factors. As followers of the rationalist tradition that assumes human nature is prone to harmony rather than conflict, the Marxist school of thought dismisses the psychological factors that it sees as products of societal conditioning and symptomatic of the uneven conditions between social classes.    
In contrast to Marxist theory on war, there were 19th and 20th century thinkers mesmerized by war, depicting it as a mythological transcendent experience. Most of these thinkers came from the German militarist tradition that celebrates the warrior-hero as much in myth and folklore as in politics given that German unification came not as a result of diplomacy and  compromise , but war against Austria first and then France as a catalyst to rallying support behind Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian foreign policy. In The Will to Power and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, F. Nietzsche indicates that war is the essence of human nature that allows humans to transcend the mediocrity of Christian pacifist morality. 
Nietzsche the existentialist thinker was focusing on the individual and the pursuit of the individual transcending experience through the kind of exercise of power. According to Nietzsche, this ideal existed among the pre-Socratics – for example, we read in Heraclitus that: One must know that war is common and justice is strife, and that all things happen by strife and necessity.  War is father of all and king of all: some he shows as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, others free.  This kind of realism (ethical realism) in the world of the constant becoming, Heraclitus demonstrates that the essence of being is change and that does not come harmoniously because even harmony is the result of opposing forces coexisting.  Heraclitus did not advocate war any more than Nietzsche, regardless of how the German philosopher’s views were twisted by the militarist racist Nazi regime. 
More important German thinkers than Nietzsche contributing to German, European and US militaristic psychology were Heinrich von Treitschke, Friedrich von Bernhardi and Karl von Clausewitz, the latter in the group by far the most celebrated among Western politicians, military analysts and fans of warfare.  A rationalist and realist coming out of the Age of Reason, Clausewitz argued that "War is the continuation of Politik (policy) by other means". We could assume that there is a sense of stark realism here because indeed where diplomacy ends war may indeed start because it is but an instrument of policy in the hands of those conducting diplomacy to achieve a certain goal. While this is a view that hard realists may accept as unavoidable, some could argued against his view that the interplay between national character and military functions defines the nation in the modern world. This Prussian militaristic view would leave a far reaching mark on Prussia and later Germany and it would define its history until the end of WWII.
 A contemporary of Bismarck and witness to the “Blood and Iron” route that Germany followed, Treitschke argued that if the duty of the state is to maintain relations with other states, than the bounds of the state are not confined to the sovereign territory. Ignoring the right of national sovereignty and right to exist under self-determination that war obviously upsets, he argued that armed conflict is a manifestation of a great society.   This kind of nationalism (the individual must submit to the duties of the state) as expressed in the age of Social Darwinism (blatant racism) and European colonialism in Africa and Asia represents the euphoria that Treitschke projected in his work and the spirit of nationalists.
Not too far from such views, Bernhardi was also a product of Prussian militarism, best known for his book, Deutschland und der Nächste Krieg where he argued that war is merely a function by which civilized nation-states express their true greatness. In fact, he had no regard for international treaties and believed that there was “divinity” in armed conflict between nations.  
Existentialism and War
Precursors to Existentialism are found in 19th century Europe, varying in views from Soren Kierkegaard to F. Nietzsche.  After World War I when Europe was thoroughly devastated and the rationalism of the Enlightenment proved futile against the reality of mass destruction, Existentialism became popular. Anxiety and despair hovered over the European middle class that lost any sense of security as a result of the war, followed by the Great Depression. Existentialists merely reflected this sense of anxiety and despair, especially Jean-Paul-Sartre.
 Before WWI, the search for meaning was not questioned because religion for the traditionalists, science and technology for the modernists offered solutions, and for both sides there was an assumption of the Hegelian upward line of steady progress in civilization. All of it was destroyed by war and the Existentialists stepped in to make sense of the human condition, of the absence of dignity and security in society.  The “glory and honor” of WWI had resulted in total destruction and chaos where order was simply assumed as a given in Western Civilization that assumed itself superior to all others on the planet. Suddenly, nothing made sense, nothing was clear, as Albert Camus was trying to establish; everything including creative endeavors like art questioned, for if life is so cheap as to easily destroy it en masse, how can there be purpose. The Decline of the West (Oswald Spengler)reflected not only Hollow Men (T.S. Elliot), but a hollow civilization. 
 Late 20th century existentialist thinkers have argued that war is a destructive human tendency, for it provides the illusion of meaning, honor and greatness, a transcending experience of the individual who identifies with the nation-state that is presumably eternal while the individual is finite. For existentialists, engaging in war where the object is to destroy other people and their property, presumably to conquer them and their territory, affords the individual militarist with numerous illusions that provide a sense of satisfaction for the self.
             War can be a god-like experience because killing other people that the soldier has never met and has no motive other than ideological, entails constructing animosity inside the human mind that fills the void with a sense of high purpose.    
          War is the ultimate sense of adventure to feel like an animal hunted down and at the same time a hunter doing the hunting against the other to be killed. This reveals a sense of self-hatred and self-destruction as well as a sense of daring or trying to defy death thus testing finiteness of life.
3      War affords the illusion that by killing the other under legal cover the individual transcends atomistic goals because duty and service in the name of patriotism are eternal while the individual is temporary. In short, there is the illusion from ancient times to the present that eternity is somehow guaranteed through carrying out soldier duties – in conventional military force, or guerrilla type where the individual feels the same sense of inner reward. 
4.       Killing en masse indiscriminately, while enjoying legal cover under the legitimacy of the state at the individual and societal level, killing indiscriminately en masse affords the illusion of spiritual cleansing, removing evil and restoring good as though life is a myth of Barbarian tribes killing each other for the sake of achieving hero– worship status- Beowulf, Attila the Hun, etc. Deeply rooted in cultural values, the hero-soldier myth inculcated into the mind of the young man as a destructive machine reflects the sense of helplessness at the individual and societal level to the degree that salvation is sought through a hero-destroyer. 
5.       The supernatural element and the warrior-hero mentality invariably go hand-in-hand, as the warrior lives inside his own mind and has illusions of grandeur and believes that he has the power to ‘save’ the world by eliminating ‘enemies’ and making the world safe from ‘evil’, although the means – mass destruction through war -to achieve the goal are unquestionably evil. 
There is a legitimate philosophical and political question of whether war is as inevitable as the progress of science and technology that actually helps to make war possible in more destructive manner than ever.  Those who embrace the Freudian view, with Thomas Hobbes among others as precursors, that humans are irrational and fundamentally aggressive conclude that indeed there will always be wars until the end of the human species. These scholars argue that because humans are the only species that enjoys killing for sport, deriving pleasure from the pain and destruction of the other, this is a manifestation of the essential destructive core in human nature.   

On the other side, there is the rationalist camp beginning with John Locke as a precursor of the Age of Reason that denies human beings are innately evil and wish to cause harm to the other because reason dictates that leads to self-destruction.  In this camp, there are those who maintain that human nature is subject to conditioning by society, its culture and institutions.  If this is so, war is symptomatic of any given social and political structure. The only area of agreement between the rationalist school of thought and that of the Hobbes=Freud line is the pessimism about the end result, which is war is inevitable.  

Written in the 1860s, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace romanticizes the innocent common people and demonizes the elites for causing wars that plague the innocent. Representing a long-standing tradition among Russian intellectuals that deplored violence in any form and longed for harmony in society, Tolstoy believed that the way to change society was through a cultural revolution rather than a political one, that is to say, society can change through education the arts, and culture in general. As much as I find this solution desirable, I am pessimistic that anything but the solution Jean-Jacques Rousseau offers in dictating that people must be forced to be free makes sense.  In other words, there is only a political solution to war and it cannot be subject to an open debate. There is always a segment in society that profits from the war-machine industry, a segment that glorifies war for ideological reasons, a segment that is nationalistic, etc. Therefore, peace must be imposed upon a reluctant humanity that may choose otherwise.

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