Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves. J. B. Priestley
Young men join into groups for bonding and aggressive actions—mild ones like egging homes on Halloween to violent ones like gang fights. Group bonding into shared action is a part of their nature, an inherited, genetic tendency that will not fade away (Wrangham & Benenson 2017). It can also be manipulated by anyone wanting to build an army or launch a war. Using customs, traditions, education, and when necessary, even punishment, some cultures successfully suppress its worst manifestations, but it will always be with us.
This tendency toward male group bonding is not itself the cause of wars. War is caused by leaders who focus and motivate the willingness of soldiers, mostly the society’s young men, to kill outside their group or community. And those leaders must devote considerable resources to train and condition them to do so (Grossman 1995).
Restless young men, however, do challenge the social stability and peacefulness of all cultures. They are the single most disruptive elements in any society (Daly & Wilson 1988; Wilson & Daly 1985). They are particularly prone to create social turmoil (and crime) when they are unmarried or unemployed and before they have children of their own (Hiralwa-Hasegawa 2005). And they are the most ready cannon fodder for anyone wanting to build an army, put together a terrorist group, or launch a war.
One traditional solution to “the problem of young men” across many cultures has been to put them into military service or to send them off (out of the community) to war. This keeps them occupied during the most volatile stage of their lives. During this time, training under the discipline of older men has an additional advantage: it shapes youthful excesses into behavior acceptable for adult men in the society.
The Romans, for example, required all male citizens to serve in the military. These soldiers often spent little or no time fighting. Rome used her soldiers to build fabulous aqueducts, astounding roads, and monumental and imposing buildings, performing their labors in the conquered territories and in the homeland. The Romans understood that people need to work and that young males, in particular, must be kept occupied or there will be trouble. Doing something about young men everywhere is a facet of everyone’s defense.
What To Do With Young Men When War is Obsolete?
What will happen, then, when we make war obsolete? Might we lose the maturing benefits of military life? Actually, even in a warless future some military force will always be needed for national defense, for community policing, backing up treaties and other agreements, and policing terrorist threats. Some young men will be and are drawn naturally toward these policing, peacemaking and peacekeeping services.
The military training they receive for these policing functions would have a different orientation than training given to young men being primed for conquest; the emphasis would be on putting down insurgencies, separating combatants, preventing violence, and enforcing good behavior. They would become peacekeepers. At the same time, in addition, their experience in service under the guidance of adults would provide valuable socialization benefits that a tour of duty in the military does today.
Into the foreseeable future, however, what are we to do with massive numbers of young men? How should today’s societies deal with the “young male problem?”
Public service – My country, the United States, has embraced an all-volunteer military. It recruits only a tiny percentage of the male population (and increasingly some women), and already suffers a high crime rate. Too many American young men stumble from their teens into gangs and crime with no means of making a living and no vision for their future. If we required young men, without exception, to give two to four years following high school to public service under the guidance of adult mentors, society could expect crime to decrease dramatically. During those years they could mature and emerge with useful, marketable skills, pride, and positive goals.
Even if compulsory public service is unacceptable, as it currently is for example in independence-loving America, there is an alternative. With sufficient will and committed resources, voluntary public service during those formative years can be made extremely attractive. It could become something to which young men and their parents are powerfully drawn because of its obvious benefits. For example, communities, state, or federal governments could grant scholarships or loans for further schooling, or guaranteed work placement for a year or more after service was completed.
Tradition - Perhaps just as important, voluntary service could be promoted as something that teens choose to do “because it’s cool.” Serving their country in this way can be made into a matter of pride and honor, something “my father did, and his father before him.”
A number of nations as of this writing already require some compulsory military service or the option of some other form of national service (e.g., Austria, Greece, Singapore, Brazil, Israel, Sweden, China, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Germany, Russia). Spreading this ethos of service can be done. What is required is the will of communities and leaders to do it; they must provide funding necessary to, for example in the US:
set up programs and expand those already in place focused on training and employing young men for work or for community service. In the US these are numerous, from AmeriCorps (http://www.americorps.org) to thousands of local programs sponsored by states and municipalities throughout the country.
recruit young men vigorously and creatively to “national service with honor.” Dedicate equal financial resources used today in the US to promote military service, including films like #WarriorsWanted, to a new program—maybe call it, “Be All That You Can Be.” Fire youthful imaginations with the challenges of being a trained peacekeeper or the honor and satisfaction of providing rescue services after natural disasters. The later are likely to become ever more frequent as global climate change advances.
take very public note when the children of rock stars, movie stars, and sports heroes—the people teens emulate—participate in voluntary national service, and highlight them as examples of patriotism at its best.
take very public note of and congratulate teens in their own communities while they are in service and at its completion.
Coming of age initiation ceremonies - How do peaceful societies (without war and with low rates of interpersonal violence and crime) deal with their young men? Many cultures have created positive ways to tame and direct those restless urges and help their youths make the transition to manhood. For example, many cultures have, or at one time had, formal initiation ceremonies which function to give their young people a sense of shared community (“Foster Connectedness”).
These formal rites of passage were lost in many, possibly most, modern democracies as a consequence of these societies’ experiments with freedom of choice; decisions for young people about service were to be made by families, not the state. Some families and communities do quite well in providing a positive transition-to-manhood initiation ritual or customs for their young men (the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, Amish Rumspringa, Norwegian secular and non-secular confirmations). A great many do not. And such initiation is necessary.
Joseph Campbell, student of mythology and human nature, has been quoted as saying, “Boys everywhere have a need for rituals marking passage to manhood. If society doesn’t provide them, they will inevitably invent their own” (taken from Cohen 1991). And as we see demonstrated in youth gangs, young men don’t always invent positive initiations.
A year or two of service in their community, or perhaps elsewhere in the world, one that includes an official testing and reward for success, would help set young feet onto a positive path. Simply spending time, and especially doing something that feels like forced or unpaid labor, won’t be as powerful for young men as a hard test, one involving discipline and creativity, or doing something constructive which once accomplished brings a profound sense of pride, perhaps even that requires courage.
When a young man in a culture having rites of passage completes his challenge or test, he knows he is a man. His community officially recognizes him as such, an act that is part of fulfilling his legitimate primal desire for recognition and connectedness. This is a hunger which if not satisfied can lead to social instability. For society to ignore this “initiation” need of its young is astonishingly shortsighted. Since adults know that developing positive connectedness to one’s community is a critical component of wholesome development, failing to expend time, money, and creative resources to meet this youthful need is not only foolish but also morally bankrupt.
As to ending war, finding creative ways within all societies to provide positive coming-of-age ceremonies for young men will likely be an important key to creating and maintaining a global peace. As part of their initiation into manhood they need to internalize and embrace the role of defender of the peace.
Young women and coming of age - A word concerning young women is also essential. Empowered women are both catalyst and stabilizers for a future without war (“Women: The Pivotal Catalyst for Positive Change and Long-term Stability” and “Empower Women"). The global empowerment of women so they share in governing our civic lives is a “necessary condition” for creating and maintain a warless future (Hand 2018, 2019), and it is self-evident that experience and education are essential to empowerment of any person.
So in preparation for their careers, leadership roles, and roles as good mothers who participate intimately in raising the next generations, young women must be given the same opportunity to mature and broaden their outlook under the guidance of caring and skilled adults. Investing in programs that encourage, educate, and uplift young women are, in their own way, every bit as important as those focused on young men. If young men are to receive the benefits of performing some civic service as part of their initiation into adulthood, arguably the same should hold true for young women.
Work - Finally, meaningful work that brings meaningful reward is also critical to fend off disaffection. Young males who cannot find such work suffer lack of respect—from others and also for themselves. They become hostile. Discontent from many such young men leads to instability, often with tragic consequences in crime and suicide. It can be manipulated by someone with an agenda to provide bodies for a revolution, or a war.
If a community finds that jobs for its youth are lacking and the adults consider it their solemn responsibility to tackle this problem with urgency, serious problems would find solutions. Adults could call in experts. They could consult all available resources and learn from communities that have conquered this challenge. They should not rest until they have provided avenues to employment.
If local governments attacked this problem with the focused passion and money that they would muster if they were devising means to halt a deadly enemy invasion or terrorist attack, we might all reap the benefits—because for a young person and his community, lack of meaningful work that promises a meaningful future is a deadly enemy.
Rootless Young Men
To end war we most certainly can’t blithely expect that somehow by good luck young men can on their own find their place as part of a more peaceful future. When the book of these essays was first published, in 2003, the world was experiencing refugee crises here and there. But by 2018, the time of this edition, the global community is rushing toward an overwhelming refugee crisis, and a large percentage of the massive numbers of displaced people seeking to escape war, famine, gang violence, and poverty are young men.
In even greater numbers than their sisters, they are uprooted from culture and family. And wherever they end up it’s vital that they find a way to fit in, to make an honest living, to make a life for themselves. The global community faces an enormous challenge to integrate young male immigrants into societies the culture of which is foreign to them. To enable them to identify with and become a positive part of those communities. In summary, embracing and channeling the energy and passion of young men is an important component of this AFWW “Enlist Young Men” cornerstone and the cornerstone “Promote Nonviolent Conflict Resolution.” If we are wise, we enlist them. We encourage them to see themselves as nonviolent promoters and defenders of a world determined to live without wars. At this time organizations and projects that work to end young male violence primarily think of themselves as socializing young men and working to prevent crime, not wars. Actually, they are doing all three.
Cohen, David. (Ed.). 1991. The Circle of Life Rituals from the Human Family. London: The Aquarian Press Daly, Martin & Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter. Grossman, Dave. 1996. On Killing. The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Little Brown and Company. Hand, Judith L. 2018a. War and Sex and Human Destiny. San Diego, California: Questpath Publishing. Hand, Judith L. 2019. War and Sex and Human Destiny. https://www.weebly.com/editor/main.php#/. (accessed 1 June 2019). Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, Mariko. 2005. “Homicide by men in Japan, and its relationship to age, resources and risk taking.” Evolution and Human Behavior 26:332-343. Wilson, Margo & Martin Daly. 1985. “Competitiveness, risk-taking, and violence: The young male syndrome.” Ethology and Sociobiology 6:59-73. Wrangham, R. W. & J. F. Benenson. 2017. “Cooperative and competitive relationships within the sexes.” In: Chimpanzees and Human Evolution (501-547), M.N. Muller, R. W. Wrangham, & D. Pilbeam (Eds.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.