War: A Great Human Tragedy, and Why We Can Abolish It
A Simple, But Important, Question
Salvador Dali - The Face of War
I’ll begin this page on war by asking a simple question I ask of audiences at the beginning of every talk I give on war. I ask them to answer it just in their own mind as opposed to immediately sharing their answer outlaid. Here it is:
“Knowing what you know about history and about human nature, do you think it’s possible that humans could end war. This isn’t ‘would you like us to end war,’ it’s just, do you think it’s possible? And please, not a lot of rational thought about it….just your first gut reaction.”
I pause briefly to let them think…you could also think of your own answer to the question. Asking for “your first gut reaction” is a way to access a person’s deeply held belief.
I then say, “Let’s now see how this group feels. Please, if you thought something like, ‘It’s a great idea, but just not possible,’ please raise your hand…and look around at this group's general response.”
Again a brief pause while they look around and I take a count (in small groups the exact count, and in large ones a quick estimate).
Then I ask those who thought “Yes, I believe it is possible,” to raise their hands….and look around.
What would you guess would be the result of this quick survey?
I’ve posed the question to many groups in the United States, and the overwhelming response of the majority has almost universally been, “No. It isn’t possible.” In some cases there are extremes. For example, when I asked a group of 73 women at a yacht club, 70 of them said, “No.” Only 3 said “Yes,” they believed it was theoretically possible. The most common pattern is that roughly 60-70% of a group would say their gut belief is that it isn’t possible. In only one small group of 23 social activists, members of a peace group, did a tiny majority say, Yes: 12 of the 23. Virtually half of this peace group were working to move us to a point where we make fewer wars, but they themselves did not believe that ending war is possible.
Perhaps if I did the survey in other countries I’d get different results. I suspect, however, that at least in all of the world’s dominant cultures…the places where global decisions are being made…the results would be the same, or perhaps even more dismal. Students of human nature know that all great feats humans have ever achieved—from building the Egyptian pyramids to landing a human on the Moon to creating a democracy in a world without any democracies—depended upon the belief of at least one person, or shared by a group, that achieving the goal was possible.
If we humans don’t believe something is possible, it isn’t. No sane person will devote money, time, sweat, and passion to working to achieve what they know to be impossible. Certainly the thousands, or millions, needed to create a major social shift like ending war will not devote their money, time, sweat, and passion to any cause, including the cause of ending war, without the visionary leadership of at least one believer who can inspire that shared belief in others. As a result:
I believe that the single greatest barrier to ending war is the belief of the vast majority of global citizens that doing so is impossible.
To end war we will need visionary, believing, dedicated and even charismatic leadership, able to inspire and motivate the necessary critical mass of global citizens to action.
Two Convictions I Now Have About War War is fundamentally an evil spawn of patriarchy run amok. and The cure for the harms of patriarchy, including war, is fully mature liberal democracy.
In what follows I’ll explain what I mean by both statements. I’ll also explain why we could—if we really wanted to—we could abolish war on Earth. We could end it for the immediate generations to follow us, and into our distant future.
But first, a definition. Early on, and especially as soon as I began speaking to various groups, it became obvious that I’d need to define what I mean by “war.” The word means many and different things to different people in different contexts. I would be thinking of one thing and listeners would be thinking about something else. For example, “war of words,” or an intellectual “war for hearts and minds,” or “even “cyber-war.” This wasn’t at all what I was addressing. In a promotional talk for a novel (Voice of the Goddess) I’d said that if women ran the world there would be no war; I was talking about killing and physical violence.
As I explain on the "Interests and Biography" page on this website, after I gave that talk I was encouraged by a friend to explain in a book why I actually thought that “if women ran the world there would be no war.” She had never before encountered this idea about women and war. In fact, from her experience reading a book called On Aggression by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, she assumed that war is part of human nature.
I accepted her challenge, and thus began a very long research journey for me. If we could end “war,” and women would be an important part of doing so, I needed to be able to explain why and how. Among many books I read were ones like these, written by people who argue/d why and how we could end physical wars, or who tackled the difficult issue of how to define war so that everyone discussing the topic could be thinking about the same thing:
Hind & Rotblat – War No More (2003)
Irwin – Building a Peace System: Exploratory Project on the Conditions of Peace (1988)
Ehrenreich – Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997)
Fry – The Human Potential For Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions About War (2006) and Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace (2007)
English – The Collapse of the War System (2007)
Meyers – Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide (2009)
Shifferd – From War to Peace (2011)
Horgan – The End of War (2014)
World Beyond War -– A Global Security System: An Alternative to War (2017)
My Definition - I arrived at my own working definition by combing concepts from two of these people. First, the anthropologist Douglas Fry (World Beyond War, The Human Potential for Peace) emphasized that an action that can be called war involves people from one group getting together to indiscriminately kill members of another group who have, in fact, not personally harmed them (emphasis mine). In other words, revenge for a personal grievance is not the motivation for the killing. And second, from Barbara Ehrenrich (Blood Rites), who pointed out that a defining characteristic of war is that the majority of people in the warring group support the warriors, as do their political and religious leaders (emphasis mine).
So for example, murder clearly is not war. Murder is one person killing another person. Moreover, by this definition, revenge killing of specific individuals over personal grievances, things like lethal family feuding, or infighting within a gang, is also not war, although it gets closer to the real thing. In a variety of societies the reality of miniscule homicide rates makes clear that we don’t need to tolerate high rates of either types of killing, murder or revenge…or killing struggles for in-group dominance. But unfortunately, we’ll not completely eliminate any of these any time soon. Murder, often precipitated by sexual jealousy, and personal revenge killings, perhaps tied to payback struggles over social status or control of family resources, go back deeply into our past, perhaps even before our predecessors became humans. To repeat, the kind of “war” we could end if we wanted to is when people band together to indiscriminately kill people in another group and the majority of the warring community’s noncombatants and religious leaders sanction this action. It’s a community’s sanctioned killing of people in other groups who have not personally harmed the killers that distinguishes what we commonly think of as war from our other forms of killing. Two drug gangs killing each other or even outsiders, for example, isn't war in that sense because the participants aren’t supported by the larger communities where they live, nor by their religious leaders. Gang killings—community, national, or international scourges—are a matter of policing. Terrorists who are not supported by the larger communities from which they come also do not qualify; they are a very specialized community policing problem. Many societies punish crimes by executing individuals, another example of our killing, but also not war. Given the historical record, most people are justifiably skeptical about any possibility of humans putting an end to the mass indiscriminant killing that is war...think Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Ukraine. With just the tiniest bit of reflection, however, everyone can imagine what an enormously wonderful thing it would be if the global family could find a way to do so. Imagine being able to resolve conflicts without destroying homes, neighborhoods, things of irreplaceable beauty, animal life, and millions upon millions of human lives. Imagine what we might do simply with the money saved!!!!
My Two Convictions Listed Above Are Derived from a Lifetime of Experience and Over Eighteen Years of the Study of War
First Conviction: War is Fundamentally an Evil Spawn of Patriarchy Run Amok
What is patriarchy? The word comes from Greek and fundamentally means all-male governing. It's the condition in which decisions in the domestic sphere or in the public sphere of the lives of people in communities or nations are made by men. In the public sphere history documents that we have created many forms of patriarchy: tribal chiefdoms, kingships, all-male oligarchies, dictatorships, tyrannies, etc..
Evidence to date, however, strongly suggests that our form of governing wasn't always patriarchal. That in fact, during the many thousands of years (roughly 200,000) during which Homo sapiens evolved to be one of Earth’s most dominant species, we lived in small groups of roughly ten to twenty individuals and were nomadic foragers (these years were our EEA – Era of Evolutionary Adaptation). And in those small nomadic communities, everyone had a voice in making big decisions in the public sphere. They were egalitarian with everyone, men and women, sharing in the deciding. Egalitarianism is the exact opposite of patriarchy.
When big and unresolvable conflicts or problems emerged, examples from the few nomadic foragers still extant indicates that some members of these egalitarian groups would pack up their meager belongings and move (emigrate/disperse) elsewhere….they preferred to disperse rather get involved in killing each other or the nearest human group. After all, the world was essentially empty of others humans...other fresh places to occupy were reasonably readily available. In short, I believe that dispersal is the preferred “evolved” means by which early humans could and did solve big problems, not war. To date there is no evidence that nomadic foragers engaged in war.
Because of this preference for dispersal, our species now occupies every suitable, habitable niche for our kind across the entire planet. As the economist Herman Daly put it, "We have transitioned from an empty world to a full world." We now live in a condition where there are NO empty places to which people can move to escape social conflicts or find fresh food resources without bumping up against other people already living there...and not always welcoming.
That we now occuply a full world is having enormous social consequences, producing increasing conflict as people by the millions are forced to migrate because of wars or climate changes like prolonged drought or rising tides and shorelines. To this new, full-world condition we must adapt. It cannot be physically; it must be socially. And in War and Sex and Human DestinyI focus specifically on this issue of adaptation.
How then, did we transition from egalitarian governing in the public sphere to patriarchies? Roughly 12,000 YA, people here and there discovered the means to raise foods such as grains and the ability to herd animals. We created a brand new living environment of reliable, steady food supplies. To this, over the last twelve or so millennia, we have culturally adapted: our behavior changed. A great many of us, increasing numbers of us, abandoned nomadism. We settled down.
One of these behavioral adaptive changes, sadly, was the emergence of war. In Shift: The Beginning of War, The Ending of War I explore several theories for why we began making war.
The shift to patriarchy was accompanied by, or perhaps even the result of, a second consequence of settling down -- an ever-increasing loss of status of women, first in the public sphere, and currently still in some societies, even in the home. We began to abandon our egalitarian social structure. I think of these two behavoral changes--war and loss of status for women--as "unintended and unfortunate consequences" of settled living.
We know there were times in the ancient past when women still had public power (queens and priestesses here and there) and people worshipped powerful goddesses (Egypt, Greece, Rome). But eventually full patriarchy of many kinds emerged in the world’s dominant cultures. A remarkable and highly influential book by the historian Riane Eisler documented this unintended shift, The Chalice and the Blade.
Since even before the fall of Rome, roughly 2,000 YA, the world’s dominant societies had all become fundamentally patriarchies. All are characterized by having public decisions about how the community will live, what people will think, and what the community will do are derived from biologically-based male psychological preferences. In some patriarchies women at home may still hold power there. And women at home may whisper in their husband’s ears about what they would like to happen in the public sphere. But in the end, it is men who decide for the community. And biologically men are characteristically concerned with social status and the ability to achieve social status or avoid loosing status. This driving motivation for status, when it includes the urge to control other people no matter what, is a great source of the evil humans do to each other, including war.
As a consequnce, for the most part what we see all around us now is the result of several thousand years of all-male governing. Male biological predisposition have been expressed and shaped our public lives. Because women have been excluded from decision-making in the public sphere, what we have created has been done without (restraining) input from strong female biological preferences for social stability and avoidance of physical violence. That includes the desire to avoid the destructive violence of war. For more detail on why these two psychological preferences are characteristically stronger in women than men see the essay Sexual Dimorphism.
We have now created weapons of war literally capable of ending human life on the planet, and there appears to be no end in sight to this appalling trend. The current US President (2018) has expressed a fondness for the idea of a new entity, a Space Force, anticipating that we will take war into space.
For over three millennia of patriarchies we have assuredly accomplished many wonderful things: created great art and music, built astounding masterpieces of architecture, explored of philosophy and religion, cured diseases, and much more including putting men on the Moon. But we have also done hideous things, notably among them slavery, torture, genocide, human trafficking in men, women, and children for labor and sexual exploitation....and wars. So it is that, in my view, that makes war fundamentally an evil spawn of patriarchy run amok.
Second Conviction: The cure for the harms of patriarchy, including war, is fully mature liberal democracy.
Someone might think that the cure for the harms of patriarchy would be matriarchy, the condition of all-female governing. But here are two reasons why it is not.
First reason: in all of human history, matriarchy is rare to the point of being nonexistent because it is contrary to fundamental aspects of human nature. In cultures where women do hold reins of public social power, we typically find that their power is not total. Women have power in some spheres, but men have power in other spheres. Power is shared. For example, in a society some described as a matriarchy, the Goba of Zambesi studied by anthropologist Chet Lancaster, women were indeed very powerful. This was because they made, and perhaps still do make, decisions about the care of the critical gardens and decide whether grain resources can be spared for making much-valued beer. But the men hold most political offices and men make decisions about the care of and commerce in cattle. There has never been a true human matriarchy in which ALL levers of public social power are in the hands of only the women.
Why we have not created full-blown matriarchies? Fundamentally it's because human male and female psychological predispositions render matriarchy impossible: such a system is contrary to two fundamental aspects of human nature:
men might be willing to share power with women under some circumstances, but their polestar focus on ways to gain social status (see Sexual Dimorphism) would drive them to reject total social submission to women, and
women, who profoundly prefer to avoid social conflicts so as to create socially stable (peaceful) communities in which to raise children, would not be willing to physically fight to maintain total control….they are more inclined to compromise or even defer to men (see Sexual Dimorphism).
Thus it's my conviction that because it is contrary to human nature, matriarchy isn’t going to exist let alone cure the harms of patriarchy.
Second reason: it is most likely that genuine matriarchy would be a social disaster to be avoided. I once speculated about what the world would be like if there ever was to be a matriarchy. Here, slightly modified, is a passage from Shift that was highlighting benefits that spring from aggressive human tendencies: “So what would the world be like if women, with their preference for social stability, ran it and men were restricted to the home, locked in a male version of a harem? For an answer to this question, we have no examples. None. Except in fiction and fantasy, such a matriarchy has never existed anywhere in human history. '”But my gut instinct is that with the passage of time, such a world would be stultifying. We’d be strangled by an unchecked female inclination for social stability, subjected unrelentingly to the deeply seated desire to avoid rocking the boat. We would lose the excitement that comes with innovation, restlessness, exploration, striving. “All of these can be motivated by curiosity or the desire to benefit others, but are also frequently fired by aggression and status-seeking…a proclivity that fuels much of male behavior. I use the broad definition of aggression that includes assertiveness and ambition. Aggression is the urge to assert oneself at the expense (however slight) of others, to push one’s own agenda, or to achieve one’s desires by a variety of means. At low levels it equates with assertiveness, ambition, forcefulness, and in extreme form it involves physical violence. “No one questions that males have aggressive tendencies, or that they bring an abundance of positive things to the human equation, small things as well as great ones. It would be a great mistake to lock males away at home. What we think of as male energy has impelled us to venture out to explore the unknown, climb the highest peak, create the grandest building, push beyond just one more horizon, to invent the newest, most amazing gizmo.”
Thus I have concluded that 1) matriarchy is not, or very likely would not, be an ideal form of governing, and 2) because of aspects of human nature it is also not likely to exist for any long period of time. It is NOT going to be the cure for the harms of patriarchy. If not, then what is?
Actually, the possible cure is a relatively new governing system [started about 300 years ago], not yet fully developed or in force anywhere on Earth. It is the diametric opposite of patriarchy. It is fully mature liberal democracy! (which includes shared governing by men and women, sometimes called parity governing and which I call koinoniarchy, from the Greek word meaning to share).
Here are two relevant excerpts from War and Sex and Human Destiny:
“The antithesis to patriarchy, the cure for it, is not matriarchy. It’s fully mature, liberal democracy, by which is meant a governing system that respects the basics of human rights and provides 1) an equal vote to all citizens, men and women, of all races, religions, or sexual orientation, 2) a fully free press, 4) freedom of religion, but separation of church and state 3) freedom of speech and assembly, and 4) an independent judicial system that protects those rights.” What this would mean is that women’s proclivities, which motivate them to create socially stable (peaceful) and nurturing communities in which to raise biologically very expensive children, would serve as a check on male proclivities that if left unchecked can run amok. “Liberal democracy with governmental checks and balances and respect for human rights provides two critical necessities to ending war: it is the best political means available to ensure that no one person or group can instigate war, and it fosters a large middle class that can provide life satisfaction for the most people. People satisfied with their lives are reluctant to go to war.” And finally, many students of war have noted that so far historically none of the world’s liberal democracies have declared war on each other. Thus my second conviction: The cure for the harms of patriarchy, including war, is fully mature liberal democracy. And creating and maturing that form of government will involve, among many things, an enormous cultural shift globally so that women become full partners with men in governing our lives, in homes, communities, nations, and the world.
It is useless to proceed along this path, one cannot prepare for war and expect peace. There is no compromise possible between preparation for war, on the one hand, and preparation of a world society based on law and order on the other. Albert Einstein
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron. Dwight D. Eisenhower President of the United States of America