Military history



WHY DO MEN FIGHT? Did men wage war in the Stone Age, or was early man unaggressive? Men — but also women — fight, with ink and paper, very fiercely over these questions. They are not the military historians, who rarely concern themselves with the well-springs of the activities they chronicle, but the social and behavioural scientists. Perhaps military historians would be better historians if they did take time to reflect on what it is that disposes men to kill each other. The social and behavioural scientists have no choice but to do so. Man and society are their subjects, yet most human beings for most of the time cooperate for the common good. Cooperativeness must be taken as the norm, and why that should be so requires some explanation, though of no very profound sort, since common observation will establish that cooperation is in the common interest. If there were no departure from the cooperative principle, therefore, social and behavioural scientists would have little to do. They would be explaining the predictable, an unrewarding and unrewarded task. It is the unpredictability of human behaviour, in individuals and in human groups, which challenges them to supply explanations, and the unpredictability of violent behaviour most of all. The violent individual is the principal threat to the norm of cooperativeness within groups, the violent group the principal cause of disruption in wider society.

Studies of individual and group behaviour take different directions. They share, however, a common ground, to which debate eventually returns: is man violent by nature or is his potentiality for violence — about such potentiality there can be no dispute, if only because man can kick and bite — translated into use by the operation of material factors? Those who hold to the latter view, loosely categorised as ‘materialists’, believe that their perceptions demolish the naturalist position. The naturalists unite to oppose the materialists but divide sharply between themselves. There is a minority whose members insist that man is naturally violent; though most would not concede the analogy, theirs is the argument of Christian theologians who hold to the story of the Fall and the doctrine of original sin. The majority reject such a characterisation. They regard violent behaviour either as an aberrant activity in flawed individuals or as a response to particular sorts of provocation or stimulation, the inference being that if such triggers to violence can be identified and palliated or eliminated, violence can be banished from human intercourse. The debate between the two schools of naturalists has aroused strong passions. At a meeting at Seville University in May 1986, a majority of those present issued a statement, modelled on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Statement on Race, condemning belief in man’s violent nature in absolute terms. The Seville Statement contains five articles, each beginning ‘It is scientifically incorrect’, to which affirmation is expected. The articles together amount to a condemnation of all characterisations of man as naturally violent. In succession they deny that ‘we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors’ or that ‘war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature’ or that ‘in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour’ or that ‘humans have a “violent” brain’ or, finally, that ‘war is caused by “instinct” or any single motivation’.1

The Seville Statement has found weighty support. It has, for example, been adopted by the American Anthropological Association. It does not, however, much help the layman who is aware that war has ancient origins, knows that surviving ‘Stone Age’ peoples like the highlanders of New Guinea are undeniably warlike, is conscious of violent impulses in himself but lacks the expert knowledge of genetics or neurology necessary to take sides. Yet the debate between the two naturalist parties is important, indeed fundamental, as is that between the naturalists and the materialists. At a hopeful time in human history, a time of effective disarmament and of the adoption of humanitarianism as a principle in world affairs, the layman naturally seeks reassurance that the drafters of the Seville Statement have right on their side. Mankind’s success over the the last two centuries in altering for the better the material circumstances of life would then encourage support for the materialists’ explanation of organised human violence, in the anticipation that a continuation of the efforts that have largely defeated disease, want, ignorance and the hardship of manual labour might eliminate warfare also. Its history, from the Stone Age onward, would then become an antiquarian interest, of no more relevance to everyday life than that of world exploration or of pre-Newtonian science. If, on the other hand, the drafters’ of the Seville Statement are wrong, if their condemnations of the naturalist explanation of human violence are mere expressions of optimism, then the materialist explanation is wrong as well, and our end-of-the-century expectations of an end to war entirely misplaced. It is important to know what both the pessimists and the optimists in the naturalist school have to say.

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