The Chronicle Review

Why We Fight Wars

May 28, 2017

Scott Peterson, Liaison, Getty Images
Hutu refugees at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania, 1994

"Wars are not barroom brawls writ large," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich. She was responding to Francis Fukuyama’s claim in Foreign Affairs magazine that men are mainly responsible for military conflicts because "aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women," and that "statistically speaking it is primarily men who enjoy the experience of aggression." Ehrenreich, who earned a Ph.D. in cellular immunology before turning to journalism and politics, rejected Fukuyama’s belief that men’s warlike practices were "rooted in biology," "hard-wired," "genetically determined," or "bred in the bone." Unlike the lethal violence of the chimpanzees who provided the hook for Fukuyama’s article, warfare is organized, institutionalized, and socially sanctioned violence. If we seek to explain it — and not only its gendered dimensions — evolutionary biology is not the place to look.

Two new books on war, one focused particularly on ethnic violence, try to offer alternatives to the primal-aggression argument, but both fall short. In War: An Enquiry (Yale University Press), A.C. Grayling summarizes the violent history and state of the world but then throws up his hands at the difficulty of distilling the evidence and drawing a conclusion. In Killing Others: A Natural History of Ethnic Violence (Cornell University Press), Matthew Lange blames ethnic conflicts on nationalist and religious pot-stirring by the last two centuries’ evolving nation-states. Both books are inconsistent in their logic, and neither is able to resist the pull of biological arguments — at any rate, they spend a lot of time outlining them. Beyond that, both authors ignore the more-pertinent evidence, which suggests that meddling, self-interested outsiders, in conjunction with ill-advised neoliberal austerity programs, bear much of the blame for the ugliest conflicts of at least the last few decades.

Both books are inconsistent in their logic, and neither is able to resist the pull of biological arguments.
The Syrian war seems to defy Grayling’s effort to answer the question, "What, indeed is war, and how does it differ from other kinds of violent conflict?" In discussing Syria, he falls back on the pub-brawl metaphor he previously disavowed. Lange, in Killing Others, deems Syria’s "an ethnic civil war." Neither author accords much influence to the role there of outside states — Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, to name the main parties — even though their arms, training, and direct intervention have shaped and prolonged the violence.

Although the stated objectives, and the books’ titles themselves, imply differences — Grayling’s is broad, Lange’s narrowly focused — the authors occupy much the same territory. In addition to pondering the genetic basis for aggression, both evoke the psychologists’ distinction between in-groups and out-groups. Both consider the debate between Steven Pinker and Douglas Fry, among others, over whether the archaeological record shows prehistoric humans were more or less warlike than modern ones. Both cover vast periods of the history of warfare — Grayling compactly in a couple of chapters, and Lange with examples dispersed throughout the book. And both ultimately fail to provide satisfying answers about war’s causes.

Grayling, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, is forthright on this point: "The large and growing literature on the subject of the causes of war is such almost as to defy summary, and makes drawing conclusions difficult." Lange, a professor of sociology at McGill University, is more convinced that he has identified a general explanation for ethnic violence. It starts with humans’ "cognitive propensity to categorize people into in-groups and out-groups," and relies on the effects of modernity in promoting ethnic consciousness, which "contributes to emotional prejudice and ethnic obligations, both of which are influential motives of ethnic violence."

Nearly two decades after the Fukuyama-Ehrenreich debate, Grayling ultimately rejects "genetic determinism" as an explanation for warfare, but only after spending 20 pages summarizing the pros and cons of the claim. He insists that "civilization has the capability of getting rid of war as it has got rid of poliomyelitis, if it would apply the will and means to do so." So war is like a disease, then, even if not genetically determined?

Lange’s argument does not quite qualify as genetic determinism in the Fukuyama mold, but he does claim to show "how a shared biology puts all human beings at risk of ethnic violence." For illustrating the combined effects of genetic traits and environment on behavior, his preferred animal relatives are not chimpanzees (although he mentions them) but Chihuahuas and border collies. In identifying genetic predispositions, Lange avoids Fukuyama’s metaphor of "hard-wiring," but just barely. He prefers "pre-wiring" (borrowed from the research psychologist Gary F. Marcus). But because "dividing people into in-groups and out-groups depends on the social environment," Lange eschews the concept of "binary instinct" in favor of "binary propensity." It’s not quite the Fukuyama argument, maybe Fukuyama-lite.

For Lange, the propensity of human beings to divide others into in-groups and out-groups promotes ethnic violence mainly under conditions of "modernity" — thus the phenomenon he seeks to explain is only a couple of centuries old. Lange’s notion of modernity is capacious. It encompasses not only the Prussian state-building and French "peasants into Frenchmen" variants, but also the work of colonial missionaries in Burma who helped invent "Karen" ethnic consciousness by providing this group a standardized written version of their language with which to read the Bible. In neighboring Thailand, according to Lange, Protestant missionaries treated the Karen as part of the Thai nation and did not provide its members with such a common-language education. It is unclear, in thinking about anti-Karen violence in Burma, whether the author considers one set of missionaries to represent modernity and the other not.

Over all, Lange finds "mixed evidence" of modernity’s effects on ethnic identity and violence. Consider his account of Nazi Germany. In his view, "German national consciousness created a great concern for the well-being of the German nation" and "obliged people to protect" it. The state promoted a "myth-symbol complex" that fostered anti-Semitism, and, when combined with "extreme national hardship," "inspired a virulent nationalist emotional effervescence that targeted Jews and imposed obligations on the population to deal with the Jewish ‘menace’" through mass extermination. This explanation for the Holocaust, reminiscent of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s (although he is not cited), has the same holes: What of the virulent anti-Semitic murderers from Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere who were not products of the German nationalist ideology or state-building legacy? What of the millions of non-Jewish civilians killed by Germans? What of the Germans who resisted their "obligations" to kill Jews?

Joseph Eid, AFP, Getty Images
The war-shattered city of Aleppo, Syria, 2017
Lange’s understanding of more recent cases is also problematic. His explanation for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is inconsistent. On one hand, he attributes it to the legacy of German and Belgian colonial officials who created the categories of Hutu and Tutsi to serve their administrative purposes. He acknowledges, however, that "ethnic boundaries became increasingly porous in Rwanda during the decades leading to the genocide, as Tutsis and Hutus shared the same culture, practiced the same religion, lived amongst one another, and frequently intermarried. As a consequence many Hutus did not pay much attention to ethnic difference." Yet he also describes how "an ethnic consciousness made Hutus concerned about the well-being of their ethnicity, and a myth-symbol complex intensified emotional prejudice by depicting Tutsis as vile invaders who exploited Hutus and endangered the well-being of the ‘real’ Rwandan nation." So which is it? Peaceful coexistence or a poisonous "myth-symbol complex"? And if the latter, does that really adequately explain why some Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis in the course of 100 days?

Lange cites the violent breakup of Yugoslavia as another key case of genocidal violence carried out on behalf of the "well-being" of an ethnic group. In his telling, the "fall of the Iron Curtain" led to the "crumbling" of the Yugoslav state "along ethnic lines and pushed politicians to frame the political crisis in terms of ethnicity and mobilize their constituencies to fight for the well-being of their respective ethnic communities." Yet, some of the most intense conflict of the wars of Yugoslav succession took place in Bosnia — between people who were virtually indistinguishable by most of the criteria considered to represent ethnicity. They looked the same, they spoke the same local dialects of Serbo-Croatian (different from what Croats in Zagreb or Serbs in Belgrade spoke), they ate the same food, drank the same "Turkish" coffee, rakija (fruit brandy), and šljivovica (plum brandy). Religion remained the only "ethnic" trait that separated the people of Bosnia, many of whom went from considering themselves Yugoslavs to identifying as Muslims, Serbs (Orthodox Christian), or Croats (Roman Catholic).

Meddling, self-interested outsiders, in conjunction with ill-advised neoliberal austerity programs, bear much of the blame for the ugliest conflicts of at least the last few decades.
But even here the story is hardly clear. A 1990 survey of ethnic composition and religious affiliation in Bosnia is particularly revealing. At that time, Muslims made up 43.7 percent of the population; Serbs, 31 percent; and Croats, 17.3 percent. When asked their religious belief, the proportions reporting the expected answers — Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism — were only 16.5, 20, and 15 percent respectively. Fully 46 percent of the population claimed no religion. Again, something seems to be missing if we are to attribute the tens of thousands of deaths in Bosnia to ethnic difference. Was the campaign of systematic rape and sexual slavery of Bosnian Muslim women, carried out by Serb militias and planned by the top leadership, the result of emotional prejudice and a sense of obligation to promote the well-being of the Serb nation?

Curiously, as he summarizes the Yugoslav case, Lange claims to rely mainly on a book by the regional expert V.P. Gagnon Jr., without seeming to grasp the significance of its title, The Myth of Ethnic War, let alone attend to its argument. Gagnon shows that the violence that caused the breakup of Yugoslavia was not the product of ultranationalist leaders mobilizing populations on the basis of ethnic pride. Instead, the main instigators were ex-Communists who used ethnic scapegoating and charges of treason to demobilize peaceful mass movements for democratization of the sort that had overthrown Communist regimes throughout eastern Europe. The more ethnically integrated the area — Bosnia and its capital Sarajevo especially — the more vicious the violence necessary to turn neighbors against each other. It was typically directed by outsiders.

One observed something similar in Iraq in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. A facile reading would claim the demise of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime took the lid off simmering sectarian tensions, resulting in ethnic violence between Sunni and Shia. Yet in many parts of the country, these groups had been living peacefully side by side. Especially in urban areas, they often intermarried and did not emphasize sectarian identities. The New York Times reported in 2006 on Baghdad’s upscale Mansour neighborhood, where Sunni and Shiite worshipers actually shared the same mosque, taking turns carrying out services there. It took brutal violence from outside Sunni extremists — criminals masquerading as religious zealots, according to the locals — to break up the integrated community by terrorizing the Shia into flight and seizing their property.

The cases of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq, and others suggest that ethnic identity intense enough to produce genocidal killing is not solely or necessarily the product of modernity, as Lange claims. Rather, violent conflict undoes generations-long processes of urbanization, secularization, and intermarriage that are often themselves considered features of modernization.

There is something missing in Lange’s account that suggests a way forward for studies of war and "ethnic" conflict. He sometimes alludes to the role of "economic hardship" or inequality, but he does not theorize economic insecurity in any systematic way. The background to the cases on which he focuses is suggestive, however. In Valerie Bunce’s study of what she calls the "subversive institutions" of socialist federal systems like Yugoslavia, she demonstrates that under conditions of severe economic decline, when budgetary allocations and jobs are linked to "national" identity within the federation, unscrupulous leaders resort to ethnic scapegoating to cover for their failed economic policies.

Contrary to Lange’s claim that "international institutions" serve to prevent ethnic violence, Susan Woodward’s work on the political economy of Yugoslavia points to the role of the International Monetary Fund in exacerbating internal tensions. Yugoslavia’s economy in the 1980s was subject to an IMF austerity program that saw a 15-percent rate of unemployment combined with an annual 50-percent inflation rate, culminating in hyperinflation as war broke out in June 1991. By 1984, average household income had already fallen to 70 percent of what was considered the official minimum amount for a family of four to sustain itself. In Belgrade, by 1991, the unemployment rate had reached 50 percent for young men in their 20s — the prime age for recruitment to paramilitary gangs.

Rwanda faced similar pressures from international financial institutions, as Michel Chossudovsky has described. A structural adjustment program demanded by the World Bank in 1988 emphasized trade liberalization, currency devaluation, removal of all subsidies to agriculture, privatization of state enterprises, and firing of civil servants. In November 1990, six weeks after an invasion by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front from Uganda, the government carried out a 50-percent devaluation of the Rwandan franc. The IMF demanded a further devaluation in the midst of civil war in 1992. Rather than promote Rwanda’s coffee exports, as intended, the devaluation brought prices so low that, in desperation, coffee growers uprooted 300,000 coffee plants to make room for food crops. The combined disaster of agricultural crisis and urban unemployment provided ripe conditions for ethnic scapegoating by the government hard-liners, who subsequently killed their moderate Hutu opponents and orchestrated the genocide against the Tutsis.

Excellent large-N studies by Lars-Erik Cederman and his colleagues have reinforced the insights of country specialists who claim that ethnonationalist grievances can contribute to conflict when the costs of economic decline are distributed unevenly. Certain groups bear the brunt. On the other hand, when Lange ventures from descriptions of particular cases to quantitative analysis of trends in ethnic violence, his conclusions are less persuasive. One wonders whether he might be reifying his key concepts when he uses them to assess trends over two centuries. Yet he ventures forth with predictions, too. "The broad historical trends," he writes, "show a rise in ethnic violence between the early 1800s and 2000, suggesting that ethnic violence will continue to affect the lives of millions of people annually. ... Ultimately, I predict that ethnic violence will continue near present levels over the next decade but should decline slightly thanks to lower levels of violence among late modernizers."

Since his overall reasoning is suspect, we can’t gauge his predictions. But I fear they are overly optimistic. In the United States, economic decline and inequality account in some part for the white nationalism and ethnic scapegoating associated with Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Can we be confident that the institutions of modernity that Lange credits with maintaining ethnic peace — "rights-based democracy, effective states, and economic prosperity" — will endure?

Scott Peterson, Liaison, Getty Images
Skulls outside a chapel in Rwanda, 1994. Authorities were determining the extent of the genocide that resulted in the death of nearly one million Tutsis.
In summing up his argument in Foreign Affairs, Fukuyama mused, "Once one views international relations through the lens of sex and biology, it never again looks the same. It is very difficult to watch Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or militias from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Georgia and Azerbaijan divide themselves up into what seem like indistinguishable male-bonded groups in order to systematically slaughter one another, and not think of the chimps at Gombe."

My advice is to try harder. Don’t think of the chimps. Think instead of the IMF’s austerity programs; the neoliberal prescriptions for eliminating agricultural subsidies that provide a lifeline for subsistence farmers in developing countries; the fact that the richest 1 percent of the world’s population owns half of the world’s wealth. Ponder that one of those people, who insulted Mexicans, Muslims, women, and many others during his electoral campaign, received the votes of some 63 million others and became president of the United States.

As Grayling writes, humans could ultimately rid themselves of war — but not by considering it in biological terms and treating it as a disease. If we want war as a socially sanctioned form of violence to go the way of previous institutions like slavery, torture, and forced child marriages, we need to organize popular movements. Grayling, in his masterful Among the Dead Cities, detailed the arguments of opponents of the bombing of civilians in World War II. He would be the first to recognize, then, the role of the activists, even if they failed to achieve their objectives at the time. Should activists succeed in stigmatizing and abolishing war, their heirs would need to maintain constant vigilance. As we have seen in the "war on terror," such scourges as torture and targeted killing of civilians can recur when unscrupulous leaders rule societies under pressure.

Matthew Evangelista is a professor of history and political science at Cornell University. His books include Law, Ethics, and the War on Terror (Polity Books, 2008) and Do the Geneva Conventions Matter?, (Oxford University Press, 2017), edited with Nina Tannenwald.