Monday, July 8, 2013


Most of humanity believes there is something called human nature. For many this is associated with original sin. I don’t. I am a skeptic on the origins of human aggression. Clearly humans cooperate with other people—we do so with kin, with employers and our fellow workers. We do so with our neighbors. If we go to a church we find it agreeable to work on joint issues and projects as a community (like the unrelated women who hammer nails and paint walls for Habitat for Humanity). The fact that we have rarely killed more than 3 percent of humanity through warfare throughout history (genocides are relatively rare) suggests that mayhem, if it’s in our genes, requires some powerful triggers to express itself since most people do not die from warfare or aggressive acts of others. If you push aggression as innate then you have to push cooperation and tolerance (the norm in most of the history of civilization) as also innate, if not more so than aggression. If both aggression and cooperative behavior are innate what social behavior is not innate? Fewer psychiatrists, neurobiologists or anthropologists have written books in the past decade on the origins of war and aggression than in the era before and after WWII. That war, and the World War I preceding it made psychologists try an initial stab at thinking of our penchant for warfare. Freudians were the first to do so. Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom), Carlo Levi (Fear and Freedom), and Freud (Civilization and its Discontents) were ones I enjoyed reading in my youth. When I was at UCLA in the 1960s I met psychiatrist Maurice N. Walsh (War and the Human Race) who was the psychiatrist who interviewed Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess for the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. He felt that research on the psychology of war was essential but had difficulty finding funding because granting agencies told him war was social, political, or economic. He saw war as an initiation rite into manhood imposed by older men on adolescents (18 year olds are ideal for the military because they are most dependable in carrying out orders). The term “infantry” is a vestige of that military tradition (a French general addresses his troops as “mes enfants”). I was glad to see this tradition of seeking cultural or psychological reasons for aggression revived with Stephen Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) who presents convincing evidence to me that the world has gotten less violent over the centuries. I would love to see a law that made legislators who declare war or fund war, be required to fight them by actually entering combat in the infantry rather than sending waves of young people to do the fighting for them. I would also love to see a mandatory draft of every management level employee or board member of the corporations that make weapons for war. I do not doubt that there will be some superannuated warriors and politicians who will be quite willing to do so, but I suspect most members of Congress and most munitions and gun makers will plead their geriatric infirmities and avoid having to do this. Perhaps they could waive this by having their children go in their stead. I learned decades ago a simple reality for every country on earth—patriotism trumps reason. Rational people would try to avoid putting themselves at risk. But by elevating the military call to something close to Godliness, we repress our own sense of self-preservation and go along with wars, no matter how frequently they occur, how long they last, or how dubious the reasons are for entering such wars. We do not want to be called unpatriotic and we tolerate those war hawks in politics who themselves dodged the draft or found (through their political pull and family ties) relatively safe assignments. If it’s done in the name of patriotism we have learned not to question it for fear of being labeled traitors or unpatriotic. Why are more people not upset at the way the older population puts the younger population at risk? These are not wars caused by young people; they are the wars of old people being fought by the young.

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