Why War? Why conflict is so prevalent throughout our history

In his latest book, Why War?, Professor Christopher Coker, Director of LSE IDEAS, investigates the causes of war, an activity exclusive to humans, and why it is so prominent across our history. Interviewed by Sarah Coolican, Research Associate at LSE IDEAS.

photo: pixabay.com

Sarah Coolican: The first point this book makes is that war has cultural origins over biological ones. What do you mean by that?

Professor Christopher Coker: The question of whether war is governed by our biological instincts or cultural desires is an old one. Nature versus nurture. In reality, each reinforces the other. Biologically, we are driven to associating in small groups, but we also give in to producing social conventions, a natural outcome of our desire to establish rules. In developing independently of others, these conventions have tended to reinforce the in–group versus out–group mentality. The fewer shared values between two groups, the more likely the members of the out–group will find themselves beyond the universe of obligation. Moreover, as the British primatologist Richard Wrangham suggests, we are both violent and peaceful at the same time. We are less violent than other primates, because we punish reactive aggression. We ruthlessly pursue people who lack self–control, or kill others on a whim, and that is why we have sanctioned from time immemorial two forms of violence; capital punishment and war which has usually been justified to correct wrongs that have been visited upon us by others.

Sarah: You note Aristotle’s terminology of ‘Man Hunting’; in what ways has war had an evolutionary significance as humankind has developed throughout the millennia?

Professor Coker: Is war evolutionary? There is a book called The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley, and indeed evolution is the central metaphor that governs most of our thinking about life. To think of war as evolutionary challenges the claim that it is pathological – that like a disease. In this case the use of the term is really a confession of failure to explain why so many young men, predominantly, are willing to fight; why people are motivated to act murderously and with such selfish or thoughtless cruelty; why even when we have first-hand experience of the reality, many of us are drawn back to it again and again. The answer would seem to be – in the language of evolution – that war has adaptive significance. Other negative features of life do as well – such as anger, which blunts feelings of personal insecurity and prevents feelings of helplessness from reaching levels of conscious awareness, and if directed at an outsider, can solidify the group, making it feel more secure. War too has adaptive value. According to the Stanford historian Ian Morris and his book War– what is it good for, the state owes its existence to war and states have made life 20 times more secure for us on an everyday basis. According to historian Priya Satia, in her book Empire of guns: the violent making of the industrial revolution, war enabled Britain to undergo the industrial revolution first. Britain, in fact, has invaded, colonised, or attacked all but 17 members of the United Nations – a historical record that is unlikely to be equalled! And certainly not surpassed.

Sarah: The second question your book addresses is the mechanisms that allow war to flourish. Of this you note literature and art as key mechanisms. Could you elaborate on this?

Professor Coker: The value that we attach to war – the reason why there is no taboo against it in any society at any time in history as there is, for example against incest – is that it has been underpinned by cultural mechanisms such as literature and art. Overtime, the cultural artefacts we have created, such as the novel and cinema, have extended our emotional range, even though our biological instincts are much the same as they were back in the Stone Age. Our ancestors had fewer cultural instincts that allowed their biological capabilities to be fully realised. For example, many young men who went in to battle in the First World War were inspired by reading the classics, especially Homer’s Iliad which showcased the greatest warrior in western literature, Achilles. Surprisingly, perhaps, there have been 11 translations of the poem into English in this century alone. In 2009, Robert Fagles was invited to West Point to read out passages from his recent translation of the poem to the cadets, some of whom found themselves deployed in Afghanistan the following year, taking part in a campaign called ‘Operation Achilles’. Cinema too spins its magic by creating an aesthetic of war. Back in the early 1960s many West Point cadets were enthused to join the military by the films of John Wayne. In the 1990s they joined because they had watched the hero of the hour, John Rambo. What is this if not a compelling example of Stephen Pinker’s argument that the cliché that ‘life imitates art’ is often true because the function of some art is for life to imitate it. Just as biologically we are the product of genes, so culturally we are the product of Memes that may infect us, making us susceptible to the idea, for example, that it is glorious to die for one’s country. In Yemen radical leaders turn to poetry because their visions of the future animate today’s jihadists. Memes, unfortunately, are often highly contagious and like any contagion, can be fatal to the host. Martyrdom is a good example. All too often we find ourselves escaping the imperatives of biology only to find ourselves entrapped by culture which has crueller imperatives of its own.

Sarah: War’s ontogeny over time, you say, has been marked by cultural outgrowth. Is it not the biological imperative to defend territory (as tribal instinct), and it is human culture that has morphed this into patriotism and nationalism, the key feature of the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Professor Coker: People have been dying to defend their territory – their homes, habitats, spirits of place, and of course resources – since the beginning. Patriotism takes many forms and is as old as history. Only recently has it mutated into an idea: nationalism. In the late 19thcentury it became a particularly dangerous one. Not only did a nation have to have the trappings of nationhood, such as a distinctive language and an ethnic group to which its speakers belonged, it also had to have a grand stage to awaken its people to their destiny. Nationalism was especially dangerous as an idea when a society found itself transitioning into a nation-state, for it was the transition that bred resentments for past humiliations, imagined or real, and which ignited passions that were difficult to control. It is no less dangerous today, although states no longer conscript millions to fight on battlefields like those of the Second World War. But in Russia, the memory of the Great Patriotic War is used by the government to stir up dislike of the West just as the memory of the Opium Wars is to be found at the heart of the Patriotic History courses in China. Elsewhere in the world the rhetoric of nationalism continues to turn the world into a delusional world of noble causes, tragic sacrifices, and cruel necessity. We are still likely, concludes Michael Ignatieff, to remain prey to the lure of fantasy for some time to come, as nothing is likely to supersede our yearning for community. Unfortunately, it is still the most contingent factors of our identities – class, race and nationality – that loom larger than any other in our imagination.

Sarah: You note that the function of war is to serve itself; it imprisons us in the stories that we overhear ourselves telling. If the future is machine led, and long-distance warfare is to continue, do you think stories and historical memory will have the same ramifications for war?

Professor Coker: What makes us unique as a species is that we have a history. We live in historical time. We are historical beings. History is what defines our humanity; we are a species in constant flux. What I set out to show in my book was how war has evolved and yet remained a constant throughout history, which is not true necessarily of other activities that are almost as old, such as slavery. Historically humanity has experienced three major transitions: the first enabled us to escape from our primate stage; the second enabled us to move from the hunter–gather stage of our history into the agricultural age; and the third 300 years ago fast forwarded us into the industrial era. We have now entered the fourth stage, call it what you will, the post-industrial or the digital. I would privilege another term, the post-human, for we are seemingly intent on engineering the next generation of humans by using gene-editing technologies, introducing brain–computer interfaces, and using artificial intelligence to supercharge the ability of computers to process data and produce patterns beyond human cognition. All these changes will impact upon war in ways that have been explored already by Hollywood and science fiction authors. France’s Defence Innovation Agency has set up a team of sci-fi writers to propose scenarios that might not occur to military planners. In my youth, in the early 1970s, we were told that nuclear weapons had effectively brought an end to the prospect of another great power conflict. Think again. The buzzwords these days are artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, cyber-attacks, and space wars. War will never end, I suspect, until it has exhausted its technological possibilities.

Sarah: Finally, you note that Great Power conflict is certainly not a thing of the past, and indeed we see it manifesting in different forms, like the US-China trade war, or Russian cyber-attacks on democratic institutions in Europe. But would you not argue that, at this level, war has in fact transcended human action and is merely a zero-sum game of political regimes?

Professor Coker: Will we see another great power conflict in our lifetime? Quite likely – indeed it may come sooner than you think – as early as 2024, when China will have the capability for the first time to invade Taiwan. The first military historian Thucydides believed that wars between states were powered by fear, interest, and honour. All three factors figure in the complicated and complex relationship between China and the United States, and between Russia and the West: the fear of being overtaken by another more aggressive power; the need to defend resources, possibly those mined one day soon on the moon; above all, the need to maintain one’s reputation when it is challenged, though in these unpoetic days we prefer not to talk of honour, but of credibility. The US has spent $3.7 trillion trying to restore its credibility after 9/11 – more money than it has spent on every war in its history. We seem to find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle of age-old conflicts, as great powers continue to rise and fall and non-state actors seek to revenge their ancestors or repay old ethnic scores, all of them reproducing the same baseline cruelties. Even today the Sunni–Shia rivalry in the Middle East is really the outcome of an ancient and deadly family feud. Is there any likely end to the cycle? None that I can see, but let us not conclude on such a cheerless note. One of the driving factors of evolution is that it produces increasing complexity, and war is becoming so complex that it no longer pays the same dividends on belief. Perhaps, one day too we will ease the pain by subcontracting war to machines. In a Douglas Adams novel set in the 23rd century, there is a machine for everything, a laboursaving device for every activity, including thought. You can buy a machine called an Electric Monk that will believe in God for you. And if you are wealthy, you can even buy a deluxe version which will believe in things they do not even believe in Salt Lake City.

To hear more about this new book, and the themes it covers, you can register to attend our virtual book launch HERE, on Thursday 6th May.

The book can be ordered HERE with a 25% discount by using this code: WARFIGHT25.

Sarah Coolican is the Program Coordinator for the Central and South Eastern Europe Program at LSE IDEAS. She has a BA in Politics and Eastern European Studies from UCL, and an MSc in International Relations from LSE.Her research interests include modern Russian society and politics and the post-Soviet space. Twitter: @Sarah_Coolican

Christopher Coker is the Director of LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics foreign policy think-tank. Before, he was Professor of International Relations at LSE, retiring in 2019. He is a former twice serving member of the Council of the Royal United Services Institute, a former NATO Fellow and a regular lecturer at Defence Colleges in the UK, US, Rome, Singapore, and Tokyo. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the National Institute for Defence Studies in Tokyo, the Rajaratnam School for International Studies Singapore, the Political Science Department in Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and the Norwegian and Swedish Defence Colleges. His recent books include Rebooting Clausewitz; Men at War; The Improbable War: China, the United States and the Logic of Great Power Conflict; and his latest, Why War?