Tuesday, June 16, 2009

War and Human Nature -- especially American


The July/August 2009 issue of “The American Interest” has three articles on war. The only one available on line is the above, “Blood Brothers,” was written by Stephen Peter Rosen.

Initially I thought the second article, “War and Human Nature” by Steven A. LeBlanc would be more interesting, and read it first. Yes we are hard wired for war, but not in a deterministic sense. We fight wars just as our primitive forebears did and just as our nearest relative, the Chimpanzee still does, but we do it in a calculating way. Chimpanzees will gang up on a single enemy, but if a large number of enemies show up, they will run away. In the primitive human societies anthropologists have studied, something similar occurs. A tribe might wait until it is sure all the enemies are asleep and then rush down to attack. Ambush and sneak attack were the favored methods of warfare in hunter-gatherer societies.

We still calculate in the manner of the Chimpanzee. We had all sorts of reasons for attacking Saddam Hussein, for example, but we weren’t going to let these “reasons” overcome our calculations. We believed we had the advantage. We were more sophisticated than the primitive tribesmen in South Australia that the Australian William Buckley wrote about in the early 1800s, but we were doing the same thing. We didn’t rush into war blindly. We believed we had an advantage and could win. We calculated the odds before going ahead.

So, yes we are hard-wired for war, as the anthropologists tell us, but not in a blind way. We calculate, and if the odds are against us, or if there is no advantage in moving ahead with an attack, then we refrain. We don’t do it. And we see that we don’t have to do it. War didn’t occur between the USSR & the US during the Cold War because both sides saw that the chance of devastating retaliation was unacceptably high. The chance of such a retaliation from Saddam’s Iraq was much lower. We suspected him of having chemical and biological weapons. After all he used them in a war against Iran. Also, we knew he was pursuing nuclear weapons. The Israeli’s destroyed an earlier nuclear-development site. We knew he wanted nuclear weapons (even while believing intelligence reports that he may already have them); so it seemed prudent to nip his ambitions in the bud. The risks of retaliation were low.

But there were political risks that were not fully taken into consideration, and for that we can turn to the Rosen’s article, “Blood Brothers.” He has read Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, but instead of seeing four elements influencing foreign policy, he sees two. There is the Scots-Irish tradition which is among the most warlike in the world. They fought the British from Scotland, and when they were shipped off to Northern Ireland they fought the Irish. When they were harassed again by the British a great number of them became settlers in the New World. They were the most numerous group to settle in North America. Many of us can trace ancestors back to this Scots-Irish influx. I know I can. Call for a war and the Scots-Irish will be first in line at the recruiting office.

Interestingly, as Mead tells us and Rosen repeats, it is no longer just the ethnic Scots-Irish who hold this war-like view. The Scots-Irish were the initial settlers, but immigrants from other ethnicities came to America (or were brought here as slaves) and learned to accept the Scots-Irish tradition. Rosen writes, “The musings of Lyndon Johnson to Richard Russell as he considered what to do in the Vietnam War after American soldiers had been killed by Viet Cong clearly reflected the values of the Scots-Irish society he grew up in. LBJ said that he had to fight in Vietnam; that one of his Texas neighbors had told him the American people would forgive anything in a President but weakness.”

But Rosen’s second tradition is the Puritan. The Puritans were just as willing to fight as the Scots-Irish, but they were of a Calvinistic, legalistic tradition. A war needed to be properly authorized and approved by law before the Puritans would be happy to fight. In regard to the Vietnam War, Rosen writes, the Puritan culture “insisted on legal authorization of violence; hence the efforts of the U.S. government to portray the Vietnam war as a valid response to the violation of the17th parallel, a recognized international border legally mandated by U.S. treaty commitments, and as consistent with a general international consensus embodied in allied military support. All this reflected the need to speak to the Puritan culture. Those appeals were never compelling, however, and did not command the respect of support of that culture, which turned against the war in a way Scots-Irish culture never did.”


This note is a continuation of the discussion that began with David Fromkin’s The Independence of Nations. Fromkin accepted the idea in 1981, an idea that is even more firmly established in 2009, that we are a species hard-wired for war. Pacifism and wishful thinking won’t change that. Politically-Correct theories about war being “stupid” or “foolish” have been largely abandoned. Few today seem to be writing books like Alistair Horne’s (1962) The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, an “appalling story, marvelously told . . . the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war” as we are told on the back of the 1993 paperback edition of Horne’s book. To call war “an appalling story,” or “unnecessary” seems naïve in 2009.

But if telling us that war is “human folly” or “unnecessary,” won’t do it, what will? Fromkin in 1981 thought another “balance of power” situation like we had in the 19th century – or even the one we had through the Cold War might give us time to come up with a better solution. He recommends putting distance between ourselves by colonizing other parts of the solar system and then moving out to other star systems.

LeBlanc rather vaguely hopes that the calculating part of our hard-wiring might cause us to decide that war is no longer advantageous. The Chimpanzees ran away from a larger group of Chimpanzees. Maybe war will eventually seem like a larger group of Chimpanzees even to the most powerful nation. We seem to be in that mode at present. Obama won the presidency, to some extent, as a result of this belief. We were too aggressive under Bush 43; so now we are trying to be more humble, more proper, more law-abiding under Obama. For Obama and his followers, the disapproval of the rest of the world was the “larger group of Chimpanzees.” Will Obama’s viewpoint become the accepted policy of the next president? Or will the next one decide that as long as Chimpanzees do nothing more than jump up and down and holler, they can’t really hurt us?

The third article is entitled “Vacuum Wars, The Coming Competition over Failed States,” and written by Jakub Grygiel. I complement The American Interest on this very interesting trilogy of articles. I might have been tempted to reorder them and put “War and Human Nature” first, but Rosen doesn’t seem to quite accept LeBlanc’s emphasis. He doesn’t speak of all humans being hard-wired for war. He speaks of Americans being influenced and equipped for war through their Puritan and Scots-Irish Traditions. After reading both articles I can see that Rosen isn’t in conflict with LeBlanc. He is merely getting into the detail of how American hard-wiring has played out in history. Some chimpanzees are better warriors than others. Rosen may be saying that Americans, made up as we are of Scots-Irish and Puritans, are extremely competent warriors.

The LeBlanc/Rosen views are not completely melded, however. Rosen felt a need to disagree with Tocqueville. We may think of ourselves as isolationist and unwarlike, but our actions say otherwise. Rosen seems to single the US out as distinctive. LeBlanc would say this is the nature of all men. However they think of themselves, they are all hard-wired for war. The US is not distinctive in that regard. The US has a respectable war-like tradition, but so does Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, Vietnam, and China (among others). Advantages over those nations have more to do with technology than with warlike mentality.

Patriotic discussions of American warlike capability remind me of the discussions I’ve had of Rhodesian Ridgeback protectiveness. Yes, they were once a fierce breed and used by Cornelius Van Rooyan to hunt African Lions. But over the years breeders have softened them and used them for other purposes. They have become thoroughly domesticated and don’t “seem” at all capable of hunting African Lions any longer. But could they if called upon to do so? More importantly, could they perform another other their early capabilities, that of being excellent guards? The Ridgeback patriots argue that they could. If the need arose then they would come to their owner’s defense. Well, maybe. But they haven’t had to prove that capability in many years. They seem much like many other similar breeds today.

In the early 20th century, South Africans swore by the Rhodesian Ridgeback, and called it the “Lion Dog.” It was believed to fight dangerous game better, guard the farms better, and be more protective than any other breed in Africa. As I read those early stories I can believe it. But then I look over on the floor beside my desk and see my two sleeping Ridgeback girls. They are thoroughly domesticated. They have been a bit protective on a few occasions, but I doubt that they exhibit more of that characteristic than other breeds such as the Rottweiler or the Giant Schnauzer. And their prey drive isn’t entirely gone. They love to chase rabbits, and last night they were both desperate to chase a mouse we encountered on our walk.

One can see that I have moved from LeBlanc’s “All men are hard-wired for war” to Rosen’s suggestion that Americans may have better war-hard-wiring than other traditions. That we are hard-wired for war seems demonstrable, both in history and in the present day. That the US is better at it than other nations is more debatable. In the meantime, there are all those failed-nation vacuums out there as hazards for us. We are sure to fight wars over some of them. Will there be time enough to get to Mars and the Moons of Jupiter before we get into a really bad war? Let us hope so.

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