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Is war inevitable for human beings?

The essential moral rule is do no harm. But as a species we are capable of both the best and the worst

Una marcha de soldados yemeníes en solidaridad con Gaza
A march of Yemeni soldiers in solidarity with Gaza, in Sanaa (Yemen), on December 2.MOHAMMED HUWAIS ( AFP )
Mar Padilla

We are starting a new year, but the news is discouraging: conflict in Ukraine, bombings in Gaza, fighting in Yemen. Is war really a necessary condition among humans?

In 1986, the Seville Statement on Violence emerged, a document prepared by international experts gathered by UNESCO in the southern Spanish city that concludes that there is no scientific evidence that war is inherent to people. “War is not in our genes. What is inevitable is human anger and violence,” explains Jorge L. Tizón, a psychiatrist and author of the 2022 book La guerra como campo de batalla. Deconstruyendo mitos y símbolos (War as battlefield. Deconstructing myths and symbols). Tizón reminds us of something that we all experience in our social coexistence: that within us there is anger and violence and sorrow and sadness, but also joy, attachment, desire and the instinct to play.

Sometimes it is difficult for us to see the obvious. In humans, the essential moral rule is to do no harm, and we are “ultrasocial beings that manage to live in densely populated urban areas where there is a respectful sociability, where we interact in a trusting way with strangers, with very wide margins for tolerance and cooperation,” recalls Adolf Tobeña, a professor of psychiatry at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. So how is war possible?

Armed confrontation is what we have been seeing for centuries, nurtured by what Eric Fromm called the school of “instinctivism,” a cover-up idea to accept war. “There are human emotions, and then culture is responsible for stimulating or repressing one or the other,” warns Tizón.

In La religión de la guerra (The religion of war), a 2022 compendium of articles written by the philosopher André Glucksmann in his youth, it is argued that the West is a society mapped from the wars derived from imperialism, colonialism and nationalism. And that it occupies a preeminent place in Western imagery. War is the backbone of history lessons, paintings, novels, movies, series and video games. It is a multifaceted symbol perceived as destiny, duty, custom, biological call, adventure, an absurdity and, lately, as the worst of crimes.

Camaraderie and necrophilia

Perhaps a custom is very similar to a truth, yet it is not. In 1987, Georgi Arbatov, advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev, warned the West: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you: we are going to deprive you of an enemy.” If less belligerent identities have to be encouraged, then we will have to deal with our attraction for combat. In War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Chris Hedges, a veteran war reporter hardened in conflicts like El Salvador and the Balkans (and who decided to leave The New York Times after getting told off for being critical of the invasion of Iraq), warns that the problem is the power of the myth of war, because it has a force that gives meaning to chaos and violent death, and justifies cruelty and human stupidity. “War is necrophilia” hidden under the clichés of duty and camaraderie, he writes.

The key is that in interaction between human groups, sometimes a higher value can be awarded to it. If it is considered a “just cause” — whatever that may be — it allows us to exalt morality until we become blinded and confrontational, according to Tobeña, co-author together with Jorge Carrasco of La guerra infinita. De las luchas tribales a las contiendas globales (Infinite War: from Tribal Fights to Global Conflicts).

There is also the desire to fight. “Humans have the privilege of the absurd: the idea of life is more important than life itself. Civilizations fall or not depending on the vitality of their cultural ideas, their values,” explains the anthropologist Scott Atran in a telephone conversation. “We have an automatic neuropsychological bias, a psychological trigger that drives us to prefer and defend our own, but this bias does not necessarily lead to confrontation,” warns Tobeña.

“Warring is not in our genes. What cannot be avoided is anger and violence.”
Jorge L. Tizón, psychiatrist

And when does hostility show up? When competition, the fight for dominance and pro-group favoritism — be it tribalism, unionism, chauvinism or nationalism — are fueled to the point of paroxysm. And when the leadership of individuals who seek to take personal advantage of the conflicts promote contempt and hatred of otherness. When fear is fueled, it “short-circuits cognitive processes,” which can lead to confrontation, according to Tizón.

Deserters and “cowards”

In 1795, Kant launched the idea of declaring war illegal on a universal scale, and the Seville document warns: war is born in the mind. Therefore, “by acting as if war were not inevitable we can prevent it,” reasons Cynthia Enloe, author of Twelve Feminist Lessons of War. For Enloe, claiming that war is inevitable means not holding anyone responsible for destroying peace, “a dangerous and deeply militarized assumption, because each and every war has broken out due to specific decisions by specific people, each of whom could have acted differently.”

In this dark plot, war propaganda ignores those who flee or those who refuse to shoot. During World War II, the German army killed 30,000 deserters, and in the American Civil War, half of the soldiers did not use their weapons. They are shadows that break into a thousand pieces the orderly, coherent story of war.

According to the three fundamental parameters of wars — frequency, duration and lethality — they are decreasing. When World War I began, more than two million volunteers signed up, something unthinkable now. The British historian Mary Beard argued something similar recently: “We have not solved the problem of war or crimes, but we already know that this is not done. We have advanced.”

The human species has a capacity for a community mentality capable of the best and the worst. There are people like the Palestinian doctor Mahmoud Abu Nujaila, from Doctors Without Borders, who died in a bombing of the Al Awda hospital in Gaza, for his decision not to abandon the sick and wounded. “We did what we could. Remember us,” he left written on the board to plan surgeries.

On the other side of the mirror is Adolf Hitler, who in the fall of 1923, at the Bürgerbräukeller brewery in Munich, sweaty and angry — they called him “the wet poodle” for that reason — he inflamed the 50 people present with hatred.

Let’s see which path we follow. The Seville declaration of 1986 concluded that “biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism and empowered with confidence to undertake the transformative tasks needed in this International Year of Peace and in the years to come.”

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