John Horgan on erasing war from the human condition
A conversation with the author of a new book suggesting that humanity has it within its power to put an end to war.
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey. He contributes regularly to Scientific American and other publications in the field, and has written several books about science, society and religion. In his new book, “The End of War” (McSweeney’s; 222 pages, $24), he applies the scientific approach to a topic that has occupied him personally since childhood: Why do people fight wars?
Horgan, 58, examines all the standard theories offered over the years to explain why people go to war: a biological tendency to organized fighting among males, if not humans in general, or even primates; competition for scarce resources; the influence of religion or of dominating political figures; the thrill of killing.
In each case, he offers exceptions to the rule so as to prove that it is not written in the stars. For example, in countering studies of chimps and orangutans that practice group violence against members of their own species, he presents cases of bands from the same species that live a peaceful, even altruistic existence. He also interviews the contemporary anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who has called members of the Yanomamo tribe he studied, in the Amazon region, “innately violent” and practitioners of “chronic warfare,” but who nonetheless told Horgan he thought that under different conditions, the Yanomamo could just as easily be a pacific society.
Horgan’s book intersects thematically with some other new books, one by Steven Pinker, another by Joshua Goldstein, that offer empirical evidence that proportionately fewer people are dying in armed conflict than in earlier centuries. Horgan feels his book is unique in that he sticks his neck out and calls on his fellow citizens to work to make war a thing of the past. John Horgan spoke with Haaretz by phone from his home in Philipstown, New York.
What in the world made you write this book?
I think it’s fair to say I’ve been obsessed with war since I was a kid. I was born in 1953. I was eligible for the draft when I was in high school, when the Vietnam war was still raging. So I was thinking about the justice or injustice of that war and the insanity of the cold war, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. War seems not just immoral to me, but also really stupid, and absurd. And I never really lost that feeling. So, when I became a science journalist, I wrote about the nuclear arms race, and biological and chemical weapons, and about electronic intelligence. I also got into the anthropology of war, studies of the Yanomamo and other tribal peoples, and attempts to study the causes of war.
But I only started thinking about writing this book recently, when I realized that the vast majority of people think that war is a permanent part of the human condition. The first time I realized that was when I gave a talk after the invasion of Iraq at a local church, and they asked me to talk about what anthropology and genetics can tell us about war: and whether war is in our genes. I said there’s actually some evidence that suggests that war is quite old, and maybe innate in some way, but I insisted that we will surely end war someday. The only question is how and when.
People in the audience looked disbelieving, like, What, are you nuts? And I said, OK, how many of you agree with me that there will be a day when there is no war, when there’s world peace? And very few people held up their hands. I was really shocked. Since then, I’ve done this poll all over the place, in Europe, across the United States, with all kinds of audiences. And, the results are always the same. People think that war will be with us always. I thought that I have to write a book convincing people that this is wrong.
If I understand you correctly, you’re not saying it’s inevitable that war will come to an end, but rather that people have to believe it’s within their power to end war for that to happen, right?
Yes, I think that fatalism has consequences. One example that I cite in the book is Barack Obama − this is just the height of irony to me − in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he says something like, humans have been fighting since the beginning of our species. And he says, let’s face it, we’re not going to eradicate violent conflict in our lifetime. Obama made that speech just days after he announced that he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He seemed to be justifying his hawkish policy position in terms of this bleak view of things, that conflict is just part of human existence.
Are you a pacifist?
At various times in my life, I’ve called myself a pacifist. But the more I talked to real pacifists and read classic pacifist literature, the more I realized I’m not. Because there are times when some kind of force is not only justified, but actually morally required. You need to use force to stop a greater kind of violence. I would use force to defend myself, or defend my family.
I’ve read some Gandhi, where he’s talking about “peace armies” of people who sacrificed themselves before invading armies, who allow themselves to be butchered, and it makes me really queasy. That seems to make the principle of non-violence so absolute that it leads to moral absurdities.
But I don’t think the U.S. and NATO should have intervened in Libya, for example, because in that case, the benefits of trying to stop Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people were outweighed by the larger symbolic significance of the U.S. and Europe using force, which I think legitimizes the use of force in general, for future situations. We should come up with non-violent solutions to quell the violence in all cases.
My sense is that, both here and in the U.S., people pay lip service to their love of peace and their belief that war is immoral, but at the same time, the threshold for going to war is actually falling.
It’s a massive contradiction. Part of what I’m trying to achieve with this book is simply to point out this gigantic chasm between our words and our actions. In a way, the United States is the problem when it comes to the persistence of war in the world today. We are engaged in two large-scale conflicts overseas, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re the largest arms dealer in the world. We have a massive military budget. China’s military is minuscule compared to ours, I think their army is about one-sixth or one-seventh the size of ours in terms of defense spending. Yet we say that we are a people of peace. And, you can of course make a moral case for some of our conflicts.
But if your goal is to move the world to a state beyond militarism, you have to find other ways of dealing with problems. I point out in my book that prior to World War I, you could actually find a lot of respected intellectuals and political leaders going on about war’s glories − how it built morale, and made men out of boys, and the like. If there’s any benefit of World Wars I and II, these massive, industrial-scale slaughterhouses, it’s that they have dispelled to some extent those romantic illusions we had about war as the ultimate game.
Say we do get rid of war. Won’t it be possible for certain states or corporations to dominate the world − even effectively control people’s thoughts − with technology and globalization?
I do worry about that. I have a friend, a real globalization skeptic, who says, OK, we can have the end of war, but we’ll still have economic injustice, and political repression. I recognize that. In the case of the U.S., we spend roughly a trillion dollars a year on military stuff. Just imagine if half those resources could be made available for other things that might reduce economic inequality and injustice, the kind of things the Occupy Wall Street people are worried about. My hope would be that in a world without war, justice will come more quickly.
I devote some space to the ideas of Gene Sharp, the political theorist, who has become very influential lately. He was an inspiration for some of the Arab uprisings, some of the Occupy Wall Street people, also. He says that non-violent methods can be extraordinarily effective if they’re used in a clever way, to bring about political change, even against very powerful, repressive regimes.
Many of the methods used by the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions people against Israel come from Sharp. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is complex, and my concern is that gimmicky campaigns can be misleading.
I understand, but surely you would rather have the enemies of Israel, whoever they might be, use these tricky, media-savvy methods of mockery, organizing boycotts, or whatever, rather than lobbing rockets and using suicide bombers. People with the most odious political beliefs can use Sharp’s methods, and I’m sure some of them are doing that right now, but think of the improvement in the world if that’s how people fought their battles.
You don’t say much in the book about religion. Certainly, in our part of the world, the most radical among both Palestinians and Israelis are sure that God is on their side, and that the conflict is a zero-sum game.
I don’t think it’s religious belief per se that leads to intolerance and violence. It think it is certitude and ideological rigidity. If you look at the 20th century, by far the most destructive ideas were fascism and communism. These were secular, not religious, ideologies. But what they share with fundamentalist religion is believers’ fierce conviction that this is the right way to view reality. Richard Dawkins, for example, would be very happy to say that religion is the cause of evil and violence in the world, but that claim doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Religion has also been an inhibitor of violence and warfare: The Quakers have been an enormous progressive force. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, these were inspirational figures who had a huge impact on history. I didn’t want to get into religion-bashing in my book because I thought that would be counterproductive − and inappropriate, considering the historical record.
In America of today, which is so polarized and angry, do you think that the idea of your book will find an audience?
There are going to be some people who say: Jesus, what a bunch of naive, hippie hogwash. The end of war! Come on. But I am getting really positive responses from some people as well. I’m hoping that the zeitgeist is right for a book like this. Look at Occupy Wall Street ... It’s easy to mock, but people recognize that there is this kernel of moral truth in what they’re saying, in spite of its not being well articulated. And I hope people have that kind of generous attitude toward my own book, because the topic of war is so hideously complex.