On Warfare as a Natural State (from the collected works)

In this essay, I shall demonstrate how war is a natural state of humanity that derives from a normal psychological reaction in individuals and groups. I will trace the development of law within the community and relate it to the use of force both inside and outside the community. I will also elaborate upon the psychic benefits of war to a community, and I will explain how these benefits are key to the development of identity within a community, without which the community cannot survive.

War has always been a part of the human experience, because war is an integral part of human nature. It is no more possible to be rid of the human need to go to war than it is to be rid other uniquely human psychological needs, such as the need for possessions or land ownership. Sigmund Freud, in a letter to Albert Einstein, reflects on this, calling war “the original state of things: domination by whoever had the greater might – domination by brute violence or by violence supported by intellect.” (Freud, 275) He notes that this “death instinct” enhances a creature’s ability to survive, by being able to destroy another creature, and therefore represents a “biological justification” for violent human conflict. (Freud, 282, 283) He even goes so far as to admit that it is pointless to attempt to eliminate this proclivity for war, and that any society that claims to have done so is perpetrating a fraud. (Freud, 283) In the end, he asks, “Why do we not accept it as another of the painful calamities of life?” (Freud, 285)

What is it that prompts people to react violently? Freud attributes war to “conflicts of interest between men” that are only settled when “one side or the other (is compelled) to abandon his claim or his objection by the damage inflicted on him and by the crippling of his strength.” (Freud, 275) J. Glenn Gray says it “arises from the frustration of action and consequently thwarted self-realization and deprivation of freedom” that, in turn, leads to passions for which the response is “violence, usually unplanned and spontaneous.” (Gray, 29, 11, 12) Gray goes on to differentiate between “force” and violence”; he gives “force” the legitimacy of authority while denying that legitimacy to mere “violence.” (Gray, 14) However, Freud notes, “law was originally brute violence and that even to-day it cannot do without the support of violence.” (Freud, 280) He says that law is simply the raw power of a community, as opposed to the “violence of a single individual.” (Freud, 275)

Key in development and the maintaining of any community is identity, which is often expressed as nationhood. Freud says “the structure of human society is to a large extent based upon” identifications. (Freud, 284) Michael Gelven calls these identifications the “we-they principle”. He calls the “we-they principle” an essential way in which we think about the meaning of our own existence. (Gelven, 14) He demonstrates the need for belonging to a larger group, the nation, saying that for humans, “being a native of my country matters (emphasis original).” (Gelven, 12) He goes on to say that this identification as a people typically outweighs our normal desire for peace. (Gelven, 17)

Part of this identification with the nation is the willingness to eliminate threats to the nation, which Chris Hedges calls “part of the redemption of the nation.” (Hedges, 139) Hedges insists that while war is “nearly always a sordid affair”, the state requires the “myth” of glorious, heroic warfare to survive as a community. (Hedges, 173)

In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges says, “War fills our spiritual void”, giving the nation a shared purpose or calling, satisfying our core beliefs, such as the belief in self-sacrifice. (Hedges, 158-159) Gelven notes this when he says, “…the more vivid and ghastly the depiction of (war’s) misery, the more it is treasured. (Gelven, 9) In this regard, war imitates love, and often feels like love at its outset. (Hedges, 159) Sullivan Ballou, a major in a regiment of Rhode Island volunteers in the Civil War, refers to this strong emotional pull in a letter he wrote to his wife only days before he was killed in battle. Ballou says, “Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.” This part of our communal identity can be traced back for centuries. The idealizing of “suicidal self sacrifice…is…part of the liberal state’s pre-Enlightenment Christian heritage.” (Huq, 1)

For many, war becomes a substitute for love. Hedges proposes, “…the most acute form of suffering for human beings is loneliness”, and he speculates that some “found fulfillment in war, perhaps because it is the closest they ever came to love.” (Hedges, 161)

In many ways, however, war can be more like a narcotic than love, in that it requires “…a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill…finally, one ingests war only to remain numb.” (Hedges, 162) Hedges describes fighters in Central America engaging in a frenzied orgy of death, speaking in unintelligible shouts, “high on the power to spare lives or to take them.” (Hedges, 171)

Yet, Hedges insists that drugs are themselves a “pale substitute” for the “awful power and rush of battle.” (Hedges, 163) Coming down from war’s high can be difficult. Hedges notes that once removed from war, “we sink into despair, a despair that can lead us to welcome death.” (Hedges, 164) He furthers this connection by branding war as “necrophilia…hidden under platitudes about duty and comradeship.” (Hedges, 163) Hedges concludes that war leads us “into a frenzy in which all human life, including our own, seems secondary.” (Hedges, 166) Some can never relinquish the thrill of warfare, and are drawn back in until they are destroyed by it, consumed, Hedges says, “by a ball of fire.” (Hedges, 170)

For all of its destructive power, Freud insists that there is in war the potential for good. Sometimes, even within a community, there are injustices that will not be remedied by the ruling power, which creates laws by itself and for itself, with little regard for lower classes of society. (Freud, 276) Often “rebellion and civil war follow, with temporary suspension of law and new attempts at a solution by violence.” (Freud, 277) If war can become the vehicle for establishing a more lasting peace, a peace that “makes further wars impossible”, then war might be seen as appropriate. (Freud, 278) In this case, if war promotes justice and restores a long-lasting peace, future wars become less likely.

Freud says that “Wars can only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all conflicts of interest shall be handed over.” (Freud, 278) Unfortunately, nations will never agree to such a surrender of sovereignty or self-interest, because to do so would be to dispose of their national identity, which, as we have seen, is indispensable to their survival as an individual people. Further, even if this universal surrender of authority were agreed upon, there would still occasionally be the rise of small groups or individuals for whom the rule of law or rights of the innocent are of little account, and for whom violence is the accepted path. For people such as these, war is often the only weapon that promises the restoration of peace.

So while it is impossible to permanently eradicate the scourge of war, it remains within our power to limit it to situations where war is the last available remedy for injustice, or in the instance where violence must be met with violence to restore peace. To do this, we must fully comprehend human nature as it is, rather than simply wish for human nature, as it is not.

As Michael Gelven so aptly put it, “To understand war is thus to understand ourselves.” (Gelven, 18) If we anticipate the factors that bring on war, such as permanent states of injustice, a people’s sense of powerlessness and situations that encourage acts of naked aggression, we might react with foresight and avoid large-scale conflicts later. Denying the human need for conflict is eventually counterproductive. Rather, by accepting the reality of warfare, we can then begin the process of making war less likely, which in this imperfect world might just be the best we can hope to do.


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