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Sebastian Junger’s documentary film Restrepo deserves an Oscar, but his theory of war is wrong

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Sebastian Junger  WarSebastian Junger knows war firsthand. Best known for his monster best seller The Perfect Storm (made into a hit film), Junger started reporting from war zones in 1993 when he traveled to Bosnia. Since then he has covered conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Afghanistan, which he first visited in 1996.

In 2007 and 2008 Junger spent a total of five months embedded with an American platoon in the Korengal Valley, one of Afghanistan’s most violent regions. He and a partner, the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, made a documentary, Restrepo (an American outpost named after a fallen American medic, Juan Restrepo), out of 150 hours of video they recorded in the Korengal.

Restrepo is a finalist for an Academy Award for best documentary—and deservedly so, because it provides an almost unbearably intense immersion into the lives of soldiers at war; it’s like a first-person-shooter game with real bullets and blood. You witness boyish soldiers wrestling and razzing each other between firefights, cheering after blasting an enemy soldier to bits, howling in grief when one of their own is killed.

The documentary simply records these events; we can interpret them as we will. (My interpretation is that Americans are doing more harm than good in Afghanistan and should get out, but I felt that way before watching the film.) In contrast, in his book War (Twelve, 2010), which describes the events depicted in Restrepo, Junger attempts to make sense of what he witnessed, and he advances a dramatic—and wrong—explanation not just of the conflict in Afghanistan but of war in general.

Wars occur, Junger suggests, at least in part because males enjoy them. "War is a lot of things, and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them," he wrote. "It’s insanely exciting." He added: "Perfectly good, sane men have been drawn back to combat over and over again, and anyone interested in the idea of world peace would do well to know what they’re looking for. Not killing, necessarily—that couldn’t have been clearer in my mind—but the other side of the equation: protecting." Protecting their fellow soldiers, that is.

The male affinity for war was bred into us by natural selection. "Our evolutionary past was not peaceful," Junger asserted, adding that evolution may have "programmed us to think we’re related to everyone in our immediate group—even in a platoon—and that dying in its defense is a good genetic strategy."

In an interview with The Village Voice last year Junger was even more explicit: "The politically incorrect truth," he said, "is that war is extremely ingrained in us—in our evolution as humans—and we’re hardwired for it." Junger’s biological theory of war has been advanced by many leading scientists, notably the anthropologist Richard Wrangham, an authority on chimpanzees whom Junger cites in War.

Junger reiterated his war-is-in-our-genes view when he spoke after a screening of Restrepo in my hometown. Describing himself as an antiwar liberal (who thinks the U.S. botched its occupation of Afghanistan but fears that worse bloodshed will result if the U.S. abruptly withdraws), he said his reporting and research led him to the disturbing conclusion that war stems from innate male urges. I disagree. Here are some counterarguments to Junger’s contention that we’re "hardwired" for war:

*The evidence that war is in our genes is flimsy to nonexistent. Lethal raiding among chimpanzees, our closest relatives, is often cited as strong evidence that human warfare is ancient and innate. But as I pointed out in a previous post, scientists have observed a total of 31 chimpicides over the past half century; many chimp communities have never been observed engaging in deadly raids. Even Wrangham has acknowledged that chimpanzee raids are "certainly rare."

*The oldest clear-cut evidence for lethal group violence by humans dates back not millions or hundreds of thousands of years but only 13,000 years. Moreover, as an excellent recent article on this Web site points out, tribal societies in regions such as the U.S. Southwest did not fight continuously; they lived peacefully for centuries before erupting into violence. These patterns are not consistent with behavior that is instinctual or "hardwired."

*Young men who are willing and even eager to fight certainly help make wars possible, but that doesn’t mean that these young men cause wars or that all young men are itching for a fight. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney launched the current U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they went to great lengths as young men to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. (This irony brings to mind something that World War II hero Sen. George McGovern said in 1971: "I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight.")

*Junger claims that the "moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers [in Afghanistan] much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero." The Americans in Restrepo may be fighting for fighting’s sake, but surely that isn’t true of their Taliban and al Qaeda opponents. Moreover, does anyone really think that the young men who have been battling in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria lately are not fighting for a higher cause?

*Today, U.S. soldiers are volunteers who may be more attracted to risk-taking and violence than other males their age. The soldiers in Restrepo play rough with each other, and they talk openly about the thrill of combat, which they compare to sex or crack cocaine. But many of them are also clearly traumatized by their experiences. As I pointed out in a previous post, Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and professor of psychology at West Point, contends in his 1995 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill that only a small fraction of men—about 2 percent—genuinely enjoy prolonged combat, and those men may have psychopathic tendencies.

*Junger may be projecting his own fascination with war onto others (just as the war correspondent Chris Hedges did in his powerful but flawed 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning). In the Voice interview Junger said that he became a war correspondent at the age of 31 "to prove myself in some ways. Battle is often seen as a rite of passage by young men. There was that appeal. When I got to Bosnia, the work was completely intoxicating." And yet Junger acknowledges that he, too, has been traumatized by some of his war experiences.

I hope Junger gets the Oscar for Restrepo later this month. I also hope he reconsiders his view of warfare as ancient and innate, which leads too easily to the fatalistic acceptance of war as a permanent part of the human condition.

Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

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  1. 1. billberit 3:32 pm 02/7/2011

    My Dog man, are you from this planet or someplace else? War is a game. It is a sickening game of lust and profit, of conquest and destruction, of culling and controlling, nothing else useful. War is fun in the movies, but the reality of it in real life only effects the sane, not the insane. Egos are built from war, mansions are built for its suppliers, and kingdoms are created for its masters. War is good! War is chess! War is a disease that eliminates the inept. War is!

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  2. 2. jimbobobie 3:54 pm 02/7/2011

    I can see your point. But I can also see that throughout the mammalian world, male to male aggression is endemic. Sure, in most cases it is related to reproductive success, and most of the time it is one on one. But as a species becomes a social entity, so does its aggression become social. And one of the big ways societies express their aggression against other societies is through war. War may not be directly hardwired, but I think aggression is.

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  3. 3. ormondotvos 5:31 pm 02/7/2011

    I think Junger has a better argument, with better evidence, than the politically correct (and circular) dismissals by Horgan.

    We all have traits that can be reinforced by stimuli. Population crowding and bad economic systems stimulate competition, which is won now by war.

    Rule of law is the problem, and the gathering of force expression into the hands of the state. I don’t get to settle arguments with force, the state does.

    Implicit in this concept is world government, since states express the sentiments of their old men, who control, not the young men, who fall prey to the stimulation of their instincts through corporate advertising.

    "Be all you can be!" is sad, but Horgan only argues that the evidence is weak. Funny about that. We were watching a Nature documentary about monkeys last night, and the statement was made that the vast majority of fatalities among the species in question were fratricidal. I guess Horgan was watching Jerry Springer. Ooops. Bad example.

    Horgan also implicitly narrows the definition of war in order to dismiss the evidence. Not fair argument.

    Humans compete. They also cooperate. With the madness of competition among themselves, and the technical means to do so, they engage in war to win the competition, so the oligarchs can live lives of luxury at our expense.

    Does Horgan realize how his argument feed into this? Do you think he’ll respond?

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  4. 4. cisco-milwaukee 6:29 pm 02/9/2011

    ‘Do you believe that so many nations accustomed to the name and rule of another, united with us neither by religion, nor customs, nor community of language, have been subdued in the same battle in which they were overcome? It is by your arms alone that they are restrained, not by their dispositions, and those who fear us when we are present, in our absence will be enemies. We are dealing with savage beasts, which lapse of time only can tame, when they are caught and caged, because their own nature cannot tame them….accordingly, we must either give up what we have taken, or we must seize what we do not yet hold. ‘
    History of Alexander

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  5. 5. Brunardot 8:19 pm 02/9/2011

    I believe there is more validity and depth to many of the arguments presented by the prior "comments" than are put forward by John Horgan’s review of Sebastian Junger.

    Nothing illustrates the failure of Science, Theology, and Philosophy better than war.

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  6. 6. ormondotvos 9:51 pm 02/9/2011

    Well, war improves conditions for the survivors on the winning side, accelerates science, and thins the species of dumb aggressive youth who fall for the sucker play of nationalism.

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  7. 7. Brunardot 10:27 pm 02/9/2011

    As for "ormondotvos comment," who seems to somewhat disagree that war illustrates the failure of Science, Theology, and Philosophy, I consider the concern of STP to be: Where have we come from?; and, Where are we going? for the purpose of determining: How we should behave in-between to maximize happiness at all points of time within our hostile environment.

    With such a definition in mind for STP, it is difficult to understand any merit attributable to wars other than a failure of wisdom; i.e. STP.

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  8. 8. dubina 12:57 am 02/10/2011

    Junger’s basis of war is one of many contributing bases.

    Young men play their parts, of course. Junger isn’t wrong on that count. Parents, too…and generals, statesmen, politicians, journalists, bankers, industrialists and so on. Young men, however, have no compelling cause for war; they go to war for sake of adventure, motivated to some extent by vague feelings of duty and patriotism, and for opportunities for direction and employment at a time in their lives when they need direction and employment. Whereas young men have no compelling root cause for war (at first, before the enemy has killed or maimed other young men in their cohort), generals, bankers and industrialists have plenty of self-serving causes. Unfortunately, the captains and bankers of war mask their ulterior motives in terms that appeal to the political sensibilities of naive young men.

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 11:06 am 02/10/2011

    So you are saying that you support slavery and rape? After all, wars have ended those to evils on a wide scale where diplomacy failed.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 11:07 am 02/10/2011

    I left out genocide so add that one in as well.

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  11. 11. Brunardot 3:38 pm 02/10/2011

    Regarding “bucketofsquid” comments:

    Cause and effect are often difficult to untangle.

    Slavery and rape are only a few of the evils that are more often the consequence of war; rather than alleviated by war.

    Dialogue, on balance, eventually, will always trump the turmoil of war. War only exacerbates suffering. “The pen is mightier than the sword.” ~Bulwer-Lytton

    American wars to take our country from those that taught us “town hall” democracy certainly solved no problems of genocide.

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  12. 12. ebamljmstsdk 8:41 pm 02/13/2011

    Dubina, well said, My young son fought in these valleys w/this Battalion(he’s a 143IQ), why would such a bright kid join an infantry unit….??

    Let us make no mistake and confuse naivete with intelligence….war with fighting

    For the discerning reader;
    ON KILLING….how we get them to kill
    ACHILLES IN VIETNAM….what remains when they have

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  13. 13. jeserac 1:00 pm 02/17/2011

    Usually the simplest explanation is the true one: satellite recon found that Afghanistan has some quaquilion USD worth of precious minerals lying under the dirty soles of a bunch of unwashed heathen muslims. This is the real objective of the russian and US invasions of that otherwise worthless wasteland.
    By the way, ditto for the Iraq invasion, replace "oil" by "minerals".

    And who cares if a few thousand young guys suffer bloody deaths far from home, all empires always find one or other justification for shamelessly grabing what they want.

    Then I should not care as well, this Afghan scam is only the more recent of a long line of invasions going back perhaps to our ancestor’s monkey business. But nevertheless, I still feel somewhat bothered being told such obvious lies. War on terrorism? Mass destruction weapons? Ha, bad jokes, could make one laugh if not for the real pain and suffering that is inflicted on people whose only fault is to lie between treasures and the greedy hands of the powerful.

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  14. 14. tribalypredisposed 12:59 am 03/7/2011

    So sick of John Horgan running around pretending that blatant researcher bias is "science," that obvious practice of the "absence of evidence" fallacy is acceptable and sound practice, and that he has the first clue about human warfare. Horgan, please STFU about war, you do not know anything on the topic.

    "I also hope he reconsiders his view of warfare as ancient and innate, which leads too easily to the fatalistic acceptance of war as a permanent part of the human condition." So, what you are saying here is that your percieved result, that you do not like (that we fatalistically accept war, which by the way is far from a logical result of recognizing the evolved predispostion for war in humans) should influence researchers, in fact it should bias them to find other things to be true? Why not just come right out and state that you are entirely biased and not engaged in scientific work at all here?

    I have corrected you elsewhere, John, with your sad little "only 31 Chimps" crap. The point is that chimps engage in warfare and it is decidedly not purely or even vaguely cultural for chimps – which shows quite clearly that it is possible our own very similar behavior is not entirely cultural, no matter how many or how few chimps have died.

    The fact that very few individuals die in each chimp raid, and in each human raid amongst smaller human groups, shows that it is very likely we will never have "convincing evidence" of war from the period before there were enough humans living together to make armies facing each other in combat a rational method of warfare. If we find one or two skeletons together with evidence of violent death, we cannot know if their enemies were in-group or out-group, and we are incredibly unlikely to find more than two together because of the nature of war before agriculture, not because war did not happen.

    Please John, please consider how important a topic war is. Lives are literally at stake here. Is it worth the lives of innocent children and women and so on just so you can continue to hold your wishful thinking irrational biased views? At the very least, why not at least shut up about your views unless and until you can reply to any of my various responses to you showing you how completely wrong you are?

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  15. 15. E-boy 4:02 am 04/17/2011

    Mr. Horgan,

    In this case I agree with you about some items and am a bit mystified about your position on others.

    The noble savage mythos has been well and truly shattered for some time now. Which isn’t to say the converse is any more the rule. The point is that mortality rates in many hunter gatherer societies disproportionaly represent deaths via warfare and murder. This doesn’t mean humans are any more violent naturally than any other animal. In fact, our very social nature, while it certainly contributes to in-group/ outgroup conflicts also greatly contributes to our ability to empathize as much as we objectify. My point is that the dichotomy here is false. Violence is, sadly enough, a perfectly serviceable behavior from a gene’s eye view. When it comes to reproductive fitness in most animals playing dirty has it’s own rewards just as playing nice does. Human culture may have altered the game a bit, but violence still has as deep a history with our species as any other. I would never suggest it was the rule and in that respect we are agreed. Violence can still get people things they want. It can still contribute to reproductive fitness even in modern humans (Just go ask a drug cartel boss how his social life is) and even if it didn’t right now, even if we somehow engineered a society that perfectly eliminated any and all potential benefit of violence the genes we have are the ones that allowed our Ancestors to survive. Changes we make, to have an impact on any genetic legacies we’re carrying around have to have enough differential survivival value or be stable enough for a very long period of time to make an impact. I don’t believe genes are the entire story, but we’d be foolish to ignore them when there is so much evidence that common personality traits maintain heritability even when divorced from environmental factors.

    There’s no need to manufacture dichotomies. We don’t have to say either we are violent or we are not, or we are monogamous or we are not. We only have to know we are animals, like any other, and whatever strategies contributed to our ancestors successfully reproducing will likely continue to be common themes. I don’t think war is hardwired any more than you do, but we aren’t exactly wired to be peaceful under all circumstances either. Both aggression and more peaceful traits have survival value so we’re likely to find both in humans. I think to lean extremely in one direction or the other is a form of Hubris. You and Junger are making equally subjective claims, equally likely in error.

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  16. 16. E-boy 4:10 am 04/17/2011

    Mr. Horgan,

    In this case I agree with you about some items and am a bit mystified about your position on others.

    The noble savage mythos has been well and truly shattered for some time now. Which isn’t to say the converse is any more the rule. The point is that mortality rates in many hunter gatherer societies disproportionaly represent deaths via warfare and murder. This doesn’t mean humans are any more violent naturally than any other animal. In fact, our very social nature, while it certainly contributes to in-group/ outgroup conflicts also greatly contributes to our ability to empathize as much as we objectify. My point is that the dichotomy here is false. Violence is, sadly enough, a perfectly serviceable behavior from a gene’s eye view. When it comes to reproductive fitness in most animals playing dirty has it’s own rewards just as playing nice does. Human culture may have altered the game a bit, but violence still has as deep a history with our species as any other. I would never suggest it was the rule and in that respect we are agreed. Violence can still get people things they want. It can still contribute to reproductive fitness even in modern humans (Just go ask a drug cartel boss how his social life is) and even if it didn’t right now, even if we somehow engineered a society that perfectly eliminated any and all potential benefit of violence the genes we have are the ones that allowed our Ancestors to survive. Changes we make, to have an impact on any genetic legacies we’re carrying around have to have enough differential survivival value or be stable enough for a very long period of time to make an impact. I don’t believe genes are the entire story, but we’d be foolish to ignore them when there is so much evidence that common personality traits maintain heritability even when divorced from environmental factors.

    There’s no need to manufacture dichotomies. We don’t have to say either we are violent or we are not, or we are monogamous or we are not. We only have to know we are animals, like any other, and whatever strategies contributed to our ancestors successfully reproducing will likely continue to be common themes. I don’t think war is hardwired any more than you do, but we aren’t exactly wired to be peaceful under all circumstances either. Both aggression and more peaceful traits have survival value so we’re likely to find both in humans. I think to lean extremely in one direction or the other is a form of Hubris. You and Junger are making equally subjective claims, equally likely in error.

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