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Let’s Begin Talking about How to End Wars

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


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Are you a war pessimist? Odds are you are. For almost a decade now, I’ve been asking people if they think war will ever end. I’ve surveyed thousands of people, young and old, liberal and conservative, hawks and doves, male and female. Almost nine times out of 10, the answer to my question is “No,” and often, “Hell no!” as if the question itself is silly. Of course war will never end! It’s part of human nature! In our genes! It’s the inevitable consequence of our religious/ethnic/economic/political differences, of male competition for females/land/oil/prestige/power. And so on.

I wrote The End of War, published last month by McSweeney’s Books, to challenge this fatalism, which I believe is wrong empirically and morally. Empirically because research into war’s roots shows that deadly group violence is a relatively recent cultural “invention”—an especially vicious, self-perpetuating meme—that culture can help us overcome. Morally because our fatalistic acceptance of war as a permanent part of the human condition can impede efforts to achieve enduring peace.

As I explain in the book’s introduction, if readers end up agreeing with everything I say about war, well, groovy. But my goal as a writer has never been to convince readers that I’m right so much as to challenge them to reconsider their views. I’m hoping that my new book will jumpstart a conversation among pessimists, in particular, about why we fight and how we can stop.

This conversation, I’m happy to report, is now under way. “The Brian Lehrer Show,” which airs on WNYC, the National Public Radio affiliate in New York City, just launched a series of shows on whether war can end. The show is carrying out a survey on the question, “Is war inevitable?” You can respond with text, audio or video. I talked to Lehrer about my views last week, and he plans to explore the same topic with Barbara Ehrenreich and Chris Hedges—smart, knowledgeable journalists who are more pessimistic than I—on February 27.

I also discuss war on MSNBC’s “Dylan Ratigan Show“; the blog “The Last Word on Nothing” with the science journalists Thomas Hayden and Ann Finkbeiner; on Bloggingheads.tv with mega-pundit Robert Wright (who has been pondering the end of war for a long time himself); on “The Diane Rehm Show,” a nationally syndicated NPR show; and on the Web site “Big Think.” I list these and upcoming gigs related to my book on the “Appearances” page of my Web site, johnhorgan.org

One of my toughest and ultimately most rewarding conversations was on Reddit.com. At the urging—and with the help—of my son Mac, who digs Reddit, I threw myself into the Reddit mosh pit with a post announcing, “I am John Horgan, a science journalist who just wrote a book called The End of War… Ask me anything.” Things started badly. The site briefly crashed right after I posted, and some Redditers hammered me for my evasiveness and stupidity and even compared me to Woody Harrelson, who recently pissed off many Redditers. (Visit Reddit to find out why.) Others had smart, sharp questions and comments.

A Redditer named gmpalmer kept pressing me on what my core message is, and on what “new thing” I am “bringing to the table.” I replied that too many of us “view war almost as a consequence of forces of nature that are beyond our control, like earthquakes or typhoons or cancer. We attribute war to our genes, or original sin, or our tendency to produce more people than the earth can sustain. Hence our fatalism. My core idea is that this view of war is wrong, and contradicted by scientific studies of war. War is not something that happens to us. It is something that we choose to do, of our own free will. I don’t have any specific magical solutions for ending war, because there are none. War has many causes, almost too many, and so we must work against it on many fronts. But I do believe that all of us, especially in a powerful, militaristic democracy like the U.S., must take responsibility for war’s persistence as a crucial first step toward ending it once and for all. Whether this message counts as ‘new’ I don’t really know or care. But it is a message that I think people badly need to hear right now.”

Another Redditer asked what we should do when we are attacked or see someone else hurting others. I responded: “What do we do about groups that are hurting or threatening to hurt others? As in Syria? Libya? Serbia? Or Rwanda back in the 90s? How should we have responded to 9/11? To North Korea and Iran? Do we react violently or seek alternatives? I’d like to see us adopt ‘just-war’ policies that call for using violence only when absolutely necessary, and when the benefits seem to clearly outweigh the risks. No pre-emptive strikes. We could try out the so-called just-policing concept, which calls for an absolute prohibition against killing civilians and for bringing suspected bad actors to justice rather than killing them, if at all possible. But whatever choices we make, we should make them with the larger goal of ending war and militarism once and for all. We should somehow use force in a way that does not legitimize force for resolving conflicts in the future. I know this sounds vague, but an honest attempt to work within this highly restricted just war concept will help us achieve progress.”

If you’re not impressed with my ideas about why we fight and how we can stop, let’s hear yours! In spite of all our disagreements, every sane person—even the most cynical war mongers and profiteers, even Dick Cheney!—wants peace. If we have the will, collectively, to end war, we will surely find a way.

[Update on previous post: In "Let's Ban Research That Makes the Bird-Flu Virus and Other Pathogens Deadlier," I argued that scientists should not engineer pathogens to make them more lethal--as two teams did recently with the bird-flu virus—let alone write up their results for public consumption, because the risks outweigh the benefits. The World Health Organization nonetheless announced last week that the two teams would be allowed to publish their work in full. I sure hope I'm wrong.]

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

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





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  1. 1. DonPaul 7:47 am 02/21/2012

    To eliminate war one must eliminate the human values underlying war. To eliminate those, one must eliminate the emotions that give rise to those values. To eliminate those emotions one must eliminate the physical structures which give rise to those emotions. To eliminate those structures one must eliminate or redesign the genes which create those structures. Tampering with the human genetic makeup is a very dangerous activity and one could easily end up in much worse circumstances due to unintended consequences. A better idea is to redirect the natural inclinations towards identity politics and war to more constructive ends. Think “war on drugs” “war on poverty” “mothers against drunk driving” etc. This provides an outlet for the desire to crusade for or against something that yields more positive results.

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  2. 2. all4kindness2all 7:55 am 02/21/2012

    I would question the idea that war is simply about our choices.

    I think war arises when we want something that others have and we believe we are entitled to have it.

    I also think war arises when we believe so strongly about something that we cannot tolerate the existence and thriving of others who don’t agree with us. Our ideas of God have a lot to do with war when we feel threatened by the existence of others with different ideas.

    Can we manage the conflict of feeling imposed upon or denied. If it is possible, it will start with how we teach our children the values of tolerance and inquisitiveness. We need to teach our children how to live with conflict and not honestly knowing truth, how to be open to possibility that what we truly believe in, may not be true.

    And then there is the pragmatic question of how do we stay safe and survive when others are willing to kill us off if we let them. I think avoiding all war might be self-defeating to the goal of ending war.

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  3. 3. drafter 11:09 am 02/21/2012

    I’m all for ending all wars, now if you could just get the other guys to quite trying to kill us.

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  4. 4. alan6302 1:09 pm 02/21/2012

    Aids was an attempt to reduce war.. It did not work. Upgrade to wormwood.

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  5. 5. Paul108 10:33 pm 02/21/2012

    John, I think it’s great that you’re encouraging this conversation. I’m reminded of John Lennon, who wasn’t reluctant to lose face to get people talking about peace, and as a real possibility, not just a nice idea.

    By the far the best explanation I have seen about how peace can really be achieved is available at this website: http://www.da-peace.org/

    I recommend that all who are open to the possibility of peace consider that unique offering.

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  6. 6. jgrosay 3:10 pm 02/23/2012

    Two don’t fight if one of them refuses to fight. Salut +

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  7. 7. HaiHouse 3:16 pm 03/22/2012

    My contention is that it is the aquisition of property and the hoarding of it that directs us to war. It should be the birthright of every American to a share of the land and the resources we need to make ourselves self sustaining. We have handed over our bootstraps to corporations and our government and look what a mess we have!

    People get propelled into wage slavery and government jobs and handouts because other options are denied them. While we must rely on money for our survival we will also continue to support the corporations and government from which we aquire the money to buy the necessities of survival. If we had those necessities as a birthright we would not be compelled to sign up for the jobs that support wars. There are many evils we would not be compelled to commit if we were all secure in our housing and food supply. We express the solution more fully here http://www.the-communal-solution.us

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