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War Is Our Most Urgent Problem. Let’s Solve It

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

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Is there a more urgent problem in the world today than war? And when I say “war” in this post, I mean also militarism, the culture of war, the armies, arms, industries, policies, plans, propaganda, prejudices, rationalizations that make lethal group conflict not only possible but also likely.

War exacerbates or perpetuates other problems, including climate change, poverty, oppression and disease, either directly or by draining precious resources away from their solution.

My answer to the above question: No, there is no more urgent problem than war. Not climate change, pollution, overpopulation, oppression, poverty, inequality, hunger, disease.

If you seek solutions to any of these problems, you should also devote at least some effort to ending war, for several reasons. First, war exacerbates or perpetuates our other problems, either directly or by draining precious resources away from their solution. War subverts democracy and promotes tyranny and fanaticism; kills and sickens and impoverishes people; ravages nature. War is a keystone problem, the eradication of which would make our other social problems much more tractable.

Second, war is more readily solvable than many other human afflictions. War is not like a hurricane, earthquake or Ebola plague, a natural disaster foisted on us by forces beyond our control. War is entirely our creation, the product of human choices. War could end tomorrow if a relatively small group of people around the world chose to end it.

Third, more than any of our other problems, war represents a horrific moral crime. Particularly when carried out by the U.S. and other nations, or by groups that aspire to or claim the legitimacy of states, war makes hypocrites of us and makes a mockery of human progress. We cannot claim to be civilized as long as war or even the threat of war persists.

Yes, annual war casualties have declined sharply since the cataclysmic first half of the 20th century. Over the last few decades, war has killed far fewer people than cancer or automobile accidents. But in our heavily—and nuclear—armed world, war is a few decisions away from becoming exponentially more destructive. And even the killing of a single child by a U.S. drone, Israeli rocket or Syrian tank is an abomination that corrupts us all.

I wrote The End of War, which is being published today in paperback by McSweeney’s, to start a conversation about why we fight and how we can stop. The new edition includes a forward by anthropologist Douglas Fry, an authority on warfare, and an index. The End of War addresses in a sustained, concise fashion topics that I’ve written about over the past few years on this blog and elsewhere (see FURTHER READING below).

While writing The End of War, I sometimes fretted that war might end before my book was published, rendering it obsolete. That’s a bad joke, especially today, as war rages in Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, which the U.S. is bombing once again. (For data on these and other armed conflicts around the world, see the Uppsala University Conflict Data Program.)

Our biggest challenge is making the transition from our world, which is still armed and dangerous, to a world in which war and even the threat of war have vanished. I am not an absolute pacifist. If someone attacks me or a loved one—or even a stranger–I would do my best to stop him. Sometimes violence is morally justified, even necessary, to thwart greater violence.

So the question is, how should we react to lethal group violence when it erupts in the world today? How, for example, should the U.S. have reacted to the 9/11 attacks? Or to the current advances of ISIS militants in Iraq? How should Palestinians react to Israeli violence, and vice versa? How should Russia respond to violent unrest in Ukraine?

My answer is that nations and other groups should act in a manner consistent with the ultimate goal of eradicating war once and for all. This is what I call the “end-of-war rule,” which I spell out in more detail in The End of War. My own country, the U.S., is the world’s most egregious violator of the end-of-war rule, and not only because over the past dozen years Americans have waged two major wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The U.S. also maintains by far the biggest military in the world, in terms of spending, and it is the biggest arms dealer.

According to surveys I’ve carried out for more than a decade, the overwhelming majority of people view war as inevitable, a permanent feature of human existence. This fatalistic outlook is wrong, both empirically and morally. Empirically because it contradicts what science and history tell us about war. Morally because it perpetuates war by discouraging us from seeking solutions.

Even the most cynical fatalists, if asked whether they would prefer to live in a world without war, say, Of course! Every sane person wants peace. If you disagree with me about why wars happen and how we can end them, I’d love to hear your ideas. If we all join together in pursuing the end of war, we will surely succeed, not in some hazy, distant future but soon.


The End of War, paperback, forward by Douglas Fry, McSweeney’s, 2014.

World Beyond War, a self-described global movement “to end war and establish a just and sustainable peace,” provides information on the destructive effects of war and on alternatives to violence at


“We Need a New Just-War Theory, Which Aims to End War Forever.”

“How Can We Condemn Boston Murders But Excuse U.S. Bombing of Civilians?”

“Did the U.S. Overreact to the 9/11 Attacks?”

“Barack Obama Should Call for End of All War, Not Just War on Terror.”

“U.S. Lacks Moral Authority to Criticize Russia for Intervening in Ukraine.”

Egypt’s Revolution Vindicates Gene Sharp’s Theory of Nonviolent Activism.”


“New Study of Foragers Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots.”

“New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons Undermines Claim that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots.”

“Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots.”

Quitting the hominid fight club: The evidence is flimsy for innate chimpanzee–let alone human–warfare.”

“The Warrior Gene Makes Me Mad (Whether or Not I Have It).”

“Are We Doomed to Wage Wars Over Water?”

“Margaret Mead’s War Theory Kicks Butt of Neo-Darwinian and Malthusian Models.”

“RIP Military Historian John Keegan, Who Saw War As Product of Culture Rather than Biology”:


“Neil deGrasse Tyson, Please Speak Out about Militarization of Science!”

“My Exchange with Neil deGrasse Tyson about Science and War.”

“Why You Should Care about Pentagon Funding of Obama’s Brain Initiative.”

“Should Scientists and Engineers Resist Taking Military Money?”

“Programs for Troubled Vets Don’t Work, So How About Ending War?”


“The Drones Come Home.”

“Why drones should make you afraid. Very afraid.”

“Drone assassinations hurt the U.S. more than they help us.”

“Don’t Believe Scare Stories about Cyber War.”

“What Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us about Drones and Cyber War.”

“Grass Roots Spying Might Make World Peace Possible.”

“New Book Cuts Through Fog of Hype Cloaking Cyber War.”

“Are We Ready for a World in Which Everyone Spies on Everyone Else?”

“Will ‘Persistent Surveillance’ Turn U.S. into a Panopticon?”


“Prominent Economist Touts Benefits of War in The New York Times–Really.”

“50 Years Later, JFK “Peace Speech” Still Inspires–and Has Been Scientifically Validated!”

“Will War Ever End?” (review of Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker).

“No, War Is Not Inevitable” (review of The Social Conquest of Nature, by Edward Wilson).

“Lets Begin Talking About How to End Wars.”

John Horgan 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. rshoff2 12:27 pm 08/12/2014

    Ya, but. I agree with you. But ya, war is a manifestation of the collective human psyche which is completely dependent upon the individuals, which are burdened by their physiology and physiology. To eradicate war, we would have to ‘fix’ physiological and psychological problems each individual.

    Whereas, ebola is one virus. We can eradicate ebola simply by targeting one virus. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to target one person to eradicate war. Sometimes it feels that way, but even after Hitler’s fall and Bin Laden’s demise, we are faced with equal or greater horrors.

    I think that you are correct, we can eradicate war. And your first step has been to introduce us to that very notion. We can, if and when we choose, eradicate war. We have the will, but do we believe in ourselves?

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  2. 2. ThomasB 5:16 pm 08/12/2014

    “War could end tomorrow if a relatively small group of people around the world chose to end it.”

    A key point, I think. A big part of the problem is how easy it is for some people to think of others different from themselves as less than human and therefor, disposable. This applies people from any sort of different background, not just those from “that enemy country”, but also those fellow countrymen from much power status backgrounds. Since human beings tend to be so cooperative, why not get those “dirty unwashed” to sacrifice themselves for the only people who matter, that is the elite?

    Until we actually get governments that truly are for and by the ordinary people, I see no end to war. But, of course, any educated person knows that “the mob” could not possibly make correct decisions in their own best interest, right? Which just goes to show how pervasive the dehumanizing attitude tends to go.

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  3. 3. smartpatrol 5:32 pm 08/12/2014

    I find it hard to believe that i am reading such a naive opinion on a website like Scientific American. People and their Cultures disagree and when they do they sometimes kill each other any 5 year old child understands this. Its frighteningly stupid to think that man could exist otherwise.

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  4. 4. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 5:49 pm 08/12/2014

    Now come on. You’re a very nice, peaceful person. I’m not that nice, but I’m peaceful. Canadians, Danes, Swedes, Dutch, Swiss, post-war Japanese and Germans… The vast majority of people today live their lives without even getting in a fistfight. So why do we insist that war stems from some deep-seated biological flaw?

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  5. 5. dysbulic 6:18 pm 08/12/2014

    I agree wholeheartedly that an end to war is possible. I think that it will grow out of a change in cognition that will only be widespread once the perception of scarcity is not so dominant.

    I’m working on [a plan]( for the beginnings of that systemic change currently.

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  6. 6. smartpatrol 9:18 pm 08/12/2014

    You cited mono-cultures that the generally accepted definition of “Peace” does exist, sure but only between members the given shared culture (for obvious reasons) i.e. you are less likely to screw over someone you have something in common with. Add a different culture in the mix such as Turks in Germany and Yugoslavians in Switzerland and “Peace” drys up real quick even in the most placid of cultures. So easily we forget that these peaceful people were killing each other less than a hundred years ago. Humans are not ants; the Utopian ideal of in a communal organization with shared interest is mythical beyond our small shared culture tribal organizations and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Individual rights and responsibilities under a general framework of freedom is the best bet for creating times without war.

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  7. 7. slappyj 9:37 pm 08/12/2014

    War isn’t the most urgent problem. The most urgent problem is overpopulation. The number of humans on the planet is what is causing global warming, world hunger, economic collapse and high unemployment rates. It’s just going to keep getting worse every year unless people learn to control their genitals.
    The number of wars is only going to increase along with the number of humans, too.

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  8. 8. byronadriano 1:02 am 08/13/2014

    I agree with you completely and I am optimistic that one day war can be eradicated.

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  9. 9. Krulwich 2:59 am 08/13/2014

    I understand that you want people to buy your book, but in this article you don’t say much about “why wars happen and what we can do to stop them.”

    You take as an axiom that the US is bad as far as ending wars simply because the US maintains an army, and yet there were decades where people believed that MAD discouraged war. If the US is so bad regarding ending wars, do you have evidence or reasoning that shows that the wars that the US participated in would have have stopped earlier, or been less bloody, if the US were not to have entered them? To take but the most recent example, the US’s fighting against ISIS appears to many to be the only way to stop the already ongoing war there. Perhaps in this case the US military, and its use, is a way to reduce war in the region?

    To take another recent example, can you name something that Israel could have done in responding to Hamas rockets against its civilians that it didn’t do? Would you call it “reducing war” for there to have been ten more years of rockets against Israeli civilians had Israel not attacked recently, compared to a 2-week war that will hopefully put an end to the problems in both directions? Again, perhaps the use of military will result in ending the long-standing ongoing war, in a manner that was not achieved in any other way.

    Yes, I know, I can buy your book. And I may do that. It truly sounds good. But it would motivate that purchase to actually hear some substance of your solution, or at least details of how your analysis applies, and not just a description of the problem. I think the problem is clear, but the solution is far from clear.

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  10. 10. donsspam 7:16 am 08/13/2014

    Are we sure it is a problem?
    Fighting is natural behavior, in my opinion.
    Whos war are we talking about? Yours, theirs?

    Can you really picture an earth without life fighting to survive and adapt?

    O well, just playing devils advocate here.

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  11. 11. Andrei Kirilyuk 11:55 am 08/13/2014

    John, your arguments are (a) redundant (thus more than correct) for the usual set of “developed” countries and (b) inapplicable for a much larger diversity of other countries.

    It’s evident that despite their huge military domination, the USA today won’t try to produce a military invasion or conflict in Canada or Mexico under the pretext that “it’s the same people” or that “lives of Americans are in danger there”. But Russia enthusiastically produces just that “impossible” kind of action towards Ukraine today (and many others before), and it is supported even more by its rather poorly living masses (only losing heavily in that conflict), than by the privileged elite circles. Go on, explain them that “every sane person wants peace”, that there were guarantees in exchange to Ukrainian nuclear disarmament, etc. So they are NOT sane (openly irrational, to be precise), with all their nuclear weapons pointed at your nice sweet home, and the world appears to be more diverse, than one would like to assume. Right now, in full economical crisis, still economically strongly under-developed Russia starts construction of three new submarines, within a gigantic new militarization program (Mistrals, oh, la, la…), despite all the over-load of already existing “deterrence” armaments… In the West, on the other hand, even ridiculous economical “sanctions” can hardly be adopted by the big masters of the world because “war” and “deaths of innocent people” (let alone the global war threat) are less important than your favorite cocktail.

    It just shows that the problem is deeper than any “technical” and “averaging”, either “biological” or economical, approach. Yes, maybe we all had started once from an ameba, but some remain at the same level of reaction even today, while others evolved more essentially. The dogma of equality is just another severely limited dogma, even if one would subjectively prefer this one.

    As to the real “problem solution”, it always exists, of course. However, it is not about any direct promotion of peace against war (already because versions of really desired “peace” still differ too much), but about the new progressive development that alone can kill conflicts (and does it automatically and universally). And as the unified source of such development is intellectual activity centered today on “science”, one may discover that major obstacles to the world peace reside surprisingly in modern organisation and practice of science oriented to stopping any progress, instead of creating it. Now, that would be a truly disappointing conclusion…

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  12. 12. rshoff2 12:54 pm 08/13/2014

    @donsspam – Playing devils advocate back… Fighting a natural behavior. Hmmm. I guess that depends upon how narrow is your definition of ‘fighting’, ‘natural’, and ‘behavior’. All three of those words are very broadly used in our society and rarely clearly defined by the user.

    But even further, Is a struggle the same as a fight? Is a reaction to defend the same as the action to attack? Does darwinism dictate that we are ‘at war’ with nature? Perhaps when we look back we see things as a struggle, but we don’t move forward seeking struggle.

    So, perhaps we need to think more specifically about the role of war within the human political construct. How we come to believe that war is not only a choice, but necessary.

    I don’t think it has to be that way. We could as easily put our efforts toward distributing resources and learning new ways to nurture a growing population. Why fight over a loaf of bread when we can instead figure out how to make two?

    I used to think war was part of our nature, but John Horgan has really opened my eyes and gave me permission to think about it without introducing religious propaganda -of which I abhor.

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  13. 13. curiouswavefunction 7:02 pm 08/13/2014

    “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.” – John F. Kennedy

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  14. 14. M Tucker 1:38 pm 08/15/2014

    “So the question is, how should we react to lethal group violence when it erupts in the world today?”

    It looks like the answer is:

    “Sometimes violence is morally justified, even necessary, to thwart greater violence.”

    So how would the end-of-war rule work in that case? When it is ‘justified’ and NECESSARY. As long as one party perceives the necessity for violence you will not be able to end violence and war.

    Can you give one example from history where the end-of-war rule has worked? Recent history, since you seem to think we are now in a better, more evolved, state then we were say 75 years ago or 64 years ago or 61 years ago or 24 years ago or 13 years ago or 11 years ago?

    Specifically, how would the end-of-war rule work when someone attacks you or a loved one—or even a stranger? Because for it to actually work, and not just be some utopian theory, it must necessarily work for that case as well. War always comes down to how personal security is perceived to be threatened.

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  15. 15. rshoff2 6:35 pm 08/15/2014

    The way the world is today, yes, it is hard to imagine that we do not need to continually be on the defensive. We must always be prepared against invaders. But why? Why are there invaders? The question is whether it is in our genes or if we have evolved into a psychologically dysfunctional civilization. If it’s the latter, then we can change.

    Although ‘no war’ doesn’t mean no arguing with your neighbor when he pisses you off, and it certainly doesn’t mean the end of civilized police.

    But no war might mean the end of mass killing in order to achieve political gain. It might mean the end of producing weapons. The more weapons that are produced, the more war we will have.

    It might even mean that we don’t get to have our cake and eat it too. What are we willing to give up?

    So again, the things we are afraid of are things that we have already created in our war mongering society. It might be nothing more than a mentality. We can start to change that mentality. Mass communication is a great opportunity to pull humanity together. We can start creating a mentality that recognizes that we all lose by war and we will be driven to extinction. Even your decedents. What’s the point in that?!

    Unfortunately, ignorance and religion are a pediment to those goals. As long as people believe they answer to a higher power and that our/their arbitrary customs and practices are germane to the universe, we will be struggling to survive.

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  16. 16. abj 4:11 pm 08/18/2014

    Horgan writes:

    War could end tomorrow if a relatively small group of people around the world chose to end it.

    How small a group of people and who would they have to be? 150+ commanders in chief of the armed forces of the nations of the world? Majorities in the legislatures of the nations of the world that would defund their militaries? Majorities of the electorate of the nations of the world that would elect the majorities of the legislators…

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  17. 17. abj 5:58 pm 08/18/2014

    rshoff2 wrote:
    I don’t think it has to be that way. We could as easily put our efforts toward distributing resources and learning new ways to nurture a growing population. Why fight over a loaf of bread when we can instead figure out how to make two?

    I ask
    Why fight over (Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Tibet, Jerusalem, Danzig, …, Kosovo, Sarajevo, Taiwan, teaching girls or raping them, governing ourselves, or governing those people too, …) when we can instead figure out how to make two of these ? ? ?

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  18. 18. evelyn haskins 10:07 pm 08/19/2014

    I have often thought, that IF the US could get around to solving its own problems — relying to much on expanding its businesses into other countries at the other countries expense, and fomenting unrest in other countries for its own financial gains, the World might be a more peaceful place.
    But also, as importantly making exporting of arms or dealing in arms a criminal offence.

    After all if the Hutu and Tutsi had to rely on kiling each other with fre-hardened wooden spears, the might have solved ther problems some other way.

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  19. 19. rshoff2 12:46 pm 08/20/2014

    abj – Well, the argument is circular of course. In a civilization that is based on values of peace, the atrocities you mention would not exist. And when they do pop up, we would have alternate ways of dealing.

    We are not there, I know that. But we will never be there if we don’t try. And that trying begins with a kernel of hope and action. One way is to focus and temper our responses to threats, instead of broadly blowing up a perceived enemy, as we are trying to do.

    It sounds to me like John Horgan isn’t promising utopia, he is asking some people in power to stop war which is a leading cause death and destruction, not to mention the collateral damage.

    We worry about things like bicycle helmets and seat belts while we perpetuate war? That sounds bizarre to me.

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  20. 20. jayjacobus 2:16 pm 08/25/2014

    There are 50 laws ready to be voted on that make work place bullying illegal yet not one has been passed.

    The corporate support of bullies is frustrating.

    But think about this: today’s bullies will be tomorrow’s war mongers.

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  21. 21. tribalypredisposed 2:11 pm 09/1/2014

    I agree that war is the most important issue. Now if you and your friends will end your campaign to take the study of war down fruitless and baseless fantasy paths to nowhere, we can get on with it. Fry’s “logic” in the book he was editor of, for example, is that unless we find evidence that our nomadic ancestors built fortifications or defensive settlements, then we have positive evidence they were peaceful. So unless our nomadic ancestors were NOT NOMADIC then they were conclusively peaceful? You yourself have gone to the point of demanding that scientists change their views on the causes of war based solely on your, completely wrong, view of the consequences of their views and not based on the evidence. This is simply shameful.
    The best thing that could happen for progress on the study of ending war is for the deeply confused, dishonest at times, and at best ideologically biased people like yourself to just shut up about it. You do not have the first clue when it comes to why war happens.

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  22. 22. tribalypredisposed 2:15 pm 09/1/2014

    Evelyn…the massacres in Rwanda were done mostly with machetes, not very far advanced from sharpened sticks really. A lack of weapons has never been an obstacle for group level violence, unfortunately.

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