Critical views of science in the news

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


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.

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

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