War Is Not About Aggression

Guernica by Picasso.

Speculations by Stefan Stenudd

I saw a TV documentary about the origin of war: is it inherent in our species or did it come with civilization? There's no consensus within the sciences, so I allow myself to speculate.

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       I have pondered it since childhood years. Before things got complicated with accumulated knowledge, I took for granted that war was a consequence of aggression within our species. I witnessed it daily in myself, my classmates and other people, from the youngest to the oldest. Even infants can show rage and have violent outbursts.

       I didn't like it. As far as I could see, nor did anyone else, really. Well, maybe there were some few exceptions among the worst of the bullies, but also in their eyes I saw glimpses of regret, even grief, immediately following their outbursts. Actually during them. Violence was something that erupted, quicker in some than in others, an irresistible force that satisfied none.

       It was as if we had demons inside, occasionally taking control of our bodies. The eruption of rage was as unpredictable as that of volcanoes. And anyone could see that what it left behind was nothing but destruction.

       I figured that this uncontrollable aggression was something animalistic. After all, our species belongs to the animal kingdom and we share ancestors, going far enough back in time. Any animal has the ability to be triggered into rage and violence.

       I could see it in the cutest of pets. It was just as sudden as with humans. An outburst, and then stillness without any sign of satisfaction. Surely, the root of the aggression was the fight for survival – either to defend oneself when hunted by a predator or when the roles were reversed.

       Aggression is the primary weapon in killing. I dreamed of a universe where the survival of one wouldn't demand the death of another. Still do.

       So, I suspected that war was that demon let lose in grand scale. The same thing, simply involving lots of people at the same time.

       But after just a brief introduction to history it was evident to me that war is a completely different thing. It may use the aggression latent in man, but that's never what starts it. War is a planned action, having its cause and aiming at a certain effect. It's started by reason, not the instincts.

       Usually, war is initiated by other people than those who have to fight it. The rulers. They seduce or force their subjects to march into battle for one or other reason. Rarely do the soldiers march in rage, but in battle they need it in the desperate effort to survive. Like on the school yard, when boys clash in a fight.

       If mankind had no aggression, there would certainly be no war. No one would fight it – at least not before technology made it a thing for the machines. And without a history of man to man combat, how would weapons for that purpose at all be invented?

       The basic reason for war is always the same: someone wants what someone else doesn't want. The collision of wills. Therefore, the very first wars back in primordial times must have been in competition over limited resources. Food, water, women, whatever essential to us before the dawn of civilization. Basically, the essentials are still the same, albeit in fancy costume and grand scale.

       It may have started as theft, leading to robbery and then plundering. Groups of people discovered that they could take from others what they didn't find or produce themselves. Again, that's pretty much what war is still about.

       Soon enough, the most skilled or ruthless thieves had the resources to parasite their victims by becoming their constant rulers, like a farmer and his cattle. Hierarchy emerged, with an increasing level of oppression. Then the greed of rulers turned them against each other. As the rulers grew in power, so did their wars.

       Simply put: The root to violence between individuals is the aggression we all have inside and can't always control. But the root to war is greed.

       To my experience, what triggers aggression is frustration. If we are pleased, our inner volcanoes sleep. If violence increases among people in society, it's because they are increasingly frustrated. Society can do that to you, especially when it's ruled without compassion. Sadly, that's often the case. But it can be changed.

       What seems to trigger greed the most is not poverty but plenty. The more people have, the more they want. Strange thing. There's just so much Russian caviar one can eat.

       When some have more than others, they want to protect as well as increase it. If it's power, and it usually is, they will use force. Thereby they quickly gain more power, so they can escalate the force. They seem unable to restrain themselves.

       It has nothing to do with aggression. When rulers start wars, they do so coldly, not for fighting but for winning.

       So, the more evenly power is distributed, the less risk there is for war. History shows this clearly. Democracy, with all its fallacies, tends to avoid war as a solution. When the conflict is between two democracies, then, chances are great that peace remains.

       Both in the case of aggression and war, the problem seems to be the rulers. How about that?

Stefan Stenudd
July 8, 2013

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

About me
I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.