Category: War

Oh, the humanity!

I’m following news about the latest radical Islamist atrocity, this one in Manchester.  And I see once again that most ubiquitous term of self-deception by our species:  “Oh, the inhumanity…!” Or some variant of that, anyway.  After 5,000 years of recorded history, you’d think we know by now that such behavior is nothing if not human.  In fact, mass intraspecific murder is probably uniquely human.  I certainly can’t think of another species that engages in it.  And religion, while not the only cause we kill for, certainly seemed to kick things off. Presaged by prolific Old Testament slaughter of enemies by Jews (or their god), the Jews (using the Romans) tortured and killed Christ, catalyzing the big BC/AD time change.  Over the next two or three hundred years, the Romans tortured and killed Christians.  But then Constantine converted around 315 and took all the fun out of it, so Catholics (the home team, now that Constantine had bought them), killed the gnostics.  But then Islam turns up three hundred years later and takes over, killing pretty much anybody who didn’t agree with them.  They had a good run for a couple hundred years, from China and India, clear across the Middle East to Spain.  By the end of the millennium, though, the Catholic Church got its second wind and started killing Muslims.  When that got tiresome, it went north...

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War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat

This is the last of a trilogy of posts on death and destruction.  Then we can move on to something serious… So, I spent the time since my last post reading War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat. Gat is Ezer Weitzman Professor of National Security in the Department of Political Sciences, Tel Aviv University. I wanted closure on this theme before moving on, so I pulled this title (purchased long ago) from my digital bookshelf and dove into it. What I found was not only closure, but also validation.  Gat offers a rare multi-disciplary perspective on this topic, combining a history of intrahuman fighting at every scale with insights from anthropology, archeology, psychology, ethology, economics, history and political science, and a dash of genetics…an undertaking of some 10 years. He spans prehistoric aboriginal fighting to 21st century nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And in the end, his conclusions are forthright. Simplest is to quote directly from his concluding chapter: “…there is nothing special about deadly human violence and war. Fundamentally, the solution to the ‘enigma of war’ is that no such enigma exists. Violent competion, alias conflict–including intraspecific conflict–is the rule throughout nature, as organisms vie among themselves to survive and reproduce under ever-present conditions of acute scarcity, conditions accentuated by their own process of propagation.” Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization, Oxford University Press 2006. In essence, his...

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More on war and death…

I’ve contemplated this follow-up post for a week or more now.  My visit to Berlin has me wondering how to think about the massive numbers of war dead between 1915 and 1945. Finally, I decided to put it into perspective, so began exploring other intentional mass death events. Lamentably, I gave up.  There are too many:  Biblical slaughter, Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the Protestant-Catholic wars, Europeans in the New World, the slave trade to the Americas, the Belgians in the Congo, the Irish potato famine, Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire, Stalinist purges, Spain under Franco, politically-induced famine in Africa and China and North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, political coups in Chile and Argentina, Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, Rwandan genocide, ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Sudan, dictatorship and war throughout the Middle East, the ongoing spectacle in Syria…for a start. I finally decided that, in the context of the human species, this is all just business as usual. We want to tag such atrocities as inhuman, but the problem is, they are not.  They are exactly the opposite.  It’s not that mass killing isn’t wrong.  In the context of our culture, it certainly is.  But in the context of our biology, it seems to be inevitable. Death in whatever form is the ultimate consequence of life, the price we pay for participating.  The ugliness is in the varied...

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Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin…and the “war to end wars”

I haven’t posted for the last several weeks because I’ve been drifting…northern France, various places in Holland, also Berlin and what used to be East Germany. Maybe I didn’t post because it was inconvenient, no good place to write. Or maybe because topics were everywhere. How to choose? The theme of war was ubiquitous to one who knows 20th Century history. And yet (other than in Berlin, where they’ve made a tourist industry out of) it could be completely overlooked without that historical perspective. I’m tempted to say war is in our DNA, but I’m more likely to say that simple aggression is. I think there is a difference between individual aggression–over food or breeding partners or tribal territories or personal insult–and the organized aggression we think of as war. Aggression at a national scale by one group on another is largely about power and greed on the part of a few and manipulation of the many. A retaliatory response is understandable, sure. But more than anything else, WWI was about using tenuous alliances to grab territory…and it cost 18 million lives. And that was, in the words of H.G. Wells, the “war to end war.” Yet, within 30 years, 60 million more people had died in WWII. Remnants of all this are ubiquitous in Europe: monuments to executed resistance fighters throughout France, statues to deported Jewish children in...

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