Is war coded into our DNA?


By James A. Haught

The Charleston Gazette 1/3/05


THE LATE Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va., was portly, courtly and verbose - yet he had wisdom. The first time I walked into his Washington office in 1959, I was impressed by a small motto on his desk saying: "The most important lesson you can learn in life is that other people are as real behind their eyes as you are behind yours."

Randolph cared about everyone's welfare. He entered Congress in 1933 and eagerly backed President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal safety net -- Social Security, public jobs programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, etc.

Later, Randolph championed peace. He felt it was odd that America trained war commanders at three national academies -- Army, Navy and Air Force -- but had no government school training leaders in how to avert war. He crusaded many years for a national Peace Academy, but few politicians were interested.

Finally, in 1984 -- Randolph's last year in Congress -- he and colleagues succeeded in creating the U.S. Institute of Peace (adding the proposal to a military spending bill, so President Reagan couldn't veto it). But the institute today remains unknown, insignificant.

Why does America display so little interest in waging peace? With taxpayers pouring $400 billion a year into the war apparatus, why is war prevention a microscopic footnote on the balance sheet? Why does peace get a mere shrug?

Every American, if asked, would say that he or she wants peace. But how real is that desire? During election campaigns, hawks who talk tough get more votes than doves advocating negotiation and compromise. Chest-thumping is popular. War movies draw throngs. Did you ever see a peace movie?

It's considered patriotic to support militarism, and disloyal to question it. In ancient Greece, Thucydides described this effect. Athenian hotheads clamored for an attack on Sicily, and doubters were deemed traitors. The invasion turned out to be a disaster, ruining Athens.

Once, I attempted to learn how many thousands of wars have been fought throughout history. I contacted two international research institutes in Sweden and Norway, but found that the question is unanswerable. Scholars think organized warfare dates back about 7,000 years - but written records go back only 5,000, and early ones are spotty.

Actually, I assume that tribal fighting began with the earliest half-humans, and before. Young male chimpanzee gangs massacre rival chimp colonies on nearby hills. Since chimps are the closest biological relatives of humans, this probably means that a fighting instinct is coded into human DNA. Presumably, the fighting instinct helps humans survive - but it also kills off part of the species.

Century after century, millennia after millennia, wars have been fought for every imaginable cause. The Thirty Years' War, which killed half of Germany's population in the 1600s, began because Protestants entered a Prague palace and threw Catholic leaders out a window into a dungheap. The War of Jenkins' Ear erupted in the 1700s because a British ship captain showed Parliament his severed ear, which had been cut off by Spaniards who boarded his vessel. In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought a four-day war over a soccer match, killing 2,000. As for America's current war in Iraq, nobody really can explain why it was launched.

During the 20th century, wars killed an estimated 105 million people -- more than half civilians. I'm sure all sides in every conflict felt patriotic, convinced that their cause was righteous.

Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges touched a profound truth with his 2002 book, <I>War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning<P>. "War makes the world understandable, a black-and-white tableau of them and us," he wrote. "It suspends thought." He said it maximizes "patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship."

Aggression-fueling testosterone obviously is a factor, since virtually all wars have been by males. John Fowles wrote in <I>The Magus<P> that "men love war... because it is the one thing that stops women from laughing at them."

There's hope. Some small, advanced nations seem to have progressed beyond warfare, even though they had bloody pasts. For example, Switzerland had two gory civil wars between its Catholic and Protestant provinces in the 1500s - and even had a brief Catholic-Protestant civil war in 1847 - but has been at peace ever since. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949 after a civil war, and has grown prosperous. Its president was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread the Costa Rica model.

In America, a small fringe of people like Jennings Randolph struggle to resist the war urge. I wish they weren't such an ignored minority.

<I>Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at<P>