War Is a Lie is the 2010 self-published book by Humanist contributor David Swanson, in which he attempts a comprehensive refutation of all the rationales offered for any and all wars. “War is not a mysterious part of a divine plan nor is it an unavoidable manifestation of human nature,” says the author. “It’s the reason you have financial worries. It is very likely going to destroy our economy if it doesn’t destroy our environment first, although it may more quickly destroy our representative government—but possibly not before it kills us all through blowback or weapons proliferation.” The book challenges readers to accept their own culpability in perpetuating the catastrophic human creation that is war. While we would never imagine touting “good slavery” or “just rape,” Americans especially seem willing to accept the idea of necessary wars, thereby supporting a war machine that Swanson says takes over 50 cents of every dollar of income tax. This must end, he concludes. “It’s war or humanity. The world isn’t big enough for both.” The following excerpt from Chapter 4, titled “Wars Are Not Unavoidable,” is published with permission of the author.
Chapter 4: Wars Are Not Unavoidable
Wars are given so many glorious and righteous justifications, including the spreading of civilization and democracy around the world, that you wouldn’t think it would be necessary to also claim that each war was unavoidable. Who would demand that such good deeds be avoided? And yet there has probably never been a war that hasn’t been explained as an absolutely necessary, inevitable, and unavoidable last resort. That this argument always has to be used is a measure of how horrible wars actually are. Like so much else related to war, its unavoidability is a lie, each and every time. War is never the only choice and always the worst one.
But It’s in Our Genes
If war is avoidable, then we can and must eliminate war. And if we can eliminate war, why have no societies done so? The short answer is that they have. But let’s be clear. Even if every human and pre-human society had always had war, that would be no reason why we have to have it too. Your ancestors may have always eaten meat, but if vegetarianism becomes necessary for survival on this little planet won’t you choose to survive rather than insist that you must do what your ancestors did? Of course you can do what your ancestors did, and in many cases it may be the best thing to do, but you don’t have to. Did they all have religion? Some people no longer do. Was animal sacrifice once central to religion? It isn’t anymore.
War, too, has changed dramatically just in the past decades and centuries. Would a medieval knight fighting on horseback recognize any kinship with a drone pilot using a joystick at a desk in Nevada to kill a suspected bad guy and nine innocent people in Pakistan? Would the knight think that the drone piloting, even once it was explained to him, was an act of war? Would the drone pilot think the knight’s activities were acts of war? If war can change into something unrecognizable, why can’t it change into nothingness? As far as we know, wars involved only men for millennia. Now women take part. If women can start participating in war, why can’t men stop doing so? Of course, they can. But for the weak-willed and those who have replaced religion with bad science, it is essential before people can do something to prove that they have already done it.
OK, if you insist. Anthropologists have, in fact, found dozens of human societies in all corners of the world that have not known, or have abandoned, warfare. In his excellent book Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Douglas Fry lists seventy non-warring societies from every part of the globe. Studies have found the majority of human societies have either no warfare or a very mild form of it. (Of course all warfare prior to the past century could be re-classified as relatively very mild.) Australia didn’t know warfare until the Europeans came. Neither did most of the peoples of the Arctic, the Great Basin, or Northeast Mexico.
Many non-warring societies are simple, nomadic, egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures. Some are isolated from potential enemies, which isn’t surprising given the likelihood that one group will take up war in defense against another that threatens it. Some are less isolated but run from other groups that make war rather than engage them. These societies are not always in places that lack major predatory animals. They are groups of people who may have to defend against animal attack and who often hunt for food. They may also witness individual acts of violence, feuding, or executions, while nonetheless avoiding war. Some cultures discourage heated emotions and aggression of any sort. They often hold all sorts of false beliefs that discourage violence, such as the belief that spanking a child will kill it. Yet these beliefs seem to produce no worse lives than, for example, the false belief that spanking benefits children.
Anthropologists have tended to imagine warfare as something that existed in some form through all the millions of years of human evolution. But “imagine” is the key word. Wounded Australopithecine bones thought to show war injuries actually show the tooth marks of leopards. The Walls of Jericho were apparently built to protect against flooding, not warfare. There is, in fact, no evidence of warfare older than 10,000 years, and there would be, because war leaves its mark in wounds and weapons. This suggests that of the 50,000 years modern Homo sapiens have existed, 40,000 saw no warfare, and that millions of years of prior ancestry were also war-free. Or, as an anthropologist put it, “People have lived in hunter-gatherer bands for 99.87 percent of human existence.” War arises in some, but not all, complex, sedentary societies, and tends to grow along with their complexity. This fact makes it unlikely war could be found more than 12,500 years ago.
One could argue that individual killings out of jealous rage were the equivalent of war for small groups. But they are very different from organized warfare in which violence is directed anonymously against members of another group. In the world of small non-agricultural bands, family ties on one’s mother or father or spouse’s side connected one to other bands. In the newer world of patrilineal clans, on the other hand, one finds the precursor to nationalism: attacks on any member of another clan that has injured any member of your own.
A more appropriate candidate for precursor to war than individual human violence may be group violence directed against large animals. But that, too, is very different from war as we know it. Even in our war-crazed culture, most people are very resistant to killing humans but not to killing other animals. Group hunting of ferocious animals doesn’t go very far back in human history either. As Barbara Ehrenreich argues, the bulk of the time our ancestors spent evolving they spent evolving not as predators, but as prey.
So, no matter how violent chimpanzees can be, or how peaceful bonobos, imagining ancient common ancestors of primates who thirsted for war is nothing more than imagining. A search for alternatives to that story can be more concrete, given the existence today and in recorded history of hunter-gatherer societies. Some of these cultures have found a wide variety of means of avoiding and resolving disputes that do not include war. That people everywhere are skilled at cooperation and find cooperation more pleasurable than war doesn’t make the news precisely because we all know it already. And yet we hear a lot about “man the warrior” and rarely see cooperation identified as a central or essential trait of our species.
Warfare as we have known it in recent millennia has developed alongside other societal changes. But did most relatively recent people in complex and stable societies engage in something resembling warfare or not? Some ancient societies haven’t been shown to have engaged in warfare, so it is likely they lived without it. And of course most of us, even in the most militaristic states, live without any direct connection to war, which would seem to suggest that a whole society could do the same. The emotional drives supporting war, the collective thrill of victory and so forth, may be culturally learned, not inevitable, since some cultures appear too distant in outlook to appreciate them at all. Anthropologist Kirk Endicott recounts:
I once asked a Batek man why their ancestors had not shot the Malay slave-raiders…with poisoned blowpipe darts [used for hunting animals]. His shocked answer was: “Because it would kill them!”
Everybody Does It
Anthropologists often focus on non-industrialized cultures, but can technologically advanced nations also live without war? Let’s assume that Switzerland is a fluke of geopolitical strategy. There are many other nations to consider. In fact, most nations of the world, for one reason or another, including those that fight horrible lengthy wars when attacked, do not initiate warfare. Iran, that terrible demonic threat in U.S. “news” media, has not attacked another country in centuries. The last time Sweden launched or even participated in a war was a skirmish with Norway in 1814. To his credit, Douglas Fry notes the peaceful nature of some modern nations, including Iceland, which has been at peace for 700 years, and Costa Rica, which abolished its military after World War II.
The Global Peace Index annually ranks the world’s most peaceful nations, including domestic factors in the calculation as well as foreign war making. Here are the top twenty nations as of 2010:
1 New Zealand
12 Czech Republic
One explanation for some nations’ failure to make war is that they would like to but haven’t had an opportunity to launch any wars they could plausibly win. This at least suggests a degree of rationality in war-making decisions. If all nations knew they couldn’t win any wars, would there be no more wars?
Another explanation is that countries don’t launch wars because they don’t have to, since the cops of the world are looking out for them and maintaining a Pax Americana. Costa Rica, for example, has accepted a U.S. military presence. This would be an even more encouraging explanation, suggesting that nations do not want to begin wars if they don’t have to.
In fact, nobody can even imagine a war breaking out between nations in the European Union (the birthplace of the worst wars in world history) or between states in the United States. The change in Europe is incredible. After centuries of fighting, it has found peace. And peace within the United States is so secure it seems ludicrous even to notice it. But it should be appreciated and understood. Does Ohio refrain from attacking Indiana because the feds would punish Ohio, or because Ohio is certain that Indiana will never attack it, or because Ohioans’ overpowering war-lust is satisfied by wars with places like Iraq and Afghanistan, or because Buckeyes actually have better things to do than engage in mass murder? The best answer, I think, is the last one, but the power of the federal government is a necessity and something we may have to create at an international level before we have secure and unquestionable international peace.
A crucial test, it seems to me, is whether nations leap at the chance to join war-bound “coalitions” dominated by the United States. If countries refrain from war purely because they can’t win any, shouldn’t they leap at the chance to participate as junior partners in wars against weak and impoverished nations with valuable resources to plunder? Yet they do not.
In the case of the 2003 attack on Iraq, the Bush-Cheney gang bribed and threatened until forty-nine countries had supposedly agreed to put their names down as the “Coalition of the Willing.” Many other countries, large and small, refused. Of the forty-nine on the list, one denied any knowledge of being on it, one had its name removed, and another refused to assist with the war in any way. Only four countries participated in the invasion, thirty-three in the occupation. Six of the countries in this military coalition actually had no militaries whatsoever. Many of the countries apparently joined in exchange for large amounts of foreign aid, which tells us something else about our nation’s generosity when it comes to charity abroad. The thirty-three token participants in the occupation quickly began pulling out as carelessly as they had been careful getting in, to the point where by 2009 only the United States remained.
We also appear perfectly capable of limiting war, raising the question of why we can’t limit it a bit more and a bit more until it is gone. The ancient Greeks chose not to take up the bow and arrow for 400 years after the Persians had shown them—in fact, made them feel—what that weapon could do. When the Portuguese brought firearms to Japan in the 1500s, the Japanese banned them, just as elite warriors did in Egypt and Italy as well. The Chinese, who had invented so-called gunpowder in the first place, had chosen not to use it for war. King Wu of Chou, the first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, after winning a war, set free the horses, dispersed the oxen, and had the chariots and coats of mail smeared with the blood of cattle yet retained them in the arsenal to show that they would not be used again. The shields and swords were turned upside down and wrapped in tiger skins. The King disbanded the army, turned his generals into princes, and commanded them to seal up their bows and arrows in their quivers.
After poisonous gases became weapons during World War I, the world mostly banned them. Nuclear bombs were shown to be wonderful tools from the perspective of war making sixty-five years ago, but they have not been used since, except in depleted uranium. Most of the world’s nations have banned land mines and cluster bombs, even though the United States has refused to join them.
Do deep drives urge us toward war? In some human cultures they certainly do, but there’s no reason those cultures cannot be changed. The changes just might need to be deeper and broader than an amendment to the Constitution.
If It Looks Avoidable and Sounds Avoidable…
Another reason to doubt that any particular war is unavoidable is the history of accidents, stupid mistakes, petty rivalries, scheming bureaucrats, and tragic-comic errors through which we blunder into each war, while on other occasions stumbling right up to the edge without going over. It’s hard to discern rational competition among imperial nations—or, for that matter, ineluctable forces of overpopulation and innate aggression—when looking at how wars actually come to be. As we’ll see in chapter six, war makers deal in financial interests, industry pressures, electoral calculations, and pure ignorance, all factors that appear susceptible to change or elimination.
War may dominate human history, and certainly our history books pretend there’s been nothing but war, but warfare has not been constant. It’s ebbed and flowed. Germany and Japan, such eager war makers seventy-five years ago, are now far more interested in peace than is the United States. The Viking nations of Scandinavia don’t seem interested in waging war on anyone. Groups like the Amish within the United States avoid participation in war, and their members have done so at great cost when forced to resist drafts into non-combat service, as during World War II. Seventh-day Adventists have refused to participate in war, and have been used in tests of nuclear radiation instead. If we can avoid wars sometimes, and if some of us can avoid wars all the time, why can’t we collectively do better?
David Swanson is the author of War is a Lie (2010) and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (2009, Seven Stories Press). In addition to cofounding AfterDowningStreet.org, he is the Washington director of Democrats.com and sits on the boards of a number of progressive organizations in Washington, DC.