Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book review: Why We Fight Wars

War: An Enquiry, A.C. Grayling 
Killing Others: A Natural History of Ethnic Violence, Matthew Lange
reviewed by Matthew Evangelista 

Wars are not barroom brawls writ large," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich. She was responding to Francis Fukuyama’s claim in Foreign Affairs magazine that men are mainly responsible for military conflicts because "aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women," and that "statistically speaking it is primarily men who enjoy the experience of aggression." Ehrenreich, who earned a Ph.D. in cellular immunology before turning to journalism and politics, rejected Fukuyama’s belief that men’s warlike practices were "rooted in biology," "hard-wired," "genetically determined," or "bred in the bone." Unlike the lethal violence of the chimpanzees who provided the hook for Fukuyama’s article, warfare is organized, institutionalized, and socially sanctioned violence. If we seek to explain it — and not only its gendered dimensions — evolutionary biology is not the place to look.

Two new books on war, one focused particularly on ethnic violence, try to offer alternatives to the primal-aggression argument, but both fall short. In War: An Enquiry, A.C. Grayling summarizes the violent history and state of the world but then throws up his hands at the difficulty of distilling the evidence and drawing a conclusion. In Killing Others: A Natural History of Ethnic Violence Matthew Lange blames ethnic conflicts on nationalist and religious pot-stirring by the last two centuries’ evolving nation-states. Both books are inconsistent in their logic, and neither is able to resist the pull of biological arguments — at any rate, they spend a lot of time outlining them. Beyond that, both authors ignore the more-pertinent evidence, which suggests that meddling, self-interested outsiders, in conjunction with ill-advised neoliberal austerity programs, bear much of the blame for the ugliest conflicts of at least the last few decades.

The Syrian war seems to defy Grayling’s effort to answer the question, "What, indeed is war, and how does it differ from other kinds of violent conflict?" In discussing Syria, he falls back on the pub-brawl metaphor he previously disavowed. Lange, in Killing Others, deems Syria’s "an ethnic civil war." Neither author accords much influence to the role there of outside states — Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, to name the main parties — even though their arms, training, and direct intervention have shaped and prolonged the violence.

Although the stated objectives, and the books’ titles themselves, imply differences - Grayling’s is broad, Lange’s narrowly focused - the authors occupy much the same territory. In addition to pondering the genetic basis for aggression, both evoke the psychologists’ distinction between in-groups and out-groups. Both consider the debate between Steven Pinker and Douglas Fry, among others, over whether the archaeological record shows prehistoric humans were more or less warlike than modern ones. Both cover vast periods of the history of warfare - Grayling compactly in a couple of chapters, and Lange with examples dispersed throughout the book. And both ultimately fail to provide satisfying answers about war’s causes… read more: