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August 18, 2017

War Can Be Ended: It Is a Product of Cultural Choice, Not of "Human Nature."

By Robert Anschuetz

A prominent meme in American foreign policy is "Peace through Strength," but what I want is "Strength through Peace." Guided by that principle, our foreign policy would no longer be driven by the imperatives of strategic dominance, but by the empathic impulse for creative collaboration with our neighbors around the world, aimed at ensuring every individual physical security and the freedom to pursue his or her own happiness.


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The institution of war is deeply ingrained in American culture. Backed by the greatest armed might ever assembled, America's capacity for war serves today as a primary tool of U.S. foreign policy. Whether brandished as a threat or actually applied, America's military power gives it great leverage in contests with other developed nations for strategic advantage on the world stage. Emboldened by its power, the U.S. can freely pursue opportunities to strengthen its security standing and economic potential with little fear of repercussions from any negative impact on strategic rivals. At the same time, as demonstrated with great clarity by the talking heads on America's cable news channels--predominantly CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC--American militarism is entirely outside the bounds of mainstream critique. It is instead an integral part of a national culture characterized by hypocritical self-righteousness and quick demonization of those who seriously challenge any aspect of it. As a consequence of this, the readiness to resort to armed force is so embedded in America's leadership elite, and the large segment of the populace still in step with it, that many people, regardless of their position on particular war-and-peace issues, accept as a given that predilections to war are embedded in the human genotype and therefore ineradicable.

Why I Believe War Can Be Ended

Based on my own belief that war and the threat of war always result in more bad than good, I participated in a spring, 2017 online study course conducted by the global anti-war activist organization World Beyond War. From information I gleaned there, I became convinced that militarism and war-making are neither the constructs of inherent human impulses, nor impossible to eradicate as social institutions. Here are four main reasons I came to those conclusions:

1) Making war is not an impulse inscribed in man's DNA. Scientists have determined the following: that man is not descended from killer apes, as was once believed; that the earliest human communities, extending over tens of thousands of years, show no evidence of attacks by one group on another; and that nations and cultures have abolished war in the past. As the prolific anti-war activist/author/speaker David Swanson has pointed out, Japan abolished war for centuries before its reintroduction from the West--a cultural shift that now seems once again underway.

2) The predilection to war is not instinctual, but a cultural meme that has a far greater influence on the nation's leadership elite than on ordinary citizens. Clearly, that is because Washington politicians, including the President, along with the defense establishment, weapons makers, and the mainstream media, all benefit in their career aspirations from working together to keep the deadly game going. Most ordinary citizens also lend their support, influenced by parents, schooling--even churches, and by the absence of any cultural inducement to challenge authority and march to the beat of a different drummer.

3) Because the nation's leadership elite has a vested interest in supporting war, it is highly unlikely that even the most compelling arguments against war will turn them into allies. The hope for doing that lies with ordinary citizens, who take their cues from the leaders but don't share either their vested interest in war or their rationalized conviction that war is part of what makes the world go round. The hope is that, over time, a critical mass of ordinary Americans can be convinced to accept, and then join in promoting, the compelling arguments that show war to be an atrocity that can and must be ended. If that happens, the politicians--who live for re-election--might well take heed and begin to rein in the defense establishment, the weapons manufacturers, and the mainstream media who march to their tune.

4) According to science journalist John Horgan, author of The End of War (2012), wars today are most commonly waged by advanced military powers against small groups of sectarian insurgents, religious extremists, and terrorists. Horgan projects that such conflicts will persist well into the future, but believes there are methods short of war, such as "police work" and "non-violent actions" (explained later in this article), that can prove effective in defusing them and opening the way to negotiated settlements. In my opinion, such alternatives to traditional war-making should be brought directly to the attention of the American Congress and the defense establishment in the form of expert testimony. The point would be to make sure that leaders responsible for war have no rational excuse for rejecting non-violent alternatives that are workable and effective, and also plainly more civilized and humane. It is arguable that successful efforts to end war will depend foremost on the success achieved by a mass anti-war movement in turning ordinary citizens from passive supporters of war to politically active opponents prepared to vote for anti-war candidates. It is also important, however, to make politicians aware that non-violent alternatives to war can actually work. That would provide them a politically safe and convincing rationale for leaving behind the venal and bloody realities of traditional militarism to pursue instead the humane goal of a binding international agreement to end all war.

It's Time To Replace "Peace through Strength" with "Strength through Peace"

For my own part, I find it hard to imagine any war--even plausibly defensive war--in which the in-your-face negatives inherent in it don't always outweigh the claimed higher purposes the "good guys" are fighting for. As already noted, I see militarism, both the continual preparation for war and war itself, as the response to a cultural meme, or shaping value. In America, that meme expresses itself in such notions as "Nice guys finish last" or Vince Lombardi's "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." As applied to foreign policy, it is framed by the slogan "Peace through Strength"--which, in practical terms, means a relentless push for strategic dominance (maximum economic and military advantage).

Since memes are ingrained cultural dispositions, however, and not based in biological instinct, I believe a well-organized mass anti-war movement can over time turn on its head the now dominant value of "Peace through Strength." What I'm looking for, as did Dennis Kucinich in his final presidential run in 2008, is "Strength through Peace." With that slogan as a motivating meme, our foreign policy would no longer be driven by the imperatives of strategic dominance, but by the empathetic impulse for creative collaboration with our neighbors around the world, aimed at ensuring every individual physical security and the freedom to pursue his or her own happiness.

Motivated by the value "Strength through Peace," we might well come to regard war as equivalent to murder, and to see rational compromise, not superior power, as the only viable solution to international conflicts. I wish that meme had already been dominant when President Trump threatened "fire and fury" against a desperate dynastic leader in North Korea who seeks to preserve his self-myth of personal power while fearing every day that those who wield the armed might of America are bent on depriving him of it. Wouldn't an iota of human empathy and reasoned understanding on our part--translated, perhaps, to a withdrawal of the latest hit-to-kill missile interceptor system in South Korea and a paring down of our military exercises with that ally--go a long way toward abating Kim Jung Un's fears and bellicose threats? Instead, given our continuing barbaric belligerence, all we have and can expect to have is the looming threat of heartless war with, this time, possibly cataclysmic consequences. In the end, a sound case can be made that war is not only unjustified as a first resort; it is not justified even as a last resort. This is made clear in two sentences from the book War Is a Lie (2010), whose author, David Swanson, is now director of the global anti-war activist organization World Beyond War.

The first sentence to which I have reference is this: "Any nation that chooses to fight a war wanted to fight a war, and was itself--therefore--impossible for the other nation to talk to." The second sentence elaborates on that point and expresses succinctly the nature of the "lie" David expounds. It reads: "Examine any war you like, and it turns out that if the aggressors had wanted to state their desires openly, they could have entered into negotiations rather than into battle. Instead, they wanted war--war for its own sake, or war for completely indefensible reasons that no other nation would willingly agree to." I've by now assimilated these points in words of my own that will serve in the future as my own conceptual frame for opposing war in any circumstances. The words are these: "No country that fights a war can claim it had no other choice. It can always choose not to do so, and seek first to negotiate the best possible terms to prevent impending aggression, or, if necessary, combat enemy occupation by peaceful resistance. No matter how great the compromise required, such a course will always be less bad, when weighed against the killing, suffering, social chaos, and moral degradation resulting from war, than any conceivable benefits to be gained by winning the war."

In his book War No More, the Case for Abolition (2013), Swanson offers three reasons why he believes war can be ended: first, that international disputes can be resolved in a plethora of ways without a resort to war; second, that war-making is not indigenous to human nature, but a culturally-based idea that is provisionally accepted within a society when sanctioned by its leaders; and, third, that, just as particular circumstances within a given cultural context can give rise to the idea that war is an acceptable means to resolve sectarian or national conflicts, so too can particular circumstances within the same cultural context give rise to the rejection of that idea.

I'm also intrigued by Swanson's call in the same book to keep the faith that war can in fact be ended, no matter what the contrary evidence. Toward that end, he pushes the idea of "innovative imagining"--a mindset that, unlike "wishful thinking," is grounded in reality. Precisely because war is only a motivating idea, or cultural meme, Swanson reminds us, and not an instinctual behavior, it will last only as long as the people allow it to last. That's the reality against which "innovative imagining" can prove effective. Even if it could be proved (and it has already been convincingly disproved) that no society has ever existed without war, Swanson argues, we should never give up the notion that our society can be the first to abolish it. We need to maintain a belief in our free will and capacity to avert war, since preparing for war because we've always done so in the past only makes it more likely.

For me, that concept offers resounding support for the notion that human beings are in fact free to choose and create the kind of world in which they prefer to live. I for one want to help build one in which relations between individuals, sectarian groups, and nations, as well as between all humans and nature, are governed not by force of any kind, including warfare, but by empathy, respect, conciliation, and support.

Further Reflections on Why Ending War Is Possible and Necessary

Another strong opponent of the notion that war is an indigenous impulse of human nature is John Horgan, a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Horgan discussed his new book The End of War in an April, 2012 interview on Talk Radio Nation, an internet podcast series hosted by David Swanson.

Horgan agrees with Swanson that societies make war because it is accepted by them as a behavioral meme--as a notion that resonates with prevailing, though largely unspoken, cultural values. If a society accepts war-making as an idea consistent with its cultural value system, Horgan believes, it will act upon it whenever it is deemed to be in its self-interest. If it doesn't accept that idea, it will not make war in any circumstances. It is Horgan's view that, for any nation to replace war-making with strategies for peaceful conflict resolution, it must first experience a transformative awakening to the fact that war, no matter what its aim, is a moral atrocity that must be abolished. Such an awakening is possible, he contends, because war is not embedded in our genes. Nor is it, as many believe, made unavoidable at times by economic, demographic, or environmental exigencies. It is simply the product of cultural conditioning.

Swanson himself has written that not only war, but all the social pathologies to which human societies have been subject throughout history, including slavery, are the products of cultural choice, not of something called "human nature." No matter how ingrained such behaviors may seem, he argues, they are neither written in the stars nor inscribed in our human DNA.

As intimated in foregoing paragraphs, I also believe that no values that shape human behavior are instinctual. If that were the case, one would have to ask: How could Christianity overtake paganism to become the religion of ancient Rome? Or, how did Mohammed's austere monotheism gain ascendance over the conflicts of pagan tribes in the 7th-century Middle East? Both new faiths came about by the power of ideas that were ripe for adoption in the conditions of their time and place.

Consider, too, the 1914 Christmas Truce in the first year of World War I, when German and British soldiers laid down their arms in favor of celebrating Christmas with the other side. Can you imagine how great a transvaluation must have been involved to move those soldiers to suppress the deeply ingrained discipline of respect for their own ruling authority and, instead, take the very risky turn to free, empathic association with Others ruled by an opposing authority? This happened on the Western Front in 1914, because the moribund experience of the claustrophobic trenches had become intolerable for both sides, and the then more vital imprint of a shared cultural tradition had enough appeal to drive the men to lively fraternization with even the enemy. Unfortunately, the Christmas spirit can prevail no longer with soldiers than it can with ordinary civilians, and the gravity of commitment to duty, and the fear of non-conformity, soon dragged both sides back to their assigned roles. Nonetheless, the Christmas Truce, too, shows that human nature isn't stuck. It can, and does, change when the time is ripe for a better idea.

How Do We Get Others To Abandon Killing as a Means for Social Change?

Further into his interview with David Swanson, John Horgan makes the point that, based on the inhumanity of war, we must oppose it with the same revulsion we once opposed slavery. What we need most, he says, is leaders with the courage and vision to help people see the need for, and accept, a world without war. "We must get to a point," he says, "where war between any two nations is as inconceivable as war now is between the U.S. and Canada."

In response to that statement, Swanson noted that what is already inconceivable today is war between any two rich nations. War, he points out, is now primarily waged by rich nations (aka America) against poor nations.

David has in fact already addressed that reality by proposing a coordinated program of measures to combat the terrorism that, in many cases, can easily provide a pretext for such wars. The measures he suggests strike me as a solid starting point for convincing world leaders that, at least in terms of the most prevalent cause of armed conflict today, there is no lack of feasible alternatives to war. Here are just three of David's many proposals:

-- Adopt a new approach toward the world: Apologize for brutalizing the leader of ISIS in a prison camp, and for every other prisoner victimized under U.S. invasion or occupation. Apologize for destroying the nation of Iraq and to every family there. Apologize for arming the region and its kings and dictators, for past support for the Syrian government, and for the U.S. role in the Syrian war. Cease to support abusive governments in Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

-- Create a new "Marshall Plan" for restitution of the entire Middle East. Deliver aid (not "military aid" but actual aid: food, medicine, and the like) to Iraq, Syria, and neighboring nations. This can lead segments of the population currently supporting terrorists to reassess the kind of future they want for themselves and their children--and it can be done on a massive scale at less cost than continuing to shoot $2-million missiles at the problem. Announce a commitment to invest heavily in solar, wind, and other green energy, and to provide those resources to democratic representative governments. End economic sanctions on Iran, and begin providing that country with free wind and solar technologies.

-- Give real diplomacy a chance: Send diplomats to Baghdad and Damascus to negotiate aid and to encourage serious reforms. Open negotiations that include Iran and Russia, and use the mechanisms provided by the United Nations constructively. Employ peaceful means to help strengthen representative governments respectful of human rights, regardless of the consequences for U.S. oil corporations or any other influential profiteers. Propose the creation of truth and reconciliation commissions, and allow for citizen diplomacy efforts.

Promising Steps in the Here and Now toward the Ultimate Goal of War Abolition

Near the end of his interview with David Swanson, John Horgan talks about two non-violent alternatives to war I found important not only in themselves, but as expedients to help world leaders cross the chasm between today's orthodoxy of war and a hoped-for not-too-distant world beyond war.

Horgan begins this discussion by revealing that he is not a total pacifist. He believes that certain limited armed interventions for humanitarian purposes may be both moral and rational--as, for example, the intervention not taken in the 1990s to prevent genocide in Rwanda. War is justifiable, Horgan says, when evident crimes of violence are being perpetrated against the people themselves.

Rounding out his anti-war position, Horgan describes himself as an exponent of "just war theory." An important part of this theory, he explains, is that you don't make war from ingrained cultural conditioning, but are scrupulous in determining whether the planned use of force is justified and also the only workable strategy in the given circumstances. In addition, you carry out any required war-making with scrupulous attention to minimizing damage.

The overall approach in such a strategy, Horgan says, is to use "police work" as your model, rather than conventional military strategy. The main conventions in police work are these: 1) Don't kill civilians. 2) Capture combatants. Don't kill them. 3) Never demonize your enemy: You don't want to indict an entire national, ethnic, or religious group--but only the leaders among them who are committing political crimes or crimes against humanity. 4) Use minimal force even on the leaders and bring them to justice in international courts that are set up to do so fairly. Don't kill the leaders.

Horgan believes that such tempered "police work" can be a bridge to a world without war of any kind. It can play an especially meaningful role in our own time, he believes, because wars are now commonly waged by advanced military powers against small groups of sectarian insurgents, religious extremists, and terrorists. Horgan thinks such groups will continue to vie for political power into the foreseeable future, and will be best contained by means of strictly targeted police actions. He envisions a U.N. international police force to carry out this role--at what he estimates would be a fraction of the cost of maintaining and using national armed forces. According to Horgan, the "police work" he describes can end conflict and restore social order with minimal damage to life, property, and the existing social and economic infrastructure. And, by minimizing physical and emotional hostilities, the strategy makes possible, too, a more rational and equitable settlement of the conflict that can strengthen the potential for long-term peace.

In answer to a question from David Swanson, Horgan also offers an opinion about the usefulness of strictly non-violent actions to counter criminal or tyrannical regimes. In doing so, he cites as a hero the political scientist Gene Sharp, who is an advocate for this strategy. Sharp claims that non-violent actions have the moral power to topple dictators, help right the wrongs of unjust regimes, and effectuate almost any reform that has the support of the people.

In concluding the interview, Horgan notes that non-violent actions played a constructive role during the Arab Spring, and that much data is available to support the use of this strategy as an effective means for creating change. David Swanson concurs. In a note to me relating to an assignment in the World Beyond War study course, he observed, "I do think unarmed civilian peacekeeping can help us move away from war."

My Own Concluding Thoughts

In listening to David Swanson's podcast interview of John Horgan, I wondered what kind of change in cultural values could in fact induce the American government to renounce war as a means to resolve international differences. In another note I received from David in connection with the study course, he wrote: "I'm in very strong agreement with the idea of outlawing war as a step toward stigmatizing it and doing away with it." But, I wondered, What would make a government--especially the American government--willing to comply with the outlawing of its historically most important sovereign right? To do so, it would not only have to break the longstanding habit of resorting to war at will, but risk some part of future strategic gains by settling any attendant conflict through compromise, not through war or the threat of war. Then I remembered a point made by Civil Rights advocates in the 1960s that I had taken to heart. The Civil Rights movement, the advocates had said, may not transform hearts and minds, but it will produce laws demanding just behavior toward people different from you that you will be bound to obey under pain of punishment.

Laws count, I reflected. They have ended slavery, child labor, female disenfranchisement, prohibition of gay marriage, banning of gays from the military, union busting, and many other barriers to personal or collective freedom and justice. Surely, a law outlawing the atrocity of war would also be respected. It cannot be expected that leaders of nations subscribing to an international agreement to end war will shift their priorities overnight from maintaining their own power to a concern for the well-being of their neighbors. But they will be under force of law to stop killing people who stand in their way. Because of the importance of that end, I concluded, we have to work toward the abolition of war as an independent issue. Other issues of similar gravity--global warming in particular--must also be pushed. But we can't wait to achieve a moral revolution in all aspects of mankind's relations with fellow humans and nature before we strive to independently end war---the most deadly and dangerous manifestation of man's social pathology.

It occurred to me too that the achievement of an international agreement to abolish war would itself provide the strongest possible spur to more caring behavior in all aspects of human social relations. Such a momentous achievement would serve to symbolize a moral turning point in human history. It would signal to all of humanity that respect and empathy for others, and a willingness to reconcile the needs of others with one's own, constitute the most effective approach in any situation--not just international relations--to resolving differences and achieving constructive collaboration. If such an approach were in fact widely adopted, it would herald a new normal in human behavior that could enrich the human experience with yet undreamed-of levels of creativity, meaning, and joy.

Submitters Bio:

In retirement, Bob Anschuetz has applied his long career experience as an industrial writer and copy editor to helping authors meet publishing standards for both online articles and full-length books. In work as a volunteer editor for OpEdNews, he has specialized in helping improve, where needed, the readability of articles submitted by authors for whom English is not their native language. With a background that also includes four years as a college English teacher, Bob points to Henry David Thoreau as a major intellectual influence. He cites Thoreau's many writings promoting conscience-based independent thought and action as instrumental in shaping his own continuing commitment to the progressive social and political values of economic fairness, social justice, non-violent conflict resolution, and global community. Bob also continues to pursue a lifelong love of learning. He has been a regular participant in political-science and philosophy seminars, a volunteer discussion-group leader on a variety of topics, and a literacy tutor. Bob is also a strong supporter of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, associated with Tikkun Magazine, where he served as a volunteer archives editor for two years and published several articles online. His extended Letter to the Editor on the widespread triumphalism in America's response to the killing of Osama bin Laden was included in the Summer 2011 issue of Tikkun.