“War seems to be ingrained in human nature, and even to be regarded as something noble to which man is inspired by his love of honor, without selfish motives.”

― Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace

“War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

— Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1943)

“Wars will remain while human nature remains.”

— Rutherford B. Hayes, President

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

attributed to Plato, in General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address to the cadets at West Point (May, 1962)

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

— Leo Tolstoy

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

— Robert E. Lee

“The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.”

— John F. Kennedy

“The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.”

— Otto von Bismarck

“A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.”

— William Westmoreland

Some say war is not part of human nature, and yet human history is a history of war. So, where does war come from if not us humans? Today we have wars all over, and we are likely in the early stages of WW III. What is the underlying cause of this mess? Society and politics are getting the blame, but is this really true?

So important to know, even if there isn’t much that any of us can do about what’s happening, war-wise.

Society and politics, along with various mass movements, seem to be the primary drivers of wars. Within these, individuals with enormous egos and insane ambitions tend to lead the way. Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Stalin … long list, going back probably to when people were invented.

War is driven by people, without doubt. But are these people representative of human nature as a whole? Or perhaps might normal-human-nature people like us be somehow caught up in the war insanity of just a few?

The answer it seems is yes.

Human nature acts at the level of individuals, not groups

War itself is not part of our fundamental, individual human nature, but it is part of how our human nature functions – in groups. Individuals who are the primary carriers of human nature act very differently when they are somehow assembled into groups – aka mass formations (Desmet), crowds (Mackay, Le Bon), and factions. Groups don’t carry human nature genes and inborn behaviors. Individuals do.

Professor Mattias Desmet, describing the psychotic (now termed “hypnotic”) behavior of crowds of people he calls “mass formations”.
Professor Mattias Desmet, describing the psychotic (now termed “hypnotic”) behavior of crowds of people he calls “mass formations”.

If groups behave differently than individuals, is such group behavior – e.g., war – somehow a function of the groups themselves, or rooted in the human nature of its members? This question seems like the heart of the issue.

If the former is true, then blaming groups like politicians and even societies as a whole would be justified, albeit hard to understand (for me at least). Complex systems develop system-level behaviors, but these still sit atop the individual behaviors of its components aka humans.

In a recent post, I attempted to unravel the term “human nature” for practical purposes. This effort revealed that there are very many views about this, none particularly persuasive (to me anyway). So, I decided to add my own figuring into this still unresolved (as far as I can tell) question – for my own purpose of course.

My purpose was to assess the possibility that artificial intelligence (AI) could ever achieve human nature capabilities. Where I came out was: no. AI is inherently limited by what its programmers and learning machinery can build into it. Humans seem to have several distinctly different, unique, and higher-level capabilities:

  • Courage
  • Going-along-to-get-along
  • Belonging
  • Compassion
  • Love
  • Creativity
  • Intelligence

These in my mind are what makes us particular two-leggers human. No other animal in the general species realm has all of these defining characteristics. I’m not sure about the order of importance, but this order is my best guess.

Two of these especially may have a strong link to human behavior in groups – going-along-to-get-along, and belonging.

Our deep tribal need to belong

Our tribal heritage probably gave us an inborn need to belong, since not-belonging almost always had the unfortunate consequence of not-surviving. This need was evolved into us. Other herding, flocking, and similar tribal-like behaviors are common in non-human animals, likely for the same reason.

Belonging, in practice, requires a strong ability and willingness to support activities, leaders, and behaviors of the group. I think of this as “going-along-to-get-along” that is a major part of what groups – which Mattias Desmet calls “mass formations” and Gustave Le Bon, “crowds” – do as groups. Groups, crowds, mass formations, mobs, and whatever do appear to behave very differently from their constituent individuals.

Desmet determined that the subset of “true believers” in a “mass formation” made up some 10% to 30%. Another 40% to 60% acted in a go-along-to-get-along mode, leaving a lonely 10% to 30% to struggle on in a resistive or at least unbelieving mode. That’s roughly 70% who can be persuaded by various means to support a “mass” doing its thing. Wars, of course, are a “mass” thing.

The key here I think is that, while groups et al behave very differently from constituent individuals, the human nature components of belonging and go-along-to-get-along enable the group behavior – under the direction of its leaders.

Would WW II have occurred without the leadership of Hitler, Hirohito, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, and many others? Would the normal folks in each country have decided on war without such leadership? Probably no to both questions.

Wars happen because leaders know how to motivate and direct willing populations of human nature critters – but only in the form of groups, crowds, masses, et al. In other words, leaders of various degrees of nastiness take advantage of at least these two components of human nature.

So, does this mean that war is part of human nature? The answer clearly is yes, and no.

Not too helpful, maybe?

Human nature facilitates war but does not cause it

Without the behavioral machinery and nasty leaders associated with crowds, masses, etc., most normal people would not cause war. They might cause all manner of local disruptions, protests, riots, and disagreements, but nothing as truly terrible as war. It is only when people join groups that their behavior changes and can be manipulated into war processes and related behaviors.

As a practical matter, this seems to mean that people in general cannot be “war-proofed” because their human nature includes abilities that make war possible. Human nature abilities can’t be changed, including those critical war-facilitating ones of belonging and going-along-to-get-along.

Consequently, where there are people, there will be wars – as history so amply demonstrates.

As a further practical matter, it also means that our group behavior as easily-led believers cannot be changed. This “madness of crowds”1 social behavior is simply part of who we are as humans. Behavior as individuals and behavior of crowds of individuals are very different. Our behavior as crowds is what creates the conditions for war. All it requires is a new set of bad-guy leaders.

1 Charles Mackay, author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841).

Are we ever likely to run out of bad-guy leaders? History says not a chance. Every population will have its share of insanely ambitious, hugely egotistical, uncaring, and ruthless individuals.

So, war is us, like it or not.

Inter-tribal conflicts, and competition for resources and honor

As you no doubt will have suspected, things are much more complicated war-wise. Wars of some kind seem to have been part of indigenous cultures since the beginning of time. American Indians, for example, had a rich tradition of inter-tribal warfare that predated, probably by millennia, the appearance of Europeans.

For example: “Warfare In Pre-Columbian North America”:

Warfare in Aboriginal societies.
Despite the myth that Aboriginals lived in happy harmony before the arrival of Europeans, war was central to the way of life of many First Nation cultures. Indeed, war was a persistent reality in all regions though, as Tom Holm has argued, it waxed in intensity, frequency and decisiveness. The causes were complex and often interrelated, springing from both individual and collective motivations and needs. “

“At a personal level, young males often had strong incentives to participate in military operations, as brave exploits were a source of great prestige in most Aboriginal cultures. According to one Jesuit account from the 18th Century, ‘The only way to attract respect and public veneration among the Illinois is, as among the other Savages, to acquire a reputation as a skillful hunter, and particularly as a good warrior … it is what they call being a true man.’ Among west coast societies, the material goods and slaves acquired through raiding were important avenues to build up sufficient wealth to host potlatches and other give-away ceremonies. “

“At a community level, warfare played a multifaceted role, and was waged for different reasons. Some conflicts were waged for economic and political goals, such as gaining access to resources or territory, exacting tribute from another nation or controlling trade routes. Revenge was a consistent motivating factor across North America, a factor that could lead to recurrent cycles of violence, often low intensity, which could last generations. Among the Iroquoian nations in the northeast, ‘mourning wars’ were practiced. Such conflicts involved raiding with the intent to capture prisoners, who were then adopted by bereaved families to replace family members who had died prematurely due to illness or war.”

“… Aboriginal warfare usually described hit and run military techniques, which the French called ‘la petite guerre.’ This was essentially a form of guerrilla warfare, the primary goal of which was to inflict casualties, capture prisoners and take scalps, while suffering as few losses as possible. To do so, the warriors generally moved in small groups and took pains to catch the enemy unawares or encircle it, while eluding the same tactics by the other side. They took advantage of the terrain to remain concealed and ambush the enemy, or slipped into a camp by night to surprise the occupants in their sleep. Once they had achieved their objective, the warriors retreated before a counter-attack could be mounted.”

“… Not all captives were tortured and put to death. Women and young boys were generally spared and given to bereaved families to replace the deceased. When a prisoner was adopted in this manner, he or she took on the name, character, role and responsibilities of the person he or she was replacing and was treated with great affection. If he had been tortured, he was cared for and healed. Pierre-Esprit Radisson, a young French adventurer who was captured and tortured by the Iroquois in the 1650s, reported: ‘My [adoptive] mother treated my wounds and injuries … and in less than 15 days the wounds had healed.’ War, therefore, occupied an important place in Aboriginal societies. Consequently, their relations with the Europeans were frequently of a military nature, either as allies or as enemies.”

This certainly seems quite different from large-scale wars created by leaders and adopted by mass formation supporters and believers.

Sitting Bull, one of the greatest American Indian chiefs.
Sitting Bull, one of the greatest American Indian chiefs.

Indigenous human nature at work

Warfare such as outlined above appears to be part of indigenous cultures – tribal stuff. Individuals in these tribes were motivated by their human nature components of belonging and going-along-to-get-along. Were tribal chiefs equivalent to often-insane leaders in Roman and through recent times?

Maybe, somewhat. Indigenous leaders had the difficult job of holding tribe members together and motivating tribal survival-behaviors. Kind of like what many of our current crop of global leaders and wannabes are doing.

Perhaps nations today are effectively super-tribes. Armed, instead of bows and arrows and knives, now with our advanced technologies and the power of propaganda. What if our world has become a mishmash of super-tribes? People aka tribe members behaving much like those members of indigenous tribes of long ago, but today with huge tribe populations.

Human nature then and now facilitates war-like behavior. Leaders and their henchmen turn this human nature into actual wars. Sometimes for good purposes, but much more often for the bad purposes of very nasty leaders and close supporters.

Tribal stuff persists. We (or most) are still tribal members of some persuasion. We respond to tribal leaders and their traditions no differently than did the indigenous peoples. Most likely, we are no smarter or strong than these.

This is indeed inconvenient.

We (the majority) are then nothing more than high-tech tribe members and survivalists. We (the minority) are likely existing on the tribal fringes, survival-challenged. Both rooted in our human nature as always, but today hugely tech-enabled and tech-endangered.  

So what might we do in our modern realm of tribalism and war?

Human nature doesn’t change, just its war machinery

All of this conjecture suggests that we are in reality just a modern version of our tribal heritage. Tribal linkage is facilitated by our human nature needs for belonging and going-along-to-get-along. This part of our human nature will not change. We humans are, in reality, still very much tribal.

In our good old tribal days however, we could only impact a relatively small part of our local humanity. Today, we can impact things globally, thanks to the enormous expansion of communications, war and civil technologies, and the global ambitions of the world’s current leadership.

Were we living in tribal societies of a few centuries ago, we would almost certainly act just as members of those societies did. Wars would happen, but constrained in scope and ambitions by primitive technologies, aka machinery. Human nature remains unchanged, but only its machinery changes.

So, at this point, the question about whether “war is not part of human nature” is true has been answered, at least so far as I can figure. The answer is clearly yes and noyes in that human nature itself is not essentially warlike, and no in that the belonging and going-along-to-get-along unchanging aspects of human nature facilitate wars under certain warlike leaders and wannabe’s (and always has).

What more is there to say about this?

Well, I for one feel that an extremely important point remains: what if anything might we humans do about the current state of humanity and its terrifyingly powerful machinery?

Death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames (southwestern Ontario), October 5, 1813. Library of Congress.
Death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames (southwestern Ontario), October 5, 1813. Library of Congress.

What, if anything, can we do?

If the hypothesized linkage between our unchanging needs and abilities for both belonging and going-along-to-get-along, and our ability to facilitate wars and other terribly nasty behavior by a few inhabitants on the extremes of human definition is valid, then we might want to think about ways that this linkage might be weakened, or even broken.

This seems to require becoming specific about just who the “we” may be in this context. In the simplest terms, and with Desmet’s findings (above) in mind, the operational “we” is the roughly 30% of a population that resists the efforts of our current crop of nasty-and-worse leaders and their disciples to sway, persuade, and enlist the remaining 70% population majority (as the “non-we”, or better yet, “them”) in their machinations and schemes. Doesn’t get much simpler than “us” vs. “them”, yes?

If we assume that “them” will pretty much always be true believers and go-along folks, the “we” task seems necessarily to focus on weakening and breaking, where possible, the human nature linkage between nasty leaders and their “crowd” or “mass” followers.

Going a bit further, our (“we”) focus operationally would need to be on the communications mechanics and content used by “them” – the bad guys, at least – to persuade and direct the remaining populations of “them” folks.

Fortunately, there are quite a number of very active and effective we-folks out there today. Their efforts, unfortunately, seem too often to be focused on “facts”, and not “beliefs”. As I have written about recently – here for example, “facts” really don’t matter to most people out there in “them-land”. They operate on whatever beliefs they are given by their (mostly) bad-guy leaders.

Contrary to popular beliefs of (mostly) rational we-folks, facts won’t get the job done, assuming that it is even possible to determine the facts. As the saying goes, “truth is the first victim in wars”. I see the only practical approach as fighting the beliefs of “them” with the beliefs (okay, propaganda) of “we”.

Propaganda works, as its most recent designer and popularizer Edward Bernays argued in his books Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928). Just what is “propaganda”? From Wikipedia:

“Propaganda is communication that is primarily used to influence or persuade an audience to further an agenda, which may not be objective and may be selectively presenting facts to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is being presented. Propaganda can be found in a wide variety of different contexts.”

“In the 20th century, the English term propaganda was often associated with a manipulative approach, but historically, propaganda has been a neutral descriptive term of any material that promotes certain opinions or ideologies. Equivalent non-English terms have also largely retained the original neutral connotation.”

“A wide range of materials and media are used for conveying propaganda messages, which changed as new technologies were invented, including paintings, cartoons, posters, pamphlets, films, radio shows, TV shows, and websites. More recently, the digital age has given rise to new ways of disseminating propaganda, for example, bots and algorithms are currently being used to create computational propaganda and fake or biased news and spread it on social media.”

Good old Ed Bernays, father of public relations, and its powerful application using twentieth century communications technologies.
Good old Ed Bernays, father of public relations, and its powerful application using twentieth century communications technologies.

We are truly at war, probably the early stages of World War III

Assuming that truth for all practical purposes has succumbed according to the “truth is the first victim of war” aphorism, we can largely forget about “truth” (whatever it may be). Except of course where our “truth” can somehow be effectively communicated to true believers and go-along-to-get-along folks.

Our (“we”) propaganda must first and foremost be effective at persuading the target “them” folks. If it is not, then “we” are just wasting our time and resources. How to determine “effectiveness”? By trial and error, as always: testing various communications methods and messages on small target them-groups.

This is a topic far beyond the rather narrow focus here. So, moving on …

The next step, which probably should be the top priority step in practice, is personal and small group survival. Non-survival outcomes pretty much take care of whatever else might be done.

Are we truly in a survival situation today? It would seem so …

Our relatively-tiny population of truly bad leaders and collaborators that cause wars with the support of and enabled by our belonging, go-along-to-get-along human natures is actively engaged in eliminating large numbers of people. We have had astonishing numbers of excess deaths since 2020 (excess over long-term all-causes trends) that is apparently caused by something or other (in dispute).

We have a number of wars escalating almost daily, with the still festering Ukraine mess being upstaged at the moment by Israel-Hamas clashes and worse. Now Syria via Hezbollah seem to be joining the action, with support from Iran. And the U.S. has just contributed two major carrier battle groups to the Eastern Mediterranean for purposes of further confusing and escalating whatever may actually be going on. A World War III hot phase may well be getting fired up.

Despite Russia and China who, with the support of various BRICS+ nations, appear to be urging caution and de-escalation, their actions behind the curtains suggest much else and otherwise. It may be that Russia and China are forming two, somewhat independent and competing, power blocks to counter whatever it may be that the West is up to in reality.

As George Orwell’s book 1984 illustrated, even a dreadful world of three competing tyrannies seems likely only to structurally embed war in global society. War forever. It may well be better, or at least the lesser of two evils, to have our inevitable wars separated however so briefly by periods of relative peace and recovery. Good things actually happen during inter-war times, as history shows.

Or maybe this is all just a cyclical pattern that concludes in a nasty manner

An alternative but equally bad situation is Strauss and Howe’s generational cycles of about 80 years, a cyclical “saeculum” that is composed of four periods – “turnings” – that move us (in the West at least) from “The High”, “The Awakening”, “The Unraveling” and finally to “The Crisis”. We are now in the most recent Fourth Turning of Crisis. So far, so good – at least theory-wise.

The S&H Crisis Fourth Turning phase is where the mess created by the preceding Unraveling phase gets straightened out – the hard way. Our previous Fourth Turning concluded with the Great Depression and World War II (1929-1946), while the one before that concluded with the Civil War (1860-1865), and before that the American Revolution (1773-1794).

Good news here is that two periods of great growth and societal enrichment followed each Fourth Turning. Hugely productive breathers and recovery periods. Lots of bumps in these roads, but overall a blessing relative to the preceding Fourth Turning messes. Our current Fourth Turning, as you probably know, began in 2007, assuming that S&H are correct. A 20-year average Turning duration puts us today at just about the crescendo of ours. Maybe even a bit ahead of schedule, if the current 2023-2024 prospects are any indication.

If such cyclical housekeeping wars are part of us in something along these lines, irrevocably, then is there nothing we can do at the moment except to suffer and endure? Not a happy thought. Many religions have arisen to address just such a difficult existence. Unfortunately, it seems that religions are themselves often at war with one another, often in concert with various political leaders of special nastiness and ambitions.

Strauss & Howe’s generational theory of cyclical history in the West that does not bode well for us in the current Fourth Turning (2007-present).
Strauss & Howe’s generational theory of cyclical history in the West that does not bode well for us in the current Fourth Turning (2007-present).

Another way of looking at this cyclical inevitability is that bad times will be interrupted as a natural process, giving us survivors a series of chances to get back on our feet and creating, building, helping, and such. Life has been like this forever.

Bottom line:

Making war it seems is not part of human nature. Facilitating those who actually make wars is part of our human nature in the form of our abilities and needs for belonging and for going-along-to-get-along. A kind of yes and no answer.

War has existed since people organized into tribes and ever-more-complex societies. Brief periods of respite occur, thankfully, allowing recovery and a chance for human nature’s creativity abilities to shine.

War is nearly always beyond-bad, and increasingly so, but it does serve to flush out many bad aspects and people who seem to be causing such nastiness. Otherwise, they may be with us forever, as Orwell’s 1984 dystopia predicted.

  • Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology (the study of animal behavior) weighs in on war and human nature via Wikipedia:

“If we suppose our extraneous observer to be a being of pure reason, devoid of instincts himself and unaware of the way in which all instincts in general and aggression in particular can miscarry, he would be at a complete loss how to explain history at all. The ever-recurrent phenomena of history do not have reasonable causes. It is a mere commonplace to say that they are caused by what common parlance so aptly terms ‘human nature.’ Unreasoning and unreasonable human nature causes two nations to compete, though no economic necessity compels them to do so; it induces two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programs of salvation to fight each other bitterly, and it impels an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his scepter. We have been taught to regard some of the persons who have committed these and similar absurdities with respect, even as ‘great’ men, we are wont to yield to the political wisdom of those in charge, and we are all so accustomed to these phenomena that most of us fail to realize how abjectly stupid and undesirable the historical mass behavior of humanity actually is.”

“What I’m saying is that, at a minimum, we don’t have a predisposition either way. We’re certainly not predisposed to kill. We’re not predisposed to be xenophobic. Ethnocentric is a little different because ethnocentric simply means at the basic level, that the way you were brought up is the way you think things should be done. Every culture teaches every new infant. Everybody thinks: ‘My way is the right way to do things.’ But going beyond that, to the concepts that other people are inferior, or dangerous enough to be killed—that’s certainly not part of human nature. When we look at tribal people, when the Europeans first showed up, the initial response typically was to look at these strange people with curiosity. It’s not a natural reaction of fear, not this kind of tribal hostility that everybody always talks about, which is a lot of bunk.”

“The lesson is that humans have a great deal of plasticity. And we can be molded in different ways. We can be molded to be Nazis, or we can be molded to be passivists. Thinking that it is something that comes from the genes, that it’s evolved and that’s the way we are, is not going to help you understand what’s going on, and it’s going to confuse you.”

“At the end of my book, I summarize all the work I’ve done over the years on war. For the past few years, I’ve been talking about human nature and war. Before that, the big question for me was not, ‘Is it human nature to make war?’ but, ‘How do you explain the wars that actually happened in tribal societies, and in modern society?’ The book isn’t just about debunking theories about chimpanzees, it’s about: If you have this idea of culture that I just described, it leads you to ask a lot of other questions that are a lot more interesting, and probably more meaningful in terms of understanding why real wars happened and why people really get killed.”

“Is there hope? Yes, absolutely. If you look at the long history of the world as I do as an anthropologist, you see that we’ve gone from having thousands of independent societies on this planet, which at first I don’t think were making war. Over time war developed in more places around the world and spread. Since then, over time we’ve had a consolidation of societies. There are fewer independent societies in the world today—and you’ve got to be independent to go off and make war. I’ve been using Europe as an example now for over 20 years. You would have never expected Europe to come together into the community that it is now [looking at where it] was heading toward [in the past]. The war between Germany and France and England and other parts of Europe was world history for quite a long time. Europe is just one thread, but it’s a strong example of how things have changed.”

“STORY AT-A-GLANCE

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are not about sustainability. They’re tools to facilitate the implementation of a One World Government.

The term the globalist alliance uses to describe its network is a ‘global public-private partnership,’ or G3P. The G3P is composed of most of the world’s governments, intergovernmental organizations, global corporations, major philanthropic foundations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups. Collectively, they are the ‘stakeholders’ that are implementing the SDGs.

While SDG16 claims to advance ‘peaceful and inclusive societies’ and ‘justice for all,’ this goal is really about consolidating authority, exploiting threats to advance regime hegemony, and implementing a centrally controlled global system of digital identity (digital ID).

A digital identity is not merely a form of identification. Your ‘identity’ is who you are, and a digital identity will keep a permanent record of your choices and behaviors, 24/7. Universal adoption of digital identity will enable the G3P global governance regime to establish a behavioral-based system of reward and punishment.

The COVID pandemic was used to redefine human rights and to get people used to the idea that the rights of individuals are conditional and can be ignored or suspended ‘for the greater good.’ The United Nations’ Charter establishes a global governance regime that stands against freedom, justice and peace, and all of the UN’s SDGs need to be understood within this context.”