I have thought many times about the history of the terrible 20th century, especially the horrible toll in lives and suffering taken by wars. Certainly there were major conflicts in previous centuries that caused widespread death and destruction (such as the depredations of the Assyrians, the slaughters perpetrated by the Mongols, the Thirty Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Chinese Civil War of the 1850s and 1860s), but the past century dwarfed anything previously seen. Moreover, we saw the rise of the phenomenon that military historian John Keegan called "Every Man a Soldier", the militarization of countless societies. I am interested in the both the causes and consequences of this phenomenon, and I've got some thoughts to share with you below. By the way, I am not a pacifist; war and preparation for war is sometimes necessary. But what do these states of preparation do to us?
The deepest and most ancient purpose of human society is mutual defense as a way of facilitating the survival both of one’s self and the group of which one is a part. We must suppose that our earliest ancestors, living on the unforgiving East African savannahs, evolved from primates whose very existence was predicated on their ability to defend themselves as a group, hence perpetuating the genes that made such survival possible in the first place. Mutual self-defense, therefore, is both genetically beneficial and self-reinforcing. The better a group is at defending itself from predators, rival groups, the Earth’s geological upheavals, the vagaries of climate, the ravages of disease, or simple random bad strokes of luck, the more likely it is that it will prosper sufficiently to have descendants. It is these descendants and their descendants, biological generation after biological generation, who will continue, elaborate, and perhaps spread the group’s distinctive way of life. This way of life will come to seem “natural”, “normal”, the way “real humans” live, and completely unique, perhaps even superior, in the minds of its members. The members of such a group will therefore find the group’s survival absolutely imperative. It will be imperative because its members, of course, will link their own personal survival and the survival of those with whom they are emotionally bound, to it. But it will be imperative also because the bulk of its members (not necessarily all) will see the group’s survival as desirable in and of itself. The group’s success will not only tend to guarantee personal safety; it will guarantee the continuance of a way of life that is considered right in the most basic sense.
The importance of the group’s survival is usually considered by its members to be so important that it trumps all other considerations. In times of intense threat or crisis, in order that the group might live, its leaders will usually take control of assets and resources that would in normal times be considered private property. The group’s leaders will try to organize the energies and labors of the group’s members to maximize the production of weapons, the organization, equipping, and transport of armed forces, and the production only of those commodities that are considered absolutely necessary to the group’s survival. The group’s members will usually find their freedom of expression, especially of dissent, to be severely or completely curtailed, lest dissident voices undermine the group’s willingness to endure the sacrifices and hardships which conflict necessarily entails. (Sometimes the suppression of dissent is imposed to prevent some of the group’s members from challenging the authority of those in positions of leadership, questioning the leaders’ motives, or criticizing the methods by which the leaders are conducting an intergroup conflict.)
Above all, the group will assert that certain of its members must be willing to put themselves “in harm’s way”, and, if required, sacrifice their lives or physical well-being in the defense of the group and its interests. The symbols of group identity, such as flags, the images of sacred animals, objects associated with the group’s past and heritage, or words which reflect the group’s “official” or aspirational identity, will tend to assume prominent places in the audiovisual environment of the group. The group’s enemies will, correspondingly, be presented in the worst light possible. The leaders of groups at war frequently find it useful to tell those over whom they have authority that their enemies are not only cruel, threatening, and evil, but less than human or “subhuman”. The dehumanization of the enemy spurs the group’s collective efforts onward, reaching into the brain’s most primitive and violent combinations of internal structures. Fighting an enemy literally considered to be non-human arouses deep feelings of hatred, disgust, loathing, fear, and determination to win at all costs. It also removes from the group’s combatants the sense of moral restraint that normally inhibits the infliction of physical harm on others.
In a war, the cause of group survival justifies, in the minds of many if not most of the group’s members, almost any action, up to and including the mass slaughter of helpless children. A group may work to minimize the infliction of violence on the non-combatants of an enemy group, but more often than not, it finds the infliction of hardship on them (such as hunger, the lack of necessary items for every day living, deprivation of medical care, and other difficulties) to be an unavoidable concomitant of destroying the group’s ability to wage war at all.
And in regard to an enemy group’s armed combatants, any tactic is usually considered fair game. Their heads may be caved in by heavy, blunt objects; their bodies may be pierced by sharp objects; their limbs or genitalia or heads or faces may be severed either by sharp objects or pieces of material emitted or thrown about by exploding objects; they can be subjected to burning or even total immolation by fire-causing or fire-emitting objects; they can be subjected to injuries caused by other humans striking them with hands or feet, or strangling them; they can be choked to death or burned by chemical weapons; their bodies may be evaporated by explosives; they may be drowned en masse; their bodies can be pierced or torn to shreds by high velocity projectiles. Always—always—enemy warriors are subjected to the absolute extremes of physical injury, physical suffering, and psychological trauma. The infliction of these horrors on others can be rationalized by the reasoning that these enemy warriors, if not stopped, would inflict those very same horrors on one’s own combatants, and if one’s own combatants were to be eliminated, the enemy would inflict these horrors on the group’s non-combatant population, or at the very least, threaten the non-combatant population so completely that the people of one’s group would be forced to surrender or submit. In the history of many groups of humans, surrender and submission are associated with an enemy inflicting mass murder, mass rape, torture, and enslavement on the group’s members, as well as the destruction of the group’s physical culture and the subordination of the group’s way of life to the enemy (or even the total eradication of one’s traditional way of life).
Thus, driven by the most basic animal fear and hatred, combined with the cerebral cortex’s ability to imagine the consequences of defeat, a group in conflict will generally be willing to do anything to destroy its opponents, even, if necessary, exterminating them utterly. And in order to accomplish these works of destruction, a group’s members will generally forego their own hopes and desires, and submit to those who are leading and organizing the sacred work of achieving group victory.
Naturally, given the inherent weaknesses of human intellect, and the operation of variables that are too numerous and complex in their manifestation for humans to deal with (and the operation of random chance above all), wars often take on a bumbling, error-laden character that, were the consequences of human violence not so terrible, would almost be humorous. Leaders make a host of mistakes in wartime; followers are often left adrift, or left to do what they are ordered without comprehending what they are being ordered to do. Human incompetence, invariably, makes an absolute mess out of almost every situation. But be that as it may, certain facts remain: in wartime, the power of a group’s government grows and the individual rights of the group’s members decline. The leadership and those who are immediately subordinate to it and who carry out, however fumblingly, its directives—what we tend to generalize by the use of the word State—gain tremendous freedom of action, power in its clearest form The leaders command the resources, attention, focus, energy, work, and well-being of those whom they govern.
And in societies that have been in conflict most frequently with others, the highest values are very often martial ones, just as they were in the era during which The Iliad was laid down on paper for the first time. Heroism in battle is considered by many to be the greatest individual achievement possible, either in saving the lives of one’s comrades, killing or capturing large numbers of enemy warriors, or some combination of the two. Individual greatness is therefore thought of in terms of service to the group, even though men in combat fight for each other, as the overwhelming evidence shows. The leaders of the government appropriate the heroism of their warriors for their own purposes, thus making those warriors’ sacrifices serve the State.
The legacy of wars is very often a government with permanently enhanced powers, permanently increased resources, and a government that appropriates the group’s history, its cultural heritage, and the heroism of its warriors. Hence the phrase, “War is the health of state”. In war, the leaders of a group gain life or death power over not only the group’s enemies, but the group’s own people. And very often in human history, once such powers have been acquired, they are never relinquished.