September 2, 2014

The ecology of war

In this article Edward Goldsmith explains how traditional wars were ritualised conflicts in which mortality was minimised, in contrast to the mass death and destruction of modern industrial modes of warfare.

It was originally published in The Ecologist in May 1974, then in Le Sauvage in April 1975 (France). This revised version appeared as Chapter 6 of The Great U-Turn, 1988.

Never before have so many governments throughout the world committed themselves so piously and so persistently to the ideal of world peace – yet never before has this world been ravaged by so many wars and on so vast a scale.

This seeming paradox, our politicians would undoubtedly explain in terms of some technicality, such as a shortage of funds with which to implement their peace-making strategies. None, perhaps, would even conceive the possibility that it was the strategies themselves that were at fault. Yet this is the only conclusion that is reconcilable with our knowledge of the problems involved, both empirical and theoretical.

Let us consider our present attitudes to war and methods of controlling it. First, it is held to be irrational, since it reduces material wealth by killing people and destroying property. People on the other hand are regarded as rational. It must follow that war can only be the result of misunderstandings, which can surely be dispelled if our politicians be allowed to meet for heart-to-heart talks.

Hence the extraordinary faith people seem to attach to summit conferences as a means of averting wars, an illusion fully exploited by several of our recent prime ministers for whom the setting up of such conferences was one of their major goals, on the basis of whose achievement they persuaded the electorate to judge the success of their government.

If negotiation is the answer, then it is clearly important to do so, we are told, “from a position of strength”, hence the arms race, or, as it is euphemistically called, ‘mutual deterrence’. With the passing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) mutual deterrence has been consecrated as the principal means of controlling wars. The agreement attempts to control the arms race by applying quantitative limitations on arms build-up. However, its effectiveness is seriously compromised by the fact that it makes no mention of qualitative controls.

As Frank Barnaby points out, the nuclear arms race, in any case, was about to become a race for quality rather than quantity. [1] This means that a new premium has now been placed on research and development into ever more lethal weaponry. It is not surprising that the US budget for research and development in this field is likely to increase beyond the present $8 billion a year (1974), about the same as is spent by the USSR – a sum greater than any other country devotes to its entire military budget. It seems quite extraordinary that we should have created a situation in which a world war of unprecedented horror can only be averted by spending such gigantic sums on ever more sinister instruments of death.

“It is this process of industrialisation which . . . must both increase the probability as well as the destructiveness of war”

Mutual deterrence is the industrial solution par excellence. It involves forever expanding the world’s industrial machine as, if nothing else, a means of providing armaments for preventing war. Yet as I shall attempt to show, it is this process of industrialisation which is causing the maladjustments which must both increase the probability as well as the destructiveness of war. Never, in fact, was a policy so evidently self-defeating.

If we want to control warfare we must first understand why it occurs, which must mean examining aggression, i.e. that feature of animal behaviour which, in the case of human animals at least, gives rise to war.

One must first distinguish between two fundamentally different types of aggression; that displayed by a predator towards its prey and that displayed by an animal towards a rival animal of the same species. First of all the goal is different. In the first case it is to seize the prey and eat it. In the second it is to establish a position in the hierarchy, which may enable a male to claim rights over a particular group of females or a particular territory. Its object is not to kill but to subdue a rival so that he accepts a lesser position in the hierarchy.

Since the goal is different, the behaviour that will achieve it must also be different. Thus a predator will approach its prey as stealthily and noiselessly as possible. When accosting a rival, however, an animal will behave in precisely the opposite manner. The lion will roar, the dog will bark, the peacock will swell himself up so as to intimidate his rival with his size and splendour. The effect can only be to frighten away a rival, the last thing a predator wishes to do to its prey. These two types of aggression are kept distinct in the animal world.

Significantly, warfare among human beings was conducted very much along the latter lines until a short time ago. Soldiers would wear the most flamboyant uniforms and go into battle to the blare of trumpets and the beating of drums.

In present-day warfare, however, there is indeed little ritual left. Soldiers are dressed in camouflage so that they can creep up on their enemies unobserved, like predators on their prey. Indeed, the goal of today’s warfare is not to frighten but to destroy the enemy, so as to acquire for one’s own use its land and other resources.

In this way modern warfare has diverged very radically from that carried out among traditional societies. But then, our society is highly aberrant, which means that to understand warfare, we must begin by examining it as it occurs among non-human animals and among tribal societies-which are the normal units of social organisations.

If we do so, the first fact that can be established is that aggression is a fact of life. As Eibl Eibesfeldt writes,

“fighting between members of the same species is almost universal among vertebrates from fish to man.” [2]

This is no hazard. Animals are simply designed that way, which is a fact that is confirmed by physiological studies of the neural and hormonal processes involved. [3] Researchers have even succeeded in inducing fighting behaviour among birds and mammals by stimulating specific areas of the brain with electric currents.

Humans are no exception to the rule, though many of us would like to think we are. Some anthropologists like Derek Freeman consider that, if anything, humans are more aggressive than other animals. According to him,

“the extreme nature of human destructiveness and cruelty is one of the principal characteristics which marks off man behaviourally from other animals.” [4]

This point has been cogently expressed by the biologist Adolf Portman:

“When terrible things, cruelties hardly conceivable, occur among men, many speak thoughtlessly of ‘brutality’, of bestialism or a return to animal levels. As if there were animals which inflict on their own kind what men can do to men. Just at this point, the zoologist has to draw a clear line, these evil horrible things are no animal survival that happened to be carried along in the imperceptible transition from animal to man; this evil belongs entirely on this side of the dividing line, it is purely human.” [5]

Whether humans living in their natural habitat are as unpleasant animals as Freeman makes them out to be, is very debatable. Freeman may have been deceived by the fact that most societies we know about are, to a large extent, aberrant.

The Comanches, for instance, were regarded as particularly bloodthirsty warriors, but they were not always so. They came to adopt that way of life only after they had come in contact with the white invaders who, among other things, provided them with horses. To quote Kardiner,

“there were no aggressive war patterns in the older culture and little intertribal fighting. Though there was a little fighting with warlike neighbours there were no special honour aspects to war.” [6]

The same can also be said of the Zulus. The career of Chaka, the founder of the Zulu Empire, was considerably affected by contact with the Boers whose activities gave rise to the freak situation he so fully exploited.

As I shall show later, aggression between human societies, living in an environment to which they have been adapted phylogenetically and culturally, takes a far less destructive form.

The fact that aggression must be a feature of social behaviour among non-human and human animals can be deduced from the fact that it fulfils important functions, on whose fulfilment, societies depend for their very survival. Thus Eibl Eibesfeldt regards aggression as serving

“the important function of spacing out individuals or groups in the area they occupy. This thereby secures for each the minimum territory required to support its existence, prevents overcrowding and promotes distribution of the species.” [7]

Aggression among primitive societies, in particular among hunter gatherers, leads to fission of the group into rival factions which part company and develop on their own. This prevents society from getting too big. This is particularly important as the bonds holding together a society, as Malinowski was perhaps the first to point out, are derived from those which serve to hold a family together and cannot be extended to hold together too big a social unit. When the maximum size is reached, the unit must break up, alternatively it disintegrates into a mass society incapable of adaptive behaviour. It is in this light that Margaret Mead interprets the fission of social groups among the Maori.

“The disintegrative potentiality in the Maori form of organisation was this factor of size: when the society grew too large it was not possible to maintain their complete identification, and a subgroup would split off and become another autonomous, dosed, co-operative unit, competing without and co-operating within.” [8]

In this way, a society remains a cohesive unit characterised more by co-operation than by competition, and bickering and fighting is reduced to a minimum.

Competition and co-operation

Aggression is best regarded as a form of competition, which, as we shall see, takes a slightly different form as we move up from one level of organisation to the next. At each step, it plays a bigger role, and can become more violent, i.e. can resemble more what we call aggression, without thereby bringing about social collapse.

Undifferentiated individuals competing for the same ecological niche cannot co-operate in any way. They can only compete with each other. It is only when, as a result of competition, they have been forced to specialise in such a way that each one learns to exploit a different sub-niche, that co-operation becomes possible and the competing individuals are transformed into a viable social unit. It is only by competition therefore that conditions are established in which co-operation can occur.

Competition does not establish just any type of organisation, but that which best satisfies environmental requirements, i.e. that which is most adaptive. Thus, in a social system that earns its livelihood by hunting, the position of an individual in the hierarchy will depend on hunting ability. In a society in which the main activity is warfare, war-like qualities will be determinant.

It is important to note that the basis of a hierarchical structure will change in accordance with its adaptiveness. Thus any important change in environmental conditions will call for a modification in a system’s behaviour pattern which can only be ensured by a reorganisation of its hierarchical structure in such a way that a premium is placed on the new qualities which the society must display in order to adapt to the new conditions.

The influence of an individual will depend on his position in the hierarchy and so will his command over the best territory, the most desirable females, etc. In times of serious shortage this means that he is less likely to succumb than are those lower down in the hierarchy. Seen over a longer time scale, it is the individuals at the top of the hierarchy who are most likely to transmit their characteristics to their progeny.

Competition also serves the purpose of eliminating deviants who, for various reasons, do not fit into the social structure. In a traditional society this is probably a minor function of competition as, on the whole, most cultural patterns provide socially acceptable outlets for predictable deviant forms.

In the human family, the relative roles of the father, the mother, the children, the grandmother, etc. have, to a certain extent, been determined biologically, while cultural tradition, transmitted during socialisation will complete the differentiation process. In such conditions, there is little need for much competition. Aggression has some role to play in sexual behaviour in many animals, probably also among humans in the initial stages of a relationship. Its role may well be to establish the basis of what then becomes a co-operative relationship.

As we move from the family to the community, so does competition tend to increase. Competition is in fact necessary to establish an individual’s status when this has not been established by inheritance. Societies vary according to their degree of co-operation and competition. The competitive society will have the advantage of being able to modify at more frequent intervals the basis of its hierarchical structure. This will enable it to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. It does not appear to have any advantage however in a relatively static environment.

Since aggression is a basic feature of human behaviour, the idea of eliminating it altogether, to bring about the universal human family is naive, while efforts to achieve this can only be counterproductive. In traditional societies, however, a number of strategies are exploited to reduce its destructiveness to the very minimum.

One such strategy, as we have seen, is fission. Significantly when population pressure increases, fission is no longer practicable. On the contrary, the distance between social groups is increasingly reduced, and warfare becomes correspondingly more destructive. Thus among the Nuer in the southern Sudan whose territory has shrunk considerably as a result of increased population pressure, tribal disputes according to McDermott lead to considerably more casualties than was once the case. [9]

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