Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

War: bad but inevitable

I think that war is an inevitable part of the human condition. That doesn’t mean that I think it is a good thing, nor that I think its occurrence can’t be made less likely depending on other factors, but it does mean that I don’t think any arrangement of society can preclude it. War, I think, is going to happen to us. This should not depress us, because it is a fact.

By war, I mean a period of organised and calculated use of violence by one social party against another, such as between tribes, nations, states, sects, polities, or classes, usually involving specialists in combat (militias).

This kind of position is controversial for many, particularly those who are committed to minimising human suffering or emancipating the oppressed – in other words, humanists. For many of those who reject the inevitability of war, to see such violence as non-eradicable is to betray the vision of a safe, free, and happy society that shapes our ideals and aspirations. For many, to suggest that war is inevitable is to concede to a realist agenda characterised by suspicion and self-interest.

So let me explain why I take this position, drawing upon concepts in social psychology and political sociology.

According to Social Identity Theory (SIT; originated by Tajfel and Turner, 1979 and since articulated by many others), individuals have both personal and group identities. When people identify as members of various groups, they start to see their groups as being distinct from and better than the others. As individuals possess an inherent need to feel good about themselves, self-esteem becomes tied with group esteem, which is a product of favourable comparison with other groups. Therefore, people will seek to advance and defend group advantages while combating group disadvantages. So important is this association of individual with group identity that individuals will often make decisions based on calculations of group rather than personal cost and benefit. Depending on the intergroup structure in a given social environment, certain behavioural patterns will emerge. If there are permeable boundaries between high-status and low-status groups, members of low-status groups will engage in individual action to achieve social mobility. If there are impermeable boundaries and the intergroup structure is perceived as legitimate, members of low-status groups may pursue creative strategies for social advancement (such as immigration). However, if there are impermeable boundaries and the intergroup structure is perceived to be illegitimate, low-status groups will compete with those of higher-status. It is this last structure that leads to the conditions for war.

In situations of competition, wherein other groups and their members may be perceived as a collective threat, individuals often begin to adopt categorical views (McCauley and Moskalenko): ‘they’ threaten ‘us’. Furthermore, anticipated hostility is linked to violence between groups. (Louis, 2009) In a society experiencing conditions of economic hardship and political conflict, members of some groups may be frustrated entirely in their search for the basic needs of security, positive self-esteem, feelings of effectiveness and control, and coherent sense of reality. It is in such situations that members of a group begin to seek scapegoats for their poor conditions, (Staub, 2004) and in doing so begin to understand their reality as increasingly dominated by inter-group interaction, such that personal identity is constantly subordinated. (Louis and Taylor, 2002)

In short, when a given intergroup environment produces intergroup competition and low-status groups begin to view their frustrations as the result of an ‘enemy’ scapegoat, conflict follows. Any personal aversion to high-risk action or to brutality is subsumed by the desire to take action according to the goals and norms of the group, up to and including war.

In case you’re tired of reading the word ‘group’ over and over, I think there’s another useful perspective worthy of discussion. Many political sociologists and anthropologists, such as Robert Bates and Charles Tilly in their explorations on the development of the modern state, have looked at the ways in which social groups (sorry!) shift from the private provision of violence to the retainment of specialists in the use of violence. Let me unpack some of that jargon. In tribal societies where kinship group (or something like it) constitutes the basic unit of social organisation, individuals are protected from the predations (thievery, really) of those in other groups than their own by the threat of collective tribal revenge. If you abuse me, my family will get together and hurt you. Or another member of your family. Hence in such societies, intergroup order is preserved by groups policing their members and fiercely defending them from foreign attack. ‘Honour systems’ such as Pashtunvali are cultural codifications of this. But there is a certain inefficiency to this system: many members of a group, who might otherwise prefer to focus on being a better farmer, blacksmith, or trader, must devote time to developing the capacity to fight. And if the wrong thing happens, years of feuds, sometimes spanning generations can follow.

‘In fair Verona…’

Enter the ‘specialist in the use of violence’. Just like some people are, by virtue of talent and skill, better at farming, blacksmithing, and trading, some others are better at fighting. And the rules governing the specialisation of labour apply to the ‘service’ of visiting violence upon an enemy just as they do any other good. It is more economical to retain such specialists to protect the group – or to prey upon another – than it is to privately provide one’s own violence, contracting their services in exchange for wealth and deference (particularly if they might just take the wealth anyway, if they can!). Thus was the political class born.

If it has occurred to you that wars between states in the modern era look a bit like tribal groups sending their violence-specialists off to conquer or protect, you shouldn’t be too proud of yourself; you’ve been preempted. And while it is debatable that international relations need be or currently are characterised by anarchy analogous to that of tribal society, it is difficult for me to see a future in which the possibility of war, either to secure resources (what if our children are starving?) or to preempt a threat, could be eradicated entirely. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be subtantially minimised.

It is true that conflict is an inevitable part of competition between social groups. It is true that as such competition grows, so does the sort of categorical thinking and degradation of empathy necessary for brutality. It is true that violence can be an effective tool for deterring predators or for securing resources. It is true that as we develop government, we do not eliminate the need to use violence at least as a guarantor of security, but rather shift the burden of its commission onto a special class. But recognising these truths need not crush our hopes.

War is bad. Let’s find ways to minimise its badness by limiting its duration, frequency, and its impact upon those fighting and those caught in the crossfire.

War is inevitable. Let’s forgive those who have waged it.



Louis, Winnifred R. and Donald M. Taylor. ‘Understanding the September 11 Terrorist Attack on America: The Role of Intergroup Theories of Normative Influence.’ Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2002).

Louis, Winnifred R.  If they’re not crazy, then what? The Implications of social psychological approaches to terrorism for conflict management.’ In ed. W.G.K. Stritzke, S. Lewandowsky, D. Denemark, J. Clare and F. Morgan, Terrorism and Torture: An interdisciplinary perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

McCauley, Clark and Sophia Moskalenko. ‘Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways to Terrorism,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 17(3) (2005).

Staub, E. ‘Understanding and responding to group violence: Genocide, mass killing, and terrorism.’ In eds. F. M. Moghaddam and A. J. Marsella. Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences and Interventions (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2004)

Tajfel, H. and J.C. Turner. The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel and L. W. Austin (eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chigago: Nelson-Hall, 1986).


One response to “War: bad but inevitable

  1. Pingback: A primer for Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of our Nature’ « Said Simon

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