The evolutionary psychologist E.O. Wilson referred to war as “humanity’s hereditary curse.” It has become infused in our collective and individual psyches. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Henry V is centred around the Battle of Agincourt, and All Quiet on the Western Front tells of the experiences of young German soldiers on the Western Front.
The purpose of war can be split into two fields: philosophical and pragmatic. Most modern wars are fought for ideological, and therefore philosophical reasons: capitalism versus communism, fascism versus democracy, and so forth. Richard Ned Lebow, a political scientist at the University of London, hypothesised that nations go to war for reasons of ‘national spirit.’ Institutions and nation-states may not have psyches per-say, but the individuals who run them do, and it is natural for these individuals to project the contents of their psyches onto the institutions and nation-states they are entrusted with.
Rationalists, on the other hand, have another perspective. War, they argue, is primarily used by nations to increase their wealth and power: allowing them to annex new territories, take control of vital resources, pillage, rape, and so forth. Bolshevism arose in the political instability and food shortages of World War One Russia. The Nazis used the spectre of Germany’s humiliating defeat in the Great War and its treatment in the Treaty of Versailles as a stepping stone to political power. In the Ancient World, Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279BC) used war to form the Akkadian Empire, and then used war to quell invasions and rebellion. Similarly, Philip II of Macedonia (382BC – 336BC) used war to unify the city states of Ancient Greece.
Another explanation may be that we engage in war because we are naturally inclined to. War speaks to our need for group identity, and to our deep predilection for conflict. And it should come as no surprise that the two are not mutually exclusive. Our strong predilection towards our own group not only makes us more willing to help other members of that group, it makes us more willing to commit evil on its behalf. Chimpanzees have been known to invade other congresses of chimps and go on killing sprees. The obvious intention being to increase territory and decrease intra-sexual competition. Similarly, our own evolutionary and primitive past is fraught with violence and conflict. It should not escape our attention that history is abundant with examples of invading soldiers slaughtering men and raping women.
Like all the profound aspects of culture, war conceptualises a facet of a deeper truth. It has been central to our history and culture capturing both the more heroic and the more frightening aspects of our individual and collective psyches. We both influence and are influenced by war.