Nothing natural about war

December 15, 2009

BARACK OBAMA'S speech accepting his Nobel Peace Prize is in some ways the crowning achievement of his administration since he was elected senior manager of the American Empire last year.

In a long oration dedicated to justifying America's use of military force around the world, Obama forcefully argued that war is sometimes necessary to protect peace. An important subtext to the speech, of course, was his administration's recent decision to deploy 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan.

Ranging widely across history, from Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations to recent conflicts in Somalia, Obama argued that the United States has played a crucial role maintaining global security. Glossing over the U.S. role in unleashing unimaginable devastation in Southeast Asia, death squads in Latin America and dictatorships in the Middle East, he asserted that the U.S. has been a force for good in history.

This whitewashing of imperial crimes is nothing new in presidential speeches. But Obama's speech before the Nobel committee did contain a trope not usually associated with the American presidency (especially not for the last eight years!): a persistent reliance upon biology to make his argument. On four separate occasions in his speech, Obama brought up the idea that war has been around since the beginning of human history because it is part of human nature.

Now, an obvious objection might be raised from the start to this line of thinking: If humans are so naturally warlike, why does Obama have to expend so much of his considerable intellectual and rhetorical ability to justify his wars?

But leaving this contradiction aside, it is worth spending some time examining just how wrong Obama is on this count.

THE FIRST thing wrong with Obama's thesis that "war, in one form or another, appeared with the first man" is that it is simply false. The human species first developed about 100,000 years ago. Yet evidence of warfare only appears in the archaeological record about 10,000 years ago.

As anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson points out, while there are extensive archaeological remains of societies that existed 12,000 years ago in present-day Israel, Lebanon and Syria, there is no evidence of warfare in these societies. In other words, war has only existed for about 10 percent of human biological history.

After conducting an extensive review of the anthropological literature on war, Ferguson concludes that "in most cases--not every single one--the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision." This certainly seems to be the case for the war in Afghanistan. After all, opinion polls show that a majority of Americans don't think the war is worth fighting. Obama's remarks in his speech about the importance of NATO seem a lot better explanation of his decision than the inherent "blood-thirstiness" of human beings.

A second problem with the justification of war by human nature is that it assumes that human nature is a static, unchanging thing that exists in our genes. While there are aspects of our biology that are constant, such as our needs for food, water and some measure of control over our lives, human nature's most defining feature is its incredible flexibility.

This is, ironically, perhaps most obvious in the history of war. During the Vietnam War, for example, the very soldiers who had at one time carried out the missions that turned that country and its neighbors into hell became the most forceful, important and effective part of the antiwar movement. The history of war does not bear witness to the innate aggression of the human species, but rather to our amazing ability to change.

Obama's speech is probably the most sophisticated defense of U.S. imperialism that has been made in decades. In that respect, we who would oppose never-ending war have our work cut out for us. Yet just because Obama's argument commands a level of intellectual respect that George W. Bush can scarcely dream of does not mean that his excuses for unleashing increasing barbarism on countries like Afghanistan are any more justified.
Paul Heideman, Madison, Wis.

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