When we pull aside the curtain of history and peer back through the mists of time, it would seem that war has been with us in one form or another for nearly our entire racial memory. Yet, although one might think, on the surface, that war is the inevitable outcome of some psychological trait of our species, a deeper examination will show that this is not necessarily true. For there are many examples in the historical record where man has successfully lived in peace with man, and we see that war is indeed a matter of choice, and not compulsion.
When examining a specific culture’s propensity towards war, one often looks at its history and works forward to determine how it became an intrinsic part of that society. When expanding that study to mankind in general, though, one has to look for reoccurring patterns across cultures to distinguish that which is intrinsic to the species from that which is intrinsic to the culture. Thus, when we look cross-culture and cross-society, a few similarities distinguish themselves.
First, when humans where loosely grouped into nomadic tribes whose daily activities were largely relegated to hunting and foraging for food, the concept of war did not exist. Conflicts of the time, no matter where on the planet humans were located, consisted primarily of disorganized skirmishes where hunting territories overlapped. One nomadic tribe did not seek with purpose to overcome and/or enslave another tribe; the primary concern of a tribe was its own wellbeing and safety, and as long as territories did not significantly overlap, then organized murder and mayhem were not usually in the picture.
Second, it was not until mankind discovered and refined the ability to manufacture food – in the form of agriculture and animal husbandry – instead of hunting for it, did the concept of organized war start to manifest itself. For with the abundance of food came the concept of wealth; with the concept of wealth came the infrastructure to accumulate it; with the accumulation of wealth came the coveting of that which one did not have, and which someone else did; with that coveting came the need to protect one’s own wealth from others; and from the need for protection on a large scale arose the concept of the professional soldier, and the infrastructure to feed, oversee, and honor him.
In parallel with this, as improved efficiency of food production allows for the pursuit of human endeavors not directly related to food security, these endeavors eventually take on a life of their own and, in many ways, begin to compete with the need of a community to, first and foremost, feed itself. The ubiquitous rise of organized religion and the demand that the gods – as well as their supporting infrastructure of priests, prophets, seers, oracles, diviners, scribes, and so on – be fed first is certainly in direct competition with the overall need to feed the community. The arise of professional artisans and associated guilds to meet the demands of constructing and supporting the infrastructure that allows complex societies to exist provides yet another strain on food sources, specifically when these artisans and guilds are not expressly concerned with improving the efficiency of food production and distribution. And, interwoven with all of this, the evolution of the whole system of wealth transformation, distribution, and accumulation, and those who maintain it, necessary to keep the whole operation a going concern. Thus, we see a third cross-cultural pattern emerge: the eventual need of complex societies to systematically transform the physical byproducts of those still tending the grain and the animals, both literally and figuratively, into that required to support the often competing overhead of all the other pursuits not directly related to the manufacture and distribution of food.
As previously noted, another reoccurring pattern is the eventual creation of a class of professional soldiers devoted to protecting the accumulation of wealth from those who seek to take it. This “warrior class” often evolves to perform many duties within their respective societies: protecting the community from attack; maintaining social order; enforcing the laws by which the society operates; validating the authority of the ruling class. However, because this warrior class either works directly for the ruling class, or is the ruling class, the concept of violence as a viable option starts to become entrenched. Indeed, many times, war happens simply because the rich and powerful see their armies merely as another tool to acquire more wealth.
Additionally, as wealth accumulates, and those with the wealth start to fund and/or merge with this professional warrior class, this meld of riches and power distorts the focus of the community from the egalitarian pursuit of ensuring that everyone is adequately fed, to whatever pursuits are important to those who have the wealth and the power; usually the acquisition of more wealth and power. This not only ingrains and perpetuates into the society the unequal distribution of the fruits of more efficient food production, but also the unequal distribution of the pain when food production (and its fruits) cannot keep up with demand. Hence, the quintessence of the struggle between those who have the power to channel the excess capacity of society to their own ends, and those who do not.
Thus, we see that impetus for war comes from two primary sources: as a pursuit of the wealthy and the powerful for their own edification, and as a result of the strife that occurs through the unequal distribution of food and the fruits of excess capacity. And, indeed, the more polarized the society between those who have the power, and those who do not, the more likely that war will eventually occur from either source.
For war is not a subconscious impulse for bloodshed and destruction intrinsic to the psyche of man; we do not fight and die because it is our nature to do so. War is the intersection of the desire to concentrate into the hands of a chosen few the wealth and the power resulting from the ability of a society to do more than merely feed itself, and the desire of that chosen few to utilize that concentration of wealth and power for pursuits other than for the benefit of society. And as long as one man lives in protected luxury while another hopelessly starves, the club and the sword will always be the final means of resolution, and the unique madness that periodically seizes our species will continue to plague us through eternity.