Book Review Essays

Cover image of The End of War.

Cover image of The End of War.

Speaking of War

by Peter Denton
John Horgan, The End of War.
224 pp. McSweeneys Books, 2012. $25.50

Joshua S. Goldstein, Winning the War on War:
The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.
400 pp. Dutton, 2011, $31.00

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Why Violence Has Declined.
832 pp. Penguin, 2011. $21.00

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

There is a growing list of recent books on war and the human propensity for violence whether things are getting better or worse, and what we, as a global society, need to do about it. It is an important topic. After all, given some of the potential scenarios for disaster, we need to find some way to navigate the relationship between sustainability, ethics, and war if more than a handful of humans, living somewhere in caves, are to greet the 22nd Century.

How we live together, under what conditions, and how we resolve the conflicts made inevitable by differences of wealth, opportunity, and geography are crucial elements of a sustainable future. Add to these the unknown factors associated with climate change, and whether we, as the human race, are destined for war or peace ceases to be a question that should only be debated by academics.

Once the debate moves out of the halls of academe into the streets, however, it may tend to take on a different character, aimed at exhortation and persuasion and bound by fewer limits on creative and imaginative expression. Thus, however valid some parts of their arguments might be, I am reluctantly unconvinced by the efforts of John Horgan, Joshua S. Goldstein, and Steven Pinker to persuade a popular audience that things are starting to ‘come up roses.’

John Horgan’s short book, The End of War, is a conversational, thoughtful reflection on his efforts to engage audiences over the past couple of decades in a discussion of the inherent violence of humans and the resulting prospects for world peace. Horgan begins by saying that his long-standing personal faith that there will be an end to war is now based upon empirical evidence: “If you find this book totally persuasive, I’d be thrilled. But my more realistic goal is to start a conversation about why we fight and how we can stop” (p. 26). A science writer by inclination and profession and the author of the hugely popular book, The End of Science (1996), Horgan understands the nature of evidence and its role in proving conclusions. Instead of ‘number-crunching’ his own surveys, however, he engages in an essentially qualitative analysis of anthropological, sociological, and historical ‘data’ amassed by others to discount the ideas that violence (and therefore war) is innate at personal or social levels.

If, as Horgan says, neither violence nor wars are necessary responses to certain situations, if they are choices, we can (for the right reasons) make other choices. Thus, Horgan’s book aims at making an ethical statement we are choosing to be violent, we are choosing to start wars, and therefore, the crucial element that needs to be addressed is an ethical one.

According to Horgan, we need to make better, smarter, and less destructive choices and other parts of his book demonstrate that individuals and cultures in other times and places have done just that. Challenging the pessimists, he says: “If we all want peace and every sane person does surely we’re smart enough to achieve it. Or rather, choose it. When we start believing that we can end war, we are already well on our way.” (p. 26)

For his part, Joshua S. Goldstein is already convinced things are getting better all the time we just need to do more of the same things that have already been working well. In Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, the international affairs scholar concludes: “Today, bit by bit, we are dragging our muddy, banged-up world out of the ditch of war. We have avoided nuclear wars, left behind world war, nearly extinguished interstate war, and reduced civil wars to fewer countries with fewer casualties. We are almost there” (p. 328).

Goldstein argues that the numbers of those killed in war has declined dramatically, and there is no indication such a decline is slowing or stopping. His numbers are interesting, but not meaningful. Cursory assessment of ‘successes’ like intervention in Sierra Leone does not provide enough analytical depth to make it an example of how to intervene in other similar situations. Nor does he relate this apparent decline of war-related casualties in any significant way to the changing shape and nature of 21st Century conflict, and therefore, how such ‘official’ numbers might be interpreted.

He argues that something must have changed in our global society to account for the change in statistics, but without some clear causal relationships, his book reads like one very long post hoc fallacy. Official casualties have dropped, so therefore, it must be because of something we have done differently over the past fifty years or so.

Goldstein, if pushed, would likely agree that his narrative with respect to the success of recent efforts to reduce war is really a plea to do what his last chapter urges, to invest more in the prevention of conflict and the operations of the United Nations. Whether we can draw the kinds of comparisons Goldstein attempts between money spent on UN operations and results realized or not, there is the qualitative reality that less war would seem to benefit us all. But the question remains as to whether we can make a choice toward a more peaceful future, as Horgan argues, or whether, because of human nature, violence and war are inevitable.

Cover image of Winning the War on War.

Cover image of Winning the War on War.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker takes the same idea, and looks to human nature for the answers left uncertain on the pages of history. Pinker’s thesis, that somehow over time, we have become less violent and therefore less disposed toward war or other forms of socially constructed violence, is relayed in some 800 pages of facts, figures, and interpretations from across a wide range of sources: “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savior, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible” (p. 696).

The “we” tends to be imperial. While examples range from the Yanomamo to the !Kung, the focal point is Western, European, and tracks little further back in time than the medieval period. Given the sweep of the book, it might seem unfair to chastise Pinker for ‘cherry-picking’ his evidence, but given the literally global and universal nature of his conclusions with respect to the human condition, I believe such criticism is merited.

While our civilization has a propensity for certain types of technological development in comparison to others, this technological difference should have no effect on “the better angels of our nature.” The types of social organization and social behaviours made possible by contemporary technological developments have certainly affected how we live together, but whether this has through some neuroplasticity affected how we think, and therefore changed some inherited tendencies toward violence is an entirely different issue.

Certainly, other civilizations seem to have matured, and have, over time, developed forms of social management that relied less upon violence. Perhaps if we had better historical access to the operations of such civilizations, there might be some merit to a comparative discussion of why this happens.

But we do not, and as an historian and as someone deeply distrustful of sociobiological explanations, I would argue Pinker’s book fails to do more than advance an amusing idea. I am not convinced that there are any “better angels” today than there were a hundred or a thousand years ago. If we seem to be more in the midst of peace than our ancestors, it is in part because we have found ways of disguising the violence we inflict in other, less overtly physical ways and subtlety is not one of the “better angels” Pinker identifies.

Pinker’s perspective is more linked to victor than victim, protagonist rather than bystander, and loses much of its persuasive force as a result. He ‘plays fast and loose’ with wildly varying types of historical evidence, in form as well as in verifiability, and sidesteps the fact that European civilization was remarkably crude, brutal, and unsophisticated in comparison with civilizations elsewhere in the world, right up until the Renaissance period. That Europeans eventually relearned how to eat with a fork is not evidence of any deep neurobiological insight or some special social development related to technology.

Yet, while I could ‘nitpick’ with Pinker throughout the length of his book, the fundamental problem with his thesis is one that Horgan, for a briefer book on a similar theme, manages to avoid. I do not think we have developed any inherently more decent society as a result of socializing our violent urges or developing some different brain chemistry. We are still, to use Raymond Fosdick’s expression from his 1928 book by the same name, “ the old savage in the new civilization.”

Fosdick’s point was that moral development has not kept pace with technological development. Moral development, however, will not be the result of some neurochemical change. Instead, it is the product of the choices we make, as individuals and as a society. Horgan argues that we can be influenced by a culture that socializes or enculturates certain types of behavior or attitudes, which, in turn, may disappear from the horizon of our decision-making and therefore seem innate, but these are, in fact, the product of choices, not biology. If we want different results, we need to make different choices. This is the result of making the ethical moment pre-eminent over any other moment whenever possible, including whatever passes for our “nature,” better or otherwise.

I would be happy to think I live in a less violent society than my ancestorsbut if I track back over the last hundred years, excluding the major conflicts over which they had no control, I do not think I am particularly safer where I live than they would have been in their local community. Of course, if history becomes the record of major declared conflicts, given that we live in what Pinker calls “the Long Peace,” I am safer than they wereat least, until the next war breaks out. It is a retrospective analysis similar to what lies behind the safety board at an industrial plant, listing the number of ‘safe days’ there have been for workers. The moment an accident occurs, the board gets reset to zero and we obviously cannot predict when that might happen.

A hundred years ago in 1913, by all accounts, people felt the last century was off to a good start in comparison to what had gone before it.

From the perspective of its victims, moreover, it is hard to feel good about the condition of global society in the midst of this Long Peace. The body count in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to spiral into the millions; Iraq and Afghanistan; Libya and Syria; Mali and the Central African Republic these and many other countries, continue to experience the low-level conflict that does not add up to a headline in Pinker’s analysis, but which is just as real and violent as any European war to those who are its victims.

Add to these deaths by violence, fueled by a global arms industry, the structural death toll caused by famine, disease, lack of clean water, political or economic embargoes against health care and medical supplies, among other factors, and quite rapidly, the picture of our “better natures” becomes just as tinged with the blood of innocents today as has always been the case.

To add an ironic dimension to the situation Pinker conveniently ignores, if we also included the numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees (who in times past would have rapidly become casualties of war), one might argue the only “better angels” holding back the consequences of our otherwise violent behavior in this Long Peace are UN peacekeepers and the staff of the UNHCR and various international aid agencies.

Cover image of The Better Angels of our Nature.

Cover image of The Better Angels of our Nature.

As for “the better angels” themselves, moreover, there is nothing interesting about Pinker’s analysis. The better angels Pinker depicts empathy, self-control, moral sense and reason (p. 668) -- have always been there, just as the darker ones have always been there. It becomes a matter of which ones we choose to follow, to which of the angels on our shoulder we choose to listen and thus, we are back in the realm of ethics.

If we consider the moral strictures of all major religious and philosophical traditions, the choices associated with these “better angels” are neither new nor recent, nor are they dependent upon some neurobiological progress helpfully located in 21st Century Western culture. Humans have debated their ethical choices from the beginning of time; both individuals and societies have decided which direction to travel as a result of the choices they have made.

The only difference between our choices and the ones made by previous generations is the scale at which the consequences must be considered. We can literally and immediately affect large areas, even the earth itself, by individual decisions that otherwise, in the past, had at least seemed limited by local horizons.

I believe Horgan is correct to say that better choices would lead to less violence of all kinds, and ultimately, to more peace. The potential to make those kinds of choices with large-scale effects makes our “ethical moment” the most crucial in human history.

We need to cast the question of war or peace in an ethical context, not one in which we are excused by accidents of fate, birth, or neurobiology from responsibility for what we decide.

We make choices for reasons and our reasons reflect our values or what we believe is most important. We can therefore work back from our choices -- our decisions -- to the reasons behind them, and thus, to the values, in their turn, that underpin our reasons.

The “ethical moment” is embedded in both our personal narrative and the narrative of the culture in which we live, narratives that are woven together out of our values and our reasons for making the choices that we do. Horgan, Goldstein, and Pinker explore those narratives, challenging us to reflect upon the roles we play and on what our choices say about what we believe to be the most important things in our lives and our world.
Peter H. Denton, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada and a regular contributor to the Canadian Military Journal.