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Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Putin, War, And Human Nature – Why Peace Will Always Be Just An Interlude

The world is at war again.  Why is that not surprising?  Wars have been the warp and weave of human society since its origins.  Wars have been common since the first human settlements and were fought for the same reasons as the Trojan War, the Punic Wars, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Roses, and hundreds of others throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  Tribal warfare in Africa, the Amazon, and the Great Plains was perennial.  Empires were won by military conquest.  Genghis Khan expanded the Mongol Empire from Japan to Europe thanks to his powerful, mounted, army.  The Moghul, Sassanian, Persian, and Chinese Empires were no different.  The Twentieth Century, our century, was as warlike.  World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are the most well-known conflicts, but lesser invasions, occupations, and overthrows were common.  In fact, one could take that century as one of the most bloody and murderous in history.  Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot alone were responsible for tens of millions of deaths.

Image result for images genghis khan

The Twenty-First Century started off badly with wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; and is now scene of the Russo-Ukrainian war (3.2.22).  Not only is this last, current war, one of a predictable sequence, it has given particular lie to the notion that the world is progressing to a more peaceful place. Not only that, this war is a throwback to the 20th century – armored columns, tanks, artillery and siege.  There is nothing asymmetrical about it.  Gone are the unconventional guerrilla-style wars of the Taliban, ISIS, al-Shabab, and Hamas; and back are panzer divisions, flanking, encirclement, and overthrow.

Given this millennia-old history of warfare, conquest, and mayhem, the current war is par for the course.  The specific reasons for the Russian incursion into Ukraine are irrelevant – as irrelevant as the causes of any other war which, despite their peculiarities are all about territory, expansionism, wealth, resources,  cultural hegemony, and intimidation.   The next war will have its own set of justifications, but will follow the same predictable pattern. 

It is not hard to see that the same patterns of aggression, territorialism, competition, and dominance seen in children repeat themselves throughout all levels of society – family, clan tribe, region, and nation. Every parent knows that competition and conflict are hardwired in their children as much as in adults.  They fight over who got the bigger portion, the easiest chore, the best toys, the most parental favor, the most freedom and responsibility.  Boys scuffle, fight, and brawl over rights.  Older girls taunt and ridicule younger brothers.  Peaceful standoffs result only after the wars have been fought to a draw.

Scientists and philosophers have long debated the issue of human nature and its role in determining behavior.  Is human nature innate, immutable and permanently aggressive, territorial, self-interested, and violent? Or is it subject to external influences and can be moderated, softened and recalibrated?

Human nature was fundamental to Marx, for example.

However, in the sixth Thesis on Feuerbach (1845), Marx criticizes the traditional conception of "human nature" as "species" which incarnates itself in each individual, on behalf of a conception of human nature as formed by the totality of "social relations". Thus, the whole of human nature is not understood, as in classical idealist philosophy, as permanent and universal: the species-being is always determined in a specific social and historical formation… (Wikipedia)
Sartre and the Existentialists agreed with Marx on the lack of any innate human nature:
Famous for saying that there is no human nature, no human essence—existence precedes essence. (So Sartre would think that you can be without being something.) There is no human nature because we are at root free—which seems to mean unconstrained to Sartre. Freedom has a negative tone for Sartre—it is a great danger (www.carroll.edu)

Plato and Aristotle thought there was indeed such a thing as human nature, and it could be best describes as rational – reason is what defines us.

Darwin understood human nature as generically animal – both men and beasts acted in the same genetically programmed way.  Christians believe that Man was given a free will by God, and that there are no Darwinian brakes on our ability to evolve spiritually.  Descartes described human beings as ‘thinking spirits’, and that whatever human nature might be, our ability to think superseded its constraints.

Nihilists like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer were uninterested in human nature but the randomness of existence human, social, or historical.  Nietzsche postulated that the only validation of life in a meaningless, random world was the expression of will.  Nineteenth century socialists and their inheritors today hew to Marxist philosophy.  There is no such thing as a Darwinian animal essence in Man, and he through collective action can affect the  environmental forces that shape him and society.

History and common sense are on the side of the Darwin and Nietzsche.  Shakespeare’s Histories, for example, chronicle the lives and times of England’s kings which are very little different one from the other.  The details and expressions of rule might vary, but all monarchs, courtiers, and pretenders all displayed the same aggressive, self-interested, territorial, protective behavior.

A more objective review of world events since pre-history shows that the behavior of family, tribe, nation, and empire is remarkably similar if not identical.  What else but an innate, hardwired, immutable human nature could be responsible?

The wisest observer will conclude that  all people and nations act on the same principles of self-interest, survival, territorialism, and acquisitiveness; but that equally predictable and pre-determined is the conflict between differing ambitions.  Every social group configures their ambitions differently – i.e. thinks that their way is the best way – and that political, economic, and military conflict will always result.  Rather than judging ambitions in terms of right and wrong or good and evil, the sanest approach is to accept conflict as a natural expression of human nature, to recognize the natural tendency of groups to define and consolidate a political philosophy, and ultimately to defend it.

Despite what seems to be an overwhelming biological imperative to war and equally overpowering historical evidence of its persistence and ineluctability, there are those who consistently deny the record.  We need not have wars, they say.  There is no such thing as ‘ineluctability’, and with the right notions, proper alignment of values, commitment, and will, we can do away with human conflict.

Such fated idealism is not new. From the colonial era on, the United States has had a variety of self-contained utopian communities, walled off from the mainstream of life and dedicated to pursuing various notions of individual and collective perfection. The Shakers, Pietists, Agrarians, and members of the Oneida Colony were but a few. Although economic factors often made such projects unsustainable in the long term and members tended to float away over time, some utopian and experimental communities left significant marks on American life. The impulse to gather together with groups of like-minded people in the hope of discovering better ways of living still exists today, embodied in a diverse array of groupings, including communes, eco-villages, survivalist camps, religious communities, and mystical retreats.

Image result for images american utopian societies

How and why such idealism has persisted for so long in America and in fact is still the heart and soul of the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party is a mystery.  Perhaps it has been influenced by a Messianic Christianity which insists on Man’s goodness – or at least the potential for good within God’s grace.  Perhaps it is due to a typically American individualism according to which all problems can be overcome given opportunity, enterprise, and will.  Perhaps, finally, it is because no war since the Civil War has ever been fought on American territory and the current population has never had to see its savagery and brutality close up.  Whatever the reason, a significant proportion of the United States electorate believes in social and moral progress; and they confused by the current war.  Were they wrong all along, and in fact war is indeed an expression of human nature?

Conservatives are more realistic, and have no illusions about achieving a better, more humane, and generous world.  As long as human nature remains unchanged, its characteristic aggression, territorialism, self-defensiveness, expansionism, and acquisition of power will always rule. The way to stop war is through countervailing force.  Only if nations are militarily equally matched  - as the Soviet Union and United States were during the Cold War – will peace result.  Peace is not a matter for love, consideration, or moral authority.  It is only a matter of a balance of power.

Nevertheless, even for these intellectual conservatives, the horrors visited upon the Ukrainian people are terrible to watch, and they conclude that Putin must be blamed and held accountable for his actions.  A temporal and temporary morality always resurges even among the most morally diffident nihilists. 

The war will end in most cases with a Russian military victory,  but with dire and destabilizing consequences.  The Russians should have learned from their Afghanistan misadventure, the Vietnam War, and America’s own gross miscalculation of the underground opposition in Afghanistan and Iraq; and since they did not, they will as occupiers suffer unacceptable losses and will eventually pull back within their own borders.  However, the damage will be done to Ukraine and its people; and the repercussions of this miscalculation will be felt for many years in Russia itself.

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