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The Big Lie – Are Wars Inevitable?

“We’ve always had wars.  Humans are a warring species. Without an army to defend us, someone will always try to conquer us.”

These assumptions have become axioms of our culture. They generate despair but also a certain comfort because they relieve us of the responsibility to change.

Some politicians and pundits declare that human nature makes peace impossible, that war is built into our genes. They point to research by evolutionary biologists that indicates our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, make war. Therefore war must be part of our heredity. It’s true that in certain situations chimpanzees do raid neighboring colonies and kill other chimps. Those studies on killer apes got enormous publicity because they implied that war is hardwired into human nature. Most scientists didn’t draw those conclusions from the evidence, but the mass media kept reinforcing that message.

Further research, however, led to a key discovery: The chimps who invaded their neighbors were suffering from shrinking territory and food sources. They were struggling for survival. Groups with adequate resources didn’t raid other colonies. The aggression wasn’t a behavioral constant but was caused by the stress they were under. Their genes gave them the capacity for violence, but the stress factor had to be there to trigger it into combat. This new research showed that war is not inevitable but rather a function of the stress a society is under. Our biological nature doesn’t force us to war, it just gives us the potential for it. Without stress to provoke it, violence can remain one of the many unexpressed capacities our human evolution has given us. Studies by professors Douglas Fry, Frans de Waal, and Robert Sapolsky present the evidence for this.

Militarists point to history and say it’s just one war after another. But that’s the history only of our patriarchal civilization. The early matriarchal civilization of south-eastern Europe enjoyed centuries of peace. UCLA anthropologist Marija Gimbutas describes the archeological research in The Civilization of the Goddess. No trace of warfare has been found in excavations of the Minoan, Harappa, and Caral cultures. On many of the Pacific islands war was unknown. The ancient Vedic civilization of India had meditation techniques that preserved the peace, and those are being revived today to reduce stress in society: www.permanentpeace.org.

Our society, though, has a deeply entrenched assumption that stress is essential to life. Many of our social and economic structures are based on conflict. Capitalism’s need for continually expanding profits generates stress in all of us. We’ve been indoctrinated to think this is normal and natural, but it’s really pathological. It damages life in ways we can barely perceive because they’re so built into us.

We don’t have to live this way. We can reduce the stress humanity suffers under. We can create a society that meets human needs and distributes the world’s resources more evenly. We can live at peace with one another. But that’s going to take basic changes. These changes threaten the power holders of our society. Since capitalism is a predatory social and economic system, predatory personalities rise to power. They view the world through a lens of aggression. But it’s not merely a view. They really are surrounded by enemies. So they believe this false axiom they are propagating that wars are inevitable.

In the past their predecessors defended their power by propagating other nonsense: kings had a divine right to rule over us, Blacks were inferior to Whites, women should obey men. We’ve outgrown those humbugs, and we can outgrow this one.


William T. Hathaway’s latest book, Radical Peace: People Refusing War, presents the experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Chapters are posted in The Socjournal and on a page of the publisher’s website at http://media.trineday.com/radicalpeace. He is also the author of [amazon_link id=”097384423X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Summer Snow[/amazon_link], the story of an American warrior in Central Asia who falls in love with a Sufi Muslim and learns from her an alternative to the military mentality. Chapters are posted at www.peacewriter.org.

About William T. Hathaway

William T. Hathaway began his writing career as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, then joined the Special Forces to write a book about war. A World of Hurt won a Rinehart Foundation Award for its portrayal of the psychological roots of war: the emotional blockage and need for patriarchal approval that draw men to the military. Summer Snow tells of an American warrior in Central Asia who falls in love with a Sufi Muslim and learns from her an alternative to the military mentality. CD-Ring is a young-adult novel about a boy learning the futility of violence and the need for peaceful communication. Radical Peace: People Refusing War presents the true stories of activists who have moved beyond protest into direct action, becoming criminals for peace by defying the government's laws and impeding its capacity to kill. Wellsprings: A Fable of Consciousness is set in 2026 as an old woman and a young man battle the corporations that control the remaining water resources after the earth's ecosystem has broken down under human abuse. Hathaway was a Fulbright professor of creative writing and American studies at universities in Germany, where he currently lives. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.


  1. Dr.Amrapali Merchant

    War is an issue where every wise man should contribute to stop war.As an academician it is the duty.

  2. I welcome the anti-war message of the post, but I actually have an issue with it. Chimps may fight for territory, but humans are significantly different from chimps. People often go to war only because they were forced by the government, or seduced by the social authorities. And they may choose to be killed or imprisoned rather than engage in killing.

  3. It seems from your writing that capitalism is to blame for the war and unrest all around the globe, but you seemed to ignore the historical fact that the communist (socialist-perhaps not being radical) countries are the one who mostly suffer from unrest and are in brink of chaos all the time. You can take few notable examples of North Korea (and perhaps do not forget to compare it with South Korea), Russia and Cuba; all of these countries are at war with its people since the time such regime (communist) took control over its people and their freedom perhaps.

  4. I like the way you described capitalism and the people who thrive in that sort of society as predatory. Very accurate description. Sadly if you are not of that nature, in western society you basically get left behind to eat up the crumbs left by the power holders. We are so insignificant.

  5. Hello,
    I’m a producer for BYU Radio, which is a satellite radio station (Sirius XM 143) that also streams online at byuradio.org. I loved this article, and found it very fascinating, as a student producer, I would love to interview you about what your thought process was while writing this article. Also, I would love to pick your brain about stress and why it causes big catastrophes (wars in particular) I think an interview over the phone would be best so let me know if you are interested in this and when you are free and we could work something out. You could let me know via email, ([email protected]).

    Thanks for your time!

    -Londyn Clawson

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