Thunder against war. Can we do more and can we eliminate it?

Term Paper, 2016

8 Pages, Grade: 73



While Plato would argue that “only the dead have seen the end of war” (Bowden, 2001), philosophers and scholars including Immanuel Kant, John Horgan, and Stephen Pinker envisage the long-peace and the end of war. The enders’ momentum and optimism to eliminate war is what Gustave Flaubert (1954) would describe as a “thunder against” war. Scholars and philosophers on the enders’ platform infer that “humanity has become much wealthier, healthier and more free, and war-related casualties have plummeted since the end of World War Two” (Horgan, 2015), therefore the end of war is possible and imminent. In addition, Pinker, in his seminal work “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” posits that humanity is becoming more civilised and less violent since the European Enlightenment, hence there is a little incentive for war.

The enders’ ‘thunder against war’ has ignited scholarly and philosophical debates in which John Gray, for instance, disputes that Pinker is wrong about violence and war, stating "peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilization remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism" (Horgan, 2015). In a similar perspective, Christopher Coker, world renowned philosopher of war, proposes that war is fundamental to our society, therefore to eliminate war is to alter humanity. Coker argues that “war is continuing to evolve and that until such time as it reaches an evolutionary deadend we are more likely than not to remain in the war business” (Coker, 2014, p. 73). But the questions remain: can we do more, and even so, can war be eliminated?

In answer, this paper supports Coker (2014) that we are more likely to remain in the war enterprise, contesting that war’s evolutionary process is open-ended and thus inevitable. While the paper argues that we cannot eliminate war, it acknowledges that we can do more to mitigate war. The study will methodically consider how war continues to evolve as part of human nature, culture, and technology to demonstrate that war is unstoppable, then considers the extent to which we can mitigate war and its devastating consequences via institutions and humane warfare.

Human nature and war

Thomas Hobbes describes the human state of nature as a constant state of war, asserting that our human nature is a “war of all against all” (Hobbes, 1998, p. 15) because individuals are naturally selfish, suggesting that war is fundamental to the human condition. The causes of war - competitiveness, fear and honour - are what make us human (Coker, 2014, p. 9). Scarcity and the drive to excel as social beings account for our competitive nature. Competition makes us insecure and fearful of those competing with us. The security dilemma that emerges as a result of competition and fear makes us wage wars. Honour, Coker (2014) infers, “is a social bond and winning it back a social obligation” (p. 10). This implies that defeat in human societies is dishonour, which in turn propagates retaliation to restore honour and glory. A continuous engagement in retaliatory warfare, as seen between the Athenians and Spartans to the present day war on terror, makes war inexorable.

Similar to Hobbes, some evolution theorists, inter alia, David Sloan-Wilson, have maintained that war develops from violence in our genes (Sloan-Wilson, 2009). They insist that, because humans evolved from a lower primate, we have inherited aggressive defence and survival mechanisms that enabled us to successfully compete as hunter-gatherers in the pre-civilised world. These aggressive traits still influence human behaviour, causing a predisposition for violence and retaliation. Termed biological determinism, this view asserts that war is predestined, native to the human condition and like the poor, will always be with us.

Contrarily, John Horgan (2009) argues that the urge to engage in war is not intrinsic to human condition and claims that people are cooperative more often than aggressive. This argument is superficial for two reasons: firstly, Horgan is blind to the bigger picture of self-interest which leads to competition, fear and retaliation to restore honour. Secondly, he treats war as choice rather than necessity. Considering the cost of war, attackers will only wage war out of necessity. Defenders engage in war not through choice but rather as a necessity to defend. In his latest article, Horgan posits that humanity has become much wealthier, more advantaged and more free, and war-related casualties have plunged following the end of WWII (Horgan, 2015), therefore the end of war is possible and imminent. Similarly, Pinker (2011), while not dismissing the argument that violence is inherent in human nature, demonstrates with charts and figures that humanity is increasingly becoming less violent. Pinker admits that human nature has evolved through a civilisation process to what we have come to call enlightenment. Pinker’s book has also addressed possible criticism asking why the 20th century, the most atrociously violent century, does not invalidate his thesis that violence is in the decline.

Despite his convincing account, it can be argued that Pinker is too deterministic in inferring the possibility of completely eliminating war, just as slavery. Research shows that slavery persists and more people suffer slavery today than ever recorded in history (Coker, 2014, pp. 18-19). His argument that war can be eliminated based on the decline of violence is too shallow, given his book concedes that war is part of the human condition. Concisely, “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man…We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes” (Obama, 2009).

Culture and war

War is central to our cultural evolution and considered a “self-programming cultural activity” (Coker, 2014, p. 4). However, scholars including John Mueller maintain that war is simply an idea that can be consigned to history’s dustbin, just as the Atlantic slave trade (Mueller, 2011, p. 5). In Mueller’s view, we require not to change the idea of war, but to reprogram our minds to imagine peace. Even Immanuel Kant would disagree with Mueller on the grounds that Mueller overlooks the requirement to alter moral sensibilities in order to eradicate war. The problem with the ‘endists’ is that they tend to consider war as choice rather than necessity, being overly simplistic in their utopian thoughts of the ‘imagined peace’. For instance, Immanuel Kant’s proposition of perpetual peace, of which democracies are a product, could not be achieved without war, implying that it is sometimes necessary to fight against evil in the hope of achieving good (Coker, 2014, p. 20). A typical example is the war against terrorism: should governments exercise restraint in hopes that terrorists would imagine peace while populations are under constant terrorist attack? Even the ‘endists’ will prefer self-defence which in effect is war. Simply put, we must make war so as to live in peace, therefore war is inescapable.

Far from being an idea, war is reified in our cultural practices and carries with it historical prevalence. The warrior culture, which led our ancestors into thinking it glorious to die for one’s country, still exists: deeming it patriotic and honourable for citizens to serve in the American military. However, our patterns of behaviour have evolved culturally from those of our primitive ancestors. As exemplified by Coker (2014), atypical of primitive tribal thinking is the idea never to leave a man down, which is fundamental to the ethos of the US Marine Corps. Also within that cultural evolution is the modern-day suicide bomber produced by societies that have been programmed to admire sacrifice for his/her country or religion (Coker, 2014, p. 23). Another example is the medal of honour, the ‘Victoria Cross,’ for British servicemen who put their lives on the line as a sacrifice to save colleagues during combat, thus sacrificing for their country. Furthermore, war is evolving to include more women in the military, and even the right to engage in combat. These elements inherent in war culture: honour, sacrifice, and women’s right to engage in frontline combat, are indications that war is far from its evolutionary dead-end. As long as people are prepared to die for their principles and beliefs, the thunder against war is more likely than not to fail.

Technology and war

Technology has long been part of human evolution. The term "technology" can be used to refer to both artefacts and their associated social aspects, however, in this context technologies are social in being created and used by humans in social contexts. Thus, to understand technologies it is crucial to understand their social contexts: in this case, violence, peace, and conflict. A peaceful technology, for instance, evolved from sending human messengers on foot to deliver messages, to writing and posting letters, and now to electronic mail. It therefore makes no sense to use electronic mail for physical attack. Similarly, violent technology evolved from throwing stones, to bow and arrows, then to machine guns, tanks, bombs, and to current drones. Similarly, the inventor of the machine gun’s claim that “it will make war impossible” was illogical (Coker, 2014, p. 28, citing Hiram Maxim). The machine gun, far from making war impossible, rather gave the “moral high ground” (Coker, 2014, p. 28) to those who possessed it in combat. Simply put, technologies are constructed for specific purposes and, as a result, are generally easier to use for those purposes. However, users can choose to modify technologies for their own purposes. For instance, the RQ-1 Predator (Predator A), the first generation of the Predator UAV series and unarmed, was initially designed only for reconnaissance purposes (Staff Writer, 2015). But as Coker (2014) nicely puts it: “each new technology created more problems than it solved…once a machine is built we soon discover that it has ideas of its own” (p. 28). The Predator A was modified in 2004 into a fully armed reconnaissance platform capable of instant action and precise engagement in the US war on terror. This newly modified Predator B, popularly known as the Reaper or nicknamed “the hunter-killer” in theatre, is capable of delivering Hellfire missiles and JDAM bombs (Staff Writer, 2015). Therefore, UAV technology initially designed for military reconnaissance is continuing to evolve and Predator C, also known as the ‘Avenger’ is due to be launched. It is therefore incomprehensible that the end of war is imminent when military powers including China, UK, US and Russia continue to invest hugely in military hardware development.

Nonetheless, advocates of military defence and the neorealist school of International Relations contend that some weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, are technologies for peace, since they act as deterrents (Martin, 1999; Waltz, 2012). In essence, Waltz puts his faith in nuclear deterrence and justifies this in historical terms. But the history is short and there have been many close calls. During the 67-year period of the Nuclear Age there have been numerous accidents, miscalculations and threats to use nuclear weapons. Whereas Waltz bases his argument on rational calculations by states, terrorists uninterested in rational calculations could obtain nuclear technology. Weapons are purposely made for warfare, whether offensive or defensive, and the so called nuclear deterrents, arguably, are time-bombs waiting to explode. Additionally, proponents of nuclear deterrence should remember that it was the fear of weapons of mass destruction that justified the second Gulf war, suggesting that we are not free or safe from possible nuclear war at all. The rapid evolution of technology justifies both states and non-state actors acquiring more sophisticated weapons for their security, hence the idea of ending war is just not conceivable.

Mitigating war

While one cannot simply imagine the end of war, it is possible to mitigate potential wars and their devastating consequences. Liberal institutions such as the United Nations, European Union, and others, human rights agencies and activists can all have some impact on the conduct of warfare. For instance, the Geneva Convention which prohibits indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, and enforces the humane treatment of prisoners of war, is a step in the right direction (ICRC, 1988). Additionally, the United Nation’s imposition of the responsibility to protect and peacekeeping missions help minimise warfare casualties and possible atrocities of war. In efforts to reduce collateral damage, precision laser-guided munitions are increasingly used in warfare, as introduced on the Reaper drones. These collective ways of reducing the devastating effects of war are what Christopher Coker (2001) would describe as “humane warfare.” Humane warfare is the best option on our table and some ‘endists’ misconstrue it as a sure route to eradicating war. While “we are more likely than not to remain in the war business” (Coker, 2014), we can only do more to mitigate war.


While ‘endists’ including John Horgan and Steven Pinker envisioned the imminent end of war, this paper argues that war is part of the human evolutional process and thus inevitable. This paper reveals: firstly, war is inherent in our human nature, and the security dilemma that emerges from our competitive human nature incites engagement in wars. The aggressive traits in human genetic make-up influence our behaviour, causing us a tendency towards violence and retaliation. This biological determinism suggests that war is predestined, native to our human condition and will always be with us. Secondly, war is not simply an imagined idea as over-simplified by ‘endists’ like Mueller: it is too simplistic and utopian to suggest that we just imagining peace will create perpetual peace. Their central misconception is to consider war as choice rather than necessity. Far from merely an idea, war is reified in our cultural practices and carries with it historical prevalence.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


Thunder against war. Can we do more and can we eliminate it?
London School of Economics
Strategic Aspects of International Relations
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ISBN (eBook)
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1063 KB
Quote paper
Divine S. K. Agbeti (Author), 2016, Thunder against war. Can we do more and can we eliminate it?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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