Why are people willing to go to war?


"Every war is the result of a network of interacting causes."


Robert Hinde explores that network of causes, from the aggression between individuals to the aggression between states, and looks at ways to reduce and perhaps cancel those causes.

Scilla Elworthy

Professor Robert A Hinde


Robert Aubrey Hinde CBE FRS FBA (26 October 1923 – 23 December 2016) was a British zoologist, ethologist and psychologist.[4][5] He served as the Emeritus Royal Society Research Professor of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. Hinde is best known for his ethological contributions to the fields of animal behaviour and developmental psychology.


"His early interest in animals broadened to include the study of human behaviour. During the latter part of his career his focus included human aggression and the phenomenon of war. This work has developed into an exploration of how peaceful relationships are sustained."

December 2003



The causation of war is never simple. Every war depends on multiple interacting factors that differ from case to case. But two are always essential – weapons, and individuals to use them. These individuals may be paid to go to war, or they may be coerced to do so: more usually they are more or less willing or even eager. Why should people be willing to go to war? For the most part they know that war can be bloody and horrible. They know that they may be killed or mutilated, that they may be subjected to unimaginable agony. And yet they go. Many of them, perhaps the majority of those who have seen action, come away horrified and disillusioned (Brodie, 1990). What is it that causes them to overcome or to forget their knowledge of what the consequences may be? That is the subject of this essay.


Aggression and Aggressiveness

It is first necessary to make a distinction between ‘aggression’ or ‘aggressive behaviour’ and ‘aggressiveness’. Aggression and aggressive behaviour are descriptive terms referring to actions directed towards harming others, directly or indirectly. Aggressiveness refers to the basic capacity, propensity, or motivation to harm others. Aggressive behaviour may be initiated in a number of ways – primarily by fear or greed, for instance. Aggression is a tool that may be used for many purposes – robbery, greed, revenge, self-assertion, and so on. But it is only rarely that aggressiveness is the sole basis for aggressive actions. The distinction is important in the present context because the way in which we talk about war tends to be confusing. We refer to a nation that invades another as ‘aggressive’, and we use the same term to describe an individual who intentionally harms another. But that does not mean that there is anything in common between the two situations except that harm is caused. The psychological and physiological mechanisms that cause one individual to strike another have nothing in common with the chains of command in an invading army. The individual combatants show aggressive behaviour, but we shall see later that the extent to which their behaviour is motivated by aggressiveness varies with the sort of conflict in which they are involved.


During the Cold War era, both sides justified their stockpiles of nuclear weapons by arguing that human aggressiveness makes war inevitable. Not only is aggressiveness not a cause of wars, as we shall see, but a false view of human nature is implied. We do indeed all have the capacity to behave aggressively. That people do sometimes harm others is apparent from the daily newspaper reports of violence, murders, muggings and rapes. But such things are reported only because they are not usual. If muggings were common on the street every day, they would not be reported. For most of the time people are sensitive and caring towards others. From the newspapers we get an idea of those evil strangers out there, whereas for the great majority of the time our everyday experience tells us that the whole world is not like that, that we all have the potential to behave with kindness and consideration to others, to be ‘prosocial’, as well as a potential to be selfish and aggressive (Hinde, 2002). A critical question is, therefore, what makes the balance between prosocial and antisocial behaviour to swing towards the latter?


The Development of Aggressiveness

Why are some individuals more prone to show aggression than others? Full discussion of this issue would fill many books, but it is sufficient for our present purposes to point to three groups of factors, mutually influencing each other, that affect the balance between prosociality and selfish assertiveness. First, individuals tend to be less prone to aggression if they have been brought up by one or two caregivers (usually the mother and father) who are sensitively responsive to their needs and exercise firm but reasoned control. Conversely, people who are brought up in a rigid, harsh and insensitive family, or by laissez-faire parents, tend to be selfishly assertive and aggressive. These are of course only tendencies, and influences from the peer group and others also play a role, but the nature of the early social environment is probably the most important factor affecting later aggressiveness (Baumrind, 1971).


Second, the balance between prosociality and anti-social tendencies is affected by current circumstances. If things are difficult, if it is hard for individuals to obtain food and other necessities, competitive tendencies, including aggressiveness, become more prominent. As might be expected, parents living under harsh conditions find it less easy to be sensitive caregivers to their children, and may encourage their children to be self-seeking.


The third issue is that people are influenced by the culture in which they are living. Thus in a challenging environment like that experienced by those who pushed out into the American West in the nineteenth century, assertiveness and independence were seen as virtues.


These three factors can reinforce each other: people behave selfishly and assertively in part because they were brought up that way, in part because circumstances force it on them, and in part because such behaviour is esteemed in the culture.


Reciprocally, the behaviour of individuals affects the cultural climate: competitive behaviour and aggression create an anti-social atmosphere, kindness and cooperation a prosocial one. Of course, these are crude approximations, and the interacting factors are much more subtle than it is possible to describe here. But in so far as aggressiveness is important in violence and war, its salience amongst individuals is affected by their past and present social and physical environments (Berkowitz, 1993; review, Hinde, !997).


Violence Amongst Individuals

Of course, violence between individuals does not depend solely on their aggressiveness. One can distinguish the developmental factors, referred to in the last paragraph, from predisposing and eliciting factors, though the categories overlap. Predisposing factors include other motivations present at the time that utilise aggression as a tool to achieve their goals – perhaps hunger or greed. In addition, a variety of factors reduce the social inhibitions against behaving aggressively – hot and humid conditions, crowding, alcohol, frustration, and so on. Aggression may actually be elicited by the sight of the goal object, perhaps food or money, in the possession of another individual, by the availability of a weapon, the nature of the victim, fear, and by the lack of factors that usually inhibit it.. More rarely, basic aggressiveness is itself sufficient to lead to aggression (Berkowitz, 1993; Feshbach, 1989).


Again, this is but a crude picture, but the important issue is that the occurrence even of aggression between individuals does not depend solely on their aggressiveness, but on many other concomitant factors.


Aggression Between Groups

For violence to break out between groups, the individuals within each group must cooperate with each other. Thus prosocial as well as antisocial propensities must operate. The psychological principles involved in cooperation within groups have been extensively investigated (Tajfel & Turner, 1986; Turner et al, 1994). Members of a psychological group see themselves, and are likely to be labelled by others, as a group; they tend to see themselves as dependent on each other; and they tend to see themselves as more similar to each other in certain respects than they are to outsiders, and as superior to the latter.


A number of factors contribute to this. All individuals seek confirmation of their attitudes and beliefs, and often this can be obtained only by associating with others who think in the same way. Confirmation can also be obtained by associating with others who are perceived to think in the same way, even if they do not. All individuals feel in some degree vulnerable, and association with others perceived as dependable is reassuring. All individuals have some tendency to be wary of strangers, so association with familiar others, or with others perceived to be familiar, is reassuring. If asked to describe oneself, one describes characteristics of the groups to which one belongs as well as one’s individual characteristics. And feeling oneself to be part of a group of similar others, one can take pleasure in the achievements of other group members, basking in ‘reflected glory’(Tesser, 1988). Thus perceived similarity with others, familiarity with them, interdependence, and bias in favour of one’s group can be mutually facilitatory. People therefore tend to associate with groups they perceive positively and perceive positively groups with which they associate. The more an individual identifies with a group that he perceives positively, the more his or her own self-esteem is enhanced.


In these ways, the nation or political party become part of an individual’s identity. When two groups are in conflict, identification with one’s own nation or group enhances negative feelings to the other group, especially if it is perceived as a source of frustration or as an enemy. Preservation of the group’s resources, or the integrity of its territory, as well as fear for one’s own safety, may be seen as reasons for defense – with attack seen as the best means of defense.


When violence is occurring or impending, these factors enhance the involvement of individuals in collective endeavours. Military training often involves harsh conditions to which all members of a group are collectively subjected, and thereby enhances their identification with each other and with the group. Social identity comes to predominate over individual identity, shared values become critical, and actions taken in defense of those values are seen as justified (Turner et al., 1994). Identification with a military unit enables its members to take pride in its achievements, past and present, and that increases their identification with it. In many training situations the formation of individual relationships, ‘buddy relationships’ is encouraged, and these relationships play a supportive role in combat.


In all of this, the role of leaders must not be underestimated. They may influence group goals, maximise conditions conducive to group integrity, inspire collective action through their behaviour, and promote loyalty by caring for individuals. Leaders may be chosen because they represent group values or share group goals, but they may impart their values and their goals to the group. But leaders may have very diverse motivations – they may become leaders because they are idealistic, or because they are ambitious. Their followers may be similarly diverse – some may be seeking a warrior self-image, some may be seeking self-fulfillment in other ways (Straker, 1922). It is a goal of military training to minimise such differences and to inculcate loyalty to the group.


In a conflict situation, loyalty and the leader’s example are not the only group factors that augment the likelihood of aggression. Just because the individuals share common goals, kudos attaches to those who take steps to achieve that goal. When individuals are poised to attack but are held back by fear or moral scruples, the individual who acts first, who first throws a brick at the police or whatever, gains status amongst his or her peers. Assertiveness in seeking for status helps to trigger aggression.


When aggressive behaviour is used as a tool to achieve a goal, it is likely to cease when that goal is achieved. When a platoon of soldiers captures its objective, it ceases to attack. But in certain circumstances inter-group violence can involve basic aggressiveness, where individuals strive to hurt members of the other group for the sake of hurting or killing. In such a case the suffering of the victim enhances the aggressiveness of the aggressor. Such a situation is favoured by anonymity, for the victim is a non-person and the aggressor escapes personal guilt. Although the genocides in the former Jugoslavia and Rwanda were probably planned at a high level, they involved the reanimation of old ethnic and tribal hatreds, and basic aggressiveness probably played a large part in the behaviour of the actual perpetrators. The situation in the Holocaust was probably different in that individuals were assigned specific tasks in the mass homicide, and were made to feel less responsible for the end result (Bauman, 1989).


It will be apparent the causal bases of aggression between groups may be even more complex than those of individual violence, but it is helpful to think in terms of a multi- dimensional continuum, provided this is seen as only an heuristic device. We may consider briefly tribal violence, ethnic wars like those in the former Jugoslavia and Rwanda, and the two world wars.


Violence between small tribal groups is often ritualised in a manner that reduces the number of casualties, but the combatants may be inspired to violence by the hope of capturing cattle or women or by the desire for revenge. No doubt loyalty and duty to the group plays some part, and the desire to enhance their status among their peers also plays a role. Dancing, ritual or drugs may help in increasing their motivation or decreasing their fear. But aggressive behaviour is primarily a tool to obtain their goals, and aggressiveness is not the prime cause of the violence (e.g. Lewis, 1995).


The wars in Jugoslavia and Rwanda were in some ways intermediate between the conventionalised picture of tribal war given above and major international wars. They involved cultural groups that had previously lived apparently amicably together. There was considerable central control that was made effective by propaganda that played on the cultural differences and provided the combatants of each group with an incentive and an apparent duty to attack each other. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was initially a matter of territorial conquest controlled from above, but escalated to extreme levels of brutality. The brutality often seemed to be perpetrated at the whim of local leaders or groups, though they later claimed that they were constrained by circumstances or by orders from above. The aim was to humiliate, terrorise and kill the enemy population in order to remove it from the territory. Similarly in Rwanda the combatants initially saw the conflict in ethnic, cultural, political or idealistic terms, and perhaps fought as a matter of duty, but this led to the arousal of individual aggressiveness, and in many cases killing for the sake of killing seems to have taken over. Thus in the context of war individuals who had previously lived together amicably came to show callous violence. But it was the war that caused the aggression, and not vice versa.


Major International Wars

We are concerned here with wars that differ, though only in degree, from those just discussed in three ways. On each side the role of leaders, operating through an hierarchical system, is paramount. Each side is complex, involving many overlapping groups, so that any negotiations must take place between large bureaucracies representing diverse interests. Third, and most importantly, international wars involve a major degree of role differentiation, and war is best seen as an institution with a large number of constituent roles.


This third point is crucial for understanding the motivation of those involved, and requires a word of explanation. In our society marriage is an institution with two constituent roles, husband and wife. Certain rights and certain duties are associated with each role. At a more complex level, Parliament is an institution, with a considerable number of constituent roles – most obviously Prime Minister, Ministers, the Members of Parliament, and the voting public. The incumbents of each of these roles have certain rights, and also certain duties. Thus the Prime Minister must chair Cabinet meetings, play a major part in deciding policy, and so on. For the public, casting their votes is both a right and a duty.


In the same way, war must be seen as an institution with many constituent roles – generals, officers, other combatants, munition workers, transport workers, doctors, nurses, air raid wardens, and so on. The incumbents of each role have specific rights and duties, and they do what they do primarily because it is their duty to do so. Thus the munition workers make ammunition because it is their duty to do so, the transport workers take the weapons to the combatants because that is their duty, and the infantryman moves forwards and tries to kill enemy soldiers because it is his duty to do so. The tank or bomber crew are not inspired by a desire to kill, kill, kill, but rather to do what they have been told is their duty (Hinde, 1997).


Of course that is not all that is involved. Inhibitions against aggression must be overcome: often only quite a small proportion of the infantrymen involved in combat actually use their weapons (Marshall, 1947). There may be times when defensive aggression takes over – when it is necessary to kill or be killed. Fear may either inhibit or augment aggression, depending on the situation. Assertiveness, the desire for recognition and status, is sometimes important. The various factors involved in the dynamics of groups are nearly always basic, with loyalty to the leader, group or an ideal playing an important part. More rarely there are times when basic aggressiveness becomes predominant, and the object is to kill rather than to gain any military objective. Such occasions may escalate from fear or the desire for revenge: especially where they involve civilians, as at My Lai, the aggressiveness is not usually condoned (Dower, 1986). The alienation from civilian life inherent in military training may cause the combatant to disregard values that would previously have been central to him or her. But the main factors in the violence are the duties that the institution of war imposes on the combatants. The munition and transport workers, equally important in the prosecution of the war, have duties that do not require them to behave aggressively, but the duty of the combatants is to fight.


The duty to fight and to kill enemies is not the only way in which war exacerbates aggression. War legitimates killing. The bomber crew feel that it is alright to do what they are doing because it is their duty. The soldier who would scarcely hurt a fly when at home can use a bayonet to impale an enemy. Indeed the training for hand-to-hand combat is designed to enhance aggressiveness and to see killing as success. Perhaps for that reason, murders tend to increase in frequency after wars are over.


It is, of course, the case that the other sources of motivation discussed earlier in this essay play a part in the aggressive behaviour of the soldier. But duty is nearly always paramount, and in using the distance weapons that predominate in modern warfare it is the combatant’s duty in the institution of war that predominates. That combatants do their duty may also be ensured by military discipline, or by loyalty to buddies, leaders, the unit, country or cause, but the duty imposed by their roles in the institution of war is primary. War causes aggression: aggressiveness does not cause wars.


How Can War Be Abolished?

Wars are diverse. Every war occurs because of a different but complex network of interacting factors. Inequalities, and especially inequalities in resources seen as necessary or as human rights, are important in the causation of many wars. Even in the absence of the threat of war, it is morally important that such inequalities be minimised. If poverty, and the environmental degradation that often enhances poverty, were to be abolished, wars would certainly become less frequent. If the concept of state sovereignty were to lose its place, and to be replaced by a federation under the governance of a world authority, war could perhaps be abolished. But these goals are still distant, and there is no simple prescription for the abolition of war (Hinde & Rotblat, 2000). There seem to be three routes that are often followed.


First, conflict resolution has become a sophisticated branch of social science, and a great deal is known about how conflicting interests can be reconciled. The United Nations and its agencies, as well as religious and secular organisations, have had a number of successes. However the diversity of wars, and the complexity of their causal bases, means that preventing violence between two parties with important but conflicting interests is often going to fail. Attempts to resolve conflicts seldom start before the conflict is intense, and that may be too late. Disentangling the deeply held views of the several parties involved, views whose origins may extend back into past centuries, is nearly always a formidable task, and may be impossible. In any case, the best solution for all concerned may not correspond to some sort of compromise between the views of the leaders involved in the negotiations. This does not mean that attempts to resolve conflicts should be abandoned, but rather that they should be started as early as possible, and not be seen as a panacea.


A second possibility is pacifism. Pacifists who maintain their positions against popular opinion, often suffering in consequence, deserve admiration. That sort of integrity is becoming all too scarce. However it is unlikely that the ideology of pacifism will be adequate to stem the dogs of war. There are likely always to be some who feel that it is sometimes right to fight, however horrible war may be. Limited war may prevent widespread devastation, and even a few who were not pacifists might be enough for war to be waged. Now that war has become so technically sophisticated, the massed armies essential in World War 1 may no longer be needed: it takes only a small proportion of the population to exploit the potential of modern weapons.


But this does not mean that the pacifist has no role to play. In the first place, the more individuals are seen to have integrity, the more hope there is of a peaceful society. More importantly, in negotiations that attempt to resolve conflicts before violence starts or when peace has been achieved, the wisdom of those who have stood outside the conflict may have an important role. For this two things are necessary. First, they must have achieved respect through endeavours unrelated to the concerns of the two parties in conflict. Second, they must understand fully the political realities of the situation.


A third possibility is to disempower the institution of war by removing the forces that sustain it. This is discussed in the next section.


Undermining The Institution Of War

We have seen that two things are essential for waging wars – weapons to fight them with and individuals ready to use those weapons. This essay is concerned with the latter. We have seen that the most important factor enhancing the willingness of individuals to go to fight in international wars is the duty imposed by the institution of war. Their sense of duty is usually reinforced by propaganda. In this section, therefore, we examine how the institution of war can be undermined (Hinde, 1997).


Institutions do not simply exist. They must be continuously supported and maintained. The forces that do so may be internal to their structure or external to them or both. For instance, the institution of Parliament is embedded in the (unwritten) Constitution of the country, and is supported continuously by the actions of the incumbents of its several roles. If the institution of war is to be undermined, the factors that support it must be neutralised. It is convenient to examine them in three categories.


Everyday factors. Many of the phrases we use in everyday life have military associations. Phrases like ‘keeping your head down’ and ‘digging in’ have military origins: their use in ordinary conversation sanitises their significance in war. Reports on war use euphemisms for the horrors involved: bombing attacks are referred to as ‘surgical strikes’, the dead as ‘the fallen’, civilian casualities as ‘collateral damage’ (Fussell, 1975; Mosse, 1990). Military metaphors are even given respectability in such unfortunate phrases as ‘war on want’ and ‘fighting for peace’. The way in which we think is influenced in part by the language that we use and, although the issue may seem trivial, the use of such phrases helps to give war a respectable image, and its occurrence as an acceptable possibility. The rejection of such ‘warisms’ could contribute, albeit in a small way, to reducing the power of the institution of war, just as the elimination of sexisms has contributed to greater equality between the sexes.


Many, but not all, films and books about war give it a positive image. It is depicted as the scene for manly virtues – courage, stoicism, fortitude – in an atmosphere of glory, excitement and new surroundings. The focus is on the victors, while the defeated are merely cardboard figures. Death is sanitised, lacking the terror and agony that often precedes it. ‘All quiet on the Western Front’ was an honourable exception, and some of the films made about and since the Vietnam war have tried to portray the real thing. But it is difficult for the film makers to get it right: the portrayal of violence can numb the senses, while concealing the horrors sanitises war. No film or book can capture the intensity or horror of combat for the reader in an armchair.


The fascination of mechanical devices for boys is exploited by the manufacturers of war toys. Such toys tend to make war seem like a harmless game, and as a part of normal life for grown-ups. Battles are re-enacted with toy soldiers, and board games are often based on militaristic themes. Some schools encourage ‘war games’, trivialising the horrors of war. Computor games, often involving extreme though make-believe violence, are a growing problem.


History has often been taught as a history of wars and battles, supporting a picture of the world as composed of competing groups. The image of the warrior hero is reinforced. Educational radio and television programmes discussing war have taken the position of the politicians and generals. There is much to be done in acquainting children with the nature of war as seen by those involved.


Educators have paid little attention to the 1974 UNESCO recommendation that member states should strengthen the contribution of peace education to international understanding and cooperation, to the establishment of social justice, and to the eradication of the misconceptions and prejudices that hinder these aims. The recommendation was coupled with the suggestion that teachers should be trained to foster these aims and that the results should be monitored. Practically the only country that has seemed to take any serious notice of this recommendation has been Finland. More recently some UK schools have tried to teach children what war really means, and some have even organised trips to the battlegrounds of northern France. The Peace Education Network of the British National Peace Council have taken steps to foster these aims. Some educational systems discuss cultural and religious difference in a way that can augment understanding and reduce antipathy to strangeness, but more emphasis could be placed on the theme of common humanity. And education should be extended to include the characteristics of good governance, and to the nature of the national and international organisations that try to provide it. The nature of Non-governmental Organisations, and of the United Nations Agencies, are obscure to most people – yet in a democratic world everyone should be familiar with the roles that they play, and have views on how their business should be conducted. Of course there is the danger that educators will believe that they are right, so that a too rigid framework is presented to children. What is needed is an education that encourages thoughtfulness.


But education as normally understood starts only when children go to school. More fundamental are the personalities that children bring to school – and though later influences may be important, personalities are initially formed in earlier life. Here, as we have seen, the role of parents and the early social environment, the nuclear or extended family, is paramount. Children have the potentialities for both selfish assertiveness and aggression, and for cooperation and prosociality: early socialisation can swing the balance either way. To achieve that, in many cases education must start with the education of parents, because there is a strong tendency for parents to believe that the way in which they were brought up is the right way to bring up children. And for education to be effective, parents must be delivered from poverty and inequalities must be reduced.


Here, then, is perhaps the most fundamental issue – the socialisation and education of the coming generation.


Pervasive cultural factors. Closely related to these everyday factors are cultural or societal characteristics that affect the attitudes of individuals to war. In the first place, there are differences between countries in attitudes to war. Some countries are militaristic, some are peace-loving. Such traditions are important since not only can they influence high-level decisions, but also they are incorporated into the self-concepts of individuals, who see themselves as having some of the characteristics of their country. But a country’s traditions can change. Over the years Sweden has changed from being militaristic to being peace-loving, and Japan changed in the opposite direction.


Second, national attitudes are often related to myths about the country’s or group’s past. For instance, colonial wars have been justified by an image of the local population as being intrinsically violent and barbarous, while the conquerors, who had invaded the country and had triumphed because they had the more destructive weapons, were presented as intrinsically peaceful. Anti-colonialists have used a reciprocal image to justify bloody rebellion.


Third, we have seen that how individuals see themselves is influenced by how they see the group to which they belong. One identifies with the groups to which one belongs, the more so if, as is usually the case, one sees them as better than others. Even in the face of contrary evidence, one sees one’s family, church and football team as better than others, or at least better than they really are. These tendencies are exploited in propaganda. Conflict and war necessarily involve distinctions between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’, and leaders or governments try to accentuate individuals’ perceptions of those differences. And in so far as one identifies with one’s own group, one sees a threat to the group as a threat to oneself.


The principal tools of such propaganda are ethnicity and religion, and nationalism. Often ethnic or religious rivalries passed down through the generations are exploited by leaders or governments to foment hatred in a manner that will serve the current cause. The potency of ethnic differences has been sadly illustrated by the war and massacres in Rwanda. However the differences are often more perceived than real. Ethnic differences may be perceived by those involved, and presented to outsiders, as natural and immutable. So immutable, in fact that new information is twisted to fit with the stereotyped preconceptions. But in many cases the characteristics on which the groups are seen to differ have little to do with what the conflict is about, having been reconstructed and exaggerated for political purposes. The differences between Tutsis and Hutus had been formalised and exacerbated by the former Belgian colonial administration, apparently on a divide and rule principle. In Jugoslavia the members of the different ‘ethnic’ groups had been living peacefully side by side, but rivalry between the republics was accompanied by increasingly vehement ethnic propaganda. Such propaganda techniques help to make the cause seem just, so that it becomes the citizens’ duty to fight or to contribute to the war effort. Often the rivalries between conflicting groups go back many generations to supposed injustices that must be revenged. The pain caused to past generations is carried forward to the present day by the ‘cross-generational transference of pain’. The conflict between Greece and Turkey in Cyprus has been exacerbated by conflicting portrayals of history in the school books and museums, so that past humiliations are seen as needing revenge to-day (Papadakis, 1995).


Religious differences have also been used to justify war. According to some interpretations of the Qu’ran, it is a duty to kill non-believers. The Old Testament also carries many exhortations to violence. The Crusades were primarily religious wars, though they acquired imperialist and economic aspects. Of the several aspects of religious systems, differences in beliefs are most prone to cause conflict (Hinde, 1999). Differences in ritual or religious experience seem less potent except in so far as they reflect religious beliefs, and moral codes have certain similarities across most religions. As with differences in ethnicity, religious differences are often additional to the basic causes of the conflict, and are exploited to augment the perception of differences. Thus the conflict in Northern Ireland had economic roots, the Catholics being underprivileged, but religion has provided a more obvious mark of difference.


Religious beliefs have also served to help the combatants to overcome inhibitions against killing, and to comfort the bereaved. The imagery of sacrifice was used by both sides in the Second World War, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross being associated with death in battle. In World War 1 this was made explicit with a poster showing Christ on the Cross and at his feet a dead soldier with a nicely sanitised bullet hole in his forehead (Sykes, 1991).


The effectiveness of such propaganda depends on channeling national or ethnic pride and traditions, religious beliefs and the demands of the situation to serve the current cause by the use of psychological characteristics common to all people. It is helpful here to distinguish between ‘patriotism’, involving love of one’s country, and ‘nationalism’, implying a feeling of superiority and need for power over outsiders. An experimental approach used in the USA during the Cold War era showed that these two attitudes, though correlated, could be distinguished.


At that time individuals high on nationalism were more willing to use nuclear weapons on the enemies of the USA, but less willing to risk their own lives for their country, than those high on patriotism (Feshbach, 1989)..


Nationalism tends to be self-perpetuating in that the more power a nation has, the more its members see it as special, the more they tend to protect their own interests, and the less they care about the welfare of others. It thus tends to be exacerbated by the competitiveness of capitalism. It is associated with high values placed on military power, dominance, economic opportunity and international competition, with a devil-take-the-hindmost attitude. It thus seems that excessive nationalism is not conducive to a peaceful world. Patriotism, on the other hand, is to be encouraged. Local cultures should be valued and preserved: no-one wants to live in a uniform Coca-Cola world.


Both nationalism and patriotism are founded on basic human propensities – fear of strangers, group loyalties, and so on. They are stimulated by propaganda, especially in time of war or of impending war. Parades and ceremonies, saluting the flag and playing the national anthem enhance love of one’s country, but may at the same time invite comparison with, and thus denigration of, others. Patriotism is augmented by the perception of the country as the ‘mother country’ or ‘fatherland’, and by the perception of fellow-countrymen as kin (brothers-in-arms). It can thus be seen as parasitic on the biological propensity to act cooperatively and prosocially with kin. Propaganda augments nationalism by portraying the enemy as evil, dangerous, and even sub-human: such images depend on the group processes referred to earlier, on the tendencies to fear strangers and to defend oneself.


The military-industrial-scientific complex. President Eisenhower pointed out that the very existence of the military, and the industry that supported it, enhanced the probability of war (Eisenhower, 1961). Some scientific endeavours should not be exempt here, this trio of organisations being perhaps the most important force supporting the institution of war. Each member of the trio can be seen as itself an institution, consisting of a number of sub-institutions, each with its own constituent roles. The nature of the military-industrial-scientific complex differs greatly between countries, and in some it is portrayed as having a primarily peace-keeping role.


The complex tends to have great stability: for instance NATO responded to the end of the Cold War not by seeing its task as accomplished but by extending its perceived sphere of responsibilities. This stability is supported by both external and internal forces. Externally, citizens perceive the complex as necessary for their security, in part because war is seen by many as an inevitable consequence of human nature. (The falsity of this view was portrayed by the 1986 Seville Declaration, disseminated by UNESCO). Politicians allow their reputations to be associated with the country’s military strength, and there are close links between arms industries and others with more peaceful goals. The arms industries are seen by members of the public as essential to the economy.


In addition the three members of the complex support each other. This is ensured by the time necessary for the development of new weapons. Each nation seeks to deploy weapons superior to those of its competitors. Scientists are employed to devise such weapons. The military request better and better weapons, and must approve the products. Development is long, costly and risky, so that governments are obliged to offer special terms to the arms industries. Development costs are partly covered by selling arms to other countries. Secrecy is involved at each stage, and the accountability of governments thereby diminished (Elworthy,1991).


There are also internal forces contributing to the stability of each member of the trio. A major issue is, of course, the career ambitions of the incumbents of the roles in each institution. In addition, each institution has its own regulative processes. The military functions within a set of accepted rules, and is empowered by the use of symbols that authenticate its existence. Military procedures are such as to legitimate the institution itself, and the hierarchical nature of the armed services ensures that it is in the interests of the leaders at each level to maintain the system. Patriotism and loyalty are inculcated by tradition. Scientists and industrialists similarly adopt frames of reference that legitimate their activities. While many members of the three arms of the complex genuinely believe that what they are doing is for the good of mankind, or at least of their country, others employ stratagems to conceal what they are doing from others, and even from themselves. For instance one arms dealer called his business ‘Intercontinental Technology’ and masked his activities with the claim that he was satisfying ‘consumer needs’. He admitted that he deliberately avoided thinking about the human consequences of his trade.



Every war is the result of a network of interacting causes. One way to reduce the incidence of war would be to identify the causes common to many wars, and to eliminate them. That this would be a task of incredible difficulty does not mean that it should not be pursued: a reduction in one or more of the causal factors could reduce the probability of armed conflict. But it is claimed here that two factors are essential, arms to fight with, and individuals willing to wield them, and the focus has been on the latter. How can people’s willingness to go to war be removed?


The first emphasis must be on education. Education first of parents, so that children grow up with prosocial values, with low aggressiveness, and an ability to sift the wheat from the chaff in government propaganda. But parents cannot be expected to bring up children as prosocial and cooperative individuals unless they are themselves living in a reasonably secure environment. That means that a major effort to reduce poverty world-wide is necessary, and that in turn requires the reduction in wealth differentials and a fairer distribution of the earth’s resources. At the same time this would remove some of the factors that predispose individuals to violence and that trigger and justify its use.


At the group level, attachment to one’s own group is an almost essential component of group living, and is a product of basic aspects of human nature. But loyalty to one’s own group can be at least partially decoupled from the tendency to denigrate others. Three issues could profitably be considered here. First, socialisation and education can foster understanding of and tolerance for the beliefs and customs of others. Second efforts must be made to reduce differences between groups with potential rivalries: an obvious issue is the danger posed by single-faith schools. And third, competition between groups could be reduced by a more equitable distribution of resources.


At the international level, efforts must be made to discourage nationalism without diminishing patriotism. This requires policies similar to those mentioned in the previous paragraph. But, even more importantly, the power of the military- industrial-scientific complex must be diminished. This does not necessarily mean immediate and total demilitarisation, for the need for defense and for collective action may remain for many years to come. But support for the complex in the general population could be diminished by a growing realisation that war does not stem from human aggressiveness and is not inevitable. Peace education could help here, and education encouraging independence of thought would diminish the power of propaganda. Industrial conversion from arms manufacture to more peaceful purposes has proved difficult but should not be impossible. Efforts are already being made by the Pugwash organisation to discourage young scientists from entering arms industries, though the distinction from firms with solely peaceful purposes is often difficult to make. Finally, the Achilles heel of the complex is probably the arms trade. As noted above, arms-producing industries depend on sales to foreign countries to reduce their development costs, and those sales make possible violent war between their customers. Stricter and international control over the arms trade would be an enormously important step (Broszka, 1995; Elworthy, 1991).


It will be seen that discouraging people from going to war requires action of many kinds. But the underlying theme that unites them all has seldom been better phrased than in the Russell-Einstein manifesto which led to the formation of the Pugwash movement:


‘Remember your humanity, and forget the rest’

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