In the Western world at least, war — and the violence that comes with it — is portrayed as the last possible resort, and the culmination of economic, social and political factors made by rational actors, whether they be nation states, political leaders or military generals.
But the forthcoming book Why We Fight by Mike Martin, a former British army officer turned research fellow at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, argues that’s misguided. Instead, he believes that our propensity to engage in warfare has much deeper biological roots — particularly, the subconscious desires men hold, which have been shaped by thousands of years of cognitive evolution. “Humans fight to achieve status and belonging,” Martin writes at the book’s start. “They do so because in evolutionary terms, these are the surest routes to survival and increased reproduction. Status — which denotes our hierarchical position compared to others — helps humans to find sexual partners of a higher quality, to attain resources and to control others. So we fight over it.”
I recently talked to Martin to find out how his research was influenced by both his service in Afghanistan and the ISIS attack on the Bataclan Theater in Paris; why AI is the only technological innovation that can truly change how we fight; and what it would take for us to put our weapons down once and for all.
What brought you to write the book?
My experience is as a soldier in Afghanistan, and reading about war and war scholarship. I wanted to explore why the reality of fighting didn’t match the media reporting on it. Part of my interest was the ideology of why we fight — especially because lots of people I know were excited about fighting and wanted to fight. There’s a rush when it comes to fighting. There are, of course, negative emotions as well, but the fact that there are a lot of positive emotions, too, means we’ve evolved to do it and that there’s been an evolutionary advantage to fighting wars throughout human history. Conversely, though, when war is written about, it’s seen as a burden, or something soldiers just do.
The event that really forced this subject into my consciousness was the Bataclan attack in Paris in 2015. There was this strong narrative about ideology driving people to do this. I was thinking a lot about that as well — what drives people to do things like this and the ideologies behind it. But a key question jumped out: How does ideology drive anyone to kill themselves? This matches my experience of war. And the more I read about it, the more I realized I was reading about psychology and the way our brain develops.
Is there something about masculine identity that suggests why men are the most attracted to violence?
From first principles, men commit about 95 percent of murders. Even now, men form the vast majority of fighters in wars and in armies — even very modern armies. That’s universal. And if you have something universal, you know that there’s something inherently genetic about it — not to the exclusion of environment, but there’s a strong genetic predisposition. It comes down to the differences between men and women; namely, men have the possibility of having more offspring than women. This variability means that women are the “rare resource” because there are less women who are fertile compared to men, and therefore, women are seen as the resource men “compete” for.
Traditionally, men of higher status had more ability to get with more women — the higher men are in the hierarchy, the more women they get and the more children they have, which is the point of evolution. That’s been ingrained over generations. As such, men fight to increase their status. Not just in war zones either; it happens outside of war, too. The most extreme example might be in China after the one-child policy — where because of female infanticide, there were more men than women because men were considered to be of higher value.
“Toxic masculinity” is often referred to when we talk about the violent predispositions of men. Is this something inherent in men, which makes them more open to fighting?
Toxic masculinity is talked about as if it’s an entirely learnt behavior. This simply isn’t correct. Decades of research demonstrate there are predispositions laid down by genetics in male and female behavioral leanings (to be clear, we’re talking about averages between the species).
This doesn’t mean we can’t change these behaviors — we change them all the time. Look at the effect that maternity pay in the U.K. had on the behaviors of men and women. But it means that there also will be some things that we can’t change, or will be very hard to change. The amount of violence committed by men, I would argue, is one of those things — for the reasons stated above.
How has the nature of war — changing battlefields, weapons etc. — changed the way we think about war?
The essence of war is unchanged no matter what technology is used because the underlying principles are the same: You’re trying to have an effect on the six inches between the ears of the enemy commander — and that doesn’t have to be overtly violent. One exception is with AI. The reason why is because if you look at how AI approaches stuff, it isn’t trying to copy the human mind. The human masters approach problems in ways that AI doesn’t. Human minds might try to deconstruct Go plays made by AI, for example, but AI won’t approach problems in that way. So we could see AI change the nature of engaging in war just by bringing a different way of thinking to the battlefield.
What did you find were the trends that illustrated how war could change, especially in relation to non-nation state military groups like terrorist organizations?
Terrorism is massively over-hyped as a phenomenon. If you look at the figures from terrorism, more people die from drowning or car accidents than from terrorist attacks. It does occupy a huge amount of mental energy, but we’ve always had elements of violence from the fringes of society. So in terms of Islamist terrorism for example, it’s much less of a problem in numerical terms than the IRA or the Tamil Tigers. The fear comes from the 24-hour newscycle where everything becomes sensational and hyped — even if the impact isn’t at a historic high.
That’s why I don’t see terrorism as a new mode of warfare. In fact, I’ve seen modern terrorism on a huge decline from previous decades. What I see instead is a “return of history” in some ways. The nation state then has to reorganize due to the societal changes that come with technology, including how global governance reorganizes itself to deal with transnational problems.
Let’s bring it back to your title. What would need to happen so that you could write a follow-up book called Why We Don’t Fight?
People fight because they want status, and they seek belonging with their own groups. Your conscious brain interprets that through things like religion, ideology and moral code, but inherently, there’s a drive for status and belonging. That said, there’s been a decline in violence, and that comes with building more solid global groups and organizations that people can belong to. I think humans might be in the reach of eradicating most violence, but we’ll need stronger global institutions that operate on higher values and principles to provide the mechanisms required to solve our complex [societal] problems.