Conflicts of interest

November 10, 1995

Combatants in a war are driven by a sense of duty rather than by aggression, argues Robert A. Hinde

When one person intentionally harms another, we desc- ribe the behaviour as aggression. When one nation invades another, we use the same term. Yet, except for the intentional infliction of harm, the two are very different. To understand individual aggression, we must analyse the motivations of the combatants. To understand war, we must come to terms with aspects of group functioning as well as with individual behaviours, and we must recognise that war is an institution.

Some individuals are more prone to fight than others, and violence is more likely to occur in some contexts than others. The tendency of individuals to behave aggressively depends on their assertiveness, their desire to show off, their acquisitiveness, and a number of other personality traits, as well as their aggressiveness. Some individuals are more likely than others to provoke aggression. And the incidence of aggression may depend on social norms regulating the acceptability of violent behaviour.

Given such factors, whether one individual actually does behave aggressively to another may depend on a variety of predisposing factors - for instance hot weather - and precipitating factors such as frustration. And if he does, the behaviour will be complicated by the fact that attack involves risk of injury and thus a tendency to flee as well as to attack. The result is likely to be ambivalent threatening unless one tendency overrides the other.

In a confrontation between two groups, additional factors enter the equation. The group members see themselves as interdependent and as more similar to each other than they are to outsiders. They evolve their own rules of conduct. Because group membership contributes to the individuals' social identity, they tend to identify with groups that they receive favourably and like groups with which they identify. As a result similarities among members of the in-group, and differences from the out-group, tend to be magnified. The members of the group may have a leader, who may either reflect or form the values of the group. If the group is aggressive to outsiders, the first individual to show aggression in a confrontation, or the one who behaves the most valiantly, may receive credit. Looking for status in the group may thus be as important as a propensity for aggression.

In the violence in the South African townships during the apartheid era, an analysis by Professor Straker of Johannesburg showed that the groups contained individuals with diverse personalities. There were well-balanced and dedicated leaders; followers who wanted to be warrior-heroes; those looking for a sense of self; conformists who were seeking group acceptance but whose passions were not engaged; and anti-social psychological casualties. But the violence could not be understood just in terms of personalities: the socio-historical context was also crucial.

The distinction between intergroup conflict and international war is often blurred, and the hostilities in the former Yugoslavia seem to be intermediate between them. However, in general, war involves complex societies each containing many overlapping groups; the role of leaders is paramount; and war is to be seen as an institution with a number of constituent roles - combatants, generals, transport workers, munition workers, scientists, industrialists, doctors, nurses and so on. The participants do what they do because it is their duty. Thus individual aggressiveness plays at most a minor part in the behaviour of the combatants. If the aggressive tendencies of individuals do take over, as in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the behaviour is often not condoned. In addition, individual combatants are little influenced by hopes of personal material gain, and any hopes of enhancing their social status by acts of aggression are a consequence of public values stemming from the institution of war, rather than a cause of war. Thus the descriptions of international war involve personifying nations, and do not contribute to understanding either the causes of war or the behaviour of those involved. Human aggressiveness does not cause wars, though wars may elicit aggression.

So what are the forces that create and maintain war?

First, certain everyday factors contribute to the maintenance of the idea of war. War novels and films, with certain honourable exceptions, glorify war, focusing on the bravery of victors and sanitising the suffering. War toys serve to introduce children to the mechanics of war, and portray it as acceptable and even desirable. Education plays a role, because history is often taught as a history of wars. Peace education is little in evidence, though Finland is a shining example and parts of Canada have also introduced it. Male chauvinism also contributes: an American marine colonel, objecting to the presence of women in the armed services, is quoted as saying "after all, you have got to protect the essential manliness of war".

The second group of factors involves culturally pervasive issues. Nations differ in their bellicosity: for instance Sweden, formerly one of the most aggressive of European nations, is now an example to all. Religions have both initiated and condoned wars, and Christianity is no exception. Although the early Christians were pacifists, the conversion of the Emperor Constantine led to a reversal of the situation, and Saint Augustine was responsible for the view that some wars were just. International law until recently incorporated this view, specifying circumstances in which it was justifiable to go to war and the behaviour that was permitted. Now the use of force is officially limited to the UN, but it is too weak to enforce the rule.

Another pervasive issue is patriotism/nationalism. Patriotism, or love of one's country, and nationalism, the denigration of others, are linked but distinguishable. During the cold war Professor Feshbach of the University of California at Los Angeles showed that patriots tended to deplore nuclear weapons but were willing to sacrifice themselves for their country, while those high in nationalism were hawkish about weapons but less willing to be personally involved. Patriotism and nationalism depend on the group processes mentioned earlier, augmented by the perception of fellow countrymen as kin through the use of family metaphors such as fatherland and motherland. During conflicts governments use propaganda to enhance nationalism and to play down the horrors of war. National symbols, museums and parades increase solidarity and denigrate the enemy, who may be portrayed as evil and sub-human. Narratives about the past may serve to maintain memories of pain at the hands of former oppressors and thus perform a diachronic transference of pain and anger to younger generations.

The final source of support for the institution of war is the military-industrial-scientific complex. Each major country has a complicated procedure for arms procurement, because of the long lead time in weapons development. It is in the interests of the military to have the best weapons, in the interests of the scientists to invent and perfect them, and in the interests of the industrialists to provide them. It is in the interests of the military that the weapons should be as cheap as possible, and thus the producers need to make large runs and need outside markets. Governments therefore tend to protect as well as control arms dealers. With each of the subinstitutions having its own aims and climate, the maintenance of the system must largely depend on the kudos given to individuals in advancing those aims, and thus on individual status seeking.

Thus wars are not caused by individual aggressiveness. Wars depend on a number of human propensities, including the tendency to co-operate in groups and the fear of strangers, operating through the institution of war which is both created by and plays upon those basic propensities.

Robert A. Hinde is indebted to the contributors to two conferences: R. A. Hinde (ed) (1991). The Institution of War. London: Macmillan. R. A. Hinde and H. Watson (eds) (1995). War: a cruel necessity? London: Taurus.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments