Why do humans start conflicts?
Don’t lie. This topic has crossed your mind at one point or another. And I can’t blame you for it. It’s incredibly intriguing as it helps guide our understanding of the reasons behind key events in our history. As I mentioned in my previous blog posts, conflict lies at the center of many monumental points in our species’ past and will likely, unfortunately continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Horrible events like the Hundred Years’ War, the two World Wars, and the Cold War have shaped our world and how we, as humans, operate in our day-to-day lives. So is it not then frankly ridiculous the human species, which considers itself to be the most intelligent species on Earth, has consistently allowed these events to unfold, ending the lives of billions of innocent individuals in the process and causing innumerable pieces of historical knowledge to be lost or destroyed? Why do we do this to ourselves?
Like I talked about in my previous blog post, humans have gone to war for a myriad of different reasons. The most common reason humans went to war, particularly in the past, was the search for food and other resources. Once larger civilizations began forming, such as the Sumerians in modern-day Iraq and the Elamites in modern-day Iran, ancient warfare as we know it today (as in larger weaponry, chariots, etc) began popping up. One of the earliest wars was in fact fought between these two powers around 2700 B.C and stemmed from the Sumerians feeling threatened by their neighbours, as well as the desire for their resources .
As selfish and barbaric as this may sound, that was only one example out of many. The development of production-minded economies, such as the Elamites and Sumerians, very quickly led to a “radical change in social structures”. For the first time in human history, large-scale food surpluses were becoming a reality. This new phenomenon, as opposed to the previous state of only having as much food as you needed, was one of the most direct causes of the concept of ownership. And, like many things with humans, with ownership came inequality, instability and competition, in place of cooperation .
But you might ask: Why did we become more conflict-prone when we began forming communities instead of becoming more cooperative? It is because of the fact that in lieu of growing our communities and including others, many early civilizations, as well as modern ones, chose to detach themselves from others, to not include them, to stay independent. They saw themselves as different, likely as better, and believed that their reasons for existing overruled others’, so much so that they would preemptively start a war against another power due to them expecting said power to attack them in the future !
And here comes the last major piece of the conflict causation puzzle: security and justice. This is by far the most common reason aggressors in conflicts cite as their excuse for starting a war. While it is not always true and sometimes simply serves as a cover-up for a country/power’s leader’s hidden agenda, a lack of security and/or a lack of justice, perceived or real, can cause a massive collective uproar, perfect for creating large scale conflict; the perception of “fairness” and “inclusiveness” can and have been great motivators in large, violent movements. The most common example of this in the modern day is the somewhat meteoric rise of insanely violent religious extremist groups who feed on the people’s sense of oppression [1, 3]. They seek war because it gives them a better outlook than the existence they have been forced to endure ; in the case of the middle east, lots of the blame can be placed on the United States’ desire for oil.
All in all, there are many reasons why humans are driven to begin conflicts. However, the main point I would like you to take away from this is that when we create distance between ourselves and others, excluding them from groups that we ourselves identify with, we will inevitably cause a space that serves as a powder keg for conflict. [1, 2]. Without this separation between our diverse groups, there is no “us-versus-them mentality”, and therefore there is no desire to cause conflict. If we are all pulling as one, why would we fight? But unfortunately, this is not the case, and we consistently perceive others as threats to our wellbeing instead of partners for our collective success. Fundamentally, war requires that we “identify ourselves as belonging to one group while simultaneously excluding other people.”  But is this exclusionary, warmongering attitude something that is built into the human psyche or did we develop it due to our surroundings and adaptation? That is exactly what I will be discussing in my next blog post, so if you are at all interested, stay tuned for that!