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 Wars and Conflicts Index
 AfricaWars  Cambodia  Greece  Mexico  Sudan
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 Syria

For Any Topic In George Matthews' Web Pages

What is the real history of war? Was it the invention of agriculture that brought about organised fighting? Archeology shows some periods of history when villages and settlements seem to have been undefended; and other periods when people had to build walls round their settlements.

Study of the behaviour of near human cousins in the Chimpanzee species suggests that even our earliest ancestors practiced small scale scuffling for local dominance in the group. In Chimpanzees war between groups seems to occur only under conditions of stress, as when at the Gombe Stream reserve humans are encroaching on their hunting grounds and causing competition for diminishing resources.

Hunter gatherers possibly didn't fight. ("Possibly" because we only have the evidence of present remnants of that way of life. Laurens van der Post quoted the San people of the Kalahari (Kgalakgadi) in Botswana as saying that anciently they had an agreement not to fight each other. But was he a reliable reporter, or did he make up what he wanted to be true?) When human population was sparse and static (if it ever was) there were few occasions for fighting.

By the time we can observe settled kingdoms, in Sumeria, the custom of war between states seems to be well established.

Archaeology in Britain suggests that people became more aggressive after iron came to be used. "Better" weapons perhaps provoked more fighting. Iron Age forts are a prominent feature of the ancient landscape. They seem to be defensive.

 The number of wars in the world seems to be increasing - but is it? We should note a UN report October 2005 that the number of wars is diminishing, even though situations of civil disturbance, guerrilla and terrorist activity may be increasing. (Will post reference when I find it.) Is there a general cause or is each case separate and different?

1. The end of the Cold War may have released many conflicts suppressed during the period of nuclear stalemate.

These include disturbances in and around Russia and the former Soviet Union; and in the former Yugoslavia.

2. Another is competition for resources, such as oil and gas. Although demand for these is rising and supply is likely to be static or declining (see peak oil), it is hard to say that any particular war is motivated entirely by demand for these. However, the war in Iraq certainly looks like a war over oil. Probably the Darfur war in Sudan is mainly about oil. The endless war in Congo Kinshasa is at least partly about competition for the mineral wealth.

3. Many wars seem to be about the possession of land, and disputes about who owns what land. These probably began as soon as agriculture replaced hunter-gathering as the main means of getting food. In the modern world the main cause here has been nationalism - arguments over what "nation" or ethnic group has the right to live on a certain piece of land. Examples can be found in Sri Lanka and Georgia in the Caucasus.

4. A visionary and highly speculative idea is that the unprecedented size of the human population may be a factor - in at least some of the disturbances. Hans Magnus Enzensburger, the German writer - in Civil War (Granta Cambridge UK 1994 ), suggests there is a state of civil war everywhere: manifested in the US as high crime, gang warfare and a rise in random shootings; in other parts as allegedly political conflicts. But he suggests that many of these conflicts are not rational, in the sense of people pursuing political ends but that, like gang warfare, they show signs of being killing for killing's sake. This idea is especially disturbing because if true it is hard to devise a remedy. Political conferences, as in Bosnia, could not produce a result because none of the parties want peace. The same often seems to be true of Northern Ireland where it is often said that both sides want not peace but victory. (But we should note that the NI conflict seems to have been ended with a political solution, and Bosnia although not solved has ceased to be active).

Is it true that, like experimental rats, humans become aggressive when overcrowding occurs? If so, perhaps we are in for bad times. (But humans, unlike rats, have consciousness and creative intelligence and can devise methods of co-existing even in crowded conditions - for example the Japanese culture of elaborate politeness).

But Enzensburger may be ignoring quite rational explanations for some of these endemic conflicts. The break down of social cohesion in some industrial countries, such as Russia and parts of the United States can easily be explained by the way the ruling elite have cut themselves off from the rest of society by manipulating the tax system so they don't have to pay society's costs. The useful comparison is with those countries where the rich have not reduced their tax liabilities as in Sweden and Norway, with higher tax levels but much lower crime rates (see Wilkinson's new book). Once again, this is a problem where Ibn Khaldun may have something to say to us, with his emphasis on "group feeling" as opposed to atomised individualism.

Elaine Morgan discusses whether humans really are "innately" aggressive and argues they aren't.

Climate Change may produce the conditions for wars unless managed carefully (for which there are no signs). Warming is likely to reduce the supply of food and water in areas at present on the margins of famine. If 1000 million people need to move from flooded or newly arid areas, how can that be arranged without fighting?

A worldwide system of law, which tends to be ignored by the uncooperative big powers such as the United States, Russia and China, could lessen the tendency of nation states to go to war. Unfortunately the people who actually run the big states all too often don't believe in law - as can be seen in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Georgia (Sakartvelo), Tibet, Chechnya and numerous other activities of the big powers - US, Russia and China, all of whom ignore the structures of international law. These powers have exempted themselves from the scope of the International Criminal Court.

Try this link Eric Hobsbawm.

How many people have died already? Death roll in major wars

Nothing on this page should be interpreted to suggest any support for religious ideas of "end times" in which the author does not believe. In general the world is hardly any different now from any other time in observable human history. The world is not coming to an end, whatever certain preachers may think. The bible, or any other religious text, does not predict future historical events.

Interesting reading

Frans de Waal Chimpanzee politics


Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes



Wilde Diplomaten. Versöhnung und Entspannungspolitik bei Affen und Menschen


De la réconciliation chez les primates


Richard Wilkinson


The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better


The Spirit Level

Elaine Morgan - Descent of Woman



Der Mythos vom schwachen Geschlecht. Wie die Frauen wurden, was sie sind.
Les cicatrices de l'évolution
Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of our Nature


The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Observer review

Last revised 21/10/11


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