Breaking Our Addiction to War

January 25, 2010

I am sick of being anti-war. Are wars inevitable? War crimes? If we really don’t want wars, it behooves us to get serious about understanding their causes, and choose to radically address them. Otherwise, what’s the point? Feeling a “rush” with like-minded folks at political actions only perpetuates our addiction to anti-war rallies, which do nothing to stop wars from occurring.

The inarticulate presidency of George Bush II successfully unmasked the US empire for everyone to see in its gruesome glory – laying bare all the lies, sordid details, and egregious consequences of unfettered greed. Then the hopium associated with Obama’s election served as a soothing tranquilizer, quieting the movement, at least for a time. Yet, no matter who is in power, wars continue ad nauseum. To learn why we must examine the vertical/hierarchical, patriarchal political-economic system to which we humans have adapted over millennia.

First, let’s look at US history. The record reveals a chronic, depressing pattern of war making – 550 direct military interventions since 1799 in more than 100 countries. More than 300 of these have occurred since World War II, including bombing of 28 countries. In addition, the US has conducted thousands of covert interventions, mostly in “Third World” countries.

The longer view: Since the advent of “civilization” around 3500 BC (55 centuries ago), there have been 14,600 recorded “decisive wars,” not counting thousands of smaller, “indecisive” ones, according to the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. This coincides with development of writing and emergence of patriarchal, hierarchical kingdoms, most of which later became empires. The rulers of these kingdoms gained power by manipulating surplus that had grown out of the agricultural revolution. Another coincidence with the advent of civilization is a notable increase in findings of human remains for which the cause of death has been attributed to warfare injuries. Archaeologists have found little if any evidence of systemic warfare prior to this time.

Since 1500 AD, war scholar Quincy Wright documents 3,000 recorded “battles” which involved casualties of at least 1,000 in land battles, and 500 in naval ones, with an additional quarter million “hostile encounters.” The US Army alone has been engaged in over 9,000 “battles and skirmishes” between 1775-1900, most against Native Americans, with the US Navy engaged in over 1,100 encounters in addition.

Efforts to prevent wars are also well established. Historical sociologist Jacques Novicow documented more than 8,000 treaties for peace between 1,500 BC and 1860 AD.

Modern efforts to impose accountability for war behavior include the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter, and the Nuremberg Principles. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact renounced war altogether. Since the 1950s, the US Army Field Manual adopted provisions of international law, absolutely prohibiting targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. It has done little, if anything, to retard murder of civilians.

Attempting to understand this chronic pattern of human carnage, scholars such as Lewis Mumford, Thomas Berry, Marija Gimbutus, Riane Eisler, and James Hillman chronicle the record of more than five millennia of the four patriarchal establishments – classical empires, ecclesiastical institutions, nation-states, and modern corporations. All four can be described as male-dominated, vertical hierarchies dependent for their functioning on strict obedience from their population base.

“Civilization” is marked by a dramatic shift from long-standing decentralized, horizontal, matriarchal societies, to centralized, vertical/class-oriented, patriarchal societies, in which obedience to a King was required, and slave labor utilized to construct massive projects like tombs, irrigation and grain storage systems. Class and stratification ripped people from their historical roots as autonomous beings living in small cooperative tribal groups. This separation of people from their intimate connections with the earth produced deep insecurity, anxiety and fear in the psyche, and ecopyschologists such as Chellis Glendinning and Theodore Roszak suggest that such fragmentation created a traumatic primordial breach. Being forced to live and work in a class system generally leads to a feeling of lack of self worth. People will avoid this shame at any cost, often by adopting “defense mechanism” such as projecting demonization onto others “below,” and/or deference of authentic autonomous freedoms to belief in authority structures and adoption of their accompanying mythologies and ideologies.

For 300 generations civilization has required obedience. This has become a cultural habit enabling each of us to successfully adapt to our non-Indigenous culture. Observers such as Etienne De La Boetie have discovered that virtually all vertical power quickly becomes ego-tyrannical, inherent in concentration of political, social and economic power, whether achieved through elections (such as the USA), force of arms, or inheritance. Method of rule is essentially the same – achieving mass consent through either fear or propaganda/myth. Barbara Tuchman describes the historical folly of ego-maniacs at war in her 1984 book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

In essence, by being conditioned to obey the laws and mores of modern society dictated and shaped by vertical political-economic systems, we have been living contrary to our authentic nature as cooperative beings capable of self-governance in small communities without authority from above. In addition, in the West, with but 20 percent of the world’s population, we have materially benefited from 500 years of colonial exploitation at the expense of the remaining 80 percent. This is not only immoral, it is ecologically unsustainable. In the US, with but 4.6 percent of the world’s population, our insatiable consumption devours more than 30 percent of the globe’s resources. Habits of obedience to our system have historically been reinforced by our personal addiction to consumer goods, fed by the myth that our material well-being derives from our “exceptionalism” as US Americans. Our allegiance to this myth and our addiction to its benefits are what enable those dreadful wars – these are nothing more than imperial projects to assure, at gunpoint, continuation of our American Way Of Life, not to mention endless profits for the “emperor” and his entourage.

In summary, we are addicted to war because we are addicted to a materialist way of life, which requires obedience to an infrastructure of imperialism that enables business as usual. That it is totally unsustainable is only now being realized.

The prescription: Re-discover the eco-consciousness that already resides in our visceral genetic memory outside our brains. Choosing to live with less stuff in locally sufficient, food producing and simple tool making/artisan cultures can be joyful, and pockets of such revivalist cultures are cropping up in many places as people strive to re-establish their local autonomy. We are coming full circle – those we exterminated because we deemed them “savage,” were in fact authentic. We are the savages and now must turn to the authentics to help in our healing.


  1. Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Hi Brian. I am from France, Europe. We were very impressed here, being young, by the American pacifist movement and the sixties. Woodstock, MC5, the psychedelic experience, the hippies, the underground culture. But also the political demonstrations like the one of Chicago and the Chicago seven trial. This events impacted us much more than war, official culture programs or major government figures. It was powerful. We thought that the world was going to change. Could you talk to us about your experience of this moments. The good remembrance or the disappointments.

    I also have a question about your accident in the railway. How could this happen ? You did not wake up and move away when the train was approaching ! I was upset as i read this in your biography.

    I wish you my best Brian

  2. W Gary Johnson
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    My only critique: A society lacking the corporate/statist hierarchy doesn’t necessarily have to be a
    “locally sufficient, food producing and simple tool making/artisan culture.” As long as people are free to exchange with one another, a free society can support a high degree of complexity. Given that the elites produce nothing, and have destroyed centuries worth of capital, we can only imagine the prosperity that free people living in community might enjoy.

  3. Daniel Gross
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this very detailed, researched and well articulated argument.

    However, I take exception to your characterization of the social hierarchies in gender terms.

    I say this because, ‘patriarchies’ do not and did not arise in isolation of the demands of the ‘mothers’. A fact that is conveniently ignored by the ‘scholars’ in the women’s studies department. It is unfair to squarely put the blame of wars entirely on the shoulders of males. The resources required to keep the silent matriarchies humming and cooing are garnered through war. This is almost never highlighted.

    Males of most societies do not choose to go into war voluntarily. A war is no excursion. Most men, of all era, clime and cultures, prefer the safety of home and their charge and wards, to the bloody bludgeoning in a battlefield. Yet, men go to war, because when faced with the choice of being over-run or to pre-empt being over-run, women cannot go to war. It is a social default. Life is unfair … in this case to men. And eventually to their women, should the men be defeated or killed in war.

    The idea that a society which has acquired a ‘feminized’ contour / structure is going to be less violent is incorrect. In our own time, women have not been found lacking in restraint to avoid war. In fact, they have only been too willing and eager to utilize it as. Margaret Thatcher (Falkland Islands war), Indira Gandhi (Liberation of Bangladesh), Mao’s wife (Communist purge in China), Benazir Bhutto (Extension of proxy war in Kashmir) are but just a few examples. Women aren’t incapable of violence or of initiating or participating in wars. Until their exceptions rank, the violent male / patriarchy thesis is suspect.

    Males either choose to go to war or have war thrusted upon them, because quite simply, the choice is to protect one’s family.

    I am afraid, that the canard of men being the violent gender has been stretched a bit too thin.

    Arguments against the state’s use of war, has and can be made using the elements of state relations that prevent effective peaceful conflict resolution.

    Nevertheless, thank you for the article.

  4. Posted November 30, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I agree that entrenched hierarchies of whatever gender is not healthy.

    I believe that the only sustainable model that has been proven throughout history is one that is local, even if it moves from place to place over time. Once we discover that we cannot continue being dependent upon the extremely efficient energy source of fossil fuels (only efficient if one disregards the long term devastation caused by burning fossil fuels), then the pace of life will be much slower and simpler, and units much smaller. That does not preclude a certain complexity of social arrangements, but by and large the distance between people and their activities will be shortened, and accountability will be based more on personal familiarity, not virtual reality.

  5. niels jessen
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Brian for your continued efforts to tell the world how it stands! The truth shall set us free… Keep on protesting :-) ) Niels

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2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] more than I would for Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini. Brian Wilson, someone who knows his history and the why of our addiction to war, torture and the like, called Obama “a totalitarian monster no less than the worst monarchs and [...]

  2. [...] more than I would for Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini. Brian Wilson, someone who knows his history and the why of our addiction to war, torture and the like, called Obama “a totalitarian monster no less than the worst monarchs and [...]

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