Root and Structural Causes of War

September 1, 2005

Introduction: The Trauma of Civilization

The human invention of urban “civilization” about 3500 BC (250-300 human generations ago) coincides with the advent of patterns of systematic violence previously unknown. The development of massive civil obedience to the vertical authority structures that ushered in civilization, originally in the form of kings, has witnessed a reported 14,500 major wars. This obedience has become a habit, generally void of any memory of the autonomous freedom of pre-urban civilization tribal groups.

The new vertical power structure soon became an abstraction and an end in itself, utilizing the first megamachine (Mumford) of statehood (kings and their elite team of priests and scribes organizing huge projects) composed of human parts. Virtually all civilizations have been traumatized by:

  • centralization of control with aid of bureaucracy and hierarchy
  • separation of classesstratification and lifetime division of labor
  • creation of slavery (forced labor) for industrial, agricultural, military purposes
  • mechanization for massive production (pyramid tombs, irrigation, palaces, etc.)
  • magnification of power via a military for expanding control over adjacent territory and coercing more labor
  • human sacrifice, direct or disguised
  • secrecy

Psychological, Deep Root Causes of War: Millenia of Insecurity

Class and stratification ripped people from their historical roots of living in small tribal groups. This separation of people from their intimate connections with the earth, produced deep insecurity and fear. The field of ecopsychology suggests that such fragmentation created a primordial breach resulting in severe trauma and insecurity in the human psyche (Roszak). Psychologists describe “defense mechanisms” by which authentic freedoms become deferred to belief in authority structures, and their mythologies and controlling ideologies (De La Boetie, Eisler).

This pattern has contributed to a deep shame (invalidation), recognition of which is pre-empted by the newly imposed belief systems. Many successive generations of shame-based child upbringing (Miller) and shame-ethics has led to generations of patterns of violence (Gilligan). Arrogance rather than humility, denial rather than awareness, and violence against “others,” became major “defense mechanisms” to relieve anxiety created by the deep insecurities (Millburn and Conrad).

In the alternative, the ancestral memory of the high, or “rush” from experiences rallying around collective defense to a common enemy (Ehrenreich), and search for meaning in a culture of void suggests “war is a force that gives us meaning” (Hedges).

Tyranny is inherent in concentration of political, social, and economic power, whether achieved through elections, force of arms, or inheritance. The method of rule is essentially the same — achieving massive consent either through fear or propaganda/myth (De La Boetie). People have deep yearning for meaning and autonomy, remnants of their evolutionary memory, but the void is at least temporarily fulfilled through name-calling and violence with a “cause.”

Structural Causes of War

Political-economic systems, unfolding through 5 millennia of vertical authority structures, are intended to preserve privilege and class through rationalized exploitation. They are generally addicted to expansion (to acquire workers, resources, markets) to maintain their “prosperity” which has in turn been supported by the insecure masses despite detrimental consequences. The United States, with but 4.6% of the world’s population, insists on maintaining the American Way Of Life (AWOL) which consumes anywhere from 25% to nearly half the world’s resources. This “nonnegotiable” Way Of Life (Bush I), grotesquely disproportionate in its unfairness and danger to global stability, is the mother of all structural problems. It requires constant theft by force or its threat, though AWOL resides within the context of 500 years of colonialism exacted by Eurocentric “superiority” forcefully enriching its 20 percent of the world’s population through enforced impoverishment of the remaining 80 percent of “heathens and savages.”

Centralized vertical structures are similarly rooted in the origins of “America” during its “bourgeois” American revolution which initially “preserved inherited property (not human rights) as it destroyed inherited government.” The U.S. “Founding Fathers” had visions of an “empire of liberty” (Jefferson), “imperial republicanism” (Madison) and a mercantile, expansive nation, but not a vision of democracy. By the 1820s Kentucky Congressperson Henry Clay began calling for creation of “an American system.” The U.S. Constitution is based on feudal principles since the citizenry is both beholden to and the responsibility of the highest Lord, in our case the strong central government. This pre-empted the ideas of the original 1773 Revolution by farmers and small communities who rose up opposed to any strong central authority structure (Raphael), whether imposed from England or a homemade version of same. The early age of mercantilism was succeeded by laissez faire, then corporation capitalism.

A class-conscious philosophy permeated from our origins combining defense of private property with belief in the necessity of expansion to assure prosperity. Since the nation’s founding, there have been more than 500 overt military interventions in over 100 countries, and since World War II likely more than 15,000 covert, destabilizing actions around the world enhancing selfish U.S. economic interests, always at the expense of other’s well-being.

“America” has been mythologized in language describing it as “republican,” then “democratic.” In fact it has been an insidious version of a White Male Supremacy society–a nation ruled by oligarchs and their supportive plutocrats. “Americans” have insisted on believing their rhetoric of being a “democratic” society endowed by a unique gift of “exceptionalism.” Its second “bourgeois” revolution (the Civil War) entrenched property power in factories and railroads as it abolished property in man” (Lynd). The granting to corporations the constitutional rights of legal persons usurped the Bill of Rights (especially 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendments). The military-industrial-intelligence-information complex continually makes huge sums of money on war and destruction under the cover of “Constitutional democracy.” Utilizing the phoney GNP (Gross National Product), every event is commodified for profit.

U.S. historian William Appleman Williams describes U.S. America as Empire As A Way of Life (1980). Author Derrick Jenson describes the The Culture of Make Believe (2002), a fantasy built on three unrecognized holocausts, a chronic pattern of terrorism that has stolen (1) land from the Natives, (2) labor from Africans and others, and (3) resources from virtually everywhere, at gunpoint, killing millions with virtual total impunity, which has enabled it to “enjoy” a holiday from history to the present day. This is consistent with the pattern of virtually all “civilizations” since their advent some 5,500 years ago

Western cultures are addicted to technology enabling a more comfortable, convenient, and faster Way Of Life, at the expense of others and the Earth. Obsessive belief in the myth of progress through large (rather than small and local), capital (rather than labor) intensive, violent (versus nonviolent), and complex (versus simple) technologies, pre-empts intermediate technology, local ingenuity, and preservation of regional economic and cultural sufficiency independent from far-away external inputs.


The American and Western Way Of Life has, during 500 years of colonialism, produced a spoiled 20 percent while impoverishing 80 percent, rationalized with racist ideology and Eurocentric arrogance. We live in a bubble of make-believe. The “American” society is habituated to obedience to vertical authority structures (using the oxymoron, “representative, Constitutional democracy”) and is literally addicted to a Way of Life enabled by the short-term blip of an oil-based economy. We must recover our archetypal characteristics of empathy and humility enabling participation in mutual aid in smaller, sustainable communities with local autonomy. This is the healthy social organization that our human memory has known for more than 99.9 percent of our Hominid evolutionary journey. Horizontal, radical democracy is currently being taught to us by the Mayan, Zapatista revolution in southern Mexico. We would do well to heed the lessons of how to live sustainably without expansion.


De La Boetie, Etienne. (1997, 1553). The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. (1997). Blood Rites: The History of Origins and Passions of War. New York: Henry Holt.

Eisler, Riane. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Gilligan, James. (1997). Violence: Reflections On A National Epidemic. New York: Vintage.

Hedges, Chris. (2002). War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Public Affairs.

Jensen, Derrick. (2002). The Culture Of Make Believe. New York: Context Books.

Lynd, Staughton. (1982). Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Milburn, Michael A., and Sheree D. Conrad. (1996). The Politics of Denial. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Miller, Alice. (1983). For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Montagu, Ashley, Ed. (1978). Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non-Literate Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mumford, Lewis. (1966). The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Raphael, Ray. (2002). The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord. New York: The New Press.

Roszak, Theodore, Gomes, Mary E., and Kanner, Allen D. (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Williams, William Appleman. (1980). Empire As A Way Of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, William Appleman. (1961). The Contours of American History. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.


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