The Unique Human Capacity for War
One characteristic that sets humans apart from other animals is the capability to organize sustained warfare against members of their own species, a troubling fact that connects to the problem of PTSD, says Michael Brenner.
By Michael Brenner
The question “why war?” has long inspired scholars to seek answers in human nature. Their findings invariably have been ambiguous and judgments inconclusive. While it is easy to make the case that humans do engage in violent behavior as part of their nature, there is no basis for arguing that they are “killers.” There is no propensity to kill fellow humans that prevails over other forms of social inter-action.
Moreover, the development of organized societies as their standard habitat introduces cultural and structural elements that produce a wide range of behavioral patterns. Simply put, humans in groups are capable of conducting their collective affairs just about any manner imaginable – as illustrated abundantly by the historical record.
The effort to make sense of the connections between human nature and the phenomenon of war is getting renewed attention thanks to the rising interest in understanding Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSS (also called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD). That interest, in turn, reflects growing awareness that there is nothing new about PTSS or PTSD except that now we are chary about accepting cavalier explanations ascribing it to character flaws or the contradictions of socio-cultural conditioning.
One place to begin an exercise intended to unravel the puzzle is recognition that individual violence and war are not the same thing. All of God’s creatures engage in violence; only homo sapiens war with each other. Our ability to do so derives from the enlarged capacity of our brains that enables us to abstract, to conceptualize, to use language and – thereby – to organize joint enterprises sustained over time. Those activities engage the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex.
That is why homo sapiens are the only species that fights wars. Other mammals, even primates, don’t have the mental ability to give meaning to others and events or to set objectives – two preconditions for war. Their violent encounters have two distinguishing characteristics: a) all are brief, b) and all are keyed to matters of survival. They fight for food, for mates, and for territory, which is tied to the first two.
Essentially, it is only the Reptilian brain (or R-complex brain) that is involved in those fights with a small contribution from the next evolutionary level of mental function that allows for a measure of memory, cunning and coordinated hunting. Hence, the susceptibility to mental impairment doesn’t exist, and the limited duration of the violence doesn’t even generate the stress necessary to create such an impairment.
By contrast, there is a discrepancy between the evolved brain capabilities that make war possible, on the one hand, and our core physiology that is little different from that of other mammals, on the other. In other words, our greatly enhanced capacity for organized violence has far surpassed the rest of our psychosomatic apparatus. No wonder we are vulnerable to stress.
Military technology that permits fighting at a distance far from the battlefield, and from the enemy, partially avoids this contradiction generated by sustained physical combat. People who push buttons, though, encounter another contradiction. Their Reptilian brain is not engaged in combat even as their brain’s higher functions are activated in killing people.
That means that the conceptual awareness, which is uniquely human (and the basis of mental stress) must be handled without benefit of the hormones and other physiological responses sparked by the Reptilian brain. They are dormant because the person involved is not at grips with the tangible enemy. This helps to explain the cause of the PTSD that some of the drone operators experience when snug in a Nevada cubicle.
At the other extreme, for soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat, the psychosomatic condition is comparable to that of other mammals – it is the Reptilian brain that engaged in the fighting. That probably was the experience on Saipan and Iwo Jima in World War II.
This analysis suggests that the prime question we should ask is not “why PTSD?” but rather “how is it that most humans are able to fight in wars without cracking up?
One answer is that the human propensity to abstract reality produces the ideologies, the religious beliefs, their symbolic representations, and thereby the objectification of the “other.” That permits communal mobilization, regimentation, and protracted war-fighting. They generate feelings able to override survival impulses – for most soldiers, for a certain period of time.
A complementary answer is that there is indeed always the lurking possibility that individual soldiers put in lethal situations will bolt. Bolt out of fear. Once under fire, the adrenaline et al kicks in, and that impulse may subside. It may also rise once again after experiencing a long string of such episodes.
Or, individuals cannot handle the accumulated stress – aggravated by the strain between the survival instinct to get the Hell out of there and the combination of conditioned loyalties/duties and bonding with one’s fellow “tribesmen.” Emotional dissonance ensues. That adds to the stresses that eventually can produce PTSD.
Which emotions prevail can be affected by the type of leadership provided by officers in the thick of things. Whether through example, inspiration or imposition an effective leader can get soldiers to take high-risk actions. The methods at their disposal vary from army to army. In the citizen armies of the United States or Great Britain during World War II, for example, there were limits on the coercive means available to officers.
It has been pointed out that up to a third of American infantry soldiers never, or rarely fired, their weapons at the enemy. That was due either to their impulse to hide in a ditch or behind a tree with their head down and/or to an aversion to killing at relatively close range a visible fellow human. That percentage probably went down around Bastogne or on Pacific Isles where the survival instinct took hold.
It often is remarked that for most of history, in most places, warriors moved in fixed step within serried ranks. That is explained, in military terms, as creating mass for both offense and defense. It also makes discipline much easier to maintain. The instrument for doing so was the threat of being killed by one’s officers (immediately or afterwards) for breaking ranks.
That practice continued right into the Twentieth Century, e.g. the Bolshevik commissars who patrolling behind the front lines shooting deserters or shirkers without inhibition. Surely, the ideal formation on strictly tactical military grounds was not to march across fields in brightly colored uniforms to be picked off by the enemy or shattered by cannon – as was the standard practice in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
The Victory of Horsemen
The drawback of that approach was demonstrated repeatedly over the centuries when the highly structured armies of great states were routed by horsemen from Central Asia. This occurred time after time: the Huns, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols (mainly Turkish troops), Tamerlane, etc., etc. In fact, invading hordes of horsemen who operated with a fluidity and adaptability that gave them an enormous advantage, chalking up a streak of almost uninterrupted victories across the millennia.
The exceptions were some of their wars with Chinese dynasties, which were able to prevail by drawing on vast resources to marshal formidable armies – and also to build defensive fortifications exemplified by the Great Wall. Still, even Imperial China was overrun on four separate occasions.
Some might note other candidate “exceptions.” The most commonly referred to is the battle of Ain Jalut where the Crusaders entered into a tacit alliance with the Mamluks to defeat the Mongols in Syria. However, that was a case in which the invaders had been greatly diminished when their main force, led by Helegu, hastily left the Middle East to deal with a succession crisis back in Karakorum.
The other cited instance is the battle of the Catalaunian Plains near Chateaudun in modern-day France where the Huns were defeated by a coalition of Romans, Franks and Goths. That Hun army, though, was composed mainly of infantry drawn from what had become a sedentary population settled on the Hungarian plain.
But did these fierce horsemen of the Asian steppe suffer from PTSS. Any speculation should bear in mind that they were bred in a culture where killing and risking death in battle were taken to be what life was all about. That said, there probably were a few who did experience PTSS at some point in their wild perambulations across the continent.
What might their symptoms have been? How were they interpreted? Was the condition concealed? Perhaps the sufferers figured among those Mongols who settled in Afghanistan with their families in the Thirteenth Century rather than trek all the way back to Mongolia. They are the ancestors of today’s Hazara minority. Most settlers, though, probably just wearied of the tribulations they had endured year after year.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. firstname.lastname@example.org