Must war be inevitable? A general semantics essay

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Date: Jan. 2006
From: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics(Vol. 63, Issue 1)
Publisher: Institute of General Semantics
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,953 words

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SINCE THE KOREAN WAR, the United States has been involved in a number of conflicts and undeclared wars, and other countries have had wars and internal struggles. Humans have been making war for eons. Perhaps the title of this essay should ask: is the urge to make war inevitable?

Many will answer this question with an automatic "Yes." Such widespread convictions have momentum. Carried into time, the assumption that war is inevitable can inhibit efforts to reduce or eliminate war. Applying the principles of general semantics will help demonstrate that an assumption of the inevitability of war is not necessarily a valid one.

Intensional Belief

The belief that a war-like spirit is built into the human psyche is an "intensional" one. It is simplistic, subjective, and narrow. It needs to be "extensionalized" to consider the many factors that are involved. What follows will discuss some of these factors.

The mindset of our scientific age holds that we should avoid thinking in terms of "always" or "never." The general semantics principle of time-binding reminds us that we are bound to the changes of past and future; so we must consider intervals and trends. General semantics also cautions against polarized positions; we should consider the qualitative aspects in between.

For me, the need to answer the question of the inevitability of war is desperately urgent, needing resolution within our own lifetime, or at least in that of our children or grandchildren.

Dating and Historical Perspective

Projecting the record of past centuries into the future, we tend to answer in the affirmative, that war is inevitable. But this response, however understandable, fails to consider what else has happened in the long span of the past, events that could lead us to answer the question with a "No." As recipients of the lessons of history, we tend to be impressed by gross, dramatic events that can mask more subtle long-term trends. The general semantics device of dating reminds us that event[s.sup.past] are not event[] and are not event[s.sup.future]--yesterday's patterns need not be today's or tomorrow's.

Consider these facts:

It took about 100,000 years of human development before what we might call civilization began. It was another 6000 years before the Hammurabic Code to regularize human behavior arose. Approximately 2000 years later, Moses handed down the Ten Commandments; and about 1500 years after that, Jesus proclaimed his message. The time spans between the enunciation of powerful ideas for the regularization of society (at least in the "Western" world) were becoming shorter.

It was only 170 years ago that the Congress of Vienna attempted to put the peace of post-Napoleonic Europe into political and diplomatic terms. Then only 84 years ago the "war to end all wars" (in itself a telling title) led to the League of Nations. Seventy six years ago, the Kellog-Briand Pact, which mandated disarmament among the Great Powers, was signed. It was a little less than 60 years ago that the United Nations came into being. Time between peace-keeping events compressed even further.

Granted that the League, the Kellog-Briand Pact, and other disarmament treaties failed to accomplish their aims; and granted that the United Nations has not been able to act with the authority of an entity entirely independent of its member nations, we would all like to see that the UN could act decisively to prevent or stop wars now! We don't have the perspective to excuse its failures in terms of the slow progress of history.

Although people preoccupied with news of contemporary wars will wring their hands over the seeming ineffectiveness of the UN, the events noted above at least attest to progress in finding ways to prevent war. The failures about which we despair can prevent us from seeing how many wars diplomacy has prevented. This does not even include the myriad of peace pacts that have been signed over the centuries between clans, tribes, nations, and empires. The mere existence of the United Nations, therefore, represents a formalization of that process.

It would be naive of me to deny that substantive issues, cultural, and religious clashes, environmental catastrophes, and other problems may continue to provide the starting point for conflict. Yet it is almost a cliche to say that, ordinarily, people do not want to go to war, at least without any popularized provocation. The desire to stop war is ancient, as indicated at least by Aristophanes' play Lysistrata. We often hear that when people on opposite sides of an issue meet as human beings living their daily lives and holding their perpetual hopes, they want peace, despite long-standing resentments or prejudices they may hold. Generally, it is their leaders who bring wars about.

Presumably these leaders reflect their nation's interests; that is, they claim to know what is best for their people. This canard is refuted by the long list of "heroes," kings, and emperors, as well as power-hungry and ego-involved military or political leaders who made war on opponents because it was their "destiny." In the past century alone we might name the monarchs of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, along with the Western Allies bound by treaties in World War I, Hitler, and other European dictators, (not to mention more contemporary leaders), all of whom can be faulted for using aggressive strategies rather than diplomacy alone.

To say that these leaders reflected the will of their people masks the fact that the people, by and large, know only what they are told by their governments. Thus the leaders generate the mood of the people by using abstractions and symbols cloaked in catchy slogans that only purport to reflect realities. General semantics asks us to examine these symbols and abstractions for what they are and to distinguish them from reality.

Non-Allness and "Human Nature"

If the problem is with political leaders, will these types of people and their dynamics always persist? We may answer that this depends in part on "human nature," a high-order abstraction which we must further examine. General semantics cautions against "allness." Not all people have war-like impulses. We are not always aggressive or only aggressive, even though we may retain some primitive impulses some of the time.

General semantics warns against taking two-valued positions: we are not either aggressive or non-aggressive. We are both competitive and cooperative. Competitiveness probably comes from an innate instinct for survival, a contribution perhaps purely of "nature." Cooperation, which has led to communities as small as clans and tribes and as large as nations, is also necessary for human survival; but it can be said to represent the "human," the mature and developed half of the phrase "human nature."

If cooperation had not been the predominant mode throughout all time, humanity would have destroyed itself by now. Competitiveness may be akin to the childish playground grab for our toys or for those of other kids; but children grow up; adults develop temperance, thoughtfulness, and wisdom. Gradually, though so slowly that we don't perceive the progress, we mature to the adulthood of humanity. In this, the act of diplomacy represents semantic relaxation on an international scale.

But what about those competitive personality types? Physiology, the nature input, must play a part. A New York Times Magazine article (1) tells how humans respond to emotional stimuli coming from the amygdala in the brain. The article describes brain scans taken during the presentation of various emotional stimuli to Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps some people with a certain amygdala function respond more emotionally, more aggressively, less temperately. These may be the supposed "Type A" personalities. Some animal species have members that are more aggressive, some less so. The complexity of humans and their interactions is such that contentious problems may always arise; and undoubtedly there will always be people whose nature leads them to be passionate, even extremist and fanatical, to solve their problems. That such individuals and groups often join the political process attests to the ultimate thrust toward rational solutions. (Think of early American colonists.)

On that basis, perhaps we will always have tendencies to war unless, hypothetically, the more aggressive types are bred out by selective choice. That is, if over long periods of time it becomes apparent that aggressiveness is counterproductive, the cooperative types may not want to marry and have children with competitive types. That is not to say that competitiveness in ideas or creativity is not desirable; rather that, in adversarial behavior, peaceful resolutions would be sought. (Natural selection from social pressure would be more desirable than the science-fiction possibility of ultimate eugenic manipulation of the human race to produce rational thinkers universally!)

We do have the means for such resolution. Arbitration and mediation have within our lifetimes been established by law as well as by practical managerial techniques. Conflict resolution techniques have been used in international conflicts. These sophisticated dynamics are not known to the general public, however, and politicians or the public certainly do not clamor for them when conflicts get into the news.

We still live in a time when autocratic leaders of nations pose challenges to other nations that provoke or seem to be soluble only by military action. The continuing likelihood of conventional declared war may extend decades into the future. Undeclared military action that amounts to war and is popularly called such may also continue, as noted above. Terrorist bombing techniques have been equivalent to mini-wars. As the various ethnic groups in former colonies grope through their political adolescence, freed from their colonial parents, these kinds of actions are likely to continue. The leaders of these movements and their followers can be intransigent, unwilling, or incapable of listening to reason, reasoning, or dialogue; this may come from their mindset, temperament, tactics, strategy, or other causes.

So if human diversity and dynamics are such that a totally peaceable society might exist only in fiction, is this long-term view of the possible disappearance of war as a means of solving problems too idealistic?

An ideal is a goal whose time has not yet come. It represents a human yearning that is teleological. Yet we understandably want to discuss near-term possibilities, not speculative predictions. So why bother to project such views?

The Future Evolves from the Present

We do so because the desired future will come about only if we plant its seeds in the present. The sources for future developments are with us now, and we must nourish the seeds available in the present. The process will stop if we resign ourselves to the idea that war is an inborn human impulse. Nor will it continue merely because we are passive peace lovers. So it is partly a matter of attitude.

Sharing general semantics with others will help to shape an attitude receptive to the possibility that war is not inevitable. Help others to become aware of time-binding and process, and to discover underlying abstractions and assumptions that inhibit efforts to reduce or eliminate war. We must urge alternatives between polarized positions on the part of leaders in and out of government. The ideal of an end to war as an extension of diplomacy by other means will only be seen as a possibility if we translate that ideal into active efforts, however small, and wherever possible.


1. Johnson, Steven, "The Political Brain," The New York Times, Magazine, August 22, 2004, p.16.


* Allan Brooks retired in 1985, after 46 years as a metallurgical engineer. In 1980, he received an MA in Communication Arts and Sciences from Queens College, Flushing, NY. Since then he has been giving courses in Effective Communication at Adult Education and other venues. From 1988 to 1995, he was an Instructor in the English Department of the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, NY.

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