The human need for war

Like literature, history, and religion, war is a 'cultural enhancer' - and its modern manifestation in video games continues to shape society.

U.S. Marines with machine guns ready, watch for enemy snipers on a street in Hue on February 7th. Allied dive bombers and U.S. warships bombarded a Communist suicide battalion in Hue's walled fortress on February 15th, and American Marines and south Vietnam black panther troops charged into the flaming ruins to wipe out the Viet Cong.Getty Images
U.S. Marines with machine guns ready, watch for enemy snipers on a street in Hue on February 7th. Allied dive bombers and U.S. warships bombarded a Communist suicide battalion in Hue's walled fortress on February 15th, and American Marines and south Vietnam black panther troops charged into the flaming ruins to wipe out the Viet Cong.Getty Images

A First World War poet said it best: ‘The world is at war because it is not yet ready for peace.’ And one of the reasons why tells you a lot about poetry and its ancient connection with war. Peace is remarkably boring. Boredom, writes Michael Howard in his book, The Invention of Peace (the second edition was retitled significantly, The Invention of Peace and the Reinvention of War), is the most trenchant reason why we still thrill to the sound of battle and why conflict continues to play such a central role in our lives. There is a telling line in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: ‘Still is the bottom of the sea: who would guess that it harbours sportive monsters.’ Those who fight for sport – for the thrill, the adrenalin rush, for what war allows them, for what one of the characters in the film Fight Club calls a ‘near life experience’ – are the monsters we confront every day: the terrorists, jihadists, al-Qaeda members. But what about the rest of us, living our post-heroic lives? Didn’t war lose its glory in no man’s land in 1915? Didn’t it lose its glamour in Vietnam? And isn’t the human factor in war being swallowed up into cyberspace and drone technology?

With the disappearance of the human dimension in war, are we confronting what one American novelist calls ‘the nature of diminishing existence?’ It is still true, for the moment, that war continues to dominate the imagination. Look at the war movies and the computer games (a good half of which are on war-related themes). Some of us may still be locked in the Iliad’s gravitational pull, but could one make a robot the ‘hero’ of a story, or a cyber warrior a ‘character in a larger drama’? What the great literary figures like Robert Jordan and Yossarian and Billy Pilgrim offer the reader is a chance to know them better than they know themselves. I find it difficult to imagine that any of the avatars in cyberspace with which game players identify will ever write themselves into the imagination of the rest of us.

And yet that may be too constricted a vision. Especially if we see computer games as the successor of literature, just as the novel was the successor of the epic poem. Cyberspace may prove to be the key to rebooting war in the 21st-century imagination (for good or ill), if we see it as a ‘cultural enhancer’ as well as a communications medium in its own right. A cultural enhancer, writes Mark Pagel in Wired for Culture, is an emotional motivator relating to behaviour – it can tap into the power of the imagination and render even the most brutal activities both exciting and inspirational. Pagel goes so far as to compare an epic poem such as the Iliad to a performance-enhancing drug.

Why is this important? Because selection doesn’t work by cut-throat competition between individuals, but by favouring whatever behaviour is useful to the group. Other social species which enjoy a greater emotional repertoire than non-social animals go in for self-sacrifice. They do so because such behaviour carries a clear selective advantage. But our species also has culture, including moral and religious precepts and fictional examples that exemplify and illustrate them and commend them to the mind. Think of the Marvel comic heroes. Cultural development doesn’t generate altruism, but it amplifies instinctual abilities; literature moulds human emotions and personal beliefs change emotional experiences. Literature still remains such a potent ‘cultural enhancer’ precisely because it allows us to reprise emotions that are still socially useful; it strengthens belief and transmits information and reminds people of a shared past. Stories have an adaptive value when they sharpen and strengthen our understanding of reality. They enable us to engage in dress-rehearsals of life and indulge in useful thought-experiments, both of which allow us to arrive at conclusions before we encounter situations in real life. Literature, in short, does not define human nature so much as exemplify it. As Steven Pinker maintains, in his essay ‘The Biography of Fiction’, the cliché that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.

There is of course a scientific explanation to hand. Neurobiologists inform us that the language capacity is, by and large, lodged in the left side of the brain. And the emotions that well-up and forge our inner feelings are not well connected to a language-accessible brain. This rather dry explanation tells us why we revere poets: they have the knack of assessing the emotional brain with their conscious mind and turning what they find into language. Because of this, they have always been revered in warrior societies: think of the Iliad or Beowulf. And strangely, these heroes have never diminished the rest of us. Instead, they actually enlarge us with their own largeness. They encourage us to believe in humanity by showing us that we can transcend life’s randomness and the contingency of history.

And that perhaps is the most important role of a cultural enhancer like literature or history – it allows us to live a mythic existence. Both allow us to believe that hidden or implicit in our practical life are unconditioned realities, such as ‘being’, ‘truth’ and ‘value’, thanks to which our conditioned reality becomes tolerable, as well as intelligible. It is these larger elements that allow us to escape from a world of pure contingency in which death is the final – and known – destination. Pagel concludes that, without the arts or religion, we would be much the same people (probably just as selfish and morally corruptible), but we would never have achieved so much; we would never have performed as well as we have.

Take the cultural enhancers that empower religion, which is intimately interlinked with war. You can’t really grasp this fact unless you see religion for what it actually is. It is not, for example, what many atheists think it is: a comprehensive explanation of the world that we can cash in for a scientific or materialist one. Nor is it a set of historical facts that can be refuted by evidence or archaeology. It is a way of life and it provides rituals that mean a great deal to those who subscribe to them. Those rituals – praying, charitableness, the singing of hymns and going on pilgrimages – are discussed at length in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he views religious impulses as ‘appetites’ that give religion its tenacious purchase on human life.

War is not dissimilar. It is not purely instrumental; it is not something that can be subjected to the logic of rational choice, because it is one thing to be rational and quite another to be reasonable. It provides a way of life for many, by offering rituals such as sacrifice (collective or individual); battlefield experience (the adrenalin rush); the external testing of the self. And like religion, it is inspirational because, as Roger Scruton remarks, for many life is not just a given, or a fact, but a gift and the response of faith is to give back. And that applies equally – unfortunately – to the suicide bomber as to the American serviceman posthumously awarded the Congressional Order of Merit.

The point about cultural enhancers is that they continue to evolve over time. Look at William James’s religious impulses – chant, dance and liturgy are all important in religious practice. All three produce measurable changes in brain activity that tend to reinforce belief. Culture does not invent new forms of body chemistry; instead, it finds new devices for amplifying neurochemical states. In the case of dance, the books of Samuel and Chronicles tell us that Saul led bands of young men who found themselves in distress or debt. They engaged in ecstatic dances. It was they who forged the Kingdom of Israel and it was their military success against the Philistines and Amalekites which allowed them to acquire land and, thus, finally to abandon the wandering ecstatic life. The declaiming of psalms, a scientist claims, comforted and reinforced self-belief in a group of Israeli women in the worst days of the second intifada. So psalm singing continues to weave a spell. In Western Europe, dance was turned into drill. In Keeping Together in Time, William McNeill maintains that people who move together to the same beat tend to bond; drill alters human feelings and consolidates group solidarity. Robert Richards offers another example which is germane to my argument. Children brought up on computer games that require quick responses to target opportunities may be emotionally adapted to the demands of modern warfare. ‘Military historians might thus have another conceptual resource for understanding the character of contemporary conflict,’ Richards writes in a 2008 issue of American Scientist.

And that may be the ultimate importance of computer games, whose adepts are war’s oldest constituency, young males. For many, it is not only their chief source of entertainment, it is also their chief induction to life. And war gaming, I venture, is an even more powerful cultural enhancer than anything we have seen so far.

Young men don’t play computer war games to experience pain, trauma, or depression. They play games to win and, some of them, to empower themselves in the eyes of others. The games they play derive much of their addictive power from the fact that they offer a new reality, based on the capacity to control within the virtual world what has always eluded control outside it. Video-gaming fulfils needs that are intrinsic to being human: purpose, success, achievement. They offer a chance to make sense of the ‘real world’: to simplify it; to suspend the consequences of one’s actions; to amplify feedback and set clear goals. Gaming on computers, some experts maintain, encourages ‘disengagement’ from moral actions, precisely because outcomes and consequences don’t have to be lived with. But they also offer a chance to escape back into the real world, often a very different person that the one who left it.

And the greatest appeal of games is that they offer an experience that can be shared with others; you can’t really share the experience of reading a book (even in a reading group), or watching a movie (even if you visit a cinema with friends, or a couple settle down to watch a DVD at night). Imagination is no longer purely subjective; it is shared with others. And that makes them an ideal vector for politicising and recruiting young people. In 2003, Hezbollah released a game, Special Force, with an introduction which read: ‘You must oppose, confront and destroy the machines of the Zionist enemy and remind them that entering Lebanese villages is not a stroll.’ The first British Isis member to blow himself up in Iraq left behind a message that he had been inspired by Call of Duty to join up. The game is played across the world; the audience is no longer limited to one country. There are no local sanctuaries in cyberspace. Instead, what is local goes global and viral very quickly.

There would seem to be two groups of game players: those who want to remain inside the game, within the notional space of the machine. For them, the world in which they have status and meaning is that on the screen. The second are invited to step outside the system and experience the ‘real thing’. In both cases, of course, war continues to remain not just a mode of social life, but also an act of imaginative faith. And as a cultural enhancer, you have to admit that games win hands down against the Iliad or Saving Private Ryan. Who can beat the Hollywood post-production techniques, the sophistication of their design, the 3D imaging technologies, if played in virtual reality? And the technology is improving all the time. ‘Beauty will be more intense, emotions more powerful, the adrenalin indistinguishable from the real rush…this invitation to the voyage or the ascent cajoles us to step inwards into miniaturised infinities bracketed off from the (real) world,’ as Sean Cubitt writes in The Cinema Effect. One day, of course, war games could become so authentic as to be entirely lacking in many of the abstract qualities we continue to attribute to war. On that day, they might become too graphic, a real turn-off, not a turn-on. Now, that would be a game-changer.

This essay originally appeared under the title War and the Human Imagination in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2015.


Christopher Coker