- - Tuesday, December 9, 2014


We live in difficult times. Our world has witnessed armed conflict in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, and escalating problems between Russia and Ukraine. Various political, religious and economic divisions have caused both domestic and international tensions. Terrorist groups like Boko Haram, al Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS), and the continual threat of radical Islam, weigh heavily on our minds.

Some experts would argue that the issues we face today are completely unique in history. The battles we witness, both as individuals and nations, involve new enemies, new threats and a new awareness that safety and security must remain top priorities. Others would claim these issues are reminiscent of what we’ve faced in the past. The human species has always engaged in some type of warfare, based on either hatred, greed, power, opportunism or a variety of other emotions.

Which hypothesis is correct?

Wayne E. Lee, a University of North Carolina history professor, wrote an intriguing examination of warfare’s history in the Winter 2015 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Military History. An author of several books on human conflict, his belief is “human cooperation and complexity evolved both biologically and culturally in the fact of human conflict.” In other words, “they were and remain two sides of the same coin.”

This is a far different analysis than what the 1986 UNESCO meeting in Seville, Spain came up with. That conference’s position, “asserting in highly categorical language,” as Mr. Lee put it, claimed “it is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.”

UNESCO also declared that it’s incorrect from a scientific standpoint “to say that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature,” as well as “to say in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour.”

Fortunately, theories about the evolution of warfare have greatly progressed.

Mr. Lee, for his part, belongs to a school of thought called the “deep rooters,” who believe in the “long evolutionary history of intergroup violence.” While nation-states have engaged in wars starting in 3500 BC in Uruk, he would argue that warfare goes back much further than this.

For example, “[v]irtually all scholars now accept that early agricultural communities engaged in warfare well before the emergence of the state.” In Sudan, the 13,000 year old Jebel Sahaba cemetery contains 59 burials of men, women and children, “and at least half the skeletons have stone points embedded in them.” There is even “substantial skeletal evidence of violent death and dietary cannibalism among Neanderthals” as well as “evidence for cannibalism among Paleolithic modern humans.”

In Mr. Lee’s view, “Conflict or war does not dominate the archaeological record of pre-state societies, but it does suffuse it, deep into the Paleolithic.” There’s also sufficient evidence “our closest biological relatives,” the chimpanzees, engaged in conflicts - or had warlike tendencies, if you wish - to gain community and territorial advantage over one another.

When you put ancient warfare and modern warfare techniques on the same historical map, it obviously doesn’t produce the rosiest of images. While most of us accept that human beings have a nasty and brutish side, and the desire for conquest has guided many past and present individuals, groups and societies, it’s not a cause for celebration.

At the same time, I firmly believe it’s long been a part of our civilization’s growth and development. You can attempt to close your eyes to it, or try to ignore it by humming a happy tune in your head. I’m afraid that you can’t escape this reality, however.

So, when a vicious and bloodthirsty group like ISIS comes on the scene, we shouldn’t be completely surprised. They’re attempting to build an ancient caliphate in modern times, and are using historical tactics associated with warfare (murder, rape, pillaging and beheadings) to accomplish this gruesome task in a technological age.

Western nations have therefore declared war against ISIS to defend our freedom, liberty, and democracy. We will take on this enemy by using our own unique type of warfare to preserve modern civilization and our way of life. This is currently being done with air strikes against the jihadi forces - and, when the time comes (and it will), boots on the ground in a large-scale fashion.

It’s a fight that’s in our blood. It’s a battle we must have. It’s a war we will win.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.

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