The Psychology and History of Violent Conflict

Human combat is one of the few contexts where primal instinct is unleashed without restraint, and so reveals much about the psyche that is not ordinarily observable.  Its roots are in the fight-or-flight response, the surge of energy that prepares a physique under duress to defend itself when in danger or flee at maximal speeds, present to some degree in all mobile species.  It is not just activated by threats from other organisms, but also when an animal is about to fall precipitously, or is excited by something in its environment, or must rapidly dodge a moving object, any situation that requires enhanced reaction time, stimulated by lightning quick perceptions.

Epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, is the main hormone involved in initiating this physical response; when it is released into the blood stream from the adrenal glands, heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing quickens, blood flow shifts from internal organs to skeletal muscles, concentrations of stress hormones increase in the brain, and the senses become hyperalert to stimuli.  This process is reversed by the hormone norepinephrine.  The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is involved in muscle contraction and floods nerves when the body is in fight-or-flight mode, potentiating  strenuous exertions.  This physiological system is designed for sudden bursts of full on effort; when prolonged activation occurs, the body’s chemistry depletes and exhaustion ensues.  Persistent stress from a high-octane environ can cause damage to the brain as well as elevate the risk of heart problems and additional health issues.  

Psychologically, battle between humans is very much an extension of the hunting drive, a euphoria that accompanies ambush of an enemy.  It is difficult to describe the exhilaration of a primeval hunt, but it is one of the strongest emotions in the human repertoire and probably a main motivator for hunter-gatherer warfare.  Upon hand-to-hand engagement, adrenaline surges and the body becomes much stronger.  If peak athleticism is necessary, the mind slips into an intense focus during which the environment seems to slow down, with all the minute details of even complex movements under full conscious control, a heightened awareness that is pure, relentless physicality.  This is the same mental state experienced at moments when competitive sports require total commitment of the body’s kinetic resources.

Well-trained warriors and athletes seamlessly enter and leave the aggressor mentality, and most societies have members who train their whole lives for this sort of battle readiness.  In hunter-gatherer cultures, most of the men at the very least are conditioned by hunting and mock combat experience to fight effectively.  An additional enhancement of fighting ability can occur in the moment of altercation as a result of pain caused by injury, stimulating the mind to apex performance and sometimes a vengeful rage that makes one impervious to fear and further pain, with nearly invincible strength, stamina and reckless courage, irresistible in hand-to-hand combat until entirely incapacitated.

For novice warriors, real battle can be an unsettling experience of jitteriness and terror during which they get rattled by the sheer brutality enveloping them and endangering their lives.  Fear of inexperience is why veteran forces are so much more effective; training is essential, but circumstances on an actual battlefield simply cannot be simulated by practice, when death is imminent and combatants know they require a large dose of luck to survive.  This element of fear increases with the size of armies and equivalence in their formidability, as life and death for single soldiers is almost a matter of chance, and it becomes impossible for anyone but generals to tell who is winning or losing while in the thick of it.  Sophisticated modern weaponry can pose further difficulties, as highly technical procedures and communications must be carried out while in an extremely lethal and long-ranged line of fire.

Battle brings out a host of impulses and emotions.  In early antiquity, when moral sensibility, the human conscience, was less developed, war was more merciless, bordering on bloodlust.  Upon victory, soldiers pursued the fleeing enemy and slaughtered whole armies.  There are records of the ancient Greek city state of Athens murdering nearly everyone in a dissenting colony, the Bible describes armies dispatching entire male populations in conquered territories, and there is at least one instance of a Persian fighting force descending on a defenseless Indian city, killing tens of thousands of unarmed citizens.  The enticement of power was also strong at this time and militant imperialism was a fact of life, often the glue that held cultures together, legitimizing leadership.  Many armies required mercenaries to supplement their ranks, especially once significant losses were incurred, and with no intrinsic allegiance to a civilization’s cause, these soldiers had to be placated by material compensations less readily available in nonacquisitive peacetime, necessitating constant hostilities to prevent idle pillaging at the expense of political aims as well as mutinies.   

Over the millennia, warring has become more intellectual, with soldiers and civilians alike reflecting deeply on large-scale aggression and experience of the battlefield, what it means for them and their countries.  With larger and more complex armies, teamwork grew essential to military success, and this has in modern times developed into strong bonding between fellow conscripts who are compatriots and coworkers.  Seeing their deaths has become excruciating and can cause damage to the psyche that lingers for a lifetime.  Revenge or “evening the score” are ever-present motivations for violent conflict at any level, as perceived wrongs easily lead to feuding, sometimes drawing whole countries into the fray, but society is becoming more practical-minded about war, with many determined to minimize its incidence despite whatever beliefs exist regarding culpability.  Competitiveness has always fueled a desire for supremacy in battle, with war being a high stakes sport for the self-identifying warrior; reading Homer’s Iliad or the Norse Njal’s Saga makes this clear.  Related to this gamesmanship, the modern coalescence of personal ego and national pride are deeply entwined with the outcome of engagements, which can make soldiers willing and able to perform actions unlike anything in their civilian lives despite the high risk.  In antiquity and into the Medieval period, battle was inherently honorable, and a valiant death in war was its own reward for both individuals and their families.  From the Early Modern period to modern times, the more destructive and disruptive nature of technologically progressing war has resulted in transition to viewing its value more sociopolitically, as a benefit to the homeland but more of a necessary evil for the individual.  With populations of many millions across the globe, it is no longer practicable to seize total control of a conquest, annexing lands and plundering possessions, so treaties must be negotiated that subdue governments while avoiding excessive onerousness to their citizens, and honor is bestowed in the form of extrinsic rewards such as ranks and medals that function as incentives to what has become expedient self-sacrifice rather than rapacity.

As civilized organization increased, the sophistication of fighting techniques did as well, until strategy was an integral aspect of war.  In antiquity, battle formations such as the Greek phalanx, a block of soldiers with bristling spears who moved in unison, became common.  Armies were assembled in divisions with complementary roles.  Every fighting force had some kind of foot soldier armed with spear or sword.  Synchronized arching became common as it softened enemy lines at a distance.  Most armies also included horse-based units, first chariots with one soldier driving and the other using bow and arrow while on the move or dismounting to fight with sword or spear, then mounted units of even greater mobility with armed riders that charged enemy lines to trample and disorient ground forces.

Alliances, economic factors and strategic disasters were key in determining the outcome of wars.  There are hundreds of famed examples, but the fight between Rome and Carthage during the Second Punic War near the end of the 3rd century B.C.E. is a textbook case.  Hannibal, the brilliant general of Carthage’s forces, was born in an outlying settlement in Carthaginian Iberia, what is modern day Spain.  His father had influential rivals in mainland North Africa, and for this reason their military involvements never received full economic backing from the empire, which would probably have allowed them to easily overrun still modestly sized Roman territory and dominate the Mediterranean.  An invincibly large ground force crossing the Mediterranean sea from Carthage proper and landing on the Italian mainland to route Rome was out of the question, so when Hannibal’s time as commander arrived, he decided to depart from the Iberian peninsula, traverse Europe and cross the Alps with a hundred elephants, thousands of cavalry and a vast agglomeration of foot soldiers, altogether consisting of an unstoppable hundred thousand men.  

The operation went well until reaching high elevations in the mountains; there was no infrastructure to support such a massive war party, so the army had to repeatedly pause on its journey while detachments scouted out an adequate route, then build a system of roads from scratch, all in heavy snow and freezing temperatures with diminishing supplies.  The hardships must have been tremendous, for by the time Hannibal arrived in Italy, almost none of his cavalry, a single elephant, and only a third of his Carthaginian soldiers remained.  He had counted on support from neighboring tribes who were enemies of Rome to strengthen his ranks, but logistical issues related to the language barrier as well as deficiency in training limited the effectiveness of these reinforcements.

Despite adversity and its weakened state, Carthage’s army was still a formidable foe for Rome and marched through Italy with impunity, supporting itself by despoiling farms and towns.  The Roman military first decided to take shelter in its capital city, but its generals were accustomed to risk-seeking strategies, rushing headlong at the enemy and crushing it immediately in pursuit of glory, honor and prestige.  Under Hannibal’s leadership, Carthage was not the pushover Rome was used to encountering, and legions departed the capital on multiple occasions to force open confrontation, only to be decimated due to inferior tactics, buying the Carthaginian army years of time to regroup and recruit mercenaries from surrounding regions in what otherwise would have soon become an attritioned, vulnerable opponent.  But Carthage lacked proper siege weaponry and was never able to penetrate the capital, though Hannibal achieved many historic victories throughout the Roman countryside.

Rome’s command finally began transitioning to veterans of the war who knew their enemy well, capable of tactically exploiting any weaknesses that materialized during battles, headed by the general Scipio.  Carthage had marauded all the way to southern reaches of Italy, then north, and then back to the capital, but was unable to assault the main Roman force biding its time behind city walls.  At this juncture, a decade after their arrival, the Carthaginian army consisted mostly of newly acquired foreign mercenaries, sapped of its impeccable discipline, an army Rome could handle.  Scipio pulled a famed strategic maneuver, landing a huge force on the North African mainland and recruiting troops from a dissenting Carthaginian tribe who were known as some of the best cavalry in the world.  Hannibal was called back to North Africa in haste, where for one of the first times during the war he lost a battle, and this one would be decisive.  Upon defeat, he was forced into exile by political competitors at home, and a century later Carthage fell to a Roman expansion that was destined to bring almost the whole of Europe and the Middle East under its domination.

Rome’s rise in antiquity was the high-water mark of military-backed control until the Mongol invasion of China and what is modern day Russia in the 13th century.  Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols were nearly invincible, as their mounted soldiers had unparalleled ability to fire bow and arrow with deadly accuracy at full gallop.  They also had adopted some innovative tactics that gave them an advantage.  Chiefly among these was their approach to enemy horsemen.  Mongol mounted units would feign retreat in the thick of battle while picking off pursuit with bow and arrow.  Their pikemen hitched a ride alongside until the ideal moment, then dismounted and took out the enemy’s horses with long spikes braced against the ground, after which resistance to highly mobile Mongol archery was all but impossible.

The only barrier to Mongol conquest of Europe was probably the death of Genghis Khan, after which a power struggle between his relatives halted expansion and fractured the empire into multiple kingdoms.  Near the end of the Medieval period, new weaponry came into regular use as an effective counter to traditional tactics, first cannons that pulverized even mounted soldiers and made city walls useless, then muskets rendering the average foot soldier much more dangerous.  Firepower and accuracy of these ranged weapons increased with progression to artillery and rifles, until by the mid-19th century equivalently sized armies were much more potent when dug in defensively than while on the attack.  This was put on full display by the American Civil War, during which the Union and Confederate armies could spend months maneuvering around each other seeking a strategically superior position, then upon engagement both lose hundreds of thousands of troops in only a few days anyways with no substantial gains in territory.  The Union emerged victorious primarily because it had a larger population and more industry with which to replenish its supplies.  This was similarly the case during World War 1, when the front between the French and German militaries remained impenetrable for years until fresh troops from the United States joined the war, outresourcing the Central Powers.

At the end of World War 1, tanks were introduced, the first armored vehicles.  Fighter planes also came into use, though at this time their weak firepower gave them little influence in events on the ground.  Navies with their sail-based travel had also advanced from a time-lagged part in transport, blockading, the bombardment of ports and seizure of trade goods, rudimentary by today’s standards, as U-boats, the German submarines, almost indefensibly harried British and American shipping during the war.  Technology progressed so rapidly that by World War 2, only about twenty years later, air force bombing reduced military bases and industrial sites to rubble, artillery and naval power turned cities into ruins with long-ranged shelling, and high-powered motors at sea and on land stretched supply lines to thousands of miles.  There was not a single spot on the whole globe free from imminent invasion by militaries.  

No doubt World War 3, a struggle for sovereignty between American and Soviet Russian spheres of influence, would have occurred a couple decades later if not for a terrifying development: the invention of nuclear weapons.  Dropping only two bombs on Japan obliterated a couple cities, compelling unconditional surrender and ending World War 2, but the U.S. and Soviets soon became embroiled in an arms race and military rivalry, the Cold War, during which nuclear arsenals grew to insane proportions, capable of vaporizing every square foot of both countries and obliterating world agriculture with climate change from fallout in the upper atmosphere, the notorious “nuclear winter”.  First air force bombers were equipped for a nuclear strike, giving this apocalyptic weaponry a range of hundreds of miles, then submarines were outfitted with nuclear missiles that could reach at least some territory in any country on the planet if penetration of enemy perimeters was achieved, then ICBM’s, intercontinental ballistic missiles, extended the range of nuclear power to worldwide.  Society was coming close to ending civilization with warfare; as the famous physicist Albert Einstein said, actually one of the scientists responsible for expediting America’s nuclear program, “I know not with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones”.

After the scares of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when hostility between democratic and communist ideology was peaking and civilization came within minutes of total destruction on multiple occasions, the U.S. and Soviet Union began to soften their stance and enter into negotiations for nuclear disarmament.  By the 1990’s there were several countries with nuclear capability, feeding into some tense situations such as bad blood between primarily Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, rancorous neighbors who both became nuclear-armed.  The world arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological WMD’s, weapons of mass destruction, is largely under control, as military ambitions are kept in check by economic sanctions.  The irascibility sometimes characteristic of international relations can be set aside when survival of every population on the planet is at stake.  It requires constant vigilance to foster rapprochement and cooperation that keep arms development under wraps.

As communications technology advances, surveillance has become the front line of warfare; most military activity consists in finding out enough about rival forces to engage in competent diplomacy.  First, extremely fast spy planes such as the SR-71 Blackbird were engineered, circling the planet in only a few hours while taking high definition photographs.  Then came stealth technology, making aircraft undetectable by radar for deep penetration into foreign territory.  In the 21st century, spy satellites keep constant watch on the movement of military paraphernalia so that there are no longer any surprises.

With total dependence on electronics and growing reliance on computerization, cyberwarfare capabilities are becoming central to military strategy.  An arms race for logistical control via software is happening behind the scenes, as technology-based installations of rivals can be manipulated and sometimes disarmed or destroyed by utilizing computer networks, from convenient locations safely inside a home country.  Armies of brilliant programmers are being recruited in every nation to employ and defend against remote-controlled drone warfare as well as discover the weaknesses of rival cybergrids, and it will be a parlous adventure for humanity to handle all this futuristic weaponry.

Prolonged exposure to large-scale war places a huge amount of stress on the psyche.  War can desensitize individuals to violence and confrontation, making it easier to tolerate or commit acts considered criminal in civilian life, so that it is more of a challenge to remain law-abiding.  Psychological wear and tear of constant life or death struggle recalibrates the brain so that it cannot function without the shock of danger and aggression, even if the individual’s conscious mind is opposed to unnecessary conflict.  Soldiers can become hypersensitized to stimuli such as fireworks, yelling or additional loud noises that mimic sounds of the battlefield, jumping back into an extreme fight-or-flight mentality that is rare for the general population while lacking a behavioral outlet sufficient to discharge this affect.  

Veterans in war zones long enough for combat to become a way of life sometimes face difficulties readjusting to normal society.  They do not often come across anyone who truly identifies with their cognitive situation, the horrible memories and keyed up psyches, so take refuge in each other’s company, frequently remaining more isolated from the rest of the community than they would like to be.  War always ruins or ends innocent lives, and most veterans have seen this firsthand, maybe even with responsibility for unjust deaths while in search and destroy mode, so guilt gnaws at the more ethically developed psyches of modern soldiers while they are not fighting and diminishes their self-esteem.  As if this is not bad enough, mental scarring is often accompanied by physical disabilities from war wounds that limit former soldiers’ ability to work or in many cases care for themselves, and support for these individuals who have thus far been essential to any country’s survival can be shamefully inadequate.

In antiquity, with warring still very much at the core of culture despite an ongoing switch to more civilized lifestyles, the erosion of inhibitions caused by inurement to violence was glaringly apparent as armies on the move scourged the countryside, assaulting citizens, vandalizing property and stealing whatever they needed.  War increasingly became a subsidiary institution, and by Medieval times many inhabitants of Europe wearied of scavenging armies disruptively roving to and fro across the continent.  The last crusaders were abandoned to fend for themselves against Muslims in the Holy Land by merchant interests of Italian cities that they relied upon for transportation and supplies.  Culturally refined societies of Southern Europe still took enough trouble to rescue crusading kings when fortunes of their armies plummeted, as they almost always did, but by the 15th century upper class leadership usually bade good riddance to militancy incited by religion.

Corruption in the universal church hijacked this progress towards a less violent European culture.  The 16th century was a perfect storm: clergy became outspoken about hypocrisy at high levels; the crusading mentality was turned against papal hierarchy as well as its allies in secular governments with their punishment of reformist doctrines; the upper class, even in many cases including reformist clergy, balked at warlike insurrection and about-faced to backing crackdowns on laity; simmering ethnic and class tensions boiled over in this emotionally charged atmosphere; everyone was fighting everyone.  Europe would be divided along religious lines for centuries, and as the mere animosity itself became traditional, part of basic public consciousness, it was integrated into politics as the modus operandi of newly forming nation-states.           

From breakdown of papal mandate until the beginning of the 21st century, Europe had been beset by violence of class, ethnic and religious origin, often instigated by national and regional governance, but since formation of the European Union and denouement of the West’s face-off with Soviet Russia, Caucasian culture has experienced more relative peace than at probably any time during its history.  Legal systems of the Western world have made huge strides since the days of feuds, pogroms and berserking, when contemplation and execution of violent acts diminished every human life.  Berserkers were no doubt cadres of psychologically overtaxed warriors who found it impossible to resume civilian existence and instead lived a countercultural life of grizzled comradery with predatory assaults on the mainstream population.  Law enforcement hinders developments such as this and is of course a necessity, but much more is required to dignify human life and tame incentives for violence.  Some societies are getting better at responding to conditions like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which manifest in those who have been immersed in violence, also at giving individuals a decent life regardless of circumstances, reducing incidence of the factors that trigger a lashing out at authority or one’s community and foment derisiveness.  We have a long ways to go however, as violent conflict, war, along with distrust and hate they breed are ever on the brink of flaming up into social destructiveness.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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