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Turn the Other Cheek, or Pop Him on the Nose?

Even if we are violent by nature, following 'the law of love' can also win the day.

By Mark Kurlansky

In 1933, Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote this about his strategy of nonviolent activism, which he called the law of love: "The law will work just like the law of gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not.

"I think he was right. History, from ancient China and the early Christians all the way up to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa, shows that it does work. You would think that after Gandhi's uprising in India, and after the civil rights movement in a violent and hateful American South, no one would ever again doubt that fact. And yet, even today, the most common response to nonviolence, as though it has never been tried, is, "Nice idea, but will it work?"

These days, in fact, a lot of people, including some biologists, have been leaning toward a scientific explanation for why violence refuses to go away. Their argument is that human beings have a natural predilection for aggression, war and bloodshed, and that nonviolence, appealing as it may be, is completely contrary to our nature.

In biology, a field in which there is little agreement about anything, there is a growing opinion that "group conflict" has been a determining factor in the evolutionary development of numerous species, including us. Biologists prefer the term "group conflict" -- one group fighting with another -- to "warfare" because some of the geopolitical calculations of warfare are beyond what they would call natural. But still, there is a growing belief that we feel threatened instinctively and that it is in our nature to act aggressively toward other groups.

Edward O. Wilson, a leading Harvard biologist, goes even a little further, suggesting that human beings developed some of their most admirable traits -- such as courage and self-sacrifice and possibly even intelligence -- from warfare. This idea (first suggested by Charles Darwin in 1871 in "The Descent of Man") has never been widely accepted. Wilson predicts that it will catch on.

"I'm sorry to say," Wilson told me in his Harvard office, "that it would appear entirely possible that not only is group conflict -- and all that goes with it that can flare up into violence -- natural, but that we're hard-wired for it."

Wilson, an entomologist specializing in ants, rejects the view that the institutional self-slaughter we call warfare is unique to the human species. "Ants are the most violent creatures on Earth," Wilson said. "They're always at war. If you want to see an ant war, take a colony, pick it up and move it next to another colony, and pretty soon you'll see a full-scale war. I like to say if ants had nuclear weapons, the world would end in a week."

I'm not sure he's right about man's natural proclivity to violence. Nor does the U.S. military seem certain that human beings have the instincts for war exhibited by ants. Through many decades and many wars, the U.S. military has been honing its training skills, learning to take a civilized human being and turn him into a killing machine.

A traditional way of doing this was to motivate the soldier to hate the enemy and want to kill him. But after World War II, this approach was shaken by the Army's official World War II historian, Samuel Marshall, who in 1947 upset the entire military establishment with a slim book called "Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War." In this book, he claimed that in World War II, at best one in four combat soldiers ever fired their weapon at the enemy, and in most combat units only about 15% of the available firepower was ever used.

Recently, I was discussing the Marshall book with two World War II veteran friends. The one who had not been in combat found the report hard to believe, but the other, who had served in the infantry in Europe, said, "I had a machine gun. I never fired the thing."

"Why not?" the other asked.

"If you fired it, they'd shoot back at you."

Many in the military challenged Marshall's findings. But military training became focused on how to improve what Marshall had called the "ratio of fire." Starting with the Vietnam War, the ratio of fire has greatly increased through training techniques that involve simulated combat -- so that the soldier acts without thinking. Soldiers today often will commit acts that they regret and will be uncertain about why they did them. In a documentary I saw recently, a confused American soldier in Iraq said he was not sure why he had intentionally run over a woman and killed her; his only explanation was that he had been taught in training to respond that way to that situation.

This, not surprisingly, creates psychological problems. Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist specializing in the trauma of Vietnam veterans, is not at all convinced of the naturalness of war. He believes that what is wrong with the combat veterans he sees is their sense that they have gone against their nature. Shay says he finds "violent rage and social withdrawal when deep assumptions of 'what's right' are violated."

Of course, what is right and what is natural are not the same thing. It is certainly possible that a soldier who kills could be doing what came naturally even if it violated a deeply ingrained -- culturally ingrained -- sense of what's "right."

I'm not sure how to answer definitively the question of whether violence comes naturally to humans. But, in any event, the problem is not those who think that warfare is natural but those who argue that because it is, it is pointless to think that it can be stopped. Wilson, despite his belief that war is natural, also believes that it is wrong. In fact, he is a long-standing pacifist.

To him, understanding that war is natural is a key to stopping it. "Instead of treating it as pathology, we should treat it as a normal human response but one that has become extremely dangerous," he said. "When you were just having a few groups of males going out and spearing one another, for a few million years or so it was not quite the catastrophic behavior that it has now become."

On the subject of war, many seem guilty of what Wilson calls "the naturalist fallacy" -- the belief that because something is in our nature, it is therefore what we ought to be doing. It is not natural to eat with a fork or wear clothes. Yet that seems to have broad acceptance.

All of civilization is the struggle to rise above our base natural instincts -- even what we are hard-wired to do. We can make ourselves better. If someone slaps you on the cheek, I think it is unnatural to turn the other cheek. The natural thing would be to punch him very hard in the mouth. But is that always the better or even the more effective thing to do?

Mark Kurlansky is the author of "Salt: A World History" and "A Basque History of the World," among other books. His most recent book, "Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea," is being published in paperback this month.

© 2008 Los Angeles Times

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