A former British army officer is scepticalby Richard English / April 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
This fascinating, accessible book by a former British Army officer aims to explain why people fight, with a particular eye to individual-level experience and to recent research in the cognitive sciences. Central to the book is the claim that “Humans fight to achieve status and belonging,” and a scepticism about the notion that ideology causes violence.
But some readers will consider that any proper understanding of, for example, nationalist ideology has to recognise that its enduring appeal lies at least partly in what it offers regarding the same “status and belonging” that Martin identifies. So not everyone will be persuaded that Martin’s account is quite as decisive or new as he suggests.
He also argues that religious or other justifications for violence represent merely the conscious frameworks by which people justify actions that are prompted by subconscious motivations. But this rather ignores the fact that those frameworks that endure repeatedly and widely enough to matter historically (religiously infused nationalisms, for example) do so precisely because they resonate with the evolutionarily developed motivations that he discusses.
To dismiss the religious dimensions to the multi-causal processes behind violence in (say) Israel/Palestine, because the actors are not motivated by religious-textual interpretations, reflects a narrow view of the functioning of religious belief, practice and community.
Still, the book has much to recommend it. Martin avoids a crude biological determinism and the argument is built up carefully. Frameworks developed to deal with group problems are assessed, and there is a brisk engagement with morality and ideology. Moreover, in distilling and applying the work of Robert Sapolsky, Daniel Kahneman and Steven Pinker, Martin’s enjoyable book makes a positive contribution to a major debate.
Why We Fight
by Mike Martin (Hurst, £20)