We should expect more wars say BBC lectures

Face of war: A US marine suffering shell shock in Vietnam, by photojournalist Don McCullin.

Is war part of human nature? That is the key debate in the 2018 Reith Lectures which began yesterday. Delivered by historian Margaret MacMillan, the talks offer scant hope for world peace.

“We find it disturbing. We sometimes find it appealing… we are, I think, a society fascinated by war.”

It was by acknowledging the conflicted place war holds in the human psyche that historian Margaret MacMillan opened this year’s Reith Lectures.

“One starting point to try and understand war is to ask if it’s part of being human.”

This question has been debated for centuries: French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that humans are inherently peaceful, while English philosopher Thomas Hobbes claimed we are naturally violent.

“As far as the evidence goes, it seems to be closer to Hobbes,” MacMillan says.

And ever since those primitive times — through to the development of complex societies — war has been a constant feature of human civilisation.

But, as well as the carnage it causes, war can also help societies develop: “Paradoxically, the very organisation that made it possible for societies to fight wars and to defend themselves against attack also brought benefits.”

The First World War helped women’s suffrage; and the Second World War smashed old class barriers.

In spite of this, conflicts still rage around the globe. The world is “more precarious than it has been for some time,” MacMillan states: “I think there’s rather a lot to be pessimistic about.”

Is war part of human nature?

In our blood

We are hardwired for war, some say. The violence we see in the animal kingdom is deep within in our biology too. From endless fights over borders, to nationalist and ethnic conflicts — war is an inevitable part of human existence.

Not necessarily, others respond. Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and non-violence will lead us to peace. Modernity has already banished much of the savageries of humanity’s blood-spattered past. War is not inevitable — in fact, it will soon be obsolete.

You Decide

  1. Are humans naturally violent?


  1. What do we mean by the word “conflict”? Write down as many ways as you can think of in which it can occur. Do you think that all of these types of conflict will one day come to an end?

Some People Say...

“The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

Thomas Hobbes

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the past year, there have been 40 separate conflicts worldwide that have each caused at least 100 violent deaths. The worst is the Syrian civil war, which claimed 39,000 lives in 2017.
What do we not know?
Whether Britain will expand its armed forces. Currently there is a battle in Whitehall in which Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is demanding £20 billion in extra funding.

Word Watch

Margaret MacMillan
A Canadian historian at the University of Oxford.
Reith Lectures
Since 1948 the annual radio lectures have been given by leading figures of the day. This year’s series is called “The Mark of Cain”, and it features five talks on the topic of war. Other notables to give the lectures include Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Still rage
See The Day’s briefing from February: “The forgotten wars”.

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