Society's Institutions and the Human Condition

The Drift to War

Laura Nader, 1984

Laura Nader is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has held visiting professorships at the Yale University Law School and Wellesley College. Professor Nader's list of over one-hundred scholarly contributions to the scientific literature of anthropology and law include The Disputing Process, Law in Ten Societies, and All Our Children. Her professional activities include service on committees of the American Anthropological Association, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the Social Science Research Council, and the National Science Foundation.

Whiteley: As you've thought about the problem of achieving peace in a nuclear age, you've been increasingly concerned with the "drift toward war." What do you mean?

Nader: Oh, when I talk about the "drift toward war" I'm talking about all of those unplanned, unconscious aspects of our culture and our world that are moving us in a direction that you can't trace back to a group of people, or conspiracy, or anything of that sort. For example, when you have a population that assumes that there'll be a war, that is part of a drift toward war. When you have an economy that is built on war, then that will be part of a drift towards war. When you have a citizenry that abdicates, in a democracy, the knowledge that would lead us either to war or not to war, to the politicians, I would say that would be a contribution towards a drift. When you have a society which is basically patriarchal or male-dominated, that would be an element that would invite a drift towards war.

Now for every example that I've given you, we probably could think of opposing examples that would lead towards peace, and I think those seeds are present but, at the moment, are not in a dominant situation.

Whiteley: One of your concerns is that you can't study peace any longer and the forces that lead to it by analyzing single incidents.

Nader: That's right. We like to think of wars as starting with the Tonkin Gulf incident or specific incidents, but in fact usually there is a drift that readies a population for war that has occurred decades before the war may start.

Whiteley: You've written that it may be very different processes of drift that led toward conventional war, as opposed to the potential of nuclear war. What was your thinking?

Nader: Well, conventional war may have some of the same elements that lead us to a nuclear war: greed, ideological differences, the need for new territories either for markets, commercial markets, or literally new land areas, the push towards increased population, and what to do, and so forth. Those may be the same for conventional war or modern day nuclear, but the difference is that the consequences are so dramatically extraordinary for nuclear that if we think of the reasons that take us to war resulting in the same consequences, both in conventional and in nuclear war, it's an erroneous and self-deceptive reasoning. I think that when we're talking about conventional war, we're talking about possibilities for one side or the other surviving, and when we're talking about nuclear war, we're having to address the question of whether it's war or suicide.

Whiteley: In applying this concept of drift to peace in a nuclear age, you've indicated that not only is it a series of unplanned decisions that add up, but there are at least three concepts that help one understand how we got to be where we are. The first was institutionalized insanity. What is that?

Nader: Well, I ran across the thought of institutionalized insanity - the idea came to me as I participated in panels, government commissions, and so forth - and watched how small insulated groups - particularly small insulated groups that are same sex (in this case usually male) how they operate to develop a culture of the group that if the outside were to look into that group they'd say these people are absolutely mad. So that when they bring in an odd scientist or two to look at what they're doing, the person may say well, this is absolutely insane, you shouldn't be doing this. But it is not considered insane by the group simply because they're so well-insulated.

Let me give you an example from an area that's not directly on war, but tangential to it. When I was participating in the energy research it became very clear that the people on those committees were only intent on talking about one kind of energy form; they were talking about nuclear energy. People simply did not talk about alternatives to nuclear. And if you did, you were thought to be aberrant, odd, and under some circumstances, maybe insane yourself. So insulated groups, usually of same sex, that do not allow outsiders in to effect or question, very often evolve a kind of behavior that I would call institutionalized insanity, like thinking we're going to win a nuclear war.

Whiteley: Now, within a democracy, theoretically, groups such as that cannot be in dominant positions of power; that it's the people themselves who grant the power to their representatives to reflect their wishes. What is not working the way it should?

Nader: Well, what is not working is that we have specialization in a modern complex society. We have the need for secrecy that accompanies sometimes this specialization that not only leaves out the population that should be monitoring their congressmen and so forth, but it leaves out the Congress. So that decisions that may be generated from the executive branch in a democratic society are not only not being scrutinized by the people, but they're not even being scrutinized by our elected representatives. And this suggests of course that we need a new distribution of responsibility for looking at preventing dangerous directions towards nuclear war, or even towards conventional war from happening.

Whiteley: Okay. A second concept you've identified, absolutely essential to peace in a nuclear age, is the notion of organizational survival and momentum.

Nader: Organizations tend towards insisting upon their own survival. The goal of the organization becomes surviving, and so if you link the necessity for an organization like the DOD or any Washington agency to survive, with the insulation of the organization, then you have the institutionalized insanity coupled with the organizational survival issues that lead people to act in ways that they would normally perhaps not act. It is a generally accepted fact that organizations, no matter what their original goal, will end up with the primary goal being the survival of that organization. And this is why in Washington you often see agencies that should be cooperating not cooperating, because they're both out to maintain the survival of a particular organization.

Whiteley: Okay. A third basic concept for you is the notion of short-term self-interest.

Nader: Yes, short-term self-interest - here I'm referring to a view, say in the defense industry, that the way we're going to run the economy in this country is to stimulate the development of weaponry, and this is how to stimulate the economy. I think this is a very short-term view because it does not take into consideration what the basic issues are. I would say that in this country we never really worked out a solution to the Great Depression, except to go to war.

Whiteley: You've written about the problem of ideology in the nuclear age as an additional problem to be overcome in seeking peace. What do you mean?

Nader: Well, people often ask why is it that the USSR and the USA, in this case, are opposing one another when both countries are extraordinarily rich in natural resources. Neither country needs extra territory. There doesn't seem to be the usual reasons for the necessity for these two countries to oppose each other unless you begin to look at the ideology. And the ideology is mutually exclusive, one of the other, so that the democratic ideology says that everybody should have the same kind of government that we have, and we're even talking now about the kind of government that we should force upon the Soviets. And similarly, the Soviets have an ideology to say that the communist ideology should spread throughout the world. And you find here opposed two ideologies that refuse to allow for both ideologies to exist in the world. So it's a war of ideology.

Whiteley: In one of your papers on the topic of peace, you began with the notion of gender, that the fact that it's almost all men associated with the defense establishment is an essential part of the problem. What is the evidence for that?

Nader: Well, I think that we need to look at that in order to discover what the implications are, the significance of the fact that the people who make decisions about war in our country and in the Soviet Union, for example, are males. In our country they're white males, usually white middle-age males. These two countries share in common a patriarchal heritage. European society is the base of patrilineal, patriarchal societies which means in terms of war that it's very important for men to exhibit their prowess and their courage and their strength in a context of warfare. If you look around the world, and you look at matrilineal societies where women are more predominant, there seems to be less of a need for men in matrilineal societies to take that macho role.

But it still remains for us to explain why it is that these organizations, in all of the Superpowers that lead us to the brink of warfare, or drift us to war, are usually males. In our own country, I've been concerned when I meet up with the military that they're also depressed males. This is something that should be addressed, and it should be seriously examined to see what the consequences are. I think we've refused to look at the maleness or the femaleness. Now this isn't to say that males are more prone to war and women are not prone to war. I want to make that clear. It's to say that there is a male construct that forces upon men, in this case, a way of behaving that is part of what I call "the drift to war."

Whiteley: As you have examined "the drift toward war" in other societies, and anthropologists have studied those societies that tend to be more peaceful than those societies that aren't, what have you learned?

Nader: Well, I learned something from the first fieldworker I ever sent out. I was working myself among the Zapotec Indians of southern Mexico in a village which was renowned for being peaceful. There was very little homicide or violence of any dramatic sort in that village. And I assumed at the beginning that this was characteristic of small face-to-face societies. The first fieldworker I trained I sent to New Guinea, to the highlands of Indonesian New Guinea, and he was working with a population of the same size that was prone to violence, and prone to escalation to war. And so right there we had an interesting test of the hypothesis: if smallness has anything to do with whether you're violent or not. And I think scale does not, at that level, have anything to do with whether a society is violent. So I began to look at what made his society violent, and what made the Zapotec peaceful. And I looked at such things as what I call cross-linkage, which is that among the Zapotec they have a number of ways which link the people, cross-link them much as the Swiss are cross-linked, as an example of a society that is cross-linked.

Whiteley: What does that mean?

Nader: That means that in Switzerland you have German-speaking Catholics and French-speaking Catholics, so you don't divide the Catholics and the Protestants into opposing groups because they're linked through language. The opposite would be an example such as the Canadian example, where you have English-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics, and where you have that kind of a dual division, you are prone toward hostility and oppositions. In the New Guinea village that Klaus-Friedrich Koch studied they have this kind of an opposition and they had no possibility for third parties, so there were no judges in that town that could hear conflicts. Immediately when a conflict occurred between two parties it escalated because there was no third party for it to go to. So I'm very interested in the structure - the internal structure of a society, as that makes a group prone towards war or away from war. Some people think, for example, that the nation state is an inherently unstable type of organization that is part of a "drift towards war." Because when you have in either country internal problems, the temptation to solve internal problems by outward attack is there to be used by anybody who wants to use it.

Whiteley: In a nuclear age where there's very little margin for error in nations' vital self-interest, we do not have an effective rule-of-law on a world basis. Any state can say I will not allow "X" dispute to be heard by the World Court. Now, are there learnings from anthropology about how you can preserve one's national independence on vital matters, and have more viable peaceful ways of resolving conflicts between sovereign entities on the other?

Nader: I suppose this is where you have to develop non-national cooperation, the so-called people-to-people movements in the different nations, that begin to create the forces necessary to build a different kind of ethic. That is a long-term device and we're at the brink, and so we also have to accompany such devices with short-term incentives. And I am increasingly drawn to the arguments of Seymour Melman on economic incentives to draw people away from nuclear war or the use of societal resources for warring purposes; that somehow, we seem to be on a suicide bent. If you were to look at what's happening in the Superpowers as a social scientist, I think that we really are no longer talking about war, and therefore can't talk about using law or the usual ways as the sole direction to trying to do something about it.

When you have this kind of technology which is bound to obliterate the producers of it and the consumers - we're all consumers of the technology - you're just - you have to look at things that happen like Jonestown. Jonestown happened in the United States, and they were educated people who followed him, and they all died. They thought they were participating in a renewed view of - participating in a religion that would renew them in the world, but they all followed Jones to their death in Jonestown. And I think the fact that this happened in and with Americans is like - it's a signal to us to really think about whether the question of nuclear war is about patriotism, or whether it's not really a death wish.

Whiteley: Is there some instinct for death wish, for aggression, that's been found as people study societies cross-culturally?

Nader: I don't think we have an instinct outlined. A sociobiologist may have something to say about that, but I think there have been societies that have died, there have been cultures that have died, that sort of fizzle out. And the fact that they haven't had the technology to carry out the material obliteration as well as the cultural obliteration, may mean that that's what distinguishes us, that we have the technology to do that. You see, we have a society that has a dream. This is really what American society has given to the world - a dream about a material and possibly even spiritual happiness that comes with the type of democracy that we have believed in, and tried to develop before and since Jefferson. But as my old mentor at Harvard used to say, Clyde Kluckhohn, something very strange happens in a culture when there's a gap between their ideal and the 'real' that they're participating in. And as I think I've said in other contexts, when the gap between the real and ideal gets to be too strong, and we feel we are not empowered to do something about that, then maybe obliteration is the thing that we're drawn to.

Whiteley: As you've reflected on the role of religion across societies, what is your assessment about it's contribution to peace and to war?

Nader: I don't think there's any easy answer to that. I think that there have been times when religion has been the cause of war, and there have been times when religious movements have led us away from war. And I think today both of those things are probably happening. There is a strong movement that is based in some of the religions we find in our own country against war, particularly against nuclear war, and similarly, in our own country there also have been religious movements that have supported and lent their name and money to vicious and deadly war. So how - again, it's one of those things - how religion is used and the role that it plays will depend on a number of other factors. For all the talk about the violence of Islam in the present day, for many centuries Islam, in fact, was a peaceful religious force throughout large parts of the world. So you can't say that any one of the great religions has been solely a push for peace or a push for war.

Whiteley: Are there childrearing practices that, as you've studied society, seem to be associated with a tendency towards greater peace or a tendency toward greater war?

Nader: I think the specialists in childrearing practices might argue for something about how children, boys in particular, are reared in patrilineal societies, male-dominated societies, that pushes them to have to exhibit their macho warrior capabilities, especially when they reach manhood.

Whiteley: As you project ahead to the end of this decade and the next, what would you have us do differently as a society to increase the chances for peace?

Nader: The first thing I would do is to diversify the economy, and diversify our science. I mean two-thirds of the science and technology budget in this country is going into weaponry. Let's say that one of the things that I would want to do is to make sure that we had a very strong security in this country, I would still decrease the budget for science and technology in the large-scale machinery, which may have nothing to do with protecting us as citizens. I mean nobody is even questioning that. That it isn't the amount of money, it isn't the size of the machine that's going to save us. It may be what's going on within our citizenry that's going to build a good civilian protection.

So I guess the first thing I would do is to diversify the economy and try to - that's the first thing I would do. The second thing I'd do is to create a vision of what we'd gain by having a peaceful world. I mean, if we're talking about conventional warfare - let's take the Middle East. What could you get? You look at the Middle East and the resources that are there. If there wasn't this potential and present warring pattern that you find in the Middle East, what would the future look like there? Nobody is talking about this; nobody is giving this sort of positive vision. You have the books called "Nuclear Nightmares" and the movies and so forth, to tell you how terrible it's going to be afterwards; we won't be around to see it. But nobody is really developing a vision of the advantages of a peaceful society. In fact, they're making the opposite argument that there are more advantages to being a warring society and having a war economy than to have a peace economy. There's simply no evidence for that.

Whiteley: You've talked about the need to plan for a different economy, you've talked about the need to put far more energy into planning for peace, to showing the vision of what a peaceful world would be like. What else?

Nader: The third step - the third ingredient would be to elaborate on the people-to-people movement, to recognize in a broad base of the population that there are constraints on governments; that leaders have constraints on them, that they have to posture to one another, and that posturing can only be mediated by participation of the civilians, the non-governmental population. So I would say a very broad attempt to develop the people-to-people movement, whether it's physicians in the U.S. going to the USSR, or anthropologists here going to China, or whatever the direction, or just plain housewives or kids communicating across culture. The people-to-people movement may be what it takes to save face for governments that can't do anything but posture.

Whiteley: Professor Nader, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world.