Are Words the Roots of War?
By Steve Gillman
What are the roots of war? There are certainly many, but if
we're talking about the killing of thousands, the bombing of
populations, and the large scale conflicts of the last few thousand
years, one of the roots has to be language, or the way we use
it. The following is an understanding of war you probably haven't
heard or read.
Violence Isn't War
We are, like other animals, violent in our actions and thoughts.
Instinctively and forcefully we respond to attacks on our bodies,
or even to attacks on our mental "selves" if we haven't
grown beyond this form of ego identification process. There were
always aggressors among us, of course, trying to take what wasn't
theirs, or to harm others for the temporary pleasure, power or
profit that could be gained. However, if you go far enough into
the past you see that this resulted in fighting and killing on
a relatively small scale.
In other words, we were violent, but didn't have large wars.
We could not conceive of large scale killing, let alone carry
it out with any efficiency. It's difficult to imagine pre-language
humans killing by the hundreds, let alone by thousands or millions
at a time. It's not only difficult to imagine our non-verbal
ancestors going to war, but there is no evidence of it.
Language and the Roots of War
Other species don't have conflict on the same scale as humans,
and rarely kill many at all of their own species. Animals have
no war. It doesn't mean they are superior. After all, they also
have no life-improving technologies. Their old, weak and disabled
are left to die painfully. They cannot overcome basic instincts,
even when resulting actions are plainly against their interest.
Still, they do not kill whole populations of other animals.
War can't be blamed on technology, though. Bloody wars started
when weaponry was still limited to clubs or swords. Our current
technology makes the killing of millions more practical, but
the intention was there as soon as we had one thing: language
that allowed us to unite in beliefs about why so many must be
killed. This suggest that the way we use language is one of the
primary roots of war.
The development of communication through language made large
scale conflict possible, but it's our particular human way of
using language that makes it actually happen. Worshiping of words
makes war almost inevitable, and we are the hypnotized species.
We are under the spell of our language and the control of those
who are most skilled at manipulating those words.
As a simple example, consider a scenario from the past, before
we had language. Tribes would defend their "territory,"
as is common to many animals, and this meant violence was probably
common. Now suppose a tribe of apes or pre-language humans looked
down into a valley which was not part of their usual hunting
and foraging area, and saw another tribe. If not starving, their
response would likely be curiosity or a retreat born of fear
and uncertainty, but not war.
Eventually, however, with the development of language, "our
territory" could suddenly be any valley or island or desert
anywhere on the planet. Once a piece of land was so labeled,
members of the tribe could be easily aroused to defend it, as
though their survival actually depended on it. From an outside
perspective it appears that the words "territory,"
"ours," and "enemy" are a form of hypnosis,
used to elicit a violent response to the "threat."
Phrases by themselves, like "our way of life," could
elicit the same protective and violent feelings as attacks on
the real "territory" upon which our ancestors relied
for actual survival. Eventually, by such manipulation of hypnotic
words, over-fed "citizens" (another word for tribal
members), could support the killing of thousands when nothing
more than their supply of non-essentials or their ideals were
threatened, as though their physical bodies were under attack
An animal responds violently if another attacks its actual
body or steals its meal or violates its home. But we can get
violent if called a name or told our beliefs are wrong. Tell
a man he is an idiot, and he will feel that his actual person
has been damaged. He sees his name and thoughts as his "self,"
so an affront to this imagined identity elicits violence.
This is inappropriate, since he is not actually threatened
physically. In fact, he is in even greater physical danger if
he does act out violently, because he could go to jail or lose
a fight. But this evolutionary response is triggered by mere
words, because he has come to see them as both weapons directed
against him and - in the case of his own thoughts - as an essential
part of his identity. He must defend this language-created "self"
as though it is his body.
This happens on a larger scale too. We label ourselves by
nationality, call others the "enemy" and then say they're
a threat to us. Then we feel the need to kill them. Of course,
we will say we're defending "our country," which is
another way to say "our tribe." If some ask why it
deserves defending - in other words if people notice that they're
not a "country" - then other hypnotic words are used
to motivate them.
For example; "Our freedom must be defended!" It's
a common sentiment at times of war, almost as common as the destruction
of freedoms in the name of that conflict. It is a hypnotic catch
phrase designed to elicit fear and participation of tribal members
in the ensuing killing. The military draft, a form of enslavement,
and other violations of individual rights in the name of "freedom"
show that the goal is not freedom (or even survival) in any meaningful
sense. It is often the perpetuation of the powers that be, or
at best the freedom of the tribe to continue its ways, whether
those are good or destructive.
Suppose the "freedom loving" people of the United
States could have the flag of the China fly over their land in
exchange for more freedom than they now have. Does anyone think
they would allow that to happen? History shows they would instead
hand over their freedoms one after another to the extent that
their leaders tell them it's necessary to "defend our way
War is about the instinctive defending of the interests of
the tribe and its territory, but with language people can be
lead to see this as meaning almost anything. Once the right words
are used, absolutely normal people can feel it's okay to murder
innocent millions. If you think people who do such things are
really different from the people around you, you're not paying
attention. These "monsters" are the same as your brothers,
fathers, mothers and friends. The idea that these killers are
a "different" kind of people comes from the same ugly
tribal mentality that leads to the routine murdering of "outsiders."
We have "enemies" because having an "interest"
in killing another is not a good enough reason for many of us.
We have "monsters" because they are easier to kill
than teachers, bus drivers, cleaning ladies, mail men, fathers
and mothers. We have "collateral damage" because killing
children is tough to do, even when done with "good"
Our use of language is one of the roots of war because it
can make us see things that are not there, and miss the obvious
truth. It never occurs to us, for example, that on country is
actually our enemy. Yes, people intend us harm, and others are
mislead to follow them, but no entire population sets out to
harm another group of people. The idea is an artifice of words,
and the word "enemy" is meant to hypnotize, as are
many other words used by our leaders. See only enemies, and we
see only the need to kill. See humans who are similar to us,
and we look for other ways to resolve problems.
Is this an argument against war? Not really. It's about honestly
looking at the wonderful invention we call language, and seeing
how dangerous it can be when used a certain way. If we do not
words as the tools they are, we become tools used by them, or
by those who manipulate them skillfully. But maybe, if we were
to lose a bit of our reverence for our words, and wake up, we
might find that most, or perhaps even all wars are not really
necessary after all. It's possible there is a better way, out
beyond the usual verbal "logic" of why we must kill
Note: There will be more on the roots of war coming
soon, and a link to those pages will be placed here.