Why war?

Why war?

Christopher Coker
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Christopher Coker's 'Why War' is an interesting anthropological survey of the roots of war ('the human thing' as one of the ancient writers would have it) in human biology and culture.

A mid-sized hardback, it tackles its subject with verve and energy and an occasional political edge, all of which combine to make it a good read. This is whether or not you agree with Coker's central argument that war is likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future.

Within its 218 pages, consisting of an introduction, five substantive chapters, a bibliography and an index, the book ranges widely, from the behaviour of seagulls which inspired the behavioural model which underpins the book, to the relationship of artificial intelligence to war. All the evidence is that Coker (seemingly a prolific writer on war) is widely read but he wears his learning lightly and his prose is clear and simple.

As well as the main questions, the book also asks why people are motivated to murderous or selfish acts, why young men are motivated to go to war, and what motivates some people to return to it. As the book notes, "these are species-related questions" so it seeks to operate at that level, and is therefore not a treatise on why states make war, leaving that territory to others.

In terms of progression, the book commences (in chapter 1) with the biological origins of war, where the author draws on our ability to plan, to make tools (and, indeed, weapons), and to make use of language as well as instincts towards socialisation, 'othering' and, perhaps paradoxically, towards self-sacrifice.

Chapter 2 discusses culture and humankind's cultural mechanisms such as religion, literature (and, in particular, the instinct to tell stories and create myths) and how this plays into history and the creation of images which encapsulate these things.

The third chapter 'Ontogeny', discusses "the process by which we become human" and in particular the relationship between war and history, going back to the earliest roots of prehistory, and how war has changed over the years.

Chapter 4, Functions, deals with 'how war works' the impetuses which draw men to war, what shapes their experiences, and sanctions their activities.

Finally, the fifth chapter, 'On the edge of tomorrow', considers, drawing on science fiction and other sources, what a 'post-human' world of war might look like.

Overall, an insightful and sometimes provocative read, all worth four stars.

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