War is always a shock to the heart, but it should not be a shock to the mind.
In the past few days, war has broken out between Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a shocking yet somehow predictable outcome. Right after the collapse of the USSR,
serious trouble started brewing in Croatia, and many of us anthropologists were waiting for the other shoes to drop.
In the wars in Chechnya and Azerbaijan, two shoes dropped, but that wasn't all. Russian anti-Semitism soared, Eastern European nations sidled up to the United States, and severe political ills smoldered for years in Ukraine, Georgia, and other erstwhile Soviet colonies. The fact was, Soviet power-the Red Army and the KGB-sat on top of all these conflicts for seventy years, and when the Soviet Union fell, the lid was off.
You could say it's human nature, but it's only human nature under certain historical conditions. Democracies, the data show, don't go to war with each other, and as the number of democracies spreads, the number of ethnic conflicts should theoretically go down. The idea is, if people can choose, they don't choose war, and if you can honestly duke it out on the political battlefield, why unsheathe your sword–or your nuke?
It's a nice idea, and we have to hope it may actually be tested in this century. Maybe democracy will continue to spread as it has over the past couple of decades. Maybe the U.S. and other Western powers won't have to wage war in order for that to happen. And maybe a more widely democratic world will defuse conflict.
We used to think that only humans killed their own kind, but it turned out we just hadn't watched animals in the wild long enough. We used to think that hunting-and-gathering societies were nonviolent, but that went by the wayside as individual violence became apparent in those societies. For example, the !Kung whom I lived with turned out to have homicide rates resembling those in American cities.
The last bastion of these optimistic academic opinions seems to be that war as we know it arose after the end of hunting-and-gathering, when agricultural civilizations had to defend their cultivated land and adopted predatory expansion as a main route to success. There are some chinks in this conviction too though.
Chimpanzees get together in male groups and attack isolated members of neighboring groups, sometimes killing them; these raids, when they decimate the neighboring group, are the equivalent of predatory expansion. As for hunter-gatherers, they do seem to be free of war in the sense we mean it today, but they may have had systematic raiding in the past.
In any case, once "civilization" came into being-out of the mud of irrigated soil, with blood oozing from every pore–war was a part of the human condition, and has been so ever since. Ethnic rivalries are part and parcel of that condition, and they smolder more or less continuously between wars.
In Georgia, two separatist regions became restive, supported by the Russians. Georgia, which has troops in Iraq and wants to join NATO, tried to crack down on the separatists. Russia, which has no use for NATO on its borders, took occasion to respond with a brutal iron fist. So far the West seems impotent, as Russia expected, and NATO for Georgia is off the table.
It is ironic, and almost certainly not accidental, that all this unfolds during the Olympic games. Of course, China has its own ethnic separatists, and they are trying to prevent Beijing from turning the games into an unqualified propaganda success. But meanwhile, under the cover of the Olympic news blitz, some or all of the parties in the Georgia conflict seized their moment.
Is Russia trying to reestablish the Soviet empire? Are we entering into a new Cold War? Is China going to crack down on its own ethnic separatists-Tibetans, Muslims, and hundreds of other groups–as soon as the games are over and it's off the front page? No one knows.
But stay tuned for more of the same as human nature stumbles and sidles through history, stirring up trouble in every century, every generation, every decade. Hope and work for democracy and peace, but don't be surprised by tyranny or, especially, by war.