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Preparing for Peace

The website of the Westmorland General Meeting 'Preparing for Peace' initiative





Individuals use aggression as a means to achieve their goals – to satisfy hunger or greed for example. Other factors reduce the social inhibitions against behaving aggressively – hot and humid conditions, crowding, drugs (including alcohol), frustration, and so on. This is a crude picture, but the important issue is that the occurrence of aggression between individuals does not depend solely on their aggressiveness, but on many other factors. Some of the most important of these factors are:


·        All individuals seek confirmation of their attitudes and beliefs by associating with others who think in the same way. This will enhance his or her own self-esteem. When individuals are poised to attack but are held back by fear or moral scruples, the individual who acts first, who first throws a brick at the police for instance, gains status amongst his or her peers. This can lead to assertiveness in seeking for status, which in turn helps to trigger aggression.


·        The individuals within each group co-operate with each other. Members of a  group tend to see themselves as dependent on each other, more similar to each other in certain respects than they are to outsiders, and superior to the outsiders. Thus pro-social as well as anti-social tendencies must operate.


·        The nation or political party becomes part of an individual’s identity. When two groups are in conflict, identification with one’s own nation or group enhances negative feelings towards the other group. Preservation of the group’s resources, or its territory, as well as fear for one’s own safety, are reasons for defence. Attack is often seen as the best means of defence.


·        Identification with a military unit enables its members to take pride in its achievements, past and present, which in turn increases their identification with it. Many training situations are made deliberately harsh in order to cement individual relationships: ‘buddy relationships’.  These play a supportive role in combat.


·        The role of leaders must not be underestimated. Leaders inspire collective action through their behaviour and promote loyalty by caring for individuals. They may become leaders because they are idealistic or because they are ambitious. Bad leaders inspire fear and may also win power by telling lies, or using propaganda.


·        The attitudes of their followers may be similarly diverse, seeking a warrior self-image, for example, or self-fulfilment in other ways. It is a goal of military training to minimize such differences and to inculcate loyalty to the group.


Aggressive behaviour is a tool to obtain goals, not the prime cause of the violence. When a platoon of soldiers captures its objective, it ceases to attack. Yet in certain circumstances inter-group violence can involve basic aggressiveness and individuals strive to hurt members of the other group for the sake of hurting or killing. The suffering of the victim enhances this aggressiveness. The situation is helped by anonymity. If the victim is a non-person the aggressor escapes personal guilt.


Although the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were probably planned at a high level, they involved re-activating old ethnic and tribal hatreds. Basic aggressiveness played a large part in the behaviour of those who carried out the actions. The situation in the Holocaust was different because individuals were assigned specific tasks in the mass homicide, and so were made to feel less responsible for the end result.


It is helpful to think of the cases of aggression between groups in terms of a multi-dimensional continuum:


·        The wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were in some ways intermediate between tribal war and major international wars. They involved cultural groups that had seemed to live amicably together. Central control and propaganda played on cultural differences and gave the combatants of each group an incentive and an apparent duty to attack each other.


·        The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was initially a matter of territorial conquest controlled by political leaders. However, it escalated to extreme levels of brutality, often carried out at the whim of local military leaders, (though they later claimed that they were driven by circumstances or given orders from above). The aim was to humiliate, terrorize and kill the enemy population in order to remove it from the territory.


·        Similarly, in Rwanda the combatants initially saw the conflict in ethnic, cultural, political or idealistic terms, and fought as a matter of duty, but this led to the arousal of individual aggressiveness, and in many cases killing for the sake of killing seems to have taken over. Thus in the context of war individuals who had previously lived together amicably came to show callous violence.


But it was the war that caused the aggression, and not vice versa.

 Session 2