A review of ‘Why We Fight’ by Mike Martin

2019 and 2020 were pretty big reading years for me, I read broadly for professional development, but I also read a lot for fun. Everything from sci-fi and historical fantasy to books that were on Generals reading lists. One book that ticked all the boxes for me was Mike Martin’s Why We Fight.

So, for some context, Mike Martin is a former British Army Officer Pashtu linguist and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He has a PhD in War Studies. His third book, Why We Fight is a deep dive into the reasons that humans fight. This was not a tedious read. Martin’s style is engaging and highly readable. Evolutionary psychology is the building block of the argument and in this way it is along the same lines as Ian Morris’s War: What is it Good For (which is a slightly denser but equally engaging read). Rather than focussing on war itself, the first part of the book takes the reader through the evolution of human psychology and how this drives us to conflict. The book discusses a wide variety of drivers, including the effect of group dynamics, religion and the need for status.

The real nuggets of the book are in the “Conclusions” and “Postscript” chapters. It was in this section that the passage “War, a human activity, has roots in our biology, and especially our cognition. This is where we must look if we wish to minimise, or even eliminate war.”, had me yelling and also making the note “Do you want Reavers, because this is how you get Reavers”. For those unfamiliar, this is a reference to the Firefly series in which scientists tried to eliminate violent tendencies in humans and ended up with the opposite effect on a percentage of the population, which turned into ultra-violent cannibals instead.

But I digress. 

In his “Conclusions”, Martin makes the connections between the psychology and the reality he experienced in Afghanistan and within his community in the UK and showed his arguments to be applicable across a broader spectrum of historical events. In his “Postscript” he posits the idea of a Global Group. This is related to the idea of group size and the drivers that can increase the functional size of a group in a way that enables it to work towards a common goal. I think that Martin may have overestimated AI’s potential effect on our global identity. There is current evidence that points more towards AI shaping further division rather than cohesion. While technology absolutely plays a part in our current formation of group identity overcoming the ‘us and them’ may be more complicated than an AI that has, ultimately, been written by humans. Overall this is a book that provokes thought and will make you pause. While statistically, violence is decreasing in our world, we see new groups form and disband with great regularity. The years since this book was written have been, at the least, interesting, and I would be intrigued in what Dr Martin’s assessment is of the potential impact AI could have on the current group dynamics that we see playing out.

Biography:

Beck Marlow is a currently serving logistics officer of the RAEME persuasion. Avid reader, occasional tweeter, and perpetually trying to improve her writing.

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