The End of War by John Horgan

John Horgan
The End of War
August 2014
San Francisco, USA
McSweeney’s
224 pages
$13.00
ISBN-13: 9781938073120
Buy here

John Horgan is trying to make an argument against the need for combat between nations in his book, The End of War. It is the author’s goal for readers to be able to advocate for peace and reject the necessity of war without being met with condescension. Rather than a telling of the author’s own research, Horgan’s book is a survey of research previously conducted around the subject of war, giving the book more of a long-form article style.

The End of War begins with the argument that war can and will end, if people choose to end it. War is not biologically innate—it’s not evolutionary unavoidable; we choose war, and we can just as easily turn against it. He follows this argument by analyzing research on non-human primates, charting their development, and relating it to that of humans. After establishing that there is no link between our biological identity and our need for war or violence, he digs extensively into research conducted to understand war. A dialectical argument ensues through the rest of the text, which passes between the causes, effects, and necessities of war.

With each theory that Horgan introduces, he is quick to present more research that debunks the previous work. Doing so seems to highlight the fallibility of faulty research methods and bias. The dips and turns between each view has the reader delve into a variety of hypotheses in an attempt to understand what brings about war, and Horgan addresses as many as possible—the predominance of male aggression, scarcity of land, distrust of different nations, the ability for politicians and the media to rally the masses against others, and more. Much of the research he presents is compelling, but it is often nulled by conflicting theories and only leads to more questions. In the midst of this parlay, the back and forth can lead to contradiction. On one page there is the impression that war is still valued, particularly by the American people:

We [the people of the US] keep spending more on preparations for war and finding new reasons to fight. In 2011, the Pentagon announced that it reserves the right to respond with bullets and bombs to “cyber war …” We revel in our victories over the bullies like Hitler and Saddam Hussein. We cheer the news of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. We Americans glorify past wars […] Far from reviling our veterans, for the most part we honour them.  (153) 

But, on the very next page, he states, “Far from being a temporary, statistical anomaly, like a quiescent hurricane season, the decline of war reflects our growing aversion to war.” (154)  

War is declining overall, yet we find more reasons to wage war. This paradox makes it difficult to gauge how American culture responds to war. At other times, the author’s tone appears exasperated by the endless paradox of war itself. Some of the research he’s gathered claims war is caused by resource scarcity, but it is also found that resource scarcity is a cause of war, which would suggest an endless cycle. Then there are those that believe that fighting is a necessity to gaining peace, but research shows that fighting war can be conducive to more war.

After shifting between the merits and faults of different researchers and their work, the reader is forced to accept that there is no black-and-white answer to what causes war. And in this, the conclusion emerges that there is a multitude of causes, conditions, contexts, and more that cater to the engagement of warfare ranging from the desire for peace, to the practice of war itself (which can bring upon more violence), economic disparity, the media, and more. Looking at the words of political scientist J. David Singer, the author summarizes:

Wars break out at random, without conforming to any laws or patterns. Singer concludes that we are "soft-wired" for war. The problem, he writes, is not our innate aggression so much as our propensity for deferring to authority and embracing our culture’s values, including militaristic ones. 

This raises the question: How do we end war? Horgan shares at the very beginning of the book that he has faith that his children, “Mac and Skye will live to see a world without war” (21). This seems extremely idealistic, and the book does not argue its plausibility. Whether or not people are culturally repelled by war, for war to end within the next generation or less seems unlikely.  

Horgan agrees with the argument that people choose war; therefore, the solution is to find an alternate option for people to choose so that war does not seem like the best or perceived "only" choice. There have to be alternate, non-violent options that are used whenever possible and the goal when in combat should always be to minimize casualties. These tactics and the advocacy for democracy are what to strive for. It’s still hard to believe that these methods will lead to the end of war within this lifetime.

At the book’s end, there are still many threads left untied. The discussion of war at the national level must include power struggles, money, culture, and territory. This only demonstrates that the topic of war is a loaded one, and worth discussion. Horgan has succeeded in continuing and encouraging the push for an era of peace. And in this, I wholly agree with the author and his efforts. War is not necessary; rather, it is archaic and brutish.

Samantha Preddie
Nomadic Press
Preddie is a publishing student at Ryerson University. She has interned at various publishing houses, soaking up as much literature as possible along the way. She has a bachelor's degree in English and political science from the University of Toronto.