in: Character, Military, Podcast

• Last updated: August 1, 2023

Podcast #916: Why We Fight

We often suppose that wars are fought over things like resources, border disputes, and ideologies. My guest calls this “the spreadsheet approach to war” and argues that, in reality, such factors only come in as justifications for the much deeper drives at play.

Mike Martin is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and the author of Why We FightToday on the show, he draws on his background in biology and experience serving in the British army to offer an explanation as to why individuals and nation-states go to war. Mike argues that there are two fundamental impulses behind the drive to war: the drive for status and the drive for belonging. We discuss these motivations and how leaders and ideologies corral and amplify them. We end our conversation with how this view of war could prevent conflicts and allow them to be fought more successfully, and also be a lens for how to help men flourish in a healthy way.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We often suppose that wars are fought over things like resources, border disputes and ideologies. My guest calls this the spreadsheet approach to war and argues that in reality such factors only come in as justifications for the much deeper drives at play.

Mike Martin is a senior visiting fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and the author of Why We Fight. Today on the show, he draws on his background in biology and experience serving in the British Army to offer an explanation as to why individuals and nation states go to war.

Mike argues that there are two fundamental impulses behind the drive to war, the drive for status and the drive for belonging. We discuss these motivations and how leaders and ideologies corral and amplify them.

We end our conversation with how this view of war could prevent conflicts and allow them to be fought more successfully, and also be a lens on how to help men flourish in a healthy way.

After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright. Mike Martin, welcome to the show.

Mike Martin: Hey, good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So you wrote a book called Why We Fight, where you take a deep dive in exploring why humans engage in warfare. I’m curious what led you down that path to write this book?

Mike Martin: Primarily it was to explain my own experience of fighting in a war. I spent a couple of years in Afghanistan as a British Army officer and previously to that I’d studied biology at university. And it seemed to me as I was fighting this war that it didn’t really make sense. It wasn’t logical, it didn’t… There was no…

Wars just don’t make sense, in the sense of people die, everything gets destroyed. And so I set out to try and explore why it is that humans fight war. And not just occasionally, we fight them all the time.

Brett McKay: Well I’m curious, when you were fighting, when you were an officer in the British Army, what was your experience like? Because you talk about in the book, you were really jonesing to sign up, like you wanted to sign up, you wanted to experience that.

Mike Martin: I think firstly I need to say that I don’t think that that’s that rare, particularly at a time… So I joined the Army in 2007, so we knew we were going to war, right? Okay, Iraq was tailing down for us at that point, but Afghanistan was just getting going.

So you only joined the British Army at that time with the knowledge that you were going to war. And what I actually found was that a lot of people had joined because they were going to war. People joined, did one or two tours and then left because they’d done what they wanted to do. And so it was a motivating factor.

And actually, armies have this all the time, their recruitment goes down in peacetime because people join armies because they want to fight.

Brett McKay: And I think you talked about there’s a moment where you, it was actually exhilarating. And people often talk about how war is like, “Oh, that’d be scary.” It is scary, but at the same time it can also be really exciting.

Mike Martin: Yeah, it’s kind of like a Zen-like feeling. So you get into… And it can be scary as well, it’s a bit like you’re on a knife edge and you can go one way or the other.

And so, and again, just to repeat, this is not me, you look up and down the line of people who are firing their weapons or there are bullets flying overhead and a lot of them are having the time of their lives.

And of course, if someone gets injured or something, then that totally changes the dynamic, of course. But people are in a state of mental clarity, I guess, partly because the outside world is stripped away, like you’re in something very binary here, isn’t it? They survive or you survive.

It’s also something that perhaps you might have spent several years training for. I mean, some of the people who I got into firefights with in Afghanistan spent 20 years in the Army and never been shot at, never fired their weapons in anger, and then all of a sudden they were doing what they were meant to be doing.

But there was also a, you asked a little bit about it in your last question, a lot of those people and predominantly they were young men, right? A lot of those young men wanted to test themselves. They saw combat as if you like a, is it a way of becoming a man, perhaps, or a way of proving themselves?

A way of demonstrating that when the bullets start flying, they can deliver. Like they are a man, they are able to get into that bracket of people who’ve done that. These days quite a rare experience, probably less so if we go back a few hundred years.

And I think all of these things come together to create a drive towards fighting in combat and a sense of it is something that they need to do or that they want to do.

And obviously everyone doesn’t feel this, but these people felt it, these young men particularly felt it. Everything… It’s there’s something that they need to do in order to prove themselves.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, when you signed up, what did you tell people your motives were? Did you… Or even yourself? Did you say like, “I’m fighting for freedom, I’m fighting for democracy.”? Was that the thing you told yourself?

Or did you just say, “I just want to experience the excitement of it.”?

Mike Martin: No, I didn’t say any of that stuff. And I guess actually maybe there’s a little bit of a difference between a British and American audience. I think the way the Brits and the Americans see their armed forces and talk about their armed forces is a bit different. I think the American… And this is just cultural differences.

I think Americans slightly talk more about things like that when they’re talking about fighting, whereas Brits talk a little bit less about that kind of stuff.

But even so, I think I’m probably one of those people who always wanted to be a soldier, and I think there are quite a lot of people like that. And I suppose maybe had there not been a war on when I, that Britain was fighting in when I was in my 20s, it’s interesting to ask what would’ve happened? Would I have still gone into the Army if it was a peacetime army? Would I have tried to find that thing somewhere else?

But I think what I said to people was that for me it was war’s always been fascinating. Afghanistan was a particularly fascinating and complex conflict.

And I think probably the word I would’ve used is adventure. I suppose that’s the kind of closest proxy to it, which, and again, when we’re describing things to other people, I guess we’re sort of thinking about how we want ourselves to be perceived as well. If I think about the 22 year old Mike, or the 23 year old Mike.

So there’s probably a bit of that going on. Probably my feelings were a bit stronger than that. But I used the word “adventure” and I’m fascinated by it as a way of slightly socializing the drives that I had towards going and fighting in a war and proving myself, as we discussed.

Brett McKay: So as you said at the beginning, war is, if you take a step back, it’s really weird. It’s really bizarre. Countries amass large numbers of people, they spend tons of money, people die, they just blow stuff up. It’s just weird.

And so when social scientists try to explain like why humans do this, what are the standard explanations for why humans engage in warfare?

Mike Martin: Yeah. Well they’re social scientists, right? So they have the kind of rational view of the world, it’s called the Rational Actor Model. And the idea is that you can quantify stuff in the world, and I’ll come onto some of those things in a minute.

And then you can put them into a model and it’ll tell you like if you have more of A and less of B, then you are more likely to end up in a war. And there was this huge, couple of decades worth of social science research looking into this, why do conflicts happen.

And so they would look at things like political fragmentation and they would look at things like prevalence of extreme ideologies, resources, inequalities, things like that. And of course all of these things are factors that lead to war.

Like if a country is more unequal or the resources are held in a small elite, then yes, all other things being equal, it’s more likely to go to war internally. Or if there’s two countries that have a border dispute or they have a history of going to war, then they’re more likely to go to war. So of course all of that is true, but it still misses the essence, right?

And it comes back to this thing, you said it doesn’t make sense ’cause of countries and whatever. On an individual level it really doesn’t make sense. So me as an individual, this is where my sort of background in biology really came to the fore. I’m an evolved being. I’ve evolved to survive and reproduce. So why am I risking my life to go and fight for…

In the modern age, I didn’t get anything out of going to Afghanistan as a British Army officer, apart from my salary, right? Obviously, again, life experience, all the rest of it. But I didn’t end up with more women or more resources or anything. It was just a job, right? But yet I still had that drive towards it.

And so the real question for me is, why are individuals driven to fighting wars? If they’re compelled to, fine, but volunteer armies exist and have existed for thousands of years.

So why do individuals go and fight in wars? Particularly when, in the extreme case, we think about France in the first World War, the death rate for young men say age between 16 and 35 was about 30%.

So you have a one in three chance of dying for a kind of hard to quantify benefit. Of any benefit, but particularly in terms of survival, reproduction. So that really doesn’t make sense.

And I think that the social scientists who are looking at these wars and reasons and causes for war in terms of models and really spreadsheets, I sort of call it the spreadsheet approach to war, are missing this essence right at the heart of it, which is not only why do countries go to war, why do individuals go to war? It just simply doesn’t make sense.

Brett McKay: And as you mentioned, your biology background helped you explore this and you, you make the case that evolutionary psychology can help us understand why individuals fight. So how can evolutionary psychology help us understand why humans fight in wars?

Mike Martin: Well, if you have something that exists in a population that has a negative selection pressure, so in this case a drive to go to war, right? And obviously it’s lots of different drives, but let’s just say that there is this thing.

If war has such a huge death rate, you would expect it to be selected out, the things that contribute towards young men going to fight in wars, you’d expect them to be selected out of the gene pool.

But we don’t see that. We still see war at a very high prevalence, right? We see wars… Wars are starting all the time. There’s loads of them.

And so the only reason things that have a negative selection pressure can exist in the gene pool is if that particular trait also has something very, very positive for an individual’s survival and reproduction, and that positive outweighs the negative that you get from going to war.

So war is a byproduct. So we have this wonderful thing that’s evolved that’s helping us do X, Y, and Z. And I’m sure we’re gonna come onto those things in a minute.

But as a byproduct, unfortunately those things that we’ve evolved to seek because they help us survive and reproduce, actually as a byproduct cause us to go to war. And that causes a 30% death rate. But the thing that they originally evolved for help us even more survive and reproduce than 30%. So therefore they remain in the gene pool.

So that’s how evolutionary in sort of big ideas terms can help us understand how something like going to war has evolved and has remains remained in the gene pool.

Brett McKay: So the main thesis of your book is that humans engage in warfare because we have these evolutionary urges ’cause they help us survive and reproduce. These urges are, the two main ones that you argue are the drive for status and for belonging. Let’s talk about this status drive first.

If we look back in our evolutionary past, what sorts of things did we compete over? And how did achieving status help us get those things?

Mike Martin: So humans are animals, right? And so we compete. That’s… You only need to take a sideways glance at human society to see that we’re competing all the time for everything: Sports, jobs, promotions at work. You run a podcast, you’re looking at, “How’s my podcast doing against other people’s podcasts?”

And so our society is built on competition because we, humans compete with each other. And if you go back say, 100,000 years, so we got bands of hunter gatherers. They were…

Basically, there’s two types of things that animals compete for, humans are just the same. There’s real resources, that’s like food, water, sexual partners, prey perhaps. And then there’s what are called surrogate resources.

And surrogate resources are things like land or territory, and status. And the beauty about surrogate resources, once you have those resources, they enable you to have access to real resources.

So if you have land, for instance, if you control territory as an animal or a human, you might get the water that’s on that territory or you might get, perhaps there’s a, it’s used by some animals that you have as your prey. So you don’t need to compete for the prey itself, you just compete for the surrogate resource and then you get what you actually want, the real resource.

And status is the same. We compete for status as humans because, predominantly because it enables us to do lots of things. Higher status people survive longer, they tend to get more food, all that kind of stuff. But the real thing that higher status gave us in the evolutionary environment as men was access to more women.

So higher status men tended to have more sexual partners, more wives. If we think about polygamy, like the idea of monogamy being the standard pattern in society is a relatively new one.

For most of our evolutionary history, and you can tell this by looking at the structure of human DNA, we’ve been polygamous. And what higher status men allows us to do is work out who gets more women and who gets less women. And you think, well why is that? Well, there’s a very very simple reason for that.

And that’s because if you imagine a man and a woman, obviously we’re equal numbers of men and women in society. If you imagine a man and woman having sex and getting pregnant, the woman is then taken out of the field of reproduction for about, let’s say, two years. So pregnancy, childbirth, and then lactation, so let’s call it two years. And the man 10 minutes later can go and impregnate another woman.

And what that means is that although we’ve got equal numbers of men and women, women of reproductive age who are not tied up with child rearing are a rare resource compared to the number of men. So there’s an oversupply of men. And if you have an oversupply of something, then you need to sort out who gets more access to the rare resource.

And so that’s what status enables us to do. And we have a set of hormones that enable us to do that. And testosterone is the key hormone. So everyone thinks that testosterone is about controlling particularly male aggression. That’s not actually correct. What testosterone does is it drives us to seek higher social status.

And it’s just that sometimes or a lot of the time being aggressive is a good way of getting or certainly a way of getting higher social status. And so the average man has 20 times the testosterone of the average woman because for men, having a higher social status has a much higher evolutionary payoff because of higher status men end up having more wives.

And if you put it in really, really stark terms, if the top 50% of men have two wives, that means the bottom 50% of men have no wives. And so there’s a real selection pressure to be a higher status male because it literally enables you to continue your evolutionary line. And so this thing that drives us to survive and reproduce then plays a role in war that we can talk about later, if you like.

Brett McKay: Okay, so humans, particularly males on an individual level have this strong drive for status because having status anciently meant you would have more access to resources, land and women. So being high status increased the likelihood you would survive and reproduce. And anciently, gaining high status often meant engaging in violence.

Mike Martin: And today we still have that status drive. We just have more ways that you can gain status that don’t resort to violence. So you can start a successful business, be a rock star, make lots of money, be good at sports, etcetera.

Brett McKay: But even though we have more routes to status, going to war, that’s still a way to gain status. So let’s talk about this second drive that all individuals have that contributes to groups engaging in warfare, and that’s the drive to belong to groups.

And what’s interesting about this is it seems that the drive for status and the drive to belong to groups, they kind of conflict, right? Because we have this individual status drive to be better than everyone else in the group, but we also want to belong to the group.

So what’s going on there?

Mike Martin: Yeah. Well, so you are right, they do kind of work against and with each other. But that’s what evolution is like, right? It just, it evolves certain traits or involves multiple traits at the same time that sort of pulls humans in different directions, which is why humans are both selfish and selfless at the same time.

But the belonging things, again, quite simple. We live in groups to survive. Predominantly it’s about safety. And again, go back 100,000 years. We’re on the African Savannah and maybe a group of 20 of us. We’re probably all kind of related. Maybe a couple of people have joined the group.

But basically that group keeps us alive. Because the environment is full of wild animals, other groups of humans who are antagonistic to us, competing with us for resources. And also you need a group to… It’s quite difficult to live. You need to walk long distances, find food, hunt together, all that kind of stuff.

So the group is what enables you to survive. And being thrown out of that group is probably a death sentence. In many cases, it will be a death sentence. So there is this drive towards living in groups. And we all have this, right? We all want to support football teams, be in a choir, maybe be a political party.

We are all in a nation state, right? We all have a sense, most of us have a sense of which country we belong to. Perhaps we feel proud of our country or patriotic. In many countries in the world, you might belong to a tribe or you might feel quite strongly about your ethnicity. Religion is another group, right? We, lots of people feel very strongly, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or so on and so forth.

And so we all belong to multiple groups really. But it’s all the same mechanism. And it’s this mechanism that says, and it’s evolved for the reasons I’ve just described, but the mechanism says, “Find a group and belong to it.” ‘Cause groups keep you safe. And they have another lot of benefits like enabling you to get access to more resources, enabling you to find sexual partners.

But predominantly a group keeps you safe. So evolution’s about surviving reproduction, live in a group, you’re much more likely to survive. It’s a very, very strong evolutionary drive. And maybe you’ve had this experience, Brett, but I don’t know if you support any sports, do you support any sports?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’m a fan of the University of Oklahoma football, American football.

Mike Martin: Okay. Okay. So when you go to an American football match and you guys score a touchdown and you, all you go mad in the stands, you’re like screaming, shouting, and up and down. And do you get like little shiver down the back of your neck?

Brett McKay: Oh…

Mike Martin: And down your back?

Brett McKay: Of course. The thing that gives me the biggest shiver is at the beginning of the game when the marching band comes out.

Mike Martin: Ah.

Brett McKay: Yeah you hear the fight song playing and everyone’s…

Mike Martin: ‘Cause that’s your song, isn’t it?

Brett McKay: That’s right. Yeah. That’s, that gives…

Mike Martin: And you know the words.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Mike Martin: And you’re singing it together. And that’s your clan. That’s your crew. And so what you’re doing, actually what you’re doing in biological terms, in psychological terms is you’re all demonstrating that you remember that group and you’re feeling warm and lovely and high. You’re feeling high, right? And that is evolution. If something makes you feel good, like eating sugar or having sex or singing the marching song… Sorry, so you call it fighting, fighting song. That is evolution pushing you to do those things, again, because they have an evolutionary benefit.

And by converse, if something feels bad or you’re unhappy to do it, then that’s evolution motivating you in a different way to do different things.

And so we all have this strong desire to belong to a group. But the thing about that mechanism, and again, it’s controlled by another hormone called oxytocin, which is the same one that’s involved in childbirth but evolution just re-hijacked it to become a social bonding hormone. That oxytocin mechanism cannot only create ingroups, it has to also create outgroups. And you think about it, that’s pretty logical.

Imagine if you had a mechanism that just said, “Trust everyone, make everyone part of your ingroup,” all sort of sitting around loving each other. The problem with that is some people would evolve a mechanism that said, “Take advantage of the, of the guys sitting around loving everyone.” Basically they become free riders.

The only way that mechanism could evolve is if you put a boundary on the group. So you have a mechanism that says, “Find a group to belong to and trust and love all those people in that group. But make sure you understand who’s in and out the group. Don’t trust people who are outside the group.”

Because you guys are, that’s your group. You’re the Oklahoma team, but the other guys, they’re another group. And we shouldn’t let any of the fans from, I don’t know, Yale University or whatever, come into the Oklahoma stands because this is our area.

And so that mechanism, that ingroup outgroup mechanism, if you think about it, that’s the basis of war. Right? That’s what we do in war. We separate ourselves out into groups. And the way that mechanism works is if you get antagonism, so you are in an ingroup and you get antagonism from an outgroup.

So the Yale fans are shouting their song at you and you’re in the Oklahoma stand are, firstly you feel tighter within your group. Perhaps you feel more likely, more trusting, more friendly, so that you bantering with people you don’t even know. But you know they’re in the Oklahoma stand so they’re, they’re good guys.

But you are getting tighter, your ingroup’s getting tighter because you’re getting all this antagonism from another team and then you are maybe directing some back as well, right? And then that’s causing them to get a bit tighter. Their groups are feel, they feel more trusting, “Who are these Oklahoma guys?”

And what I’m describing really is what we call escalation. If you watch the news and they talk about two countries are going after each other, that escalation in physiological terms is that mechanism where ingroups and outgroups, a bit like a ratchet, a tightening up, directing rhetoric at each other. And that’s causing the rhetoric of one group, it’s causing the other group to tighten and issue its own rhetoric back.

And this process goes backwards and forwards as groups become more and more antagonistic to each other. And you can see it, that escalates. And at some point, unless people deescalate, that eventually ends up in some sort of conflict.

And that can be whether we’re talking about football fans on the street fighting each other, or whether we’re talking about nation states, it’s the same mechanism at play.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show.

Okay. So I think we can come back to status drive here. This is how, this is how they, the status and belongings link up.

Mike Martin: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And causes people to engage in violence. So I guess what’s happening is you have both intergroup competition and intragroup competition. So men compete for individual status within a group and this can lead them to want to fight in war to gain status. And then groups, they compete against each other too.

And if the group you belong to is insulted or threatened, because your membership in the group is part of your identity, right? It’s part of, it’s part of your status too. So if the group is insulted, then you’re gonna want to retaliate and fight back.

Is that how it works?

Mike Martin: There’s that, that’s definitely going on amongst all the members of the group. But there’s also something quite particular about leaders. So leaders, if you think about it, let’s say you get to be the president of America. You’ve probably spent 50 years of your life fighting off status challenges, right?

You’ve had to get elected to maybe the state legislature, then maybe the Senate, so on and so forth. All of your life you’ve had to win elections, fight off status challenges from other parties, from within your own party who wants to lead your party.

So by the time you get to president or the leader of any other country, you’ve spent decades probably fighting off status challenges. And so you by definition, are a type of human that really seeks status and achieves it as well. So come back to the kind of testosterone driving you to seek status.

Of course when you get to be the top of that country, what do leaders do? Well, leaders create framework, they have a relationship with their followers. They create frameworks, they create structure for the group. And that’s what people want when they belong in a group. They want structure and frameworks, they wanna feel safe. And so there’s a bit of a relationship between leaders and followers that works really well. They each give something to the other.

But those leaders, so we’ve got leaders of two different groups. Those leaders have fought status challenges all their life. They get to be the top of the group. And then who are they fighting status challenges with? The leaders of other groups, right? Which in country terms or tribal terms is the leader of another tribe or the leader of another country.

And so what you can find is that status challenges between leaders and this ingroup, outgroup ratchet between different groups of followers of different groups. All of these things are going on at the same time.

And all of them, unless people consciously take a step back and de-escalate, both status challenges between leaders, a little bit of what you described, the status challenge between individuals because their identity is fused with the group. And then also this ingroup, outgroup ratchet effect between just different groups that are butting up against each other.

All of those things are happening at the same time. And that’s really what I’m describing to you in biological terms, what the news might call an escalatory pathway.

Brett McKay: Okay. So this is the main thesis of your book, that the reason why countries engage in war, countries might say they’re going to war for an abstract ideal like freedom or democracy. And that could be true. Maybe you can say that’s going on there.

But if you look down to it, it often comes down to the leader of that country or group, they want status. And because people want to feel like they belong to the group, they will go along with that because they want to belong.

Mike Martin: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly that. Exactly that. And it’s very difficult to say, if the country says it’s going to war because of freedom or democracy, or perhaps it’s going to war to defend a religion or something, we hear all this all the time in the news. That’s impossible to prove or disprove, right?

It’s impossible to say what’s going on in the minds of a leader. But we do have something really interesting from psychology called the justification hypothesis. And what that is, is that basically humans don’t do things for the reasons that they think they do them.

And the reason that we know that is because humans often initiate actions about a quarter of a second before their conscious brain frames the reason and they start talking about why it is they’re doing something.

And then if you read Kahneman, they’re thinking fast and slow. We’ve got these two systems, we’ve got the unconscious system that makes decisions very quickly from the gut, if you like, and then we’ve got the conscious brain that comes along later and rationalizes those decisions, sort of explains to ourselves and to other people why we do them.

And if you think about war, if we’re driven towards war for reasons of status and belonging, and we might not even be aware of that ourselves, right, we’re just driven to do it, we do lots of things. We’ve got no idea why we do it. We’re just kind of, our subconscious takes us there.

And then a bit like me, age 22, well, why do you want to go to Afghanistan? I’m kind of looking around for a reason. And this isn’t a conscious, cynical process. That’s just how human brains work. We look for reasons to justify already taken decisions that our subconsciouses have already taken.

And in the case of war, well, because we’re driven to go to war partly because of our sense of belonging to our own group, often what we do is we frame the reasons we go to war using the narratives that we use to describe our own groups.

So you often find that democracies go to war to, you know, encourage democracy or the rule of law, or perhaps for other things that are the narratives that help them bind together their own societies.

That’s really what these societal narratives are about. These frameworks like religion or different ideologies, these are the things that help us hold our own societies together.

And again, I want to stress, it’s not cynical. It’s not people thinking, “I’m going to go and take the oil and I’m going to tell them it’s all about freedom.” Genuinely, leaders do believe this.

But the way their brains work, often what they are pursuing at a subconscious psychological level is not what they say that they are doing, although they do believe themselves and they do think that those are the reasons why they’re doing those things.

Brett McKay: Now this idea of a leader’s drive for status contributes to why countries go to war reminded me of some books I read by American historians about the Revolutionary War here in the United States.

And so here in the United States the common explanation of like the thing you learn in elementary school, like why America fought the British was, “Well, they got, we got taxed with our representation and we didn’t like that,” and blah. Okay. And all these historians say, “Yeah, that’s true.”

The question they look at is like, why did individual leaders in the colonies decide to turn patriot, right? Like why did, why did some stay loyalist and why did some rebel?

And there’s a historian, Craig Bruce Smith wrote a book called American Honor. And then HW Brands, he wrote a book, Our First Civil War, it’s about patriots and loyalists in the American Revolution. And what they did is they looked at individual founding fathers. So like George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams.

And asked the question, like why did they, like, why did these guys decide to turn patriot and become leaders in rebelling against the British empire? And what you find with all of these guys, whether it’s Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams, they all experienced a moment where they felt they were disrespected or dishonored by the British.

So in Washington’s case, he was a general, he was a leader in the British Army and that’s how he was gaining status. But he reached a point where he realized that because he was born in America, he was born a colonist, like he would never be considered fully a British citizen.

Mike Martin: So a feeling in his career as well.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah. And so like, he’s like, “Well, I’m not going any further. I’m going to rebel.” Same thing happened with Ben Franklin. He was in London and he was having a meeting. I think he was getting kind of taken to the carpet because people in Philadelphia were rebelling.

And, you know, Franklin, he loved the British empire ’cause he gained a lot from it. Like he became one of the most famous men in the world because of the empire. But then in this meeting he realized, “These guys are never going to see me as an equal because I’m kind of this backwards American.”

And then with John Adams, you look at his journals and diaries and letters, the guy really wanted to be famous. He really wanted to have a reputation. And he saw the revolution as a chance to gain that status and recognition.

And now all these guys, they would say, “Okay, it’s democracy, freedom, representation.” That is probably there. But underlying that, as you’re saying in your book, is this individual drive for status. You know, they felt disrespected and so they decided to fight.

Mike Martin: The two words you mentioned there are like “honor” and “dishonor”. Honor is, the concept of honor is about people recognizing that you are a person of status. And the idea of dishonor is, as you’ve described, is effectively somebody not recognizing the status that you think you should have.

And to use a modern example, I’m sure your listeners are aware during the global War on Terror, America and Britain and other countries used drones to take out people that they had intelligence that they were terrorists. And that was seen as a successful way to prosecute that war.

But there’d been a couple of studies that looked at what that did. ‘Cause effectively these drones could hover over a village for 24 hours or in an area for 24 hours. And so the people in that village would be, sort of hear zzzzz. So they’d be aware that everyone knows what a drone is. And there’s no way that they can hit back at it, and at some point that drone might take out someone in the village or something.

And that was dishonoring to many people in the Pakistani, Afghan tribal borderlands. That was a dishonorable way to conduct the conflict. And in some instances, just the very presence of those drones, let alone killing people and causing sort of revenge cycles, was seen as a motivating factor to people who felt the need to gain status.

Because they felt that their families and they themselves were being dishonored by this kind of zzzzz in the sky, and that the only way to deal with that was to go and attack British and American and other countries’ soldiers.

So this idea of this honor and dishonor is something that humans have always had in warfare and it absolutely speaks to what we’ve been talking about on the podcast today.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about, sometimes people will say, or even countries will say, “Well, we’re going to war fighting for this ideology.” Or it could be a moral code or religion. And that, like we say, that could be true, right? But underlying all those things are this drive for status and this drive to belong.

But how do these like abstract ideas, whether it’s an ideology or religion, how do they interact with our drive for status and belonging to kind of ramp up this drive to go to war?

Mike Martin: I think what they do is they mobilize and they justify. Because if you think about an army’s got, I don’t know, 500,000 people in it, every single one of them is gonna have a slightly different reason that they want to go and fight.

And if you have an encompassing ideology or framework, in the same way that in Britain and America, we’re kind of liberal democracies and we believe in capitalism and democracy and separation of powers and you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right?

And along with many other European countries, we all believe in all those same things. And that enables us to form quite successful alliances over many decades. And it’s the same within a country. We have ideas about what America’s like or what Britain’s like. And we all share those ideas mostly. And that enables us to function as a country.

And I think it’s the same if you go to war. If you have a, you call them abstract, I guess they are to most people’s lives, if you have these abstract ideas, what it enables, really it’s the linking factor between individual drives, which are often subconscious, and a direction of travel for a group.

It’s an expression of something, the lowest common denominator that the group can all agree on, and again, this is all subconscious rather than sort of consciously thought out, that enables them to shoehorn or align all of those slightly different selfish drives and motivations into one kind of direction of travel.

And I think war is just an extreme example of what we see in our societies every day with our group narratives. I’m sure all the Oklahoma fans have got a bunch of stories about your rivals, about you, about who you are. You’ve got all your folklore.

All of that folklore is just a thing that if you spot another guy in an Oklahoma t in a bar, you can chat and you’ve got a common narrative to talk. Straight away you can really talk half an hour about a bunch of stuff that to someone else would be, you know, I would not understand any of it.

But you guys have got your same group, you’ve got your same narratives. It enables you to, quite different people to be part of that group.

Brett McKay: They encourage group cohesion basically is what those things do.

Mike Martin: Yeah. They set the framework laws. Legal systems are another type of framework that we use to standardize our societies.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned in the War on Terror, right? There’s the Taliban. We went to go fight in Afghanistan because of the Taliban. And if you asked, you know, someone in one of these, a person in the Taliban like, “Why are you fighting in this war?” They might have told you, “Well, you know, look, this is for our faith, right? Like we’re,” you know they explain an ideology.

But then you all, you talked about, like whenever you actually talk to these guys, like one-on-one or whenever British or American soldiers talk to prisoners of war, and you asked like, “Why are you fighting?”

And oftentimes the answer wasn’t, “Well for faith,” or whatever. It was, “Well I felt disrespected.” Or, “It was for my group.” I mean, basically it’s, “I wanted to belong to a group.”

Mike Martin: So I spent a lot of time talking to Talibs. I was a political officer in an Afghanistan. I spoke fluent Pashto, which is their local language in southern Afghanistan.

Actually, a lot of the part of the world that we were in in Helmand province in the south was very, very, very tribal. And a lot of those people were fighting like in their village militia because they wanted to keep the police out ’cause the police had been stealing their opium or taking their little boys away to rape them. Or they were from a tribal militia that was defending, keeping other people out of their tribe’s lands.

And so a lot of people were fighting for those tiny sorts of reasons. And they were all Muslim, sure. And I’m sure when they went to get their weapons or get money or whatever it was from the kind of central Taliban, if I can put it like that in kind of really simplistic terms, I’m sure they expressed some of those more religious or perhaps anti-American, anti-British slogans.

A lot of the time we got caught up in fighting that was between different Afghan groups. So tribe A and tribe B would be fighting each other, and tribe B just happened to be in the police. And we were working with the police ’cause they were in the government, and so that kind of dragged us into their tribal dispute, which started a long time before we turned up and it’s still going on now.

The Taliban was a really highly decentralized organization that, it’s not like we think about an army with a kind of structure and command and control and all the rest of it.

And it did come together and coalesce once the coalition started drawing down its troops and leaving the country because a lot of other people could see that that was the way that things were going. The writing was on the wall, so they sort of plumped with the Taliban central structure.

But certainly when we were there at our peak between 2010, 2014, it was much more fragmented and everybody had quite a low level motivation for fighting. Their brother had been killed or their land had been stolen by a police chief, and they were kind of shoehorning that personal stuff into a wider narrative of getting rid of the occupiers or fighting for Islam.

Brett McKay: So how can this framework for understanding why we engage in violence help prevent violence? I mean if we have this case, okay, people go to war or even just engage in small level group violence because of status and wanting to belong to a group, how can knowing that, how can we use that to prevent violence? Or can we?

Mike Martin: I think we can. I think if we accept that that’s true, that a lot of what’s going on is a lot of individual motivations of individual people, then we probably think a little bit more about if you’re fighting an insurgency, how not to dishonor people. Because those people are, you’re basically creating more enemies.

If you are negotiating a peace then we need to think about appropriate status. And if we’re finishing a war, well who belongs to which group in psychological terms? Because although you and I are members of lots of different groups, there’s probably a very few groups that we’d fight and die for. And so that’s the key, which is the primary security group that people belong to.

I think as well, we’ve got to stop thinking about war in terms of spreadsheets. Like war is emotional and it’s psychological and it’s completely intrinsic to human beings. Like we’ve done it forever and at great scale across all human societies for all time.

And so clearly there’s something utterly intrinsic to us in the way we want to fight wars, go and fight wars. And I think to reduce it to a spreadsheet where you are trying to say, “Oh look, there’s a presence of an ideology there, so if we get rid of the ideology, there won’t be war.”

I just… We need to humanize war. War is a human phenomenon. And understanding it as such, I think makes it less likely that we’re gonna fight them.

And if we do fight them, and this is the topic of my book that’s just come out actually, if we understand war as a psychological challenge, we’re actually more likely to be able to fight them successfully. And if you can’t avoid war, then the next best thing you can do is fight them successfully because then you get them over with quickly.

The worst possible type of war is one that drags on forever, kills lots of people and doesn’t achieve any of its goals, thus sowing the seeds for future wars further down the line.

Brett McKay: It was interesting, my big takeaway from your book, I actually walked away thinking about how I can apply this on a, like a local level. But I think a lot of communities they might be worried about like, okay, what do we do about young men joining gangs or doing this sort of antisocial stuff online? And I think understanding, okay men, young men have this drive for status and for belonging.

I think oftentimes the solution that people have to these problems is, “Well if you just tell these young men that they’re wrong and like here’s the better thing they need to do.” It’s sort of, I think oftentimes we treat human beings, like you were saying, as these sort of computers that if you just download the right information, then they’ll just see the error of their ways and they’ll behave in an appropriate way.

Instead I was thinking, well how can I help young men or how can we help young men achieve status and achieve that group belonging, but in pro-social ways?

Mike Martin: Well, so I agree you have to understand the problem in order to fix it, but you haven’t used the phrase, but this sort of toxic masculinity, this idea that there is a social problem that needs to be dealt with, as if it’s completely separate from male biology.

: You know, we have to say that there is a biological thing here that is real and we should treat it as such, and as you say, shape the way we approach these issues in society, which no one disputes that there aren’t issues in society around male aggression, the role of young men, all that kind kind of stuff, which I’m sure you’re tackling on the podcast.

But to wish them away is not the way to solve those problems.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess the thing is figure out how to harness it and to a direction that you think is good, or pro-social or whatever you want.

Mike Martin: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Well Mike, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book in your work?

Mike Martin: So, Why We Fight, you can get on Amazon, which is the book we’ve been talking about. And I’ve just released a new book called, How to Fight a War. And probably the best way to keep up to date with me is on Twitter so @ThreshedThought and I’m sure Brett will put all the details in the show notes. So thank you Brett.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Mike Martin, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mike Martin: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Mike Martin. He’s the author of the book, Why We Fight. It’s available on Check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure check out our [email protected], where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of.

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