OBAMA-LETTER This week I’m going to depart from the typical pattern of commenting on an analysis of the behavior of our early ancestors, or what the most natural behaviors are for us to exhibit as a species. Instead, I’m going to look at a letter, sent out today by President Obama, regarding the war in Iraq and what it can tell us about human behavior and the evolution of warfare, if anything.

In his letter, President Obama announced that at the end of this month [August, 2010] our combat mission in Iraq would officially come to an end. He went on to say that over the past 18 months 90,000 troops have left Iraq and that by the end of this month there would be 50,000 troops remaining in country to further train the Iraqis to maintain peace and stability. While this is an impressive accomplishment, given the Bush administration’s swelling of troops in Iraq to 160,000+ shortly before leaving office, I think it is useful to consider the numbers in the context of human evolution and recent history.

50,000 is nearly the enrollment for [The] Ohio State University. Imagine for a moment the entire student body of OSU in Iraq. 50,000 is nearly the total number of US deaths in the war in Viet Nam, one of the most costly wars in number of deaths in our nations history. 50,000 is just about half of the total standing Roman army at the height of its military power. 50,000 is the TOTAL number of Hominins estimated to be alive at any one time in Africa during the early Pliocene, when our bipedal ancestors were first evolving. While we see 50,000 soldiers in Iraq as a drastic reduction in the numbers, and it is, we should also realize just how many individuals that is engaged in a military activity at one time. At no point in the evolutionary prehistory of our species were there enough individuals alive at one time to field a force of 50,000 – even if every single Hominin showed up to fight! Oh yeah, there are now over 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan too.

There are myriad reasons that modern warfare differs from the warfare of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, technology, social complexity, international law, globalization, etc…One of the reasons often overlooked is sheer numbers. There are so many people alive today, concentrated in constructed entities called nation states, that our wars now often involve more soldiers than total humans living in most regions of the world during prehistory. The magnitude of a war that involved 160,000 soldiers [from just one side] is something beyond the wildest imaginations of our most aggressive, violent ancestors, let alone those that made efforts to avoid conflicts.

If war is a truly human behavior that is defined as Livingstone Smith so succinctly states as “premeditated, sanctioned violence carried out by one community against members of another” (p. 16 “The Most Dangerous Animal”) it has reached new levels in the post-industrial age. I could go on about “smart” bombs and drones, satellites and dragon skin, but just the ability of one “community” to put 160,000 troops onto a given “field of battle” has altered the very face and scope of war. My students have often heard me talk about waves of chimpanzees chasing back and forth during battles that I’ve observed while in the forests of Uganda. Imagine the ENTIRE population of wild chimpanzees from across Africa involved in one massive territorial battle. While it is obvious to anyone who understands military strategy, even remotely, or just watches CNN that the entire contingent of 160,000 soldiers is not involved in every battle, or even most, we are still able as a community to send over 160,000 of our members off to wage war. This is such an amazing number, that when it is reduced to 50,000 we rejoice in how few soldiers are in Iraq. Still, we need to remember that, numbers-wise, it is almost as if we’ve taken the population of OSU and sent them all overseas at once.