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The Nature of War: Origins and Evolution of Violent Conflict


Last month, I received a copy of one of Jim Stempel’s latest publications: “The Nature of War.” Stempel is a researcher and author who has recently begun to divert his focus to topics concerning military non-fiction.

“The Nature of War” is unlike the other historical research publications I typically read. This should not be considered a negative, far from it. What I mean is, instead of strictly focusing on isolated historical events and attempting to interpret them, Stempel incorporates many elements of the human condition and the state of human consciousness during its respective time frame. Translation: we look at human psychology and its effects on war.

This type of study isn’t anything new. In fact, the author summarizes past research on the Origins of War in the very first chapter. Believe it or not, a lot of this early research drew conclusions from observing modern primates in their natural habitats.

By the second chapter, the reader is introduced to the understood path of human cognitive development. This chapter serves as the basis for the rest of the book. We look at the research of noted psychologists and social scientists which include Jean Piaget (developmental psychologist). Most notably, it is Piaget’s four stages of human growth which becomes our primary focus. Originally, this study centered around an individual’s stages of cognitive development from early childhood, all the way to adulthood.

The first of which is labeled as the sensorimotor stage (or Level One). This is the stage of self discovery where from the ages of 0 - 2, an infant is mostly concerned with “differentiating the physical self from the physical environment [sic].” The next stage (ages 2 - 7) is called pre-operational (or Level Two) and is more concerned with language and symbols. It is a very ego-centric stage. Level Three, called concrete-operational, expands on one’s cognitive abilities. This is a period of black and white with very little in between. It is more of a sociocentric stage. It is also one where myths are seen to be the absolute truth. Piaget’s final stage (Level Four), formal operational (entered in early teenage years up until adulthood), is the stage where thinking switches from the absolute to one of rationality; that is, logic is born. A Level Five is discussed toward the end of the research, but because it is considered new, it is briefly discussed.

Stempel will routinely refer back to the research of Jean Piaget and Ken Wilber (author of psychology) in his attempt to redefine human culture and its respective stage of human consciousness. What I mean by this is, in the dawn of human civilization, the level attributed to human consciousness was considered a Level One. It was a time of self discovery. By the time we reach the Bronze Age (ca. 3500 BCE), humankind would enter Level Three. This is when war is essentially born, as one tribe pits itself against the next.

Throughout the rest of the book we follow the aggressive and oppressive Level Three and in many cases the horrific marks it left on the historical record. We also are getting introduced to Level Four, which is more defensive and reactive to Level Three threats. Level Four is credited with some of history’s most defining weapons of war, which eventually and unfortunately fall into the hands of Level Three (i.e. rail guns, atomic bombs, and other nuclear weapons).

Stempel guides the reader from the dawn of early human history, to Homer’s Trojan War with the romanticization of the epic and the influence it held on early conquerors such as Alexander the Great. He then continues through the more memorable events in Roman and later Medieval European history. We also read about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There is also a lot time spent to see how these various Levels apply to each country involved in the two World Wars up to the events of the present day.

I must admit, this book really forced me to think beyond the scope of it. As the author notes, we tend to find ourselves in a world mixed with conflicting Level Three and Level Four types. Level Fours are to be found in first world countries, while the rest can and may be considered Level Threes. The reason given for this divide centered around education. The book did help to rationalize (and in some cases understand) the mindset of many of the Level Three aggressors we see in today’s media, ranging from dictators to terrorists.

I did enjoy this book. It really challenged what I knew about the human condition and how each one of the stages viewed warfare.

By Petros Koutoupis