Maslow and Conflict

Posted 10Sep19.

“Asking war veterans who have fought overseas, what do you want your fellow countrymen to know about the war that we civilians should know, but never talk about?”

You conflict us.

For those folks who haven’t served, your opinions and commentary about present day conflicts we are directly involved in (Iraq, Afghanistan, and to some extent, Syria) as well as those we aren’t (Ukraine, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Lybia) place some of us in odd ethical positions.

I follow several respected people on social media: veterans, active-duty folks, intelligence folks, professors of history, and people of faith. Many of them have very solid perspectives on the nature of warfare, the causes and effects of conflict, and the moral dilemmas of violence – both justified and unjust. Their political and foreign policy views vary, but they all make sense on some level – even if those views run contradictory of my own.

For those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way or made decisions to put others in perilous positions via direct command or indirect influence via recommendations/reports… I often just shake my head at some of the ideologic naivety that they hold:

“What if soldiers never went to war?”

“Love trumps hate.”

“Give peace a chance.”

People like that just don’t get it – as if conflict is optional and our default setting is blissful cooperation and unity.

Our basic needs were defined by Maslow: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Conflict and wars start when individual or group needs contradict those of someone else, and oddly enough, the scope of the struggle is often directly related to where those needs are jeopardized.

Threats to physiological needs are best evident in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. Where there is a shortage of either food or water, desperation has driven those in need to shelve decency and societal norms as they set out to meet those needs – often by acts or threats of violence. Whether it is the aftermath of a hurricane, political unrest, or a shortage in production, the basic survival instinct inherent in every human can be much more compelling than any other motivation.

The same could be said for safety. If an external threat is viewed as being sufficiently “real,” then that threat must be eliminated. From self-defensive use of firearms to the risk of defeat, occupation, and subjugation, any disruption of peace by external force can provide the impetus for action to maintain the status quo.

Love and belonging are a bit more difficult to correlate into this discussion of conflict, but patriotism and national identity are good examples. On the individual level, the love of a child may justify violence if they are threatened, while on the national level, love of one’s nation, faith, or identity has been the reason why violence has been justified.

Finally, esteem and self-actualization… this is disturbingly simple: who wants to be a victim? Who, when any of the previously mentioned needs are threatened, would be willing to surrender any and all of those needs to the control of someone else? True, there may other options: diplomacy, appeasement, and resignation… but these are levels of sacrifice to prevent a conflict or end one which is going badly on the terms of someone else.

My experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq – as well as Thailand, to a lesser extent – have led me to the realization that, despite whatever nationality, political views, language, skin color, or other aspects of identity… we are all fundamentally the same, with similar needs, fears, hopes, and goals. We can be compassionate beyond expectation, we can be the creators of beauty, the purveyors of wisdom, and the icons of humanity… but we have very basic and common needs.

…And we have and will go to extremes based on those needs.

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