War – William Graham Sumner

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Synopsis

Written during the era of the Spanish-American War the essay “War” was William Graham Sumner’s endeavor to examine the normative human dispositions which fuse into conflict. As a pioneering intellectual in the field of sociology, Sumner used group social dynamics and frictions as the keystone of his assumptions.

Excerpts

“If we assume a standpoint in one group we may call that one the ‘we-group’ or the ‘in-group’; then every other group is to us an ‘others-group’ or an ‘out-group.’ The sentiment which prevails inside the ‘we-group,’ between its members, is that of peace and cooperation; the sentiment which prevails inside of a group towards all outsiders is that of hostility and war.

“War arises from the competition of life, not from the struggle for existence. In the struggle for existence a man is wrestling with nature to extort from her the means of subsistence. It is when two men are striving side by side in the struggle for existence, to extort from nature the supplies they need, that they come into rivalry and a collision of interest with each other takes place. This collision may be light and unimportant, if the supplies are large and the number of men small, or it may be harsh and violent, if there are many men striving for a small supply. This collision we call the competition of life.

“We can now see why the sentiments of peace and cooperation inside are complementary to sentiments of hostility outside. It is because any group, in order to be strong against an outside enemy, must be well disciplined, harmonious, and peaceful inside; in other words, because discord inside would cause defeat in battle with another group. Therefore the same conditions which made men warlike against outsiders made them yield to the control of chiefs, submit to discipline, obey law, cultivate peace, and create institutions inside.

“The sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group, is technically known as ethnocentrism.

“The United States presents us a case quite by itself. We have here a confederated state which is a grand peace-group. It occupies the heart of a continent; therefore there can be no question of balance of power here and no need of war preparations such as now impoverish Europe. The United States is a new country with a sparse population and no strong neighbors. Such a state will be a democracy and a republic, and it will be ‘free’ in almost any sense that its people choose.

*All excerpts have been taken from War and Other Essays, Yale University Press.