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War as Entertainment

Updated on April 8, 2011

Why do people find violence entertaining?

I was going to college and living in a dorm when the first Gulf War broke out about twenty years ago. I distinctly remember walking into the common room where the TV was located and hearing people clap and cheer on the day that the bombing of Baghdad began. If you had not known any better, you would think that people were watching a Lakers game. Now I can understand why people would believe that Desert Storm was necessary. In this case, after all, Iraq had invaded a neighboring country. What I cannot understand, however, is why people would seemingly take joy in war. Rational, humane people see war as a sometimes necessary evil, not something to celebrate.

As a history teacher, I find myself talking about wars pretty often. In some people’s minds, history is mostly about wars. I have met many people over the years that can tell you practically everything about the details of certain wars – usually World War II – and little about anything else in history. Personally, wars are not my favorite topics. They are obviously important events in history, but I find the details of everyday life to be far more interesting. I can personally relate to aspects of daily life, and like most people, I spend far more time concerning myself with day-to-day matters than wars.

As time passes, I also find myself increasingly disgusted by war. There was a time when I, like many Americans – particularly males – found war and violence to be quite entertaining.  A quick look at the most popular movies and TV shows of American culture reveals how much we Americans enjoy violence. For many people, the concepts of “action” and “suspense” are synonymous with violence. If a movie lacks explosions and blood, then it is either boring or a “chick flick.” But now that I have gotten older and hopefully a bit wiser, I find myself imagining what it would be like to be the soldiers on the TV or movie screen. What would it be like to know that at any second, I could be facing death, maiming, and/or gut wrenching pain and suffering? What is it like to see blood, guts, and body parts flying as a result of my hands pulling a trigger or hacking someone to death with a sword? It would clearly be a horrible nightmare that I would like to think about as little as possible.

So why is that so many people find death and violence to be entertaining? In many cases, it is clear that people do not see the characters, video game images, and individuals in war documentaries – especially “the bad guys” - as human beings. This helps to explain the lack of empathy displayed by the viewers. It is also clear that many Americans believe that violence is an effective solution to certain problems. When you watch enough movies with characters that are unrealistically good killing off those who are pure evil, the notion that violence is a legitimate means of creating a better world gets embedded into one’s mind. Also, there is something inherently interesting about watching people experience extremes, and there is nothing more extreme than the life and death circumstances faced by combatants in war. It is like a vicarious adrenaline rush.

I can’t help thinking, however, that our attraction to violence is also a reflection of our basic nature. For the human race to survive as hunters and gatherers for thousands of years, a violent streak was absolutely essential to being effective hunters and warriors. But today, as we humans attempt to live like “civilized” creatures, we do not have any outlet for our violent tendencies. So maybe video games, war movies, violent sporting events, and other brutal forms of entertainment can serve as a healthy outlet for releasing emotions embedded into our DNA. Of course, some would argue that these activities, rather than offering a release, actually promote violent behavior. I suspect that psychologists, sociologists, and other researchers will be debating the impact of violent imagery for years to come.

In the meantime, I will be sure to cover the basics of the major wars of human history. After all, both American and world history are impossible to understand without at least a basic knowledge of major wars. But to the disappointment of some of my students, I will not spend huge amounts of time discussing the minutiae of tanks, guns, airplanes, swords, and battle strategies that a few of them know more about than I ever will. I just hope that when they are obsessing about the details of these wars, they stop and think about the human impact from time to time.

I also hope that their fascination with war does not draw them into supporting future conflicts without careful deliberation. In determining whether or not a situation calls for war, we must be aware of our instinctive fascination with violence. Unfortunately, we humans, like many other creatures, may be naturally drawn to violent solutions rather than using them as a last resort. So if we are going to be more than primates with larger than average brains, we must do our best to make decisions that are as rational and practical as possible. If not, we will once again find out that the cost of war often outweighs the benefits.


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    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      Unfortunately, we may be fighting against human nature, although the pleasures of civilization can at least make some of the people soft.

    • profile image

      Andy 6 years ago

      Well written article.

      I've notice that violent sports (boxing, cage matches, etc) are the modern version of gladiator bloodlust, which itself was a form of sanitized war. Many men are attracted to sex & violence - hence football with cheerleaders.

      You hit the nail on the head, when you said that some students will be disappointed when you don't spend "enough" time in your history class, discussing the minutiae of tanks, guns, airplanes, swords, and battle strategies.

      I'm guilty of obsessing on this in the past, even pursuing a Masters in military history. It was entertaining to read about the exploits of Caesar, Alexander, WW II, etc. When I took a class in Arthurian Romance, all the students wrote their 30 page theme paper on chivalry or romantic love or whatever. I wrote mine on how best to siege a castle.

      At the same time, I am saddened by the violence and cruelty of war. I was appalled when I watched Star Wars, and everyone cheered when the Death Star blew up. I felt sorry for those millions of non-combatants aboard who were killed (it was a city in there, with cooks, trash collectors, repairmen, etc).

      I agree that the male of our species is genetically programmed to pursue violence, either thru warfare or ritualized warfare (violent sports). You didn't mention that many women pursue these "bad boys". I wonder if psychologists would see the same primal urges in the war films and slasher films, both very violent, but with anonymous people dying in war films, as opposed to people we've come to know being tortured in slasher films (e.g. Saw or Halloween).

      In the same way that people mature intellectually as they age (as you indicated above), I think that our culture has done the same. So Clint Eastwood and John Wayne made a living as young men by shooting and killing and being the hero. But as older men, they won Oscars for portraying pacifists ("Angel and the Badman") or showing that killing is evil ("the Shootist" and "Unforgiven").

      I hope that our culture can mature and shed its preoccupation, penchant and obsession for violence.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      It has long been a feature of human nature to glorify war, that is often the reason why corrupt or oppressive governments, when they feel their influence waning, will embark on a war, so that the adrenalin rush that it gives the people, will outweigh the feelings of disatisfaction with the regime. When they are successful all goes well. when they are unsuccessful, like Russia was in 1905 and 1914, revolutions often follow.

      Thanks for a very interesting, and well written article.