Culture of War Part I

WWII Destruction Photo

Written by Alana Jolley

June 19, 2023

Culture of War Part I
WWII Destruction Photo

80th Anniversary of D-Day, Operation Overlord, WWII

On Thursday June 6, 2024 is the 80th anniversary of Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day. Most often D-Day is thought of as being one day, but June 6 was only the first D-Day.  There was D+1, (Hackensack) D+2, D+3, etcetera.  The Invasion of Normandy lasted until July 24, 1944.  The first day began the largest seaborne invasion in history.  It is often described as the most significant offensive of WWII, because it was the beginning of the end of the war against Nazi Germany.

Culture Affects Outcomes of War

War is much more than the battles remembered, whether large or small.  Human beings operate within the boundaries of culture, no matter the situation or conflict.  Whether an angry argument between two people, or within a battle as large and significant as Normandy in 1944,  culture always plays an important part.  Examining the aspects of culture, within the complexities of conflicts is intriguing.

The “big three” Allied powers claiming the key to victory were the United States, Great Britain, and Russia.  Within that Alliance were many cultural variations.  All cultures have some “stereotypical” values; but following are a few cultural values, or aspects, of those “big three.”

Aspects of Culture

United States:

  • Individualism–Americans are said to be very individualistic, not collectivistic.  Armies are very collectivistic.
  • Equality–“all men are created equal” (and women).  Not so in the military where rank does not equate equality.
  • Informality–the degree of freedom in the U. S. and the sense of equality leads to informality.  Military personnel are very formal in dress, especially according to rank.
  • Punctuality–Americans like to be on time.  Soldiers are expected to be where they are told to be at exact times.

Great Britain:

  • Humor–British humor is said to be “dry,” or not actually humor at all.  Not much humor in battles of war.
  • Reserved–in dress, manners, speech, self-discipline.  Brits are especially conscious of all three, which is good for soldiers.
  • Traditions–many have been carried on for centuries.  Battles interfere with traditions, especially when allies do not have the same ones.


  • Steeped–in literature, painting, classical music. Not much time for any of these in battlefields.
  • Particularism–personal relations more important than rules.  In armies, rules are more important than personal relations.
  • Traditional–strong ties to ancient history, and importance of heroes.  In war, all are heroes who do not give up.

Is War In Human DNA?

Noting variations of culture above, think how culture plays out during alliances of war.  And, what about human nature? Is the “culture of war” in our DNA? “There is no scientific proof that war is ingrained in human nature, according to a Rutgers University-Newark study.”  R. Brian Ferguson, professor of anthropology at Rutgers says, “People might fight and sometimes kill for personal reasons, but homicide is not war.”,is%20part%20of%20our%20DNA.

Homicide may not be war, but is it not sometimes the beginning of wars?  Assassinations of leaders often precludes war.  Let’s go back in time to our primate beginnings to shed some light on this dilemma.  A recent mini-series documentary, Chimp Empire reveals some insight into war and peace among our closest primate relatives in the wild.  In evolutionary language, chimpanzees and humans share 98.8 percent of their DNA.

The film follows two separate chimpanzee groups in the Ngogo rainforest in the Kibale National Park, Uganda, Africa.  It took over a year to complete, with camera professionals, scientists, and other field workers. Within the chimps’ “culture” of the two separate groups studied, there are some interesting observations about their human-like tendencies.

Note:  On this site we define culture as simply “everyday life.”

Main Causes of Conflicts:  Territory, Resources

Experts, like David Watts of Harvard University for one, have studied those same chimpanzees for years before the Chimp Empire was made.  In fact, Watts studied them when they were joined together as one, not two groups.  It is the only population of chimpanzees that are known to have split into two rival factions.  What began as a rift, of small conflicts at first, has become what might be called war between the two.  They are now rivals even though they occupy the same geographic location.  They share the same “language,” the same “culture,” the same “ethnicity,” the same “skin color,” and most of them are related to each other.  So, what do they have to fight about?  Why have they gone so far as to kill their own?  Among the chimps, it doesn’t look like homicide; it looks like war.

Wars have historically been part of human existence since the Sumerians wrote on stone about their wars as long ago as 2700 BC.  One might think after all this time humans could have learned to get along without resorting to wars.  WWI was supposed to be the last Great War, which ended in 1918.  Barely twenty years later WWII began.  Today we have the Russian-Ukrainian War, and the Israeli-Hamas War with all their horrors and destruction right in our faces 24/7 on all our hi-tech devices.   Thus, the debate whether humans are programmed to make war will continue.

Come back to culture.  Both chimpanzee troops share many commonalities. Why did they choose to separate into two groups and commence brutalities against each other?  Chimp Empire, directed by James Reed, Oscar winner,  has an anthropomorphic leaning, which makes it possible to see cultural aspects within the two chimp communities. Their accompanying names makes them more human like.  Watching the film allows us to view their everyday life.

Struggles for Power

The first thing we notice about the two separate chimp groups is the very large human-like struggle for power.  Power over what? Territory.  Sound familiar?  Wasn’t Hitler’s aggression about territory?  Isn’t the Russian-Ukrainian War, and the Israeli-Hamas war about territory?  Each chimp faction wants their own territory to be just their own territory.  Each group has an alpha-chimp whose job it is to protect the turf they are claiming as belonging to their group.  The next thing we are aware of are the consequences for those chimps who might want to cross over the boundaries, which their leaders have set.  This is the larger part of their human-like plights.

Secondly, we see the smaller human-like parts of existence for the chimps:  loner chimps needing attention, jealousies among siblings, social relations within the groups, love and rejections, caring for the sick and/or wounded, sharing of food (resources).  Both the larger and smaller parts of the chimps’ human-like culture helps us to feel empathy for their struggles.  Much like humans they want support and understanding from their own, yet each group has their own world view of how things should be.  That is their “culture,”  perhaps not exactly human, but human-like.  As we see from the Chimp Empire, chimpanzees’ everyday life looks very much like a microcosm of our own in so many ways.

These are just some deeper things to think about with regards to war as we contemplate the events that will be forthcoming in memorializing the 80th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, France within this year.   Evolutionary anthropology studies both biological and cultural evolution of humans.  The study of the chimps in Uganda is also about evolution, which is about change.  For chimpanzees to divide into groups, and start to betray and war against each other is a change in their evolutionary history.  Since they are our closest primate cousins, what can we learn from them about war?  Will the Ngogo chimpanzees find solutions and once again join together as one community in peace?  We can’t predict.


As for the “big three” Alliance that assured the victory over Germany, it didn’t take long for the alliance to collapse. It was never culturally intact, as was the chimpanzee group before their separation.  The United States and Great Britain had post-war signs of mistrust of Russia beginning early in 1947. The Soviet Union showed hostility against the previous alliance when they began to militarily take over Eastern European countries, turning them into satellite states.

The Cold War began and we might say the rest is history. However, there have been periods of harmony between the three, until Russia separated itself from the rest of the world, by an un-provoked attack against Ukraine, their neighbor. The Russia-Ukraine war has been going on for almost two years, now in 2024, with Russia seeking power and control over territory they claim is theirs.  The Israeli struggle for existence is historical.  Like the chimp groups, war has separated the belligerents from each other, though they have many cultural similarities.

The struggle for resolutions to end wars will continue, whether war is in human DNA or not.

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