Siniša Malešević is a sociologist whose style is reminiscent of grand sociological theory, a tradition harking back to theorists such as Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and in more recent times Pierre Bourdieu and Michael Mann.  His métier is the study of conflict and violence and he must have read anything under the sun on this topic. He has written extensively on a variety of its aspects and dimensions, mainly in “big idea” books, such as The Sociology of War and Violence (2010) or The Rise of Organised Brutality (2017). His method may be described as the highly informed distillation of insights using both erudition and sociological intuition, with material sourced from a vast body of work spanning several disciplines. Doing what he does is clearly hard work and it is far from being the most fashionable pursuit these days. But I would argue that this type of book is more necessary than ever. Current social science practice privileges the production of tiny, piecemeal “findings” and “results” leading to a bewildering and dizzying constellation of “facts” that typically fail to cumulate into something clear or even compelling.  Sociologists like Malešević are enormously helpful in bringing a sense of order and logic to this vast quantity of information and a measure of sanity to its consumers.

His latest book comes to us with an expansive title: Why Humans Fight. This is a somewhat misleading title because it doesn’t refer to conflict and war writ large as is, for instance, the case in two recent books with very similar titles: Christopher Blattman’s Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace (Vicking 2022) and Mike Martin’s, Why We Fight (Hurst 2021).  Martin blends personal experience from the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere with evolutionary psychology to stress the human drive for status and belonging as the main driver for fighting whereas Blattman discusses a variety of forms of conflict from gang wars to war, to argue that violence is much less common than we think and more tractable.  In contrast to both these books, Malešević zeroes in on a very specific angle of conflict and violence—and one that gets rather limited attention: the dynamics of individual participation in close-range fighting combat—an angle suggested by the more precise if less impressive subtitle: The Social Dynamics of Close-Range Violence.  His goal is to describe “the specific social mechanisms that make fighting and killing possible” (p. 5). More specifically, he wishes to identify the conditions under which humans are likely to fight, injure, or kill other human beings in group and combat situations—a process he dubs “social pugnacity.”  By shedding light on the interface between individual and collective contexts, Malešević also departs from a large literature that is inspired mainly from criminology and focuses strictly or primarily on the individual level and on situations of strictly interpersonal violence, most notably Randal Collins’ recent Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory.

As a book, Why Humans Fight is a highly ambitious enterprise that asks many critical questions about violence: why and when humans engage in physical fights with other humans, under which conditions fighting is more likely to happen, whether the use of violence is related to an individual’s sense of attachment to small groups, under what conditions humans are willing to sacrifice themselves for others, how the micro-dynamics of violence are related to the macro-structural context, and whether fighting for others is a universal phenomenon or something specific to some historical and geographic contexts. Overall, Malešević provides convincing answers to all these questions.

The book’s motivating setup, and perhaps its key take-away, entails a stark contradiction. On the one hand, violent close-range combat is a fascinating matter and hence one that has been depicted endlessly throughout history in all possible media, attracting what Malešević describes as a “colossal amount of attention.” On the other hand, however, close-range combat is a very rare, indeed atypical, human activity and also one that is poorly studied and understood.  It goes without saying, that though it is atypical, it is a highly consequential human activity, both in political and humanitarian terms. Herein lies Malešević’s main explanatory contribution as well: to understand the inherently social dynamics of individual participation in collective violence we must move away from dominant individualistic arguments and theories.

To make his case, he draws on a vast store of research and embarks on a campaign to slay three leading accounts of human violence that can be labelled simply as biology, strategy, and ideology. He begins from the very basics by reviewing genetic/biological/neurological/physiological as well as cognitive/psychological advances. The bottom line is that while our similarities to other mammals are real (we fight to survive and help our close kin survive so that we can reproduce), they do not define our relationship to violence. The claim that human violence follows a biological script (what can be termed as “biological essentialism”) is successfully debunked, using a wealth of experimental evidence. He then proceeds to slay the second holy cow, the narrowly rationalist, over-strategizing “homo economicus” which informs a large body of research in international relations and political science more generally. My only objection here is that squeezing in macro-structuralist accounts is unnecessary since the book’s focus is on close combat rather than war.  Lastly, he turns to ideology: it is less fashionable these days in social science but remains a powerful feature of most people’s political imaginations.  The belief that ideological commitment drives violent behavior and sacrifice is ubiquitous and informs large bodies of research as well as public policy, most notably those centred around terrorism, where the oft-confusing mashup of political and religious ideas tends to dominate. Malešević reminds us that while ideology helps mobilize people and legitimize causes, it doesn’t really explain why people fight.

Having proceeded with the slaying of these three lines of thought, Malešević must come up with an alternative. He begins by reminding us of something obvious, yet often overlooked: much fighting takes place under conditions of enforcement and coercion, primarily by the state but also by non-state actors. Most large armies recruit forcibly—and, I would add, attempt to indoctrinate their recruits only after they have forced them into the ranks. Yet, although forced recruitment sets the stage, it fails to tell the full story which lies in the dynamics of micro-solidarity. This is the core of the book and one of its most interesting parts and relies on three empirical vignettes: American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Indian soldiers in the First World War, and the German Army in the Second World War, all highlighting the power of micro-bonds of solidarity: “fighting is rarely about self-interest and more often about the protection and preservation of significant others” (p. 160).

Yet, this point is not novel and still begs the question: why are some organizations better able to generate this kind of micro-solidarity? This is where the book’s most original contribution lies. To address this question, Malešević takes on a more empirical turn, using some original material. First, he examines the flip-side of pugnacity, the very common and also very overlooked situations where individuals avoid violence, from conscientious objection to desertion. Second, he resorts to thick description by comparing the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Bosnian Serb Army to drive the point of “situational complexity” as a driver of fighting. Essentially, what this means is that small, clandestine groups like the IRA can produce more effective organizations able to motivate individual recruits via micro-solidarity dynamics compared to formal militaries like the Bosnian Serb VRS which turns out to have been a paper tiger, a formidable organization in theory but with limited ability to generate cohesion on the ground. Lastly, in its most empirical part, the books offers a focused comparison of the Bosnian Serb VRS to the Croatian Army (HV). This is one of the most interesting parts of the book, as it drives the point of the importance of micro-solidarity, the fact that soldiers often fight for their peers; at the same time, Malešević suggests a corrective: the ability of military organizations to become organizationally more efficient implies the combination of traditional micro-solidarity with a particular professionalized ethos. When reading the comparison of the Bosnian Serb VRS and the Croatian HV, I could not help but thinking how insightful it was about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. There, the Russian military keeps remind me of the VRS with its ingrained rigidity and the mistrust that characterizes the relations between conscripts and officers, while the Ukrainian military reminds me of the Croatian HV and its ability to reform itself and professionalize, which led it to achieving a superior performance and securing an eventual victory against the Serbian secessionist forces.  I must confess that I found this analogy tantalizing. It remains to be seen, of course, how close to reality it will prove.

The remainder of the book is anticlimactic, with two chapters on emotions in fighting and killing that feel rather superficial and a bit forced, despite including some original empirical material from the wars of the former Yugoslavia. The main point seems to be that there is more emotional variation in fighting situations than one would think; The books concludes with a chapter on the future of violence that (surprisingly!) draws from some mainstays of post-apocalyptic fiction that depict a dystopian world of extreme violence, reproducing in fact the type of assumptions about the human tendency toward violence that has permeated our views on the matter.

All in all, Why Humans Fight is what a highly learned and effective book about conflict and violence; it is meant less as an agenda-setting piece of work and more as a way of helping us consolidate our knowledge and preventing us from falling victims to some currently fashionable traps.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, University of Oxford