Do Young Men Cause Wars? A Conversation with Neil Wiener

By Lucky Lanre-Ojo | 2001-07-01 12:00:00

A recent study by Christian Mesquida and Neil Wiener of York University suggests that all forms of warfare are instances of collective aggression, perpetrated predominantly by coalitions of young men.

This theory contrasts with the common assumptions about such cases as the Gulf war, when Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was at the center of global attention as the principal engineer of the battle, and was naturally credited with fueling its severity. I discussed the research Dr. Wiener in a revealing interview.

LUCKY LANRE-OJO: Wars were thought to be fomented by leaders who mobilize their people. Could you explain this notion?

PROFESSOR NEIL WIENER: In our view, leaders don't foment these conflicts. In actual fact they don't mobilize the people. We might say the leaders receive more attention but they are not fundamentally the causal agents. They may direct certain attitudes or they may focus the hostility or aggressiveness of the population towards particular issues. But the leaders do not cause the conflicts. We remember the First World War for instance, but we can scarcely remember who the leaders were. We believe the process of wars is embedded in the demography of a nation at a particular time, rather than in leaders. Even in peaceful countries, we have groups within them that are involved in conflicts.

LANRE-OJO: Let's look at the 1966 civil war in Nigeria. When the Biafran leader Odumegu Ojukwu embarked on his war of secession, he got his people mobilized. But when he realized he was losing, he fled the country, and that was the end of the 30-month old conflict. How do you react to this?

WIENER: I suppose we have to look at the number of casualties. In many countries like Sierra Leone where a lot of killing is recorded on one side of the conflict, there is bound to be an end to the war. It is a matter of strength. I don't believe he started or ended the war. Rather, I think it was the killings that ended the war. He probably became himself threatened by the young men who may attempt to divert the coalition against him or other targets.

LANRE-OJO: What about the situation in Sierra Leone where teenagers are mobilized and trained to use sophisticated weapons?

WIENER: I believe the mobilizers are always available in every population. If it is not one colonel, it will be another colonel. If it is not an ethnic group it will be religious differences. These groups have been there even before the mobilizer emerges. So the issue is why can people be mobilized at one time and not at other times. My view is that there is always a conflict of interest, but when does this conflict turn into real aggressive action? We have proposed that the most reliable factor in explaining episodes of coalitional aggression is the relative abundance of the males. Otherwise, why is there peace at a time and war at other times, and why is the war so episodic? We tried to look for an explanation. We know wars are universal and ubiquitous. But why does it happen at one time and not at other times?

We don't think it is the "bad guy" notion because bad guys have always been there. So, there has to be another element. A series of analyses of demographic and war casualty data indicates that the relative prevalence of young men consistently accounts for more than one-third of the variance in severity of conflicts.

LANRE-OJO: Can we also relate this study to the situation in Japan? Since the Hiroshima bombing, Japan has been relatively a peaceful nation -a situation that can be attributed to the decision of the government to divest from defence and invest in technological development. Why are young men not fomenting conflicts like their counterparts in other parts of the world?

WIENER: Prior to World War I, during the phase of Japanese aggressiveness, they had a huge run-up in the population. If you look at the political element in Japan in the 1930s, it was the younger officers, not the senior officers, who were assassinating older officers and political figures. At this time, Japan had a predominance of young population, a fast growing population. During World War II, that population growth came to a halt, and it has never recovered. The population of Japan is relatively old. That is why it is relatively a peaceful country.

For instance, people were shocked at the way the Soviet Union suddenly fell apart. There was an ongoing political change, which was peaceful. But the population of Russia is still relatively old. Therefore, the changes were peaceful. Russia's population is similar to that of Japan. The parts of the old Soviet Union where they have turmoil are places where the population is relatively young - a place like Chechnya. In fact, using United Nations demographic data, we compared data on other war-torn nations including El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Kosovo and Albania with peaceful countries in Western Europe. In every case, the war-ravaged nations were dominated by young men.

LANRE-OJO: Seeing that you compared countries in some parts of the world, I am tempted to ask if your study covered countries in Africa under the grip of die-hard dictators where the leader makes decision on when, and against which country, to go to war. Or where a rebel leader decides on war-related situations.

WIENER: But people have to be willing to go to war. These young men are armed, therefore they can rebel. The leader has to articulate what the youth will find appealing. What young men find appealing depends on certain demographic circumstances. Usually, the ultimate reason for economic and political striving among the youth may be mate acquisition, and evidence suggests that male competition for wealth and dominance occurs within most societies. Men, especially the unmarried and unemployed, may be more inclined to undertake risk in order to increase their access to resources. However, with the rapidly aging population in most of the world, except Asia and Africa, most future conflicts are likely to die out.

Lucky Lanre-Ojo is a journalist now working in Toronto.


According to Mesquida and Wiener, the most reliable explanation for coalitional aggression is the relative abundance of young males in a society. A series of analyses of demographic and war casualty data indicates that the relative prevalence of young men accounts for more than one-third of the variance in the severity of conflicts. The young men are inclined to compete confrontationally in coalitions with other young men to gain mates or, more often, to obtain the resources needed to maintain a mate. Political leaders are threatened by the young men, and may try to divert the coalitions against other targets. This contrasts with the belief that wars are caused by "old men sending young men to die."

Age pyramids show the age composition of a society for males. As illustrated in Figure 1, in El Salvador the young males were more common than old and middle-aged men in 1985. (An age pyramid for Canada or Scandinavia would have a steeper incline, for the older males outnumber young ones.) It is in places such as El Salvador that serious wars arise. Figure 2 shows the Young/Old Male ratio for 153 countries plotted against the Severity of Conflicts (log). The correlation coefficient is an impressive 0.76.

The presence of a high proportion of young males is a necessary condition for the emergence of violent conflicts, even though it may not be a sufficient condition. This causal factor cannot be explained away by controlling for other factors, such as the GNP per Capita, the GINI Coefficient (representing domestic inequality level), Population Density, or the Democracy Index Score.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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