Either as individuals or as part of a collective, each and every single one of us has war embedded into our genetic history. We are all descendants of those who survived war. The survivors themselves are marked for life. As for us, the descendants of the survivors, studies have shown that the impact of these past hardships did not end with those who experienced it.

The events in an ancestor’s life can change the way their DNA is expressed. This can later be transmitted to the next generation through the Y chromosome: which is passed down from father to son. This suggests that particularly traumatic experiences would continue to have a sizeable impact on the male line of your family. A growing number of studies have come to support the idea that the effects of trauma can reverberate down the generations. This, however, is a far more obscure type of inheritance that we are only beginning to comprehend.

If we knew that our actions would reverberate, not only through the annals of history, but also through our genes; would we make different choices with our lives? If peace is a preferable state of affairs and a higher virtue than war–why are our collective histories shaped by war, as opposed to peace? Is war a universal and ancestral aspect of human nature? If war can never be eradicated completely and history has shown that war cannot eradicate us either–then what is the purpose of war?

Deep, profound and sudden changes create discomfort, pain and even suffering. In times of crises and war, these emotions amplify and grow heightened. When whole clans, communities and countries begin to feel these emotions–war is born. Unlike the minor personal and professional grievances we have to contend with on a daily basis–war, by its very nature, is organised. It requires strategy, planning and resources. It does not just occur by happenstance or chance. There is nothing accidental or irrational about war.

The learned men and women preach that the motivations for going to war appear to be the same, regardless of the era. They are: self-defence, greed, emotional turmoil and conflicting ideologies. But are there other reasons to declare war? I argue that if there were no impetus or rationale for war, it would not happen. So why does it happen?

London seen from St. Paul’s Cathedral after the German Blitz, 29 December 1940

It is not so much that we can’t make great strides during peacetime–only that we usually find ourselves lacking the willpower and the resourcefulness to make those leaps and bounds. If our lives are fundamentally good, save a few complaints here and there, there is no reason to wage war. We would rather protect what we have than expend the necessary resources to declare war.

When WWII started in Asia, it seemed to be precipitated by one particular episodic event, but in actuality, the roots of the conflict went much deeper. Behind every war is a deeper conflict or impulse that had either been held back or kept in control. When the first sparks appear from underneath the dormant volcano, we are tempted to call it a sudden catastrophe or say that it took us by surprise.

The volcano, however, was bubbling away beneath the surface, unseen and undetected by human eyes before it exploded like a supernova at the opportune time. Once the impetus for war has been established, it is only a matter of time before the conditions ripen.

If we were to say that war brings about benefits that can help to forge stronger and even fairer societies–would we be defending war? Academics and historians make the impetus for going to war seem ridiculous and unnecessary. But sometimes, war is a necessary ingredient for peace, progress and freedom. As descendants of survivors, war is a part of our genetic inheritance as well as our collective ancestral karma.

All groups have karma that is more than just the collection of the karma of the individuals in the group. For example, a group of people may decide collectively to start a war. If they act on that decision, then the group as a whole will experience the hardships of being at war. Karma is the result of making a decision to act in a certain way. Decisions to act may be made by individuals or by groups. If the decision is made by a group, then the whole group will experience the collective consequences of their decision.

Lati Rinpoche, “Is there such a thing as collective karma?”

According to this worldview proposed by Lati Rinpoche, each individual’s individual karma plays a role in the group he or she belongs to. The idea of collective karma, however, is only possible if a group of people make a collective decision and choose to stand by it.

Did our ancestors make the right decision to wage war? Are we foolishly following in their footsteps and passing this down through the generations? And if we are indeed the survivors and perhaps even the victors of war, does that mean we have to bear the burden of survival–both individual and collective?

As society grows more individualistic, it may be tempting to relegate these chapters to a past that no longer exists. But if males are inheriting these genes and passing them down through the male line, then what does it mean for our future?

On a collective level, the ancestors are powerful allies in transforming historical trauma relating to race, gender, religion, war, and other types of collective pain. Recent findings in epigenetics are showing that in a very real way, the pain of our ancestors can endure through generations.

Dr. Daniel Foor, “Connecting Ancestral Healing and Psychological Health

In thinking that death is the end of the relationship we have with our ancestors, we make a fatal mistake. Following on from that, if violence and trauma that one never experienced can actually be inherited, are we blaming bad parenting a bit too much for everything we went through as children?

Perhaps it is not in waging war or even avoiding it, but in healing time-tested wounds that we will finally find peace. Healing, however, is a long journey and wars never last as long as the trauma it inflicts… and will continue to inflict… for generations to come.

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