Message to Alpha Males: Change!

Start acting like baboons…

“The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceable conditions, once established, can be maintained” says primatologist Frans de Waal. “And if Baboons can do it, why not us?”

In 2004, Stanford University biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky reported that violence considered normal among baboons, can be radically and permanently transformed. Over twenty years ago in Kenya, primatologists observed a troop of baboons whose social patterns reconfigured themselves when all the alpha males raiding a dump were wiped out by eating meat laced with bovine tuberculosis. Less aggressive males had not been welcome to go along with the tough guys, and all of a sudden there were no alpha males in the troop.

And everything changed.

Without the bully baboons around, everyone relaxed and began to treat one another more kindly. This was incredible, because in primate worlds, baboons are the most status obsessed, blood-thirsty-fight-about-anything-gang in the jungle. Male baboons will fight faster and over more insignificant matters than Frat boys at a pub crawl, and they have no qualms about beating weaker males or females.

“If baboons can change then so can we, but when will we humans learn?”

With the alphas gone, the baboons spent more time grooming and cuddling. The cultural transformation seems to be long lasting. For more than two decades since the alphas’ demise, new males incorporated into the troop have gotten the message that life is different here. Aggression is low, and females and smaller males no longer fear attack. Sapolsky reports “the jerky guys are obviously learning: ‘We don’t do things like that around here.'”

If baboons can change then so can we; but when will we humans learn?

As of March 20, 2006, the start of the fourth year of the War in Iraq, 2,315 American service men and women have died because the alpha males in the White House and Iraqi palaces could not figure out how to deal with supposed WMDs or the sharing of oil, whichever was the real reason for sending men and women to war. According to, somewhere between 34,000 and 38,000 Iraqi civilians have died. No one seems to know how many Iraqi soldiers have been killed.

The alpha male baboons fleeced the troop. Today, corporations make billions, while our troops gets pennies. Like all armed conflicts, this one is fought by the poor of the nation. According to The Nation almost 66% of U.S. soldiers come from counties where household income is below the U.S. median of $44,400. Our brave men and women in uniform don’t earn much: Privates get $25,598 a year for risking their lives daily to protect our freedoms and keep Halliburton happy. Lieutenants earn $33,031. Sergeants and Colonels with over 22 years of service get $66,166 and $100,520. Not so bad until you learn that civilian workers in Iraq are stashing away $80,000 to $100,000 plus. The $251 billion we’ve spent on this war in the past three years isn’t going to the soldiers. The alpha males get the loot; our soldiers lose arms, legs or life.

A good friend of mine is a ranking officer currently in Iraq. He’s on his second tour of duty there. His wife is like a little sister to me. I’ve known her and her family for over thirty years. They have a gang of five of the greatest little boys you’ll ever meet. He is a good man, a dedicated and honorable career soldier. He is willing to risk his life to preserve peace and freedom. I hate to think of anything happening to him because our leaders have deployed him and his troops foolishly and recklessly. How many little boys and girls have to lose Dads and Moms before we radically reorient our actions in Iraq?

Most distressing is the fact that our troops are not supported by a capable, compassionate and caring Pentagon. Apparently alpha male extraordinaire Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld can’t count. The Defense Department isn’t even fielding a full team in Iraq. At the height of deployment, the U.S. had 160,000 troops in Iraq. For the Persian Gulf War, 697,000 troops were sent to do the job. Writing in the New York Times, retired Army Major General Paul Eaton excoriated Rumsfeld. “In sum he has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically… Mr. Rumsfeld must step down”. Gen. Eaton knows. He was responsible for training Iraqi troops 2003-2004.

How are we, as followers of Christ, to respond to “alpha male syndrome?” Many Americans run around crying ours is a Christian nation. So what would “Jesus, the American” do? Would he justify imperial insanity? Would he proclaim, “Peace on Earth, good will to all except those we think may be terrorists?” Would he say, “Take my yoke upon your shoulders because my yoke is easy and my burden is lightened by the torturing of prisoners?” No. Jesus would call for love, reconciliation and peace.

Jesus wasn’t an alpha male. Jesus taught that we must forgive if we are to be forgiven (Mt 6:14-15). The Prince of Peace taught us to love our enemies (Mt 5:44), and St. Paul urged that we bless those who persecute us (Rom 12:14). Christians in the United States should confront the politicized Christian Right’s alpha males and remind them that the Gospel calls for reconciliation and peace. Treating all Iraqis with love and justice is much better political policy than torture and terrorism in reverse, a la Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

We all need to resist this alpha male agenda and call for a rebirth of America as a “nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” A great president spoke those wartime words. On hallowed ground President Lincoln proclaimed “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom… .” Practicing reconciliation and forgiveness, Lincoln led the nation to true freedom.

That greatest of Republican presidents was not an alpha male. Neither was Jesus. Even dumb baboons realize that life is better without alpha males running the show.