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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: October 2009

6 - The Role of Vengeance in Conflict Escalation


Something about revenge breeds its escalation. It is an all too familiar pattern. Someone harms us, and we retaliate, which in turn brings about yet another harmful response – and so on. This progression of retaliatory actions often incurs costs that are out of proportion to the harm that initiated the conflict in the first place. What causes this costly, often deadly, pattern of vengeful behavior? The main goal of this chapter is to examine the role of vengeance in escalating conflict. While acknowledging that many factors often contribute to conflict escalation (see Pruitt and Kim 2004), I argue that the desire for vengeance is a key driving force behind many escalating conflicts. I also try to show that an understanding of the nature of vengeance, especially as it operates at the collective level, reveals why it is such an important factor. Finally, I briefly suggest a few ways that the escalatory pattern of vengeance can be curbed.

The Nature of Vengeance

Potency of vengeance

O child, child

now I begin my mourning,

the wild newly-learned melody

from the sprit of revenge

Euripides, Hecuba

In Euripides’ great tragedy, Hecuba suffers unimaginable harm at the hands of the Greeks. They destroy her beloved Troy, kill her husband and most of her children, and reduce her, the queen of Troy, to a Greek slave. Remarkably, despite these torments, her heart remains relatively free from the desire for vengeance.

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