Philobiblon: A big question: What causes war?

Monday, September 19, 2005

A big question: What causes war?

That's the question Barbara Ehrenreich tries to answer in her brilliant Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passion of War. Or, to put it more precisely, what predisposes the human species to get caught up in war fever?

Her answer, to simplify, is that it comes from the fact that we are the only species to have gone from being mainly prey to almost entirely predator. "Here is what we might call the missing link within the theory of human evolution itself: how a poor, shivering creature grew to unquestioned dominance. Before and well into the age of hunting, there must have been a long, dark era of fear when the careless and stragglers were routinely picked off, when disease or any temporary weakness could turn man into meat." (P. 45)

The point at which the roles began to turn, Ehrenreich reports, citing William H. McNeil among others, is when humanities and humans started to act as a group, making noise, throwing sticks and stones and otherwise acting together. "As any demagogue knows, a crowd is most likely to bond into a purposeful entity when it has an enemy to face. Millennia of terror seems to have left us with another 'Darwinian algorithm': that in the face of danger, we need to cleave together, becoming a new, many-headed creature larger than our individual selves." (p. 82)

Further,: "The transformation from prey to predator, in which the weak rise up against the strong, is the central 'story' in early human narrative. Some residual anxiety seems to draw us back to it again and again. We recount it as myth and reenact it as ritual, as if we could never be sufficiently assured that it has, indeed, occurred." (p. 82)

And humans continue to promote this anxiety culturally - through stories of beasts "coming to get them" if they're bad, through horror movies, through Roman 'games' plus the human child is for a very long time just as vulnerable as our early ancestors.

The hunting that occurred, as we got to the top of the food chain, was primarily a large group activity - herds that occurred in great numbers were driven off cliffs, into bogs or human-made traps, a task that would require every member of the tribe to participate. It was only perhaps as recently as 15,000-10,000 years ago, with the combined effects of climate change and, probably, human predation, that animal numbers fell to such a point that a few mobile, adult individuals would travel, perhaps long distances, to stalk and spear game.

Not coincidentally, Ehrenreich suggests, that roughly coincides with the first evidence of what looks to us like war, a rock draw in Spain showing bands of stick figures wielding bows and arrows against one another. Graves from the same era in Egypt and East Asia support that conclusion (p. 117)

But this was not a case of competition. Ehrenreich suggests that as gathering and crop growing developed "the majority of adult men would have found themselves in need of some substitute for the hunter-defender role. As encounters with wild animals (both game and predators) became less central to human survival, so, potentially, did adult males become less central to the survival of women and children. In their engaging study of warfare among southwestern American Indians, anthropologists Clifton B. Kroeber and Bernard L. Fontana propose that war may indeed have arisen to fill the void. One by one, they eliminate the various materialist theories - involving land and access to water - which have been offered to explain these peoples' perpetual wars, and propose instead that war exists because it is a prestigious thing for men to do, that it is an exciting and even "religious" undertaking." (p.124)

And once this direction was taken, it was hard to stop. "As it spreads from place to place, war tends to stamp a certain sameness on human cultures. At the most obvious level, it requires that each human society be as war-ready as the other societies it is likely to encounter ... No doubt there are other directions in which human cultures might have evolved - towards greater emphasis on the arts, for example, or philosophy, or more lighthearted games and rituals. But war, once chosen by some, quickly became the 'unchosen direction' imposed on all." (p. 134)

War has traditionally been analysed by reference to social and economic structures of societies, but Ehrenreich says, it has persisted through all of these. It can be thought of she says, as a meme. Ehrenreich says this concept is still rather loose and inadequately theorised, but suggests that in the case of war "it would have to be conceived as a loose assemblage of algorithms or programs (in the computer sense) for action " (p. 234)

"If war is understood as a self-replicating entity, we should probably abandon the many attempts to explain it as an evolutionary adaptation which has been, in some ecological sense, useful or helpful to humans. ... Culture, in other words, cannot be counted to be 'on our side'." (p. 235)

"It is ... a parasite on human cultures - draining them of the funds and resources, talent and personnel, that could be used to advance the cause of human life and culture. But 'parasitism' is too mild a term for a relationship predicated on the periodic killing of large numbers of human beings. If war is a 'living' thing, it is a kind of creature that, by its very nature, devours us. To look at war, carefully and long enough, is to see the face of the predator over which we thought we had triumphed long ago." (p. 238)

But there are actions that can be taken to combat the meme, for "if the twentieth century brought the steady advance of war and war-related enterprises, it also brought the beginnings of organised human resistance to war. Anti-war movements, arising in massive force in the latter half of the century, are themselves arising in massive force in the latter half of the century, are themselves products of the logic of modern war, with its requirements of mass participation and assent. When the practice and passions of war were largely confined to a warrior elite, popular opposition to war usually took the form of opposition to that elite." (p. 239) And within anti-war movements, humans can discover that euphoria of banding together for common survival, Ehrenreich suggests, that they first found when a band of humble hominids drove off a sabre-toothed tiger by working together.

It is a brilliant account, and I'd highly recommend reading the book, which has far more complexities than I have space for here. My edition is Virago, published 1997.

Which makes me think about bringing it up to date. What is changing in the 21st century, it seems to me, is that certainly the dominant Western states are moving away from "mass" wars. Of course this is only a good thing, in the avoidance of bloodshed, but if wars are to be conducted by robots and drones, as the Americans seem to be aiming for, the impetus for anti-war movements that Ehrenreich identifies will have disappeared. (Unless of course the robots decide to rebel!) And if the humans involved are those from lower socio-economic groups (also the case in America and other Western societies), they're the ones with the least voice to speak out against the wars in which their sons and daughters are dying.

Perhaps we all need to do something about that.


Blogger Al said...

Human mammals joining together to OPPOSE war can be a very good idea as a survival method, as war kills people.

It gets more complicated, though, as the appropriateness of being against war depends on the war in question. Rising up to stop your local alpha males from dragging you into some stupid conflict for no necessary reason can stop you from getting killed.

If, on the other hand, you're just blanketly anti-war, then you're back to being defenseless, and asking to get killed by any and all schmucks.

9/19/2005 08:55:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Being totally anti-war if you are in a mass group can be a defence in itself - the mob of unarmed humans against the sabre-tooth.

9/19/2005 10:43:00 pm  
Blogger Louis Proyect said...

I guess I have gotten used to how bad the Nation magazine has become, but every once in a while I run into something so rancid that I have to pause and catch my breath. This was the case with a review by DSA leader Barbara Ehrenreich of 3 books on war. This review was accompanied by a review by Susan Faludi of Ehrenreich's new book on war titled "Blood Rites". All this prose is dedicated to the proposition that large-scale killing has been around as long as homo sapiens has been around and that it has nothing much to do with economic motives. Looking for an explanation why George Bush made war on Iraq? It wasn't over oil, "democratic socialist" Ehrenreich would argue. It was instead related to the fact that we were once "preyed upon by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator...but that of a creature which has learned only 'recently,' in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night."

In a rather silly exercise in cultural criticism, Ehrenreich speculates that the popularity of those nature shows depicting one animal attacking and eating another are proof of the predatory disposition we brutish human beings share. I myself have a different interpretation for what its worth. I believe that PBS sponsors all this stuff because of the rampant oil company sponsorship that transmits coded Social Darwinist ideology. Just as the leopard is meant to eat the antelope, so is Shell Oil meant to kill Nigerians who stand in the way of progress.

One of the books that Ehrenreich reviews is "War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage" by Lawrence Keeley. Keeley argues that material scarcity does not explain warfare among Stone Age people. It is instead something in our "shared psychology" that attracts us to war. Keeley finds brutish behavior everywhere and at all times, including among the American Indian. If the number of casualties produced by wars among the Plains Indians was proportional to the population of European nations during the World Wars, then the casualty rates would have been more like 2 billion rather than the tens of millions that obtained. Ehrenreich swoons over Keeley's book that was published in 1996 to what seems like "insufficient acclaim".

I suspect that Keeley's book functions ideologically like some of the recent scholarship that attempts to show that Incas, Aztecs and Spaniards were all equally bad. They all had kingdoms. They all had slaves. They all despoiled the environment. Ad nauseum. It is always a specious practice to project into precapitalist societies the sort of dynamic that occurs under capitalism. For one thing, it is almost impossible to understand these societies without violating some sort of Heisenberg law of anthropology. The historiography of the North American and Latin American Indian societies is mediated by the interaction of the invading society with the invaded. The "view" is rarely impartial. Capitalism began to influence and overturn precapitalist class relations hundreds of years ago, so a laboratory presentation of what Aztec society looked like prior to the Conquistadores is impossible. Furthermore, it is regrettable that Ehrenreich herself is seduced by this methodology since she doesn't even question Keeley's claims about the Plains Indian wars. When did these wars occur? Obviously long after the railroads and buffalo hunters had become a fact of North American life.

The reason all this stuff seems so poisonous is that it makes a political statement that war can not be eliminated through the introduction of socialism or political action. For Ehrenreich, opposing war is a psychological project rather than a political project:

"Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war -- a warrior elite or, on our own time, the chieftains of the 'military-industrial complex' - risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome ... So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the 'enemy' is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace."

Really? The abstract institution of war maintains its grip on "us"? Who exactly is this "us"? Is it the average working person who struggles to make ends meet? Do they sit at home at night like great cats fantasizing about biting the throats out of Rwandans or Zaireans in order to feast on their innards? The NY Times has been reporting more and more concern among Clinton administration officials about Kabila's drive toward the overthrow of Mobutu, our erstwhile puppet. It is not out of the question that Clinton and his European allies would put together an expeditionary force to protect "democracy" in Africa. Who would be responsible for this war? The ruling class or the poor foot soldiers who get drummed into action?

9/20/2005 01:55:00 pm  

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