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The last word on warfare
February 28, 2012 2:42 PM   Subscribe

A short conversation on the cultural and biological origins of war.
posted by latkes (20 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
"War's deep past" That looks so weird to me. When you're lost and alone in war's and it's Easter time too...

Sorry, I'm not knocking the link or the post - it just weirdez me out.

Also, first thing I thought of was Lorenz's On Aggression, which is a nice read all in all.
posted by Elmore at 2:56 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very interesting discussion (why can't we have more friendly disagreements like that around here?); I think this is an important point:
The emergence of war among early societies, simple and complex, gave rise to warrior cultures, which equated manliness with ferocity, courage and martial skill. The fact that extremely warlike cultures — notably Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany — can become pacifistic virtually overnight shows the degree to which culture, more than innate impulses, drives militarism. Most men are NOT natural warriors; they become warriors because they are sheep, who adopt their culture’s values, rather than wolves.
Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 3:08 PM on February 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's a decent introductory bit on warfare origins, and as can be expected from a short article is fairy limited. Back-in-the-day I did a heck of a lot of research on this, and it may be a difficult issue to convince people on what is correct because we tend to support the theory that we feel is correct.

It's irrefutable that some chimps engage in violent activities from time to time that at first blush look a lot like war. And likewise there is a lot of evidence gathered from different Hunter gather (HG) tribes that also look a lot like war. Some difficulties in both. If war is innate, if it is biological, we could expect to see the behavior spread universally across the population, which it is not, in neither chips or small scale societies.

additionally, when we think of war, it is a submission of the individual to the group. There is strong social and other pressure to conform and maintain unity of purpose. Small scale societies typically do battle as individuals free to act independently as the see fit.

I think there is a tendency to see violence, which may well be innate, and to rush to conclude that because a group exhibits violence it must be a precursor to war.

I believe, and this reflects my tendencies, that war is a social institution, and as such it has changed and adapted over it's lifespan. and that we can learn how to shape society to avoid it. Note, I am talking "war", not a brief fight, or even a battle. War, to me is a long drawn out, highly organized, financed even planned activity, not simply a bunch of people trowing spears at each other in a field one summers day.

anyways.. blah blah blah
posted by edgeways at 3:19 PM on February 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


When it comes to war, I've got to shill for my main man Gwynne Dyer. He wrote the book on the subject.
posted by stinkycheese at 3:24 PM on February 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


The fact that extremely warlike cultures — notably Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany — can become pacifistic virtually overnight shows the degree to which culture, more than innate impulses, drives militarism.

Well, that, and the fact that the most militaristic part of the population died in the war. Germany lost about 10% of its 1937 population -- over 5 million people explicitly in the armed forces died or were missing after the war, and Japan lost 2.1 million members of the Armed forces, close to three million all told, about 4% of the population, and of course, was nuked twice.

After you kill all the warriors, who fights the war?
posted by eriko at 3:26 PM on February 28, 2012


Well, that, and the fact that the most militaristic part of the population died in the war.

Sure, but if the warlike traits are innate, then the next generation becomes warriors automatically, right?
posted by dubold at 3:37 PM on February 28, 2012


I read a really interesting bit on how the rise of religions emphasising nonviolence, like Buddhism, was a possible reaction to technological advancements in warfare that had increased the deadliness or perceived brutality.

Can't remember where I read this, of course.
posted by dubold at 3:45 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've always looked at warfare as sociobiology in action. In groups, people become cells in a larger sociobiological organism. When two group-organisms begin competing for resources, memes are the driver of action, not genes. So they may be the same species killing each other, but the memes are very different and they are what is really doing the killing.
posted by mullingitover at 4:06 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The whole "war is innate, you can see it in our ancestors" is not terribly well backed up by any /real/ evidence. For every example there is a counter-example, or a simpler explanation. Anyone who says different, no matter how many letters they have behind their name, is presenting a primarily personal agenda that they have. I mean, anyone who leads off with the old canard that because chimps war so do our common ancestors with them is pretty much disregarding any recent primate studies, conflating modern primates with ancient ones and reifying Goodall's highly flawed observations.

The fact is, if you go even a little back into pre-history we just don't have much evidence of anything cultural.

In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that it was the advent of agriculture that shifted human culture the most recently, and with that shift came the best examples of our warlike "nature".
posted by clvrmnky at 4:21 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


When it comes to war, I've got to shill for my main man Gwynne Dyer. He wrote the book on the subject.
posted by stinkycheese


It's great, really really great. I read it after a supervisor who had to go back from Canada to serve in Vietnam told me it's what he gave his sixteen year old son to read when he wanted to join the military. The supervisor was anti-war FYI.

Beauty
posted by dr. moot at 4:44 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


War may be a built in feature.

If so, explain the Christmas Truce in WWI and Smedley Butlers claims in "War is a Racket".

Then explain the complaints over time about War Profiteers along with still standing Que Tam law.

Because it sure looks like War is just another path to Profits that most are willing to enable.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:45 PM on February 28, 2012


just wanted to sneak back in and strongly nth Dyer and his War. It is easily a seminal text everyone should be exposed to.
posted by edgeways at 4:50 PM on February 28, 2012


eriko: After you kill all the warriors, who fights the war?

The warriors may be dead, but the generals can always (try to) rally more troops.


languagehat: why can't we have more friendly disagreements like that around here?

We can, when it's three people calling each-other by their first names, and keeping focus on a single (broad) topic on which the parties are all informed from extensive scholarly research.

posted by filthy light thief at 5:05 PM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that it was the advent of agriculture that shifted human culture the most recently, and with that shift came the best examples of our warlike "nature".

Conflict strikes me as a consequence of the physical laws of the universe: we are fragile beings living in a world of fragile beings. As long as smashing some other group of fragile beings confers personal and/or group advantage -- political, philosophical, property-wise, or otherwise -- some group or other will eventually go and do it, and that's war.

Pre-agricultural societies were not (as) warlike, but that's probably because war doesn't confer much of an advantage to small, roaming groups with little or no property and no vital territory to defend. In that situation a total victory in war gains you nothing; even the "gods" would be wiser to tell the shaman to move on rather than invade. This is not true of society today, and it's not likely to be true short of a radical transformation -- not just in our cultural attitudes toward war, but in the actual spoils which might be had from it.

Scarcity of any kind makes war rewarding, and thus all but inevitable.
posted by vorfeed at 5:37 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The origin of war?

"You have something we want"
posted by Renoroc at 6:19 PM on February 28, 2012


The origin of war?

"You have something we want"


I would buy that as the origin of trade?
posted by pullayup at 7:04 PM on February 28, 2012


Trade only comes about when violence is not feasible. Taking stuff for nothing is preferable to the reptile brain that drives each of us.
posted by Renoroc at 7:23 PM on February 28, 2012


article is fairy limited

Sure was.
posted by snofoam at 7:28 PM on February 28, 2012


Trade only comes about when violence is not feasible. Taking stuff for nothing is preferable to the reptile brain that drives each of us.

War is not "nothing", it costs quite a lot. Nor does that statement hold up particularly well on an individual level. There are hundreds of opportunities a day to take stuff for nothing that we all do not engage in. Do you steal a kid's Kindle when no one is looking? Do you rob the neighbor's house when you know they are away? Shoplift a steak at the local grocery store that has no CCTV? My guess is no. But why not, it would be low risk high profit right?

Big countries certainly engage in trade with small countries all the time, we could invade and occupy all of the Caribbean islands fairly easy.
posted by edgeways at 6:18 AM on February 29, 2012


> Well, that, and the fact that the most militaristic part of the population died in the war.

A random selection of people forced into the army, plus millions and millions of hapless civilians, died in the war; what gives you the right to call them the "most militaristic"? That idea doesn't stand up to even a moment's consideration.

Thanks for the Dyer recommendation, all; I look forward to reading it.
posted by languagehat at 8:31 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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