PW: Singing or the Rain?

Warren Sproule (Warren.Sproule@SOCIOL.UTAS.EDU.AU)
Mon, 17 Oct 1994 12:50:38 +0200

Ye Gods! Just when I assume that the "primitive war" thread has run its
course - 'disappeared' or been 'now-devastated' in Daniel Foss' estimation
- up pop 2 posts from Dan'l himself relating to the issue. At the risk of
flogging a dead (hobby)horse, this encourages me to have another shot at
the topic.

First, in response to (what I understand of) Dan's post [14/10], an
affinity is posited b/w the "ritualised gesticulation" of 'primitive war'
as instanced here by 'a couple of Papua New Guinea tribes', and the
"ritualised gesticulation" of modern ('Advanced') war, illustrated in the
bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki and in the current US occupation of Haiti.
The Foss critique of this connection, floated in the first instance by
David Beer, strikes me as right on the money in asserting that the
gesticulation dimension was 'far more complex' than Beer supposed; but that
doesn't go quite far enough . I'd argue that they're 2 *different* and
incommensurate phenomena. The PNG-type ritual is a strategy for dealing
with conflict resolution aimed at *preventing* war, minimising both actual
large-scale loss of life and the consequences of potential escalation. It's
akin to Malinowski's (1941) reference to Eskimo 'public insult songs' as a
grievance-settling mechanism and to Vayda's 1971 description of the
'nothing-fights' of the NG Maring. It's also equivalent to Sumner's
observations of 1911. The latter cites the practices of PNG peoples, and of
"Australian" fighting, where '(r)eal fighting rarely takes place unless the
women arouse the men, and even then it is only carried on by taunts and
wrestling...the first wound ends the combat';this same principle amongst
the Chatham Islanders; the Rengmahs on the Assam Hills who 'attach to the
body a tail of wood 18 inches long, curved upwards, which they use to wag
defiance at an enemy'; the 18th Century account of the Colombian
Aurohuacos, who settle disputes by having the contenders 'go out to a big
rock or tree, and each with his staff beats the rock or tree with
vituperations...(t)he one whose staff breaks first is the victor; then they
embrace and return home as friends'; and the Mru, who 'do not fight but
call in an exorcist to take the sense of the spirits on the matter'. From
these and other examples spring Sumner's general conclusion, that '...we
cannot postulate a warlike character or a habit of fighting as a universal
or even characteristic trait of primitive man'.

I'm sure many on the list could update and multiply such examples (and I'd
love to see these in a back-channel post!): My point here is that in every
salient respect, dropping the first A-bombs *isn't* connected to such
behaviour, partly because of the technologies, scale and level of
organisation of the respectively-compared societies, but primarily because
[a] it *maximises* casualties; [b] it abstracts and generalises enemy
populations; [c] it's undertaken at the *end* of formal hostilities as
against settling a dispute with the first wound; [d] as Daniel notes, it
swings on a hidden political agenda - and I'd claim that 'ritual' per se is
transparent, overt, and hinges on substituting symbolic for material
effects. I'd also claim - but this is an ideological point - that it takes
a large dollop of commitment to Cold-War deterrence theory and M(utually)
A(ssured) D(estruction) scenarios to see the net effect of the
Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings as leading to meaningful conflict resolution.

I still maintain that there's no such animal as primitive war: more if

Je vous serre la main,

PS: Daniel, I'm 'dazed' too - what IS "unmarked-category" warfare??