War: origins

Wed, 29 Jun 1994 10:56:08 EDT

As the discussion on warfare has continued I've decided to throw out a few comm
ents on the subject as it is one that I've been actively studying for about fiv
e years. I disagree with some of the points Scott Holmes has made concerning w
ar, though I do feel he is on the right track in many ways.

Let's start with a basic definition of warfare (All sources I reference can be
found in my earlier post or I can send them out again so don't crucify me for n
ot providing a bib at the end of this.). One of the simplist definitions of wa
r that I have seen identifies it as armed conflict between two independent poli
tical units (Davie 1929:46; Malinowski 1941:22; Vayda 1968:86; Wright 1942:5).
However, as anthropologist we have to ask ourselves is this really what war is
in the larger picture. I think not, for it eliminates for example the "cold" w
ar, the constant state of military preparedness from our definition and as all
of us who lived in the U.S. after WWII and prior to the mid-1980s can attest th
e mentallity of conflict can exist without a single blow falling. For this rea
son I prefer Ferguson's (1990:26) definition of "an organized, purposeful group
action, directed against another group that may or may not be organized for sim
ilar action, involving the actual or potential application of lethal force". T
his definition includes the cold war and all other group sanctioned aggressive
behavior externally directed against another group, even feuds and head-hunting
. Though these activities may appear distinct from modern large scale conflict
I believe that truly only differ in scale and justify their inclusion in this

However, we have to ask ourselves does this definition include trade and econom
ic wars. If we look back over the course of history seldom do we see wars that
do not include at least some form of associated economic conflict, be this trad
e sanctions or actual blockades. Yet these in of themselves are not actual let
hal conflict, though you may argue that individuals may starve due to food shor
tages, die due to lack of medicine, etc. The problem here though is one of the
directness of lethal conflict as I see it. Trade and economic wars do not have
the direct goal of lethalness associated with them and in cases where sanctions
and blockades are utilized against an opposing force that a group is at war wi
th I would say they are another type of conflict but not war itself.

So then what causes one group to make war upon another. Ultimately war is an
adaptive response to conditions of real or perceived stress by a group. There
are no universal mechanisms that cause war not all societies will perceive the
same mechanisms as stressful enough to necissitate war. Rather war is a social
invention (Ferrero 1972:55; Malinowski 1941:23: Mead 1964:274; Sumner 1964:208;
Wright 1942:319) erroneously selected by nearly all human societies at some poi
nt to the problems of individual and group happiness, and as an outlet for the
destructive instinct that appears to be inherent (though can be culturally cont
rolled) in humans (Ferrero 1972:55,87). It is a short term solution (Webster 1
975:469) to regulate real and perceived psychological, social and biological ne
es of individuals and groups (Vayda 1968:86-88; Davie 1929;64-65; Sumner 1964:2

Warfare may occur when a society undergoes real or perceived biological stresse
s due to an actual or imaginary shortage of resources (Carneiro 1978:207, 1970:
735; Webster 1977:348; Adams 1977a; 223; Price 1984:212; Fox 1978:7; Webb 1973:
372-373; Dickson 1987:709; Vayda 1968:86-88). It may also be caused by social
and psychological stresses such as the desire to right a real or perceived inju
stice or to gain prestige in ones own society (Davie 1929:64-65; Lesser 1968;95
; Sumner 1964:212; Vayda 1968: 87) to eleviate stress in areas of high populati
on densities by distinquishing an "us" and a "them" group when neighboring cult
ures are largely homogeneous and even for reasons that appear totally irrationa
l to the outsider (Vayda 1968:88; Hassig 1992). We must also keep in mind one
of the largest social and psychological motivators of war - religion (Davie 192
9:65-69; Sumner 1964:212). Religion may promote war by offering spiritual and
material rewards in both the material and spiritual world and through the worsh
ip of "war gods" (Davie 1929:113). It may emphasize bloody, and by modern west
ern standards cruel religious rites (Wright 1942:45) that serve to encourage br
utallity and aggresive behavior towards others and desensitize the individual t
o violence.

>From this point we could proceed into a discussion of what makes some groups mo
re likely to choose warfare as an adaptive response then other societies. From
there we could then begin to delve into what I think Scott Holmes is really int
erested in which is the development of militarism: the institutionalization of
war and its accoutrements in the social organization, ideology and symbolism of
complex (chiefdoms and states) societies (Webster 1977:363-364). Militarism fu
nctions to enhance the ability of a society to successfully make war. However,
I'll hold off on further discussion to see if people are interested first.

I hope this has been of interest to at least some of you out there in cyber-lan