Primitive war? NO!

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Tue, 4 Oct 1994 00:57:00 CDT

Warren Sproule asks us to have a try at cracking the "primitive war"
chestnut. I'm game for one shot at an approach:

Let's start with a definition of "war". I find it useful to say war
means organized intergroup violence WITH A PARTICULAR KIND OF PURPOSE
--control of territory, or control over a population, or control of
(scarce ?) resources.

Simple intergroup violence, no matter how organized or how
deadly, WITHOUT the purpose of one of those kinds of control is, by
my definition, just plain not war. (Thus as I understand what the
film "Dead Birds" is telling us, those folks have battles but they
don't have war.)

If you buy my definition (which I've been trying, without success,
to sell to Marvin Harris for years) it follows that people who fit
our traditional model of "primitive" hunter/gatherers just can't
have war. Maybe a sedentary population can worry about territorial
control, but nomads by definition don't hang around a fixed spot all
year long. Permanent control of territory ain't their game. As for
gaining control over some subject population, what could you want
with captives/slaves/subjects when your way of life demands getting
down to scattered and VERY small social units for significant parts
of the year? For that matter, how could you feed them or even hold
them and get on with the business of hunting and gathering? (Here
I'm talking about band-level societies, in the manner of Julian
Steward, not the sedentary folks of the Columbia River Basin or
interior California. War, slaves, sedentarism, and a high degree
of internal stratification all happened on the NW Coast, as we all
know, and they weren't food-producers.) Same argument holds for
control of scarce resources, which, it seems to me, requires some
strong development of an ideology of ownership.

Why do I want such a restrictive definition? Why not accept ANY
form of deadly conflict between organized social groups as war?

Because I have a hidden agenda, of course.

The reason I developed my definition was in response to the question
of whether war is an inevitable part of the human condition. I don't
want to say yes to that. I can accept as fact that some humans, in
any society, will turn to violence, and that some humans who engage
in violence will carry it to the use of deadly force, and that some
who use deadly force will form groups for that purpose. But those
facts do NOT, to me, necessarily imply that we are doomed to undergo
World War III--nor even what is happening in what used to be called
Yugoslavia. (Yes, I see that as war: organized use of deadly force
to control territory and population.)

By the way, as a sort of answer to something Gene Hammel said
in ANTHROPOLOGY NEWSLETTER (the October issue of AN just arrived,
and it has several answers to him), of course I think WW III would
be a bad thing. And rape as a policy within the struggle going on
in ex-Yugoslavia is wrong, bad, evil, just as ethnic cleansing is.

Saying that is not imperialism, and it doesn't contradict my belief
in cultural relativism. When I condemn rape and murder, I don't
concern myself with whether the rapist or the murderer believes
that those acts are wrong. I don't care what the cultural backing
may be, either. I am a member of my culture, and in MY culture
such acts are taken to be wrong, no matter who does them or who the
victims are or what rationalizations are offered to justify them.

As an anthropologist, I have studied the politics of assassination.
Some of my best informants are, in my judgment, murderers. For just
one example, try those Indians who, as an organized group, accuse
other Indians of witchcraft and kill them dead dead dead, but whose
victims usually are political opponents in intra-community struggles.
Or consider the fact that I try to understand the motivations of
the Guatemalan army and its death squads. As far as I'm concerned,
they're rotten murderers and must be stopped. But my ANTHROPO-
LOGICAL understanding of Guatemala is not advanced by that judgment.
As anthropologist, to understand death squads I have to understand
how people come to join them and how their leaders choose victims
and what purposes such groups serve for those who perpetuate them.
Recoiling and condemning in the face of what they do does not get
me any understanding of what THEY think they're doing, of why they
do it, or of what reasons they themselves offer in justification.

Cultural relativism is a tool of our profession. Its use is not
optional. Judgment--moral judgment--is built into any culture.
("The existence of a social system requires the existence of a
moral system in its support." -- Raymond Firth.) I don't have
the option of refraining from moral judgment, either.

I regard war as morally wrong. I want to believe that it is not
a necessary evil. I must, therefore, define war in such a way that
it is NOT inevitable and built into being human.

mike salovesh <>