'Primitive War':2nd Tilt

Warren Sproule (Warren.Sproule@SOCIOL.UTAS.EDU.AU)
Fri, 7 Oct 1994 10:04:30 +0200

I've been e-mail incommunicado for the last couple of days,so imagine my
surprise at finding the many prompt,insightful and informative replies
generated by the initial query. It seems to have struck a resonant chord (a
personal thanks to Cameron Laird for his kind and encouraging remarks), so
in response to requests by Rob Quinlan and Moira Killoran I'll beg the
list's indulgence with another posting on this issue...

I'm in two minds regarding Mike Salovesh's definition of war as 'organized
intergroup violence WITH A PARTICULAR KIND OF PURPOSE - control of
territory, or control over a population, or control of (scarce?)
resources'. I agree that war is both a purposive and an organized activity.
That some such definition would, as Scott Holmes notes, attract a fair
degree of support amongst social scientists is unsurprising, and I'm both
appreciative of Mike's acknowledgement of a hidden agenda underpinning his
definition and *sympatico* with the moral stance he takes on the issue. My
difficulty in wholeheartedly embracing Mike's definition hinges on his
notion of 'control'. To characterise "war" as an exercise in 'control'
valorises rationality, and strikes me as decidedly shaky for a couple of
[a] the inherent unpredictability of war, still probably best encapsulated
in Clausewitzian concepts of 'fog' and 'friction', and his concomitant
contempt for analysts of war like von Bulow or Jomini ('scribblers of
systems and compendia') who posited war as susceptible to perfect control.
Still in the realms of classical military theory, I read Sun-Tzu's
insistence on surprise and speed as 'the essence of warfare' as an attempt
to capitalise on this very unpredictability. Negatively expressed, my hunch
is also that the massive military investment in control at all levels, from
the individual to the global, is testimony to the fundamental
*uncontrollability* of mass conflict: Hence the consistent military
commitment to 'hi-tech' weapons systems progressively geared, in Manuel De
Landa's assessment, to 'taking humans (ie, human *error*) out of the loop')
. Wedded to this,
[b] territorial expansion, subject populations and enhancement of resources
are typical outcomes (effects) of war. This is resolved at the cessation of
hostilities. Is this sufficient to place them in the category of *causal*
factors? Under such a view, stripped to its essentials, "plunder"
constitutes the sole motive for warfare. I'd be willing to concede that
SOME wars are so motivated, but even this is problematic when we get down
to cases. What's more troublesome is that this knocks so many other
motivations - from the 'Just War' to the 'Cold War' - out of left field. It
gets especially slippery in light of the fact that the loser's motives
("warmongering") are always retrospectively ascribed by the ("peaceloving")
winners, and that so few leaders justify entry into war on the basis of
appeals to plunder. This is particularly true in cases where populations
must be persuaded, not coerced, into contributing to a war effort: How
often, eg, have official rationales for US military involvements been
predicated on "payoffs" in the form of acquisition of land, slaves, or
goods and services? The Marxist solution to this - dominant ideology/false
consciousness - doesn't convince me on a number of grounds. In the context
of this discussion, suffice to say that I regard the polity as central to
warfare - Tilly's pithy phrase, that 'war made the state, and the state
made war', is apt here - and I can't square that notion with the polity as
epiphenomenal (superstructural). Nor do I think, though I'm willing to be
convinced otherwise, that the forces determining a mode of *production* are
quite so readily transferrable to a mode of *destruction*.
[c] Dana Bonstrom's posting [10/4/94] puts me on the horns of a dilemma. If
my objections to Mike's definition claim that it's too concerned with
control over *concrete* phenomena at the expense of all other motivations,
Dana's account of the Dani "weem" as triggered by 'avenging the ghosts of
those killed in previous battles' brings elements of a non-corporeal
motivation into the picture. But on the face of it, it also disrupts my
general position of 'no such thing as "primitive war" '. In defence of this
latter claim, here's one straight from the hip: The notion of war as at
least partly 'avenging the ghosts of those killed in previous battles' is a
characteristic of NON-hunter/gatherer groups, and is nowhere more evident
than in modernity. In a general sense this rests on Comte's aphorism, that
society is composed of more dead than living members. More germane to the
present topic, it has to do with the justification of present wars being
built on the sacrifice of the dead in previous wars. This takes various
forms: Contemporary (western) examples would encompass expeditionary forces
in the Falklands 'imbued' with the martial spirit of the English at
Agincourt, Waterloo and the London of the Blitz; Lyndon Johnson's claim at
the height of the Viet Nam War that American withdrawal would constitute a
'betrayal' of the US troops already killed in that engagement; Australian
soldiers preserving the 'legacy' of ANZACs slaughtered at Gallipoli in
1915, etc. As well as relating to Hobsbawm & Ranger's 'invented traditions'
or Benedict Anderson's 'imagined communities', this encompasses an entire
range of peculiarly modern variants on the themes of commemoration and
martyrdom as they relate to war in the modern world - a (half-baked and
eminently shoot-downable!) thread I'd like to pursue if the interest is
[d] Nomads. I take on board Scott Holmes' point about the Golden Hordes
[10/4/94] with some reservations: Firstly, that one of the things that
always struck me about the Mongol invasions was their inability (or perhaps
disinclination?) to form an empire subsequent to military victory - as I
recall (tho' this isn't really my field) they were 'absorbed' into
"mainstream" Chinese culture within 2 generations; Secondly, the
confederation forged by Genghiz Khan doesn't exactly tally with my notion
(and it's admittedly still a notion) of a 'primitive warring' configuration
- I don't quite know *where* they slot into this debate - maybe Scott's
right in that they're exceptional (a "predatory" culture type) - Deleuze &
Guattari, following Clastres, maintain a distinction between a 'nomad war
machine' and a 'state apparatus' which kicks into this whole issue in a way
that I haven't come to grips with yet (I'd be grateful for any illumination
here!); Thirdly, I'm a tad worried about Scott's suggestion of consigning
an analytical distinction between "war" and other forms of corporate
violence to the realm of 'squabbling over semantics' on the basis that such
a distinction 'would be lost on the victims' - I'd hope (naively maybe)
that attempting such a distinction would perhaps go some way towards
initially isolating and eventually preventing a phenomenon ("war") geared
specifically to piling up more victims; and finally, on the other wing of
this strand [writing] I'm not sure which of the pre-Sumerian cities Scott
refers to, so I'll wait for more details (also the types of evidence that
they engaged in 'warfare') before replying.

Enough! or too much, I've rambled on at inordinate length here (as well as
fudging on supplying a definition of "war", 'primitive' or otherwise!). If
the interst continues I'll attempt something of the sort in a later
posting. Might I suggest that if this thread IS to continue, to avoid
alienating uninterested parties and in the interests of those (unlike
myself) whose access to the Internet isn't subsidised by their
Universities, that this thread is preceded by a code (say, PW) in the
header - or should this discussion just continue back-channel? Thanks for
your patience and guidance to this point...

Ti Sero Lo Mano,