PW:Replying to Stephanie & Bob.

Warren Sproule (Warren.Sproule@SOCIOL.UTAS.EDU.AU)
Mon, 31 Oct 1994 12:03:58 +0200

2 recent postings, by Stephanie Wilson (10/26) and Bob Graber
(10/27),express perfectly proper misgivings about the rationale behind -
and the potential scientific 'payoffs' from - attempts to define "war" such
that "primitive" societies do not engage in it...

In the first instance, it's an in-house academic issue. I'm curious about a
terminological anomaly within a kindred discipline: Why do some
anthropologists (including Divale, Harris, Otterbein, Sillitoe and others)
more or less unproblematically assert that a phenomenon labelled "primitive
war" exists, while others (Malinowski, Sumner, Pasquinelli, et al) state
that "primitives" do not practice warfare? This definitional discrepancy
worried Alvin Johnson in 1935, concerned Joseph Scheidner in 1950, remained
a bone of contention for Jacob Black-Michaud in 1975, and judging from
responses to the current thread, is still unresolved in 1994. What we have
here are 2 apparently irreconcilable positions existing side by side. A
possible opening gambit into a zero-sum game is to make a tentative and
provisional choice between alternatives. I'm assuming Stephanie and Bob opt
for "primitive war" as a valid category. My point of departure is in line
with the alternative tradition. Within that tradition, my current stance
was triggered by Otterbein's summary of the work of Turney-High (1949), who
'argued that few nonliterate tribes have reached the "military horizon", by
which he meant military efficiency...[s]uch societies are unable to wage
true war; it is only the advanced societies that have reached the "military

Of far more interest are the IMPLICATIONS, both conceptual and practical,
of taking a stance pro or contra. A key question to protagonists in this
debate would be: Is it possible to uphold the validity of a "primitive war"
category WITHOUT maintaining that 'war' is, as Mike Salovesh put it in an
earlier post (10/4), an inevitable part of the human condition? And isn't
that akin to saying that the warring tendency is a either a biological
given, or the necessary consequence of any and every type of society? I've
yet to read an account of "primitive war" that doesn't rest on this sort of
assumption. The assumption may be expressed inferentially or directly, as
glorious or regrettable, but it's always "there", even as a latent capacity
made manifest by specific circumstances. If we cast the raid, the manhunt,
the vendetta, as instances of "war writ small", then I think we run the
risk of missing the very elements of what makes war a *specific* form of
social behaviour. My hunch is that war ISN'T merely these examples of
small-scale organised violence "writ large", any more than a Stealth bomber
is simply a large spear, a Patriot missile-launcher is just a large
slingshot, or a hand grenade is only a large rock. At most, I'd be willing
to concede that *aspects* of "primitive" fighting constitute, at a stretch,
what I'd term PROTO-war. WAR proper ('unmarked-category' war?) certainly
incorporates some of these aspects, amplifying, recombining and placing
them within a new framework. If this were all that happens, I don't think
I'd have a case - but it isn't. Because war also abandons, outlaws or
renders other aspects of primitive fighting obsolete, proceeds from a
different logic, and introduces new elements into the conditions of
organised conflict...

So what is it that "primitive war"/"writ-large" type stances miss? My
tentative definition of war would at a minimum encompass firstly the notion
of a state, with a division into military and civilian sectors; secondly, a
set of formal legalistic conventions governing the beginning, conduct and
conclusion of hostilities (even if such protocols are more honoured in the
breach than the observance!); third, and of perhaps primary importance, a
view of 'war' as *extraordinary* and 'peace' as norm(al)ative. Thus, (eg
and with a nod in the direction of Denise O'Brien's 10/26 post) Chagnon's
Yanomamo are a 'fierce people' because,as the ethnographic account tells
us, ferocity is factored into their worldview and reflected in both
behaviour and social structure. Contrarily, "we" - western, literate,
civilised, advanced (insert appropriate designation) - are 'peaceable', and
resort to organised violence only under the pressure of exceptional
circumstances. For the duration of such conditions extant norms, values
and sanctions are bracketed, modified or popped inside out (eg, the general
sanction against homicide is recast as a duty to kill the enemy). This
harks back to Hobbes' [in]famous take on the primal human condition
('Warre'), where warfare is so pervasive and chronic that only the
institution of a regulatory State can ensure peace. Of course, the large
irony is, as Sahlins pointed out in _Tribesmen_, that with originary moves
out of hunter-gatherer society, '..the potential of Warre is, if anything,
increased by the advance to tribalism' (1968: 8). I'd agree, with the
important qualification that what Sahlins calls an increase I'd tag as the
(prototype to an?) INVENTION of warfare.

Why is this important, what makes it any more that quibbling, and what's
the 'payoff' in raising all of this? Frankly, I'm a tad surprised at this
question in this arena, because I'd always assumed that as social
scientists we couldn't afford the luxury of "loose lips", that definitions
were necessary to valid explanation, and that we couldn't affect (help to
change or reinforce) what we couldn't adequately explain. Beyond this, we
don't have to venture all the way into Foucauldian territory to recognise
that language is tied to power and that teminology, words, categories can
have concrete effects. As a small example, when Stephanie says that my
'main goal seems to be coming up with a definition that specifically
excludes any concept of primitive warfare', I figure that the use of
*exclude* means that she sees "primitive warfare" as a 'real' entity. It
also hints at a challenge to that view being probably marginal, perhaps
bizarre, definitely in need of some explanation as to my motives in raising
it. Bob's also concerned about motives and payoffs...and I have to admit
that I can't adequately answer at this stage! Maybe it *is* just a pedant's
semantic exercise, or an ornery gadfly's attempt to prod an orthodoxy. I
might be a 'noble savage' advocate engaging in a little *nostalgie de la
boue* or just an e-mail junkie with too much time on his hands ...or maybe
I have this dumb notion that "war" ain't "primitive", and seeing it as such
is one way of casting it as inevitable and keeping it going. My hunch is
that the payoff, in Bob's sense of the word, may be yet to emerge, but as
of now I can't give the guarantee as requested.

Feeling a trifle solitary and besieged here: Should I just shut up about
P[rimitive] W[ar]??? I'll bow to wiser heads than mine. Over to you...