The Roots of War

AS we approach the end of a century marked by wars on a scale without precedent in 5,000 years of recorded human history (so many dead from the years 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 alone that the sober estimates of cautious scholars can vary by tens of millions), and as we prepare to enter a new century with weapons, still unblooded (to use an archaic term) in their modern form, that supersede in destructive capacity all previous weapons by a multiple so great that it is academic -- at just this moment, with bitter experience behind us and fearful prospects before us, we are invited by the essayist Barbara Ehrenreich to ask whether all this killing makes any sense.

We might ask, but governments don't. No big argument is required to get the U.S. government, for one, to spend millions to prevent epidemics of influenza, or to predict earthquakes and hurricanes, or to identify the exact cause of airline accidents like the midair explosion of TWA Flight 800 that killed a few hundred people last year. These and countless other threats to the health and well-being of Americans are considered to be problems of a discoverable nature suggesting methods of resolution -- things, in short, that we can figure out and prevent. But when it comes to war, which has killed a million Americans and served as the great ratchet of the national debt, the response of official Washington is millions for defense but not one penny for etiology! Crime is a problem. Disease is a problem. Acid rain is a problem. Even poverty is sometimes considered and studied (although not at the moment) as a problem. But war, in the working hypothesis of the U.S. and other governments, although cruel and expensive, is not an affliction but one end of the continuum of international relations -- what we try next, in matters of genuine gravity and substance, after diplomacy fails.

Human vs. predator beast

This is what the nineteenth-century Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz meant when he defined war as a continuation of policy by other means. For a time following the defeat of Napoleon the nations of Europe seemed to have the calculus of war under control, limiting operations in the field to small imperial wars against natives without Gatling guns; the brief, crushing lessons that Bismarck taught the Austrians and the French; the dispatch of gunboats to contested waters, and the like. But all that -- the sense of war as rational, controllable, safe; of history as the story of progress; of international trade as a guarantor of peace -- was flicked aside by the insane bloodletting of the Great War, which settled over Europe in 1914 as implacably as the onset of an ice age.

The modern study of war properly begins there, on the Western Front, where the ruling elites of Europe squandered the lives of their own sons. Historians of diplomacy are pretty much agreed on how the war got started, and how the peace imposed at Versailles ploughed the ground for a second war, and how the indecision of Britain and France in the 1930s helped bring it on, and how the quarrels of the new victors over frontiers and social systems threatened to end in yet a third war. Explanations have a calming effect; traced in long books, the history of the First World War does seem a case of one thing leading to another. But what chain of reasons could have led to the Battle of the Somme, say, where the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day; or to the Battle of Verdun, where nearly a million men were returned to earth not as dust but as a soil supplement of bone, fat, and protein? How do we address that in the classroom? If Verdun was a continuation by other means, what in the name of God was the policy?

WHAT we need, if we want to understand the century and take corrective action, Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, is not another theory of international relations but a theory of war itself, of the heart of war, of killing by men in groups. It was a theory of disease, after all, that first prompted surgeons to scrub up; maybe a theory of war could do what defense budgets and war colleges have not done. With no such grand hopes in mind at first, but simply finding herself a decade ago in need of a theory of war, so that she could write a preface to a book, Ehrenreich undertook to craft one. She is best known for her essays in Timemagazine, and her nine previous books are all on other themes; but, she says frankly, "the reckless amateur rushes in where the prudent scholar fears to tread." The result is a bold and imaginative attempt to do what the conventional historians have funked  -- that is, to identify the moment when the urge to war became a part of human nature, so that we can see it plain like the other elemental emotions: sexual desire, love of children, suspicion of strangers, fear of the dark. This is one of those intellectual projects for which the best, and indeed the only, qualification is a passionate curiosity.

Ehrenreich has a doctorate in biology from Rockefeller University, but she is not a scientist. She's a reader. Blood Rites is a short book with a long bibliography. Ehrenreich brushes past standard military history -- dates, battles, night marches, and flanking movements. Much of her reading consists of scholarly books of the past decade or two about war and related forms of bloodshed among pre-literate cultures. Her publisher describes her as "a social critic" -- giving her a writer's equivalent of James Bond's license to kill. But although Ehrenreich does not fear to guess deep, she never pretends to a higher degree of certainty than is possible. She has done a great deal of homework, she is free of cant, and she is smart. Her starting points are firm and clear: she thinks that human beings have a nature, that our attraction to war is at least partly inherited, and that the study of human culture can provide clues to the structural place and function of war-making in the human psyche; and she believes that knowing what war is may help humankind to control it. Ehrenreich reaches back through human history and culture for the moment when the shedding of blood became something men not only suffered but did. What she has found is this:

Presented by

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In