m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to the Table of Contents.

A U G U S T  1 9 9 7

The Roots of War

by Thomas Powers

Origins and History of the Passions of War

by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Holt/Metropolitan Books,
292 pages

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.
Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

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:

War is not the origin of war. It was not the fighting of men in groups that came first but the terror inspired in early human beings by predator beasts -- lions and tigers and bears -- and the attempts of early human beings to kill the beasts that made them prey. Anyone who stokes a campfire in grizzly-bear country will get the idea in a hurry. Tigers in India and lions and leopards in Africa have terrorized human communities well into the present century. Ehrenreich vividly evokes the still-greater terror that must have shadowed the thinking of early hominids, whose lives depended on shouting, or throwing sticks and stones, or the harsh reality that many may flee while one is dragged down -- the principle of survival of fish in schools and ruminants in herds. What is the appropriate feeling toward the one who dies -- anger? sorrow? gratitude? The most startling single image from a recently discovered cave in France was not the walls painted 30,000 years ago but the placement of a bear's skull on a large limestone rock in the center of one room. In the soft cave floor were the still-crisp footprints of the men who, we can hardly help believing, worshipped what they feared.

The danger posed by predator beasts may have disappeared from all but the most primitive communities, but the fear still runs deep. Ehrenreich cites a 1965 study of American schoolchildren which found that in a list of "things to be afraid of" 80 percent of five- and six-year-olds included wild animals, especially snakes, lions, tigers, and bears. Bear attacks on hikers, mountain-lion attacks on joggers, shark attacks on swimmers, are routinely reported in The New York Times, not because they are common but because they excite a primal fear. For early human beings, learning to kill predator beasts was an epochal event, like the making of tools, the conquest of fire, the invention of agriculture.

But the primal feelings, Ehrenreich believes, were all mixed up. She argues that the earliest human groups were probably scavengers, depending for food at least partly on the kills made by predator beasts. The lions in effect not only ate but fed them -- becoming a kind of paradigm of primitive gods who simultaneously gave life and demanded blood sacrifice. In a similar muddy way the primitive mind not only raised up and admired the hunters who killed predator beasts but also thanked and commemorated those who died in the effort. Death as sacrifice, killing as deliverance, blood as the coin of exchange with the gods -- wrapped up in these primitive feelings, Ehrenreich believes, can be found the

"original trauma" that shaped the human response to violence ... the trauma of being hunted by animals, and eaten. Here, most likely, lies the source of our human habit of sacralizing violence: in the terror inspired by the devouring beast and in the powerful emotions, associated with courage and altruism, that were required for group defense.
Thinkers with big ideas (Hegel, Sartre, and Foucault all spring to mind) sometimes wrap the kernel in wordy swaddling clothes of ramification and qualification, as if fearing that the clarity of a few un-comma'd sentences would reveal their insight to be a puny thing. Ehrenreich writes in the spirit of Hobbes and Gibbon; she is wonderfully brisk and plainspoken about what she has in mind, she goes straight to it, and then she tells us how the subsequent history of war is illumined once we understand war's origins in group defense against predator beasts -- and in the "sacralization" of violence, which is simultaneously defense, conquest, and blood sacrifice. Ehrenreich agrees with her fellow war theorist Gwynne Dyer that "pre-civilized warfare ... was predominantly a rough male sport for underemployed hunters." During the past 15,000 years or so, she believes, the gradual replacement of animal adversaries by men was paralleled by a growing culture of war and warrior elites, culminating in the circular logic, familiar from Homer's Iliad and the movies of John Wayne, that "men make war ... because war makes them men."

BUT fear not. Although Blood Rites argues that in most human societies war has been culturally associated with maleness, Ehrenreich does not put the blame for war on men, or on "aggression" as a primarily male emotion. She rejects the "hunting hypothesis," first argued in a broad popular way nearly forty years ago, by the playwright Robert Ardrey in African Genesis, which suggests that success as carnivores (that is, hunters) encouraged in men a killer or killing instinct, and that this instinct in turn found expression in the form of intra-human killing we call war. Ardrey, now largely forgotten, was an interesting figure, much like Ehrenreich in the ardor and energy of his speculations, and in the fact that he set up shop in a scholarly precinct where the ruling passion of the gatekeepers was methodology. Writers like Ardrey and Ehrenreich are sometimes called "independent scholars" -- another way of saying untenured, unpublished in the professional literature, and unencumbered by an appropriate degree. Academics often resent the wild, free life of the independents, and tend to dismiss their work as "popular" and lacking in rigor. What drove Ardrey was a belief, far from universal among anthropologists of the time, that men had an ethos, an inherited character or nature that was as much a part of their cerebral makeup as nest-building was of birds', or chest-thumping and teeth-baring was of male mountain gorillas'. Killing was one big part of human nature, in Ardrey's view, and the territorial instinct was another. Like Ehrenreich, he had read everything, and wrote with energy and clarity. Scholars ho-hummed for the most part, but Ardrey was widely read. Others pursued the ideas he had first scented in the air, and his core belief -- that in many regards human beings do not have to learn how to behave but are born knowing -- is now broadly accepted as reasonable, if not proven.

Ehrenreich is working roughly the same vineyard, but what links her most closely with Ardrey is their common conviction that any hope of controlling, limiting, or even ending war requires above all a theory of war. I agree, and I have a few theories of my own about war. One of them is that organized killing by men in groups is the fruit of the human genius that invented weapons. Other primates' fighting rarely involves the drawing of blood, much less actual killing. Most encounters never go beyond roaring and fierce display. But weapons simultaneously make anger lethal and reduce the horror of direct encounter. In short, weapons make war possible.

My theory is that combat is so terrifying that only a fully developed system of special rewards and inducements, backed up by fear of shame, punishment, or even death itself, can push the troops forward. Military historians make much of the incredible casualty rates among young officers -- in tanks and on the Western Front in the First World War, in the bombers that attacked Germany in the Second World War -- as if the privileges of rank were only token compensation for the frightful dangers of command; but in fact most of the time things work the other way around. Armies are organized in pyramidal form, and as a general rule the danger lessens as one gets closer to the top. Until the advent of atomic weapons, heads of state were rarely at risk at all. Indeed, we might well write the history of war as a history of the invention of weapons with increasing range -- that is, killing at a distance -- and of organizational innovations with the purpose of getting other people to do the fighting.

ALONG with my basic theory I have developed a corollary about people who invent theories of war: that what prompts them is a close personal encounter with death, and that attempts to solve the problem of war by studying it closely are really a displaced and sublimated effort to conquer death and the fear of death. Ehrenreich has a simpler idea about the origin of her theory of war: she developed it, she writes very much in the spirit of Clausewitz, because she needed a theory of war to carry out a literary project. I don't think so.

But we won't try to settle that here. As theories go, mine about theorists has one advantage over Ehrenreich's about war:it is falsifiable -- it can be proved wrong. One might inquire closely of Ehrenreich and other theorists, and their replies would either reveal a pattern of worrying about death followed by theory-making or it wouldn't. It's conceivable that neurologists will someday discover a way to read back from human beings' existing brain structure to expose the stages of the development of innate social behavior, but failing some such breakthrough in methodology, there's no way to know whether Ehrenreich's theory is true or not, and its only utility can be to enrich with a kind of poetic resonance our thinking about war. This her theory achieves. It cautions us that war has emotional roots, that the urge to fight may sometimes be irrational, that we may be hasty in the choice of enemies, that enemies may be impulsive and unpredictable, that God may not be on our side -- or on any side. But Ehrenreich's theory fails -- as, in my view, all other theories, including my own, fail -- in one important respect: it cannot tell us what to do.

I think Ehrenreich herself senses this. After 200 pages of wide-ranging and consistently interesting comment on every imaginable war-related form of human behavior, Blood Rites pulls up lame.

"No matter how futile, repulsive, or dysfunctional war may be," Ehrenreich writes, "it persists." Here I balk. Just which wars is she dismissing as futile? The American Civil War, which ended slavery and preserved the Union? The Second World War, which ended the occupation of most of Europe by Germany and stopped Hitler's annihilation of European Jews while some still remained alive? The Korean War, which prevented the military annexation of South Korea by the North? The Vietnamese wars of independence, which ejected the French and the Americans? The Persian Gulf War, which ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, prevented the concentration of a fifth of the world's oil reserves in the hands of Saddam Hussein, and halted his program to build nuclear weapons?

"War can no longer serve its ancient function as a male ritual of initiation," Ehrenreich writes. But wait a minute -- was that really its function? War is terrible, but it is usually about things that matter. We may argue that it is unnecessary, or needlessly bloody and cruel, or stupidly conducted -- but to call it futile is to ignore the consequences of victory and defeat that, in prospect, are what make men fight in the first place. Ehrenreich has brilliantly evoked the emotional texture of war, but to suppose that men fight because it makes them feel a certain way is to argue, in effect, that cities have fire departments so that Irishmen may drive big trucks in Saint Patrick's Day parades.

At this point my theory departs widely from Ehrenreich's. To me it seems that she has confused what war is like with what war is for. In her view, "war" is the "adversary"; what we need is "anti-war movements" that have all the virtues (courage, tenacity, self-sacrifice) of warrior elites and none of the failings (belligerence, hate, bloodlust). "We will need leaders.... We will need strategies and cunning.... [We] must prepare ... to lose battle after battle and still fight on."

The reader is startled. Ehrenreich is arguing a cartoon version of traditional pacifism, as if war were a moral failing and might be avoided only by moral resolve. But nowhere does she make a pacifist's considered argument that all war is senseless, self-defeating, and wrong. I doubt she really believes it. The last, hurried pages of Blood Rites are less a conclusion than a rhetorical flourish.

I sympathize. When to go to war is always an immensely complex question. No single rule can prescribe a reliable course of action. Ehrenreich's book does something fundamental in helping to teach us forbearance, but nothing she writes implies that we must always forbear. I draw a different conclusion from the many wars of this century: that conflicts must be confronted, not avoided; that limits must be clear; that no must mean no; that force should always be the last resort, employed only in disputes of genuine gravity, but never funked in hope of getting off cheap. The cause of war is something immediate, in-your-face, the fact that someone has crossed the line. The first requirement of peace, among nations as in families, is knowing where to draw the line.

Illustration by Etienne Delessert
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; The Roots of War; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 88-92.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture