War used to be a great way to make a living for poor males or younger sons with no other prospects. But in today’s global, technology-driven society, war can help no one but the wealthy and their chosen governments, corporations and factotums.
Franz de Waal has an attractive theory that man has two simian ancestors: chimpanzees who are warlike and will drink the blood of other chimps, and bonobos who are passive and friendly and practice free love. I am suspicious of theories that find the source of human activity in other animals, mainly because in my experience I have seen humans from time to time exhibit behavioral traits of virtually all other animals. For example, John Eisenberg’s The Mammalian Radiations describes 10 or so mating patterns among mammals, all of which you can observe among human beings, although a few are pretty kinky.
I am much more inclined to believe that our aggression came about as a result of reacting to our environment, which in the early history of humankind means responding to the presence of a major competitor in our ecosystem, the Neanderthals. Our reaction (about which I first read years ago in Steven Stanley’s The New Evolutionary Timetable): to make war upon our enemies.
Once mankind extirpated the Neanderthal, there was little logical reason to wage war for a long time. When humans roamed in bands, hunting and gathering for food and everything else they needed to live, rival groups may have had reason to fight from time to time-over carrion, camping grounds or hunting preserves. The idea of attacking another tribe as a source of wealth probably occurred to more than one tribal leader. But throughout this so-called prehistoric period, the abundance of game probably made it less than good economic sense to pillage and rape as a way of life.
Agriculture changed the war equation. Farmers and animal husbanders could store food and live in easy-to-target permanent locations. It was the golden age of war for those who waged it, and in some parts of the world, it lasted into the 20th century. From the Cimmerian raiders to Genghis, the crusaders and the Nazis, armies could literally live off the land, commandeering locals for slave labor, rampaging fields and barns for food, raping women for sexual satisfaction. Sometimes, nomadic raiders wandered a serendipitous path. Sometimes, raiders returned to the same location on a regular basis, like migratory animals. This strategy often transformed into a policy of extortion of agricultural or trading communities, as the Comanche, Osage, Norse and Chinese warlords did, with the ransom or protection generally paid in seed, drink, pottery, precious metals or humans.
Whatever the rampaging strategy, even if the leader and his circle culled the largest share, the distribution by definition had to be fairly equitable to keep the men fighting. The general and his army were a literal band of brothers, held together by their common desire to earn their way through the world by looting. Before the industrial revolution, war was typically good for warriors. And when it wasn’t good, as under the relentlessly restless Alexander of Macedonia, the soldiers rebelled or deserted.
As agricultural centers grew and trade developed between them, I imagine that the emerging urban civilizations across the globe began to consider war as a solution to a myriad of challenges. Perhaps the population was expanding too fast for the food supply. As victors, the city could expropriate the wealth of defeated cities or destroy trade competitors. Perhaps by waging war, the city could bring new regions into its sphere of influence. Or, the city could defeat another city of substance which was threatening to attack it.
The problem facing cities wishing to go to war was finding soldiers to fight it. Almost from the beginning, war should have lost its appeal to anyone with the industry and knowledge to pursue agriculture or animal husbandry, that is, unless the urge to kill our own kind was as great as the urge to have a regular and plentiful source of sustenance. Beyond these basic instincts, the agricultural life seemed to hold all the advantages: the ability to sleep in beds instead of on the ground, with a roof over one’s head, even if it were nothing more than dried mud; a constant source for sexual release instead of infrequent orgies of rape. And as agriculture led to the growth of cities, there were ever more attractive professions than looting the countryside: ceramics, engineering, cobbling, quarry work.
Yet even if there have always been more farmers than warriors, the warriors end up in charge of things, always, and for good reason—they are willing to kill for their power. All they need is someone to do the killing for them. So slowly, the ruling elite began to propose reasons other than economic reward to convince ordinary citizens that they should go to war:
- Defense against an imminent threat, e.g. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
It is my belief that the great political partnerships between church and state we see in virtually all societies throughout history result from state and religious rulers making the same deal that Constantine made with one faction of early Christianity: Support my war and I will support your religion. It is now fairly well accepted among scholars, for example, that the crusades were fought in part as a safety valve, i.e., to transfer Western Europe’s criminal and pillaging class from Christian lands to the land of the economic enemy. God or the gods have been used to authenticate virtually all recorded wars, and often both sides have claimed god’s mantle, as in all of the current conflicts in the Middle East.
War has always been and continues to be part of the bag of tricks by which the wealthy get those less fortunate to support their concentrated power and wealth. If we follow the flow of money and disregard religion, it’s easy to see who prospers in war: the wealthy and those soldiers such as Sudanese and Croatian who choose to rape and pillage. But for the average person in most countries —the person who would continue to teach school, develop software, repair shoes, clean streets, sell merchandise or build cars, even if a new regime took over—for this average person war only means dead family members and higher taxes.
If soldiers and citizens refused to serve, there could be no war. And yet it continues, perhaps, again, because of a basic need in humans to kill other humans. The best argument that there is such a basic genocidal urge is the very fact that in wealthy nations, the ruling elite can still find people willing to die, kill or both for the state.