Anthropology of War Research Paper

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Sun-tzu, the famous Chinese military expert, began his book The Art of War with the words ‘Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.’ These words, 2,500 years later, still hold true: war has grown more deadly, and more damaging to human existence.

In the twentieth century alone, over 250 formally declared wars took over one 100 million lives. Undeclared wars, including political repression, communal violence, and tribal genocide took millions more; for example between 50–100 million tribal people have been killed by forces and citizens of states in the twentieth century. If we expand the definition of war to include such conflicts as ‘the war on drugs’ and gang warfare, casualties figures rise, though accurate statistics are not available on these forms of violence.

As we enter the third millennium, one-third of the world’s countries are engaged in some form of political violence. Whether these conflicts are called war or not often depends more on political rhetoric than on an accepted definition of the term. In addition, approximately two thirds of the world’s security forces use human rights abuses to control their populations. The victims tend to label this violence war or dirty war, while the state tends to classify this as defense or counterinsurgency.

The world has not always been characterized by such high levels of violent warfare. Wars today are longer in duration, more deadly, and kill higher numbers of civilians than wars of preceding centuries. The reasons behind war and the ways in which it is waged change across cultures and time. The changing characteristics of war demonstrate that organized violence is not a fixed and eternal fact of biology, nor an inescapable feature of a Freudian psyche, but a human practice guided by norms of behavior and codes of conduct situated in cultural values.

1. Defining War

Neither the two world wars nor the several hundred local and regional wars since 1900 have brought us closer to a shared understanding of war. Most scholars accept a basic definition of war as the deployment of violence to force opponents to comply with one’s will. War is organized, group-level, armed aggression rooted in hierarchies of dominance which assume winners and losers in a contest over resources, people, and power. Yet war is defined differently by the winners and the losers, by historical perspective, by soldiers and pacifists—and in each case the definitions are more politically charged than factually correct. For example, freedom fighter, terrorist, insurgent, rebel, traitor, and soldier are all terms variously applied to the same actors by different groups seeking to maximize their own political and moral justifications. Governments define war in their own interests, and militaries are loath to admit strategies that entail civilian casualties, torture, and human rights abuses. The most basic understanding of war is affected by differential and biased reporting; for example, casualty statistics for World War Two vary by millions, depending on the nationality and viewpoint of the researcher. Controlling the definitions of war are integral to the waging of war (Sluka 1992).

The ethnographic study of war and peace has added a new dimension in the understanding of political violence. This academic research has demonstrated that war is a far more complex reality than classical definitions positing a violent contest between two or more armed forces seeking a military, and thus political, victory (Warren 1993, Nordstrom and Robben 1995). Soldiers often battle unarmed civilians and not each other—evident from the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav forces in Bosnia and Kosovo or the two million deaths in Sudan’s civil war. Paramilitaries, private militias, death squads, and roving bands of armed predatory gangs patrol warzones. Some operate at the behest of state forces while others are independent of all sovereign or rebel control. Mercenary forces are a global phenomenon today, and range from informal groups such as the Yugoslav mercenaries fighting in Central Africa to the formal Executive Outcome organization, comprised of former apartheid South African soldiers, who broker with governments as well as rebel groups. Battlezones are also home to looters, sex workers, criminals, and profiteers. Warzones are a bazaar of international arms and supplies merchants who reap billions of dollars yearly worldwide. International nongovernmental organizations are found in all warzones today, providing services ranging from conflict resolution to humanitarian and development aid. Finally, the fronts of wars are home to the inhabitants. Regardless of formal military regulations mandating the legal role of women, children, and the aged in war, all of these people fight for survival when they find themselves on the frontlines. Armed or unarmed, women defend homes and towns, children are forced to take up arms and fight, and the aged battle forced sieges. The unscrupulous sell out their neighbors for a few coins, and the altruistic set up medical clinics, schools and trade routes to provide critical resources under bombardment.

2. The Development Of War

War is a fairly recent invention, in terms of the anthropological expanse of human existence. Humans, as a species, have lived 90 percent of their history without war. Social hierarchies and concepts of ownership appear necessary for the advent of war. The earliest form of human organization was the band: fluid egalitarian groups of nomads. The archeological record indicates that while interpersonal violence was known in bands—determined by puncture and crushing wounds from weapons—it was limited. It did not reach the level of formalized intergroup violence among contending warriors.

The first indications of organized warfare occur as ownership of animals, goods, and property create divisions within societies. With the historical development of tribal societies and protostates comes a differentiation in power, and the emergence of organized intergroup violence (Ferguson and Whitehead 1992). These societies did not have standing armies and military institutions separate from general society; warrior status tended to be open to all able-bodied men, and, less commonly, to women. The early years of tribal war were not necessarily a dangerously lethal activity. For many tribal groups, preparations for war constituted an elaborate ritual process. The rules of engagement were often well delineated: contending factions would meet in full battle regalia and hurl challenges and possibly weapons. Casualties generally brought a halt to the aggressions. Here, it is the display and enactment of power, and not violence, that defines war. Among some communities—the archeological record suggests these were later developments— fighting was much more lethal, though the intent was seldom, if ever, genocide. The goal was to force surrender and extend control over people, property, or territory.

Formalized military institutions and standing armies develop with the rise of the ‘state’ as a form of political, economic, and social organization. The term state here is used in its anthropological sense— originating some 8,000 years ago, and not in the political science definition as developing in the mid 1600s. (The latter, the modern state, will be considered in the next section.) Chiefdoms are replaced by royal families or governing bodies. Social, gender, and often ethnic inequality is codified in laws of land ownership, labor rights, and inheritance. Dispute resolution becomes formalized into judicial systems, and the legitimate use of force is restricted to state leaders and institutions. Contemporary warfare—fought among contenders for power, privilege, and gain—emerges.

3. The Changing Nature Of War

Contemporary warfare itself has changed dramatically over time and circumstance, giving lie to any notion that war is a ‘natural’ social phenomenon or a fixed product of overarching political organization (van Creveld 1991). The era of the modern state provides a good illustration (Holsti 1996). In Europe, the end of the Thirty Years War (from 1618 to 1648) coincided with the beginning of the modern state (marked by the Treaty of Westphalia). The Thirty Years War depopulated a large part of Central Europe. It was known for its sheer brutality: writers of the time speak of the wanton killing, torture, plunder, and destruction of anyone and anything who found themselves in the path of the aggressors. The levels of violence are attributed to the enduring impact of religious wars and the Inquisition, to the transformations wrought by urbanization and early industrialization, and to the upheavals marking the shift from kingly rule to the modern state.

Over the following two centuries the nihilism characterizing the Thirty Years War gave way to what has been called the gentlemen’s war of the Enlightenment period. Formal warfare during this era often, though certainly not always, followed strict rules of conduct and engagement: soldiers fought soldiers in hand to hand combat on battlegrounds apart from human habitation. This was not a new era of war for humankind: Buddhist and Hindu scriptures 2,000 years BCE outlined similar ‘gentlemen’s wars’ in Asia.

While military texts tend to focus on these formal military engagements between two contending armies, another form of warfare developed during this period: colonial repression of conquered peoples. In many ways these actions presaged the dirty war of contemporary times—wars that brutally targeted unarmed people in attempts to instill political acquiescence.

The colonial encounter gave rise to another distinct form of war: the guerrilla war, the mainstay of wars for independence worldwide. Guerrilla warfare was developed by nonstate actors challenging financially and technologically superior state forces. Classical guerrilla philosophy—institutionalized in the midtwentieth century by military strategists such as Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh—postulates that guerrilla forces, by definition, have the support of the broad population, and it is this that gives them indefatigable strength, crucial resources, and moral political superiority. While in many cases this has proven true, it is by no means always so. Guerrilla groups such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Renamo in Mozambique, and the Contras in Nicaragua demonstrated that nonstate forces can also use repressive tactics in an effort to control populations.

4. The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century was characterized by sophisticated and far reaching developments in the international laws and institutions governing war and protecting peace. Despite these, this period was the bloodiest in human history. Overall, wars in the twentieth century were longer in duration, more lethal in the cost to human lives, and more destructive to societal systems than in preceding times. Simply pointing out that this era saw the advent of world war, high-tech and nuclear war, and modern paramilitary warfare does not convey the changes in the philosophy and conduct of war that occurred during this time (Keane 1996). The most dramatic example concerns the ethics of who may and may not be targeted in war. Over 80 percent of the casualties in World War One were soldiers. With the advances in modern technology and the idea that a country’s citizens were now part of the war effort (given their role in producing the means of war), noncombatant casualties rise to 50 percent of all war-related deaths in World War Two. This trend escalates rapidly in the last half of the twentieth century: in the Vietnam war, more than 80 percent of all casualties were noncombatants, and at the start of the twenty-first century, civilians account for 90 percent of all war-related deaths worldwide. Not only has the line between combatant and noncombatant grown indistinct, the line between gender and age in soldiering has too. Women die in equal numbers to men, and more children are killed in war today than soldiers. The use of child soldiers has grown in recent years: at present over three hundred thousand exist worldwide. This serious rise in civilian casualties parallels an increase in the number and sophistication of international organizations (such as the United Nations and the Organization of African States) and international legal bodies (such as the International Court of Justice and the War Crimes Tribunals) seeking to control destructive wars. Today there are 70,000 protocols protecting human rights.

5. Theorizing War

As the predominate means of waging war changes through time, so too do the definitions and theories of war (Simons 1999). In premodern times many, including early Christian and Buddhist societies, saw war as inescapable at times, but not as honorable; the post-war period was crafted as one of atonement. The notion of the honorable war develops in the west with the rise of the ‘gentleman’s war’ of the modern state. Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military expert, codifies war as ‘an extension of politics,’ placing war directly in the rational politics of Enlightenment philosophy. Warfare, as rational, became justified—the most dangerous examples of this were seen in colonial conquests, often rationalized under the rubric of the ‘evolution of civilization’ by scholars.

These Enlightenment philosophies wed with the functionalist and structuralist schools in the early 1900s. Here, theoreticians investigated the ‘functions’ of war, and placed the causes of war in competition over scarce resources, overpopulation, and the increasing complexity of societies. At the same time, psychological and sociobiological theories were popular. These postulated aggression and self-interest as inherent to humans, and therefore as serving an evolutionary purpose. The fact that not all societies engage in war, and that the majority of the people in any society at war do not choose to fight was not addressed by these theories. Political theory within these schools was shaped by the advent of the world wars. After World War One, functionalist theories take an idealist cast that postulates the progress of civilization as one that will finally eschew war. In the wake of the vast destruction of World War Two, realist theory replaces idealism as the dominate theory in the social and political sciences. Here, war is seen as a natural effect of competition among sovereign states. In both schools the solution lies in creating strong state and international institutions to wage, and ideally to control, war.

As the period of the World Wars gave way to wars for independence, regional wars, and the Cold War, theories of war underwent another revolution. Critical to this shift is the fact that researchers around the world began to experience political violence directly, whether by intention or by accident. The reigning functionalist theories did not fit their observations (Foster and Rubinstein 1986). Clearly, the advent of nuclear war gave lie to ideals of ‘victory’ in war—for the first time all sides to a conflict could perish. Wars such as those fought by the USA in Vietnam and by the USSR in Afghanistan laid to rest old notions of the gentleman’s war. Dirty wars such as those in Argentina, and genocides such as those conducted by the Nazis in World War Two and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia challenged notions of the inherent functionality or rationality of war. The increases in noncombatant deaths undermined the claims of sociobiology—it became hard to argue that noncombatant deaths, widespread torture, systematic sexual violence, and the death of children were biologically or socially productive acts (Enloe 2000). Scholars also began to question Clausewitz’s ‘truism’ that war is (predominately) an extension of politics. Certainly it is political, but the recognition of the vast sums of money made in wildcatting valuable resources in warzones and in selling war supplies worldwide made it necessary to integrate economics with politics in the war equation (Kaldor 1999). The rise of religious, ethnic, and identity factors in contemporary conflicts rendered it necessary to add social and cultural factors in with the politico-economic ones (Rupesinghe and Rubio Correa 1994). And studies of peaceful societies such as the Semai and the Quakers demonstrated that war is not inevitable, nor basic, to the human condition (Gregor 1996).

6. The Future Of War

The dawn of the third millennium is marked by vast differences in war. While the superpowers spend trillions of dollars on high technology earth and space based weapons systems, the vast majority of today’s war casualties are killed by small arms wielded by nonspecialists. The greatest dangers are the most accessible: there are estimated to be 500 million to one billion firearms in use today in the world; a lively international black-market sells every conceivable implement of war from AK47s to nuclear materials; recipes for chemical weapons can be found in basic texts; and computer specialists can wreck nationwide havoc by disrupting a country’s basic infrastructural support systems. All of these facets of the war industry are set in global interactions (Castells 1998). Our theories of war must be revised to address these dynamics defining the contemporary world. Theories of war in the near future will in all likelihood address the complexities of war systems that spend billions on technological defenses (at the end of the twentieth century military spending worldwide reached 780 billion US dollars per year) while killing with inexpensive conventional weapons—and will delve into the cultural factors and economic gains as well as the political quests that underlie these realities. In the long term, we should be prepared for the possibility that war, as we know it, may not define future conflict. While employing violence in the pursuit of dominance may continue to fuel war, violence may shift from physical killing to a different order of threat and inequality, and dominance might be reckoned along such nonmilitary factors as economics, environmental control, social viability, or a set of factors as yet unrecognized. War has not always been a part of the human condition, and perhaps future changes in sociopolitical organization and ethical systems will render war altogether obsolete. Effective research into the causes, solutions and future of war will hone combinations of theoretical inquiry with ethnography—helping to erase arbitrary distinctions between theory and data (Nordstrom 1997). The greatest advances will be in rethinking the very meanings of violence and aggression, going beyond simple biological and rudimentary social explanations to explore the complex interactions of violence and power, economics, survival, and identity both within and across local, regional, and transnational populations.


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