by Barbara Ehrenreich
(part of the extended online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt)

Two months before a somewhat recent U.S. military invasion, I gave a presentation on war and warrior elites to a small group of sociologists. They were interested and supportive, but a bit pitying about my choice of a topic: War, they were eager to remind me, had run its course. The Cold War had ended; communism was over; there were no longer any “sides” to take. Too bad I had elected to work on a subject of only historical interest.

The conviction that war is passé, or soon to become so, has a venerable history of its own. The introduction of the gun, and after that, artillery, seemed to promise levels of destruction so costly that no state would want to risk them. After the gruesome bloodletting of the Napoleonic Wars, philosophers Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill prophesied that war would end as civilization turned, in relief, to the peaceful business of industrial production. World War I was, of course, the “war to end all wars”; a quarter-century later, the nuclear weapons developed and used in World War II seemed to doom war once and for all. Ghoulish wonks might play with scenarios for “limited nuclear war” and “flexible responses,” but anyone with sense could see that “war has been vanquished,” as Robert L. O’Connell has put it, defeated by its own weaponry.

* * *

And yet no matter how futile, repulsive, or dysfunctional war may be, it persists. There have been 160 wars of various sizes since World War II, and these have taken the lives of an estimated 30 million people. Many of these wars have been “conventional” in the sense of pitting one good-sized nation-state against another—Iran against Iraq, for example, or Iraq against the United States and its allies. Many others have been decidedly unconventional, featuring belligerents which are not nation-states but ethnic groups, factions, and religious movements. As Martin van Creveld argues, what we have been witnessing is not the death or atrophy of war but its “transformation”:

The nature of the entities by which war is made, the conventions by which it is surrounded, and the ends for which it is fought may change. However, now as ever war itself is alive and well.

In a sense, war has found a way around the obstacles placed in its way by the scholars of militarism. Since armed conflict between the major nation-states is too costly and too likely to tip over into nuclear holocaust, war has taken other forms. Now it is likely to be “low-intensity” or, as German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger terms it, “molecular,” with the diminutives referring to the size of the war-ring units rather than to the cost in human life. The new kind of war is less disciplined and more spontaneous than the old, often fought by ill-clad bands more resembling gangs than armies. But it is, from a civilian point of view, more lethal than ever. Recall that in World War I, 15 percent of the fatalities were civilians, with that proportion rising to 65 percent in World War II. In the “low-intensity” wars of the late twentieth century—the wars of Ivory Coast, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, East Timor; and the former Yugoslavia-civilians constitute 90 percent of the dead.

Whatever the psychology of this new type of war—and there has been much vaporizing about a recrudescence of “evil” in the world—one particular innovation has made it possible, and that is the emergence of an international market in small arms. The modern nation-state came into being, as we have seen earlier, as a support system for the mass army. Today, however, anyone can purchase guns and almost anything else they might need—vehicles, canteens, boots, camouflage clothes—on the open market. Even military training and leadership is available, for a price, from mercenary groups and U.S. firms employing retired officers. Somalia, for example, had no arms industry and very little infrastructure of any kind during the years it was being torn in shreds by warring factions; the guns were provided by the superpowers of the Northern Hemisphere. With a thriving black market in weapons recycled by the former guerrillas of Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, the nation-state is no longer necessary as the unit of militarism. A warlord with cash and a coterie of followers will do.

The Beast in Modern Form

Looking back on the developments of the twentieth century—and on the four centuries of gun-based warfare that preceded it—one is tempted to reformulate the ancient puzzle of what it is that gives war its iron grip on human cultures. Traditionally, the puzzle has been posed as a question about “human nature”: What is it in us that draws us, over and over, to an undertaking we know to be destructive and suspect, in most cases, to be thoroughly immoral? But when we reflect on war’s remarkable resilience in the face of changing circumstances, we cannot help wanting to turn the question around for a moment to ask instead: What is this thing that humans have been so fatally drawn to? If war is not firmly rooted in some human subgroup (adult males, for example, or any other relative elite), if it is not the product of some particular form of human social organization (feudalism, the nation-state, or capitalism)—then what exactly is it?…

In trying to understand what war is, we have been misled, I would argue, by the apparent linkage between war and various other institutions—hierarchies of class, gender, and political leadership, for example. Analyze any war-making society and, sure enough, you will find the practice of war apparently embedded in and dependent upon that society’s economy, culture, system of gender relations, and so forth. But change that economy and culture—as in going from a hunting-gathering to an agricultural way of life, or from agriculture to industry—and war will, most likely, be found to persist. So it is the autonomy of war as an institution that we have to confront and explain. Is war something which really does have “a life of its own”?

* * *

War can be analogized, in a mathematical sense, to a process caused by living things—in particular, to a disease brought about by microorganisms. War is “contagious,” as we have noted, spreading readily from one culture to the next. And once the famous “cycle of violence” has begun, there is, of course, no stopping it; each injury demands the counter-injury known as revenge. Thus war is, in some not yet entirely defined sense, a self-replicating pattern of behavior; possessed of a dynamism not unlike that of living things.

Social science provides us with no category for such an entity, but other fields are beginning to offer what look, at least for now, like promising frameworks. One of these is the biologist Richard Dawkins’s concept of a meme. Searching for a way to describe cultural evolution, he proposed the concept of self-replicating “units of culture” analogous to genes. Like genes, these “memes” seek to copy themselves as widely as possible and, also like genes, are subject to certain (so far unexamined) selective forces. The underlying idea—which gains a certain respectability from the new “dual inheritance model” of evolution—is that culture, like biology, may be subject to evolutionary laws of its own, with the “fittest” memes winning out, in time, over the other cultural possibilities.

* * *

“Memetics” remains in its infancy, but for our purposes, the truly sobering aspect of Dawkins’s idea is that “fitness,” for a meme, may have little or nothing to do with the biological fitness or well-being of the people who act in conformity with it. If culture is governed by laws analogous to those of natural selection, these laws are not selecting for stronger or happier people, but for more successful memes. “What we have not previously considered,” Dawkins writes, apparently referring to a century of social science, “is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.”

* * *

Another possible way of thinking about war as a self-replicating activity comes from computer science—though not from the part that seeks to provide models for the human mind. Perhaps surprisingly, this infant science has come up with a new notion of “life,” and one that goes well beyond the water-and-carbon-based chemical engines that we usually recognize as animals, plants, and microorganisms. Computer scientists are generating new “life forms” that have no material substance at all; they are programs—computer “viruses” would be the most familiar example—that have been designed to reproduce themselves and, in some cases, even to undergo spontaneous “mutations.” Such “creatures,” which can be represented on a computer screen as dots or fish or lions or anything else one fancies, can be programmed to evolve in response to selective forces imposed by the experimenter. If two or more species of them are present, they may quite spontaneously enter into such lifelike relationships as those of symbiosis and parasitism.

These self-reproducing computer programs demand a definition of a living being as “a pattern in space/time . . rather than a specific material object.” Such a being must be able not only to reproduce itself, but to undergo mutations, and hence to evolve over the course of generations. If technological changes in weaponry, transportation, and so on are understood as the relevant “mutations,” then war; in some rough sense, may fit this kind of expanded definition. With the introduction of the horse as part of the technology of war some 4,000 years ago, war “mutated” into an occupation for mounted elites. With the introduction of the gun, it mutated again—this time into an activity potentially accessible to the common man and woman. And following each such mutation in the mechanism of war; human social institutions, with their ancient hierarchies of class and gender, can only scramble to keep up.

But whether we base our analogies on genes or computer programs, we are looking for a way to understand how human societies may, in a sense, fall prey to “living” entities that were, originally, of our own creation. This tragic possibility is implicit, it seems to me, in Marx’s description of capitalism. In Capital, as in that other nineteenth-century classic, Frankenstein, human creativity brings forth something—market system or monster—which humans can no longer control. Humans invented market systems and bring strong feelings to them—greed, most notably, but also the desire for adventure and sometimes even altruistic concerns for the general welfare. But once under way, market systems (and perhaps especially those of the industrial-capitalist variety) have a dynamism of their own, which no socialist enclave has yet found a way to resist for any length of time. The market comes to act like a force of nature, dictating—or at least severely circumscribing—the choices of anyone who hopes to remain a “player.” This outcome would seem fit Andrew Bard Schmookler’s observation that “with the rise of civilization human creativity ceased to drive the mill of cultural evolution but rather became its grist.”

War is not the only self-replicating social institution. The familiar hierarchies of race, gender; and class are also endowed with a certain ability to reproduce themselves. Insofar as the members of a supposedly inferior group are denied adequate nutrition or education or access to important resources, they will indeed remain “inferior.” Girls who are barred from education on the basis of their sex’s presumed intellectual deficits may well end up as examples of why women can’t be educated, and will often pass this implicit judgment on to their own daughters. Black children who are underfed and consigned to underfunded schools will, very often, be handicapped for life. This does not mean that social hierarchies cannot be overthrown; only that those who would overthrow them should be aware of their almost lifelike power to persist. As reformers have had to learn again and again, simply declaring a group equal does not end the dreary dynamic that has condemned it to inequality thus far.

Someday, perhaps, social theory will be in a position to understand human culture as a medium—a primeval soup, as it were—within which abstract entities like war, and possibly also capitalism, religion, and science, not only “live” and reproduce but also interact. For now, let us content ourselves with observing that they do indeed interact, and in complex, evolving ways. War, for example, has for millennia existed in a symbiotic relationship with male domination, both drawing strength from and giving nourishment to it. But this mutual dependence only goes so far. There have been cultures, like that of the Inuit, which are both peaceable and male dominated, just as there is now a culture—that of the United States—which is both militaristic and (at least officially) egalitarian with respect to gender. War has thrived through its symbiosis with male domination, but it can also do quite nicely on its own.

Market systems have an even more complex history of interaction with the self-replicating pattern that is war. During the feudal era, for example, the European warrior elite disdained the nascent market and the men who made it work. But, as William H. McNeill argues in The Pursuit of Power, it was the eventual synergy of markets and militarism that helped pave the way for the burst of European imperial expansionism from the sixteenth century on. Something like that synergy persists in the United States, where the market economy has become thoroughly addicted to the manufacture of weapons and the government expenditures that underwrite it. But on a global scale, the interaction between war and the market system (or, if you will, the memes for war and markets) has grown more complex and sometimes hostile: The now global marketplace tends to homogenize cultures and produce a single “community” of, say, Coca-Cola drinkers or Marlboro smokers; at the same time, the far older war system exerts a centripetal force, fractionating the human population into warring subgroups.

* * *

To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this section: What is war that it exerts such cruel demands on us? It is first, in an economic sense, a parasite on human cultures—draining them of the funds and resources, talent and personnel, that could be used to advance the cause of human life and culture. But “parasitism is too mild a term for a relationship predicated on the periodic killing of large numbers of human beings. If war is a “living” thing, it is a kind of creature that, by its very nature, devours us. To look at war, carefully and long enough, is to see the face of the predator over which we thought we had triumphed long ago.

Fighting War

War, at the end of the twentieth century, is a more formidable adversary than it has ever been. It can no longer be localized within a particular elite and hence overthrown in a brilliant act of revolution. Revolution, in fact, was redefined by Lenin and others as little more than a species of war, fought by disciplined “cadres” organized along the same hierarchical lines as the mass armies of the modern era. Meanwhile, war has dug itself into economic systems, where it offers a livelihood to millions, rather than to just a handful of craftsmen and professional soldiers. It has lodged in our souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for political malaise and a bracing antidote to the moral torpor of consumerist, market-driven cultures.

In addition, our incestuous fixation on combat with our own kind has left us ill prepared to face many of the larger perils of the situation in which we find ourselves: the possibility of drastic climatic changes, the depletion of natural resources, the relentless predations of the microbial world. The wealth that flows ceaselessly to the project of war is wealth lost, for the most part, to the battle against these threats. In the United States, military spending no longer requires a credible enemy to justify it, while funding for sanitation, nutrition, medical care, and environmental reclamation declines even as the need mounts. In the third world and much of the post-communist world, the preparedness for war far surpasses the readiness to combat disease—witness Zaire’s fumbling efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak of 1995, or the swiftly declining life expectancy of the former Soviets.

But in at least one way, we have gotten tougher and better prepared to face the enemy that is war. If the twentieth century brought the steady advance of war and war-related enterprises, it also brought the beginnings of organized human resistance to war. Anti-war movements, arising in massive force in the latter half of the century, are themselves products of the logic of modern war, with its requirements of mass participation and assent. When the practice and passions of war were largely confined to a warrior elite, popular opposition to war usually took the form of opposition to that elite. But in the situation where everyone is expected to participate in one way or another, and where anyone can become a victim whether they participate or not, opposition could at last develop to the institution of war itself.

This represents an enormous human achievement. Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war—a warrior elite or; in our own time, the chieftains of the “military-industrial complex”—risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome. Anti-war activists can become macho and belligerent warriors in their own right, just as revolutionaries all too often evolve into fatigue-clad replacements for the oppressors they overthrow. So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the “enemy” is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace.


This is an adapted excerpt from Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Holt, 1998)


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