home | before 1000 BCE

previous | next

Origins of War

Here is something that tells a little why there were wars in ancient times. It's a story that the journalist Tom Ricks told to Fareed Zakaria. Ricks picked it up from the book Bugles and a Tiger, by John Masters, a 1956 memoir of a British officer with a Gurkha regiment in Waziristan in the 1930s. As Ricks tells it, At the end of a war, Afghans confronted Masters and angrily asked him,

"Where are our medals?"

He said,

"Well, you were the enemy."

They said,

"No, no. You gave medals to the Pashtuns on your side. We want our medals, too. You couldn't have had a good war without us."

In other words, they looked upon war as something more than a horror to be avoided if possible. War to them was a pleasurable challenge. It was something to take up when the opportunity presented itself. There was daring-do to be performed and recognition for individuals from members of their own society. Less recognition was given to advocates of understanding an opposing side's position and compromise to avoid war.

As late as the beginning of the 20th century in Europe there were people in high places who believed that war was an exhilarating drama. And there were those who believed that it built character and made a society stronger.

The First World War changed a lot of minds. So did the Second World War and the development of the atomic bomb.

Humanity in a pre-historic Eden

Humanity appeared in world that offered him fruit and other vegetation and water to drink. Rather than any kind of a dreamy paradise it was limited by conflict, often between creatures hunting for food.

In ancient times, hunter-gatherers commonly called themselves "the people." They had no science to draw from in classifying who was human and who was not, or what was human. Outsiders could be evil spirits, or at least intent on doing harm. The intentions of outsiders were suspect. Outsiders might raid, taking what little food "the people" had stored or a woman or child.

The ancient world was not yet well tied together by communications. Different societies did not know one another and had not worked out agreements. And where neighbors knew neighbors, disrespect was likely. "The people" were not inclined to respect the differences of others.

Hunter-gatherers were untroubled by questions about how things could or should be. Ancient societies, especially nomadic societies, tended to be warrior societies, and men wanted to be good at warfare to be respected. Men exercised their skills as warriors by raiding. Beyond raiding, there were battles between groups of people. Ancient people might rush to battle believing that sickness or disease among them was caused by a member or members of another society having cast an evil spell on them. Or two gatherings of people might do battle because they were strangers and feared each other. We have knowledge of a tribe coming upon another tribe in 19th century Eastern Africa, the men of each side in ranks, posturing with their weapons and making threatening gestures, the  women watching from the sidelines, cheering them on.

The nature of war changed with the rise of agriculture – which was accompanied by higher density populations. And there was the transition from societies of small bands of biologically related hunter-gathers to larger tribal societies without central authority, or with weak central authority, but which came together when they wanted to make war. There was a transition from raiding to conquest – a desire to control territory and benefit from making slaves of the conquered or taxing the labors of the conquered.

Jared Diamond and Motives for War

In his book The World Until Yesterday, Diamond describes continuous warfare between people of one alliance or confederation and people of another alliance in New Guinea in the year 1961. Here were a normally intelligent people (recognized as intelligent by Diamond) rising culturally out of the Stone Age. They were warring as ancient Stone Age people might have warred. At first there were only a few casualties. A killing was described as revenge for a previous killing, an ambush followed by a counter ambush and celebrations "by dancing into the night." A week later "a full-fledged battle developed ... involving 400 or 500 warriors on each side ... about 20 men were wounded."

Diamond defines warfare as "recurrent violence between groups belonging to rival political units, and sanctioned by the units." Motives for warfare in "traditional societies" he describes as including the capture of children, cows, food, horses, control over "fishing areas, fruit orchards, gardens, salt pools and stone quarries." He adds to this list the taking of slaves, trading rights and the taking of wives (as in the legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women, traditionally dated to around 750 BCE). Diamond recognizes revenge as taking place after war has already begun rather than a first cause. And Diamond writes that it's too simplistic, too reductionist, to claim human biology – genes – as the cause. There is "a genetic basis to human warfare," he writes, but this doesn't make warfare inevitable. "All human societies practice both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances." note1

Additional Reading

How War Began, by Keith F. Otterbain, 2004

Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, by Peter Garnsey, 1997

The World Until Yesterday, Chapters 3 and 4, by Jared Diamond, 2013

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.