Here is something that tells a little why there were wars in ancient times. It is a story that one of our great journalists, 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?"
"Well, you were the enemy."
"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. When nomadic groups came into contact with one another there would be a quickness to war rather than drawn out discussions to understand the other sides point of view and some kind of an agreement 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 strong. Teddy Roosevelt was among them – no matter the some wars in the 19th century, including the U.S. Civil War.
The First World War changed a lot of minds. So did the Second World War and the development of the atomic bomb.
In ancient times, hunter-gatherers commonly called themselves "the people." This suggests that they considered outsiders not quite 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 evil. The intentions of outsiders were suspect. The outsiders might raid, taking what little food they 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 grandiose questions about how things could or should be. They were concerned about how things were. They had gods that performed magic, and evil spirits were about. The gods had not filled the minds of different peoples with the same rules. A society could defend itself from violence only by a counter violence. 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 peoples. 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 hold ground and benefit through taxation the labors of the conquered, or to make slaves of the conquered as the Spartans did the Helots.
More on the origins of war in a review of How War Began, by Keith F. Otterbein; and a summary of Donald Kagan's On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.
How War Began, by Keith F. Otterbain, 2004
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, by Stephen Pinker, 2011
Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, by Peter Garnsey, 1997
Copyright © 2005-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.