How War Began

Author: Keith F. Otterbein

Texas A&M University Press, 2004

Keith Otterbein is a professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo. His approach to How War Began is academic. This review will review his work on the question more succinctly.

Otterbein lists various theories about the origins of war: the Killer Ape Theory – humankind acting out his innate killer instincts. This theory, Otterbein points out, has been described as having origins in late nineteenth century Darwinism and has been associated with man the hunter.

A rival to the Killer Ape Theory is the Developmental Theory: humankind was originally peaceful but fell into war as human society passed into new phases of history, and warfare rose in stages, from armed raids for sport to a political expression of early nationalism.

Thirdly are the "diffusion and acculturation theories" – peaceful people learning war from more tightly organized and warlike political powers – a not very useful abstraction.  

The fourth and last theory, the World Systems Theory, which Otterbein suggests takes "the best from the earlier theories."

From here Otterbein continues for 200 more pages, including an eight-page conclusion.

My own description of "How War Began" goes back to hunter-gatherer societies and a condition with humanity that persisted through the ages. There were small wars, or riots, between people within societies such as Colin Turnbull described in his work "Forest People." And there was violence between societies. Violence came as a result of people unable to settle their differences verbally, viewing violence as the proper alternative and believing perhaps that those they disagreed with needed punishment. Different societies hardly recognized strangers as human. They were hardly willing to give sympathy or understanding to the point of view of the other side, and hardly willing to resolve the conflict between them through discussion and perhaps compromise. There were beliefs that the other side had sent demons against them. There was revenge and raiding, with violent warfare becoming a tradition within societies – as happened within hunter-gatherer societies among North American Indians.

Wars continued with the ownership of land, the rise of  towns, and with authoritarian kings. Kings wanted more power and possessions without concern for those from whom they would take these. War had beginnings that were not necessarily linked to a previous war. Resolution came when one king destroyed the power of compititor kings.

Wars came and went and came again not because of some mysterious, innate compulsion to war. Eventually political entities found it in their interest to work out their conflicts discussion and compromise. Into the 19th century this began between Canada and the United States. Looking at the 21st century, this has happened between Germany and France. Federation helped. For example, there have not been wars between Montana and Wyoming because their conflicts are worked out as the federal level.  Accords such as the European Union also helped. Wars have vanished with institutional changes rather than a change in the hearts of people. In ancient times, when people were supposed to be close to God, people were destined to suffer wars not because of irreverence but because of inadequate institutional changes.

The above is my conclusion. In his conclusion, Keith Otterbein draws on his work as a student of anthropology. He writes that some non-literate societies are violent and some are not. He describes the difference between them as that of military organization. He writes of non-professional and professional military organizations. The non-professional military – based on fraternal interest – engaged in warfare that was only infrequent. Then weapons for hunting improved. "Big game hunting increased in importance. Concomitant with this change was an increase in the frequency of warfare." 

Otterbein is opposed to the "Myth of the Peaceful Savage." He writes of having found that hunter-gatherers whose subsistence relied heavily upon hunting, particularly large game hunting, were likely to engage in frequent warfare. He found that a decline in the hunting of large game had accompanied a decline in warfare. "Peaceful peoples," he writes, "settled river valleys, where they either domesticated crops or received crops through diffusion." With an absence of warfare came political complexity. Then and after a while the state and military organization arose, based on elites and later on massed infantry, and with this came greater war.

In his conclusion Otterbein challenges the claim that there was no warfare before the Neolithic (new Stone Age) period. He challenges the theory that early agriculturalists, including the first residents of Jericho, engaged in warfare. And he disputes the claim that military conquests led to the first states.

Copyright © 2005-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.