ETERNAL FRONTIER, ETERNAL WAR
As I write this people are being killed systematically. As you read this people are being killed systematically. Bodies, lives, beings, torn to shreds by bombs, bullets, napalm, and flame: not just killing, but maiming, uprooting and devastating lives. Devastating life.
Right now that killing is going on in Iraq. The people being killed are children, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and lovers. We see numbers. That is if we see anything at all. What people in Iraq see are bodies without limbs, people broken mentally and physically.
There is a movement to end the ‘occupation’ of Iraq. People want an end to wars. They march, hold signs, protest, get beaten and arrested, and occasionally attack the war machine symbolically.
But the end to war will not come. The end of war cannot come.
Wars may end, but not war.
For the most part, protestors can accept this. That is why they fight against wars. They are brutal and nasty. Most people know someone involved. They tie ribbons around trees. Somehow I doubt the trees care much about soldiers. But wars can and will end. Things can go back to normal for those not on the receiving end of the bombs.
Stop the wars and its back to business as usual. Back to everyday warfare.
Civilization is warfare.
This is not a rhetorical statement.
Civilization is the culture of cities. Cities are permanent settlements with a lot of people on a little amount of land. All those people on that little amount of land need ‘resources’. Those have to come from somewhere. The countryside is the other half of cities. They are one in the same and they need each other.
This has always been the case. This will always be the case, if not locally, then globally. Rows of cash crops and mines on one end: rows of houses and people on the other. The people in cities will take what they ‘need’ to survive. They must because a city cannot support itself and the countryside must grow with it. Almost always this taking requires force.
This is what Stanley Diamond was thinking about when he wrote: “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” Where people cannot be coerced into giving on their own, there are armies and police to ensure that things run smoothly. Between states this is called war. But states do the same thing everyday to its citizens. It is still war, but we can’t call it that. The state can’t afford for us to call it that.
At the root of the problem, there are two things that happened to set all of this in motion: gardens and settlements. Both of which are usually tied, but not always. But the garden and the settlement represent two different aspects of war. There are ecological reasons and political reasons for war, respectively.
Gardening is about taming wildness. Pulling weeds, clearing forest land, and selective breeding are all methods of domesticating. This is as true for small scale horticulturalists as it is for industrial agriculturalists.
The damage that can be done depends on the relationships of the people to the land and the scale. Small scale horticulturalists typically see the earth as their home and have things like longer fallow periods and shifting gardens to make sure they don’t destroy it. Industrial agriculturalists see the earth as something dead and use science to ‘fix it’. Naturally if they see the earth as dead matter, they have no real issue with killing it as they do.
Bioregions are picky. The healthiest ecosystem is a wild one, but a balanced ecosystem can take some sway. Horticultural societies can exist without tipping the scales. Occasionally those scales do tip and something must be done to bring things back in balance. That can take days or years. Even if it takes over 6,000 years (as in our case), it is something that must happen. The far end of that balance is what is called carrying capacity. It means simply how much life can be supported by any particular bioregion.
Gardens challenge carrying capacity because people settle around them. Being nomadic has shaped who we are as humans. Our ecological role has been defined by this. As nomadic gatherer/hunters, there are any number of ways to keep us within carrying capacity that are just inherent to that way of being. When people settle down, populations increase. Populations increase, more food needs to be grown. More food needs to be grown, more land must be cleared and used. When that land is being used by other people, there will be violence.
This is the formula for ‘primitive warfare’.
This kind of warfare serves a number of ecological purposes. For the most part it is largely symbolic. It is typically spaced at least ten years apart and has a minimum amount of casualties. In some ways it has been considered a kind of play. It is easy to see why when you see the novelty size arrows shot high into the air or that the bulk of ‘fighting’ is really shouting insults which both sides may laugh at.
But it is still warfare. It is not unheard of for whole bands to be wiped out in raids or battle. This kind of warfare happens between people who know each other intimately. It is an accepted part of life. But it serves the ecological purpose of not tipping the ecological balance.
Warfare happens in time of ecological stress. People do die in raids and battle, but that is not the most effective way of keeping numbers down. In these societies, being a warrior is extremely important. Gender becomes an important distinction and raising strong boys takes priority. Having warrior sons becomes important. The result is female infanticide. The result of having far less women than men is there are fewer children in the end.
This is not what must happen, but this is what has happened over and over again. If you live a way that challenges carrying capacity, there must be some way of keeping the balance. Warfare and the values that come with it have been that solution for horticultural societies in almost every instance.
But this is not what has always happened. If it were, we wouldn’t be in our current dilemma. If it were, civilization would have never existed. We would never have to destroy it.
The problem is that not all societies went through a horticultural stage. The old lists of ‘social evolution’ are something that our linear/historical orientation needs, not something that necessarily happened or must happen. The societies that originate civilization typically skipped the horticultural step or barely went through it. They were settled people who technically lived by gathering and hunting. They cultivated fields and fields of wild grains.
Domestication came later, but they became settled and dependent upon stored grains first.
Politics can be created in two ways. In horticultural societies like the ones mentioned above. When the population does expand and people stick together rather than break apart and create new bands, there tends to be people who have more influence. These people are called Big Men (they are not always men, but most often).
Big Men talk. A lot. They rant about everything in the morning or the evening. They have an opinion and must voice it. For the most part, people don’t even notice. Lying in hammocks or around the fire, they can hear the rants. Sometimes they go listen, but not all the time. This ranting is important though. That is what a Big Man must do. They are typically no different than other people, but they gain notoriety because of their ability to convince and typically they are able to pull together more stuff for massive feasts or general redistribution.
The Big Man rants and the people tolerate it. Occasionally they listen to him. Occasionally he’s talking about raiding or attacking a neighboring village. Sometimes he can convince a number of people to get involved, but their decisions are always voluntary.
The Big Man has no power, no authority, and no ability to coerce. Only his voice. Nothing exists for him to hoard so much that he can control or attempt to control the actions of others. His position is far from permanent and a lack of a Big Man never hurt anybody.
They can wage wars, but only if other people are willing to go along with it.
That usually works for a raid or battle, maybe two. But if people had the choice to go to war constantly, they would chose not to. That has almost always been the case. There are no specialists. There are no armies: bands of people specialized in the art of taking lives.
Sometimes war just happens.
The other way power is created is through surplus. Some horticultural societies expand and some become empires. Power is held by chiefs or kings. The role of a chief can be slightly different than the role of a Big Man, but it can also be slightly different than the role of a king. A chief must be a good talker, but he has more than a voice. He has a surplus.
A chief and occasionally a Big Man will have multiple wives. What this means is that he has a number of gardens and a number of people working them. A single garden can feed the family that works it with relative ease, but there are times when they need more or crops fail. The chief, with a number of gardens, can compensate them. In fact, they must. This is where coercive power comes from: the perception of dependency.
The chief gives and talks. The people listen so long as the chief provides something for them and tells them what they want to hear. The power of a chief is not absolute. The position can be terminated. But the position does carry some power. They are called in to settle disputes between people and in the process become the first true political institution. Politics are created here.
In return for these services, people will listen to them. The most authority they can possess is in times of war. Their voice has more sway in this time than a Big Man for two reasons: they already have an upper hand in the society and they are known for their prowess in battle.
Through all of these, the power of a chief is created and affirmed. They cannot force anyone into battle, but their decision becomes a political one and there can be consequences.
Civilization is really born in war. That is the essence of the state, of kingdoms, of empires.
The influence or power of a Big Man or some chiefs was never absolute, but absolute power is the basis for kings and some more powerful chiefs. How did this happen?
In the societies mentioned above, as long as the chief or Big Man had something to offer or was reasonable, people might listen to them. The only time this was ever truly exercised was during battle or war where some leadership is necessary. But as populations continue to grow and devour the earth and its relations surrounding them. War becomes not an occasional ordeal, but a part of everyday life.
The origins of absolute power could only be created through fear. People don’t compromise their autonomy unless they must or they are convinced that they must. The need for land puts people on the offense. The knowledge that others may be in the same situation puts people on the defense. The role of those in power has always been to play up these two aspects. Society must be under attack. Society must be defended.
Under these premises people will be willing to compromise. Under these premises states, nations, and empires are created. The earth is attacked. People are attacked. Lives are destroyed.
This should start sounding familiar.
Eternal war is as tied to civilization as the need for the eternal frontier. There must be room for growth. There must be resources. There must be people willing to throw their lives away to defend the ‘greater good’.
States grow and roles become more and more specialized. Police can be trained and soldiers can be conscripted. People can dedicate their lives to advancing technology. The art of killing and maiming becomes increasingly efficient.
This is how civilization must be. The only thing that’s changed over the last 10,000 years is the scale and efficiency of tools meant to do nothing but destroy. This is our heritage, reaffirmed daily. We remain distanced and entertained. But this is the true cost of our way of being.
No one really likes war. At least no one involved in the actual fighting. The actual destruction of life.
The very word can turn your insides. As long as we are entertained and distant spectators we’re fine. Pictures are posted of civilian casualties and people will react. They will react just enough to believe that their hands are morally kept clean.
Lately we’ve been hearing the word quagmire used in terms of the Iraqi War. It’s a flashback to the Vietnam War that we’re stuck in a completely undesirable situation, but one that must be dealt with. Whether we support the war or not it is still going on. That is the reality that has been created for us and we are told to deal with it.
It’s a depressing thought. No amount of good intentions or hope will bring back lives cut short, lives torn apart, or mend the very flesh of the earth: our home.
But this is our world. This is where we are.
This is a reality that we should never have to deal with. The power to destroy lives across the planet just by trying to survive is something that was never meant to exist. But it does.
Civilization should never have existed. Lives should have never been wasted serving rather than living. Our home should never be threatened.
Perhaps quagmire is the most appropriate word, not only for the war in Iraq, but for our entire way of life. We should have never been in this situation; we should never have to destroy civilization so that we may one day live free. So that life may exist on this planet after we are gone. But we are in this situation and it is in our hands to do something about it.
Civilization is warfare. Like civilization, warfare has an origin. Like civilization, warfare will have an end. It will die with the system that creates and requires it.
Civilization can be destroyed and if we truly want an end to war, it’s time to pull the plug.