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War and Warriors: An Overview


For the purposes of this article, war may be defined as organized and coherent violence conducted between established and internally cohesive rival groups. In contrast to numerous other modes of violence, it is neither individual, spontaneous, random, nor irrational, however muchlike all varieties of violenceit involves destructive action, even on a massive scale. Being a complex phenomenon, war has multiple dimensions that are deeply interrelated, chief among them being economic, ideological, and social factors.

Of these, perhaps the most obvious and important (at least according to the majority of modern analysts) are the economic factors that precipitate war, war being the most extreme form of competition for chronically scarce resources, such as women, territory, movable wealth (including livestock), and/or the labor power of subjugated populations. One must note, however, that scarce and valued resources are not exclusively of a material nature, prestige being a crucially important example of a nonmaterial resource that is highly desired and that figures prominently in warfare. It is possible, in fact, to speak of a prestige economy that exists not only side by side but intimately interwoven with the material economy of any given people, and warfare provides a convenient means of reaping rewards in both. Thus, for instance, success in raiding was requisite for a Crow warrior to advance his position, for this provided him first with goodsabove all, horsesthat not only enriched him but also could be used to place others in his debt through a process of redistribution. Further, raiding furnished the successful warrior with a set of heroic deeds of which he could boast on regular, formalized occasions, thereby further elevating his standing in the group. Success in battle also opened up religious prerogatives for him, insofar as many important and prestigious ritual roles were reserved for those who had accomplished specific, highly regarded feats of war, such as touching coup, winning horses, killing an enemy, or leading a successful raiding expedition.

Indeed, accomplishments in battle provide a common means, in many cultures and periods in history, whereby individuals can seek to elevate not only their own individual prestige above that of their peers but also that of their group above others (conquered rivals, as well as those who remain outside the fray). Thus, for instance, among the Jalé-speaking peoples of highland New Guinea, the performance of stereotyped, formulaic songs is a prominent part of every public celebration. These songs, which preserve the memory of past warfare, are a crucial element in the local prestige economy as well as a stimulus to further conflicts, for they celebrate the glory of the group that sings them, while also heaping derision upon their foes:

The man Wempa will never eat again,
nor will Alavóm ever eat again.
But we live to see the sweet potatoes roast,
The sweet potatoes from Wongele and Tukui (Koch, 1974, p. 85)

One may observe similar processes in the well-wrought poetry of praise for successful warriors and blame for those who are less than successful (e.g., Hector's rebukes of Paris), which figures prominently in the Homeric epic. Moreover, the heroes depicted there are presented as acutely self-conscious with regard to issues of prestige, as is evident, for example, in Sarpedon's speech just prior to the Trojan assault on the Greek camp, an assault that leads to his death. Here is related a description of a warrior, himself the son of Zeus, weighing the relative value of the material and nonmaterial rewards of combat and setting greatest stock on the winning of a prominent and enduring reputation. In the last analysis, the pursuit of such a reputationelsewhere called "undying fame" (kleos aphthitos )becomes nothing less than a quest for immortality, although, ironically, it is a quest that regularly costs the quester his life. Among the most interesting aspects of this passage, however, is the absence of any tension or contradiction between the warrior's pursuit of material gain (booty, also land and privileged banquet portions) and his pursuit of glory. On the contrary, one sees an effective coalescence of the material and the prestige economy, encompassed within an ideology and a poetics that decidedly emphasize the latter:

Glaukos, why is it you and I are honoured before others with pride of place, the choice meats and the filled wine cups
in Lykia, and all men look on us as if we were immortals, and we are appointed a great piece of land by the banks of Xanthos,
good land, orchard and vineyard, and ploughland for the planting of wheat?
Therefore it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians to take our stand, and bear our part of the blazing of battle,
so that a man of the close-armoured Lykians may say of us:
Indeed, these are no ignoble men who are lords of Lykia, these kings of ours, who feed upon the fat sheep appointed
and drink the exquisite sweet wine, since indeed there is strength of
valour in them, since they fight in the forefront of the Lykians.
Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others. (Homer, Iliad, trans. Lattimore)

The assignation of prestige to deeds of valor (the etymological connections between valor, valiance, and value are significant, as are those between virtue and virility ) is but one means whereby ideological factors influence warfare, albeit a tremendously important one. No less important is the way in which other ideological constructs supply the means necessary to persuade individuals to join in combat, providing them with motivation sufficiently great that they are willing to risk their lives, even in situations (as is true for the vast majority of warriors over the course of history) wherein they stand to reap quite little in the way of personal gainmaterial or immaterialfrom even the greatest of military successes.

It is in this fashion that religion has played a most important role in war throughout history, and the examples of religious justifications that have been used to legitimate even the most tawdry of struggles are legion. Among these must be noted calls to convert the heathen (as in the Christian Crusades and more recent European wars of colonial expansion); promises of a favorable afterlife for warriors who die in battle (as within Islam, Shintō, or among the ancient Aztec, Germans, and others); and ethical dualisms whereby warfare is cast as an unremitting struggle between good and evil (as in ancient Iran or the modern United States).

Among the most contemporary students of war, ideological factors are generally viewed as subordinate or epiphenomenal to material ones, religious and other forms of legitimation being understood as the convenient or even necessary means that serve to mask or mystify the acquisitive competition that is the primary motivation for armed conflict. Others, however, have challenged this view, particularly with regard to warfare in the ancient and preindustrial world, where (in their view) religious motivations played a much more powerful and directly causal role. A favorite example cited by adherents of this position is the case of Aztec warfare, which they claim was pursued above all else to obtain the victims necessary for the performance of human sacrifice, the central ritual act of the Aztec empire. Such a line of analysis, however, has been rendered untenable by the most recent studies of Aztec sacrifice, which reveal it to have been not an act of transcendent religiosity performed for its own sake and at any cost but, as John Ingham has cogently argued, an expression and an instrument of the same drives for wealth, power, and prestige that prompted Aztec warfare and imperial expansion in general. In Ingham's words:

Whatever else it may have been, human sacrifice was a symbolic expression of political domination and economic appropriation and, at the same time, a means to their social production. The sacrificing of slaves and war captives and the offering of their hearts and blood to the sun thus encoded the essential character of social hierarchy and imperial order and provided a suitable instrument for intimidating and punishing insubordination. (Ingham, 1984, p. 379)

In this case, then, and others like it, one must conclude that, far from having been the ultimate cause of war, religion was intimately bound up with other causal factors more familiar to the world of Realpolitik.

Beyond the material and ideological factors, there are also powerful social factors that must be taken into account. Briefly, two social conditions are necessary for the occurrence of war, given the definition proposed above ("organized and coherent violence conducted between established and internally cohesive rival groups"). First, a given group of individuals must understand themselves as a group; that is, they must be bound together in some abiding fashion by sentiments, traditions, kinship ties, institutions, residence patterns, language, and the like. Second, they must understand members of some other group ("the enemy") as radically alien to them, outsiders to whom they are not connected and with reference to whom they need not refrain from violence. As the Jalé put it in a striking proverb: "People whose face is known should not be eaten." Moreover, prior to the outbreak of hostilities or at the very least shortly thereafter, this same set of conditionsinternal solidarity coupled with external alienation and hostilitywill prevail on the other side as well.

In short, warriors must be persuaded not only to risk their own lives but also to take the lives of others, and not merely random others but those whose otherness is most radically marked. Involving organized and relatively large-scale lethal violence as it does, warfare always poses serious ethical problems within the already thorny set of issues surrounding homicide. As a starting point, it must be noted that humans kill one another for many reasons and under many sets of circumstances, and all groups possess certain norms regulating how such killings are to be regarded and judged. Sometimes they are defined as murder (i. e., illicit homicide); in other instances they are not, for there are conditions under which the taking of a life is legally, morally, culturally, and/or religiously sanctioned or even (this is particularly relevant to the case of war) celebrated.

A fundamental concern in such adjudications, and one infinitely more complex and malleable than is ordinarily acknowledged, is the question of whether the victim(s) or would-be victim(s) of a given homicide are truly human. In any number of instances (e.g., infants, slaves, prisoners, outlaws, heretics and other social deviants, the aged and infirm, etc.), an individual may conveniently be defined by the killer (and the community that passes judgment upon the killing) as something less than human: a "monster," a "beast," a "vegetable," and so forth. Patterns of verbal abuse, in fact, whereby such persons are referred to as animals, rotting matter ("garbage," "trash"), and the like, regularly accompany and assist the lethal redefinitions whereby it is established that effecting the death of such an individual is a permissable or even a worthy act.

Nor is it only individuals who may be defined as somehow less than human and thus freely killable. On the contrary, social borders are regularly constructed and maintained such that entire groups of others ("aliens" in the fullest sense of the word) are regarded thus by their neighbors and enemies. Such a state of affairs is evidenced, for example, in the frequent occurrence of self-referential ethnonyms by which a given people denote themselves as "humans," implicitly (and in many instances, explicitly) relegating all others to the category of nonhumansnonhumans who may, moreover, be freely killed as the occasion arises.

An instructive case is that of the Yanoama of the Amazon Basin, who not only call themselves "humanity" (the meaning of their name) and all others "lesser subhuman beings" (nabä ) but carry the process still further: Members of one Yanoama village habitually accentuate the minor differences of dialect (or the like) that separate them from residents of other villages, then they deride the others for being less than fully Yanoama, which is to say, somewhat subhuman. Relations between Yanoama villages are always tense, partly as a result of this pattern of marking social borders and partly as a result of pronounced competition over women, for it is the goal of all Yanoama males to retain the women of their village while obtaining those of other villages through marriage or war. The central value of Yanoama life is waiteri ("fierceness"). To survive in this fiercely competitive atmosphere, a village must ally itself with others to resist the aggression of still others. As a means of overcoming the suspicions that normally prevail between villages, allies seek to bind themselves to one another through trade, marital exchanges, and reciprocal feasting, but the process is never a simple one. To form an alliance is to signal weakness, and allies, sensing this weakness, press ever-increasing demands for women as a condition for the alliance's continuation. Alliances thus often end in enmity, in warfare, or in an act that the Yanoama view as the ultimate form of fierceness and violence, being a parody and an inversion of the fragile festivals of intervillage solidarity: that is, a treacherous feast in which the male guests are all slaughtered and their women taken.

Again, with regard to the radical nature of social boundaries in situations of conflict and war, one may note the case of the Anggor in western New Guinea. As Peter Birkett Huber reports, each Anggor village "can be considered a cosmos in itself, an autonomous and essentially harmonious moral system confronted by a uniformly hostile, dangerous, and chaotic outside world. Violence between these villages is consequently not a form of policy or a distinct kind of political situation, but an inescapable feature of man's existential condition" (in Nettleship, Givens, and Nettleship, 1975, p. 620). Most violence perpetrated by residents of one Anggor village on those of another takes the form of sorcery, but revenge expeditions are ultimately organized and battles ensue in which Anggor warriors venture out from their homes to confront chaos itself and, by means of this confrontation, reassert the solidarity of their group and the order of their cosmos by inflicting retaliatory deaths on their enemies outside.

Although these are somewhat extreme cases, they are by no means unique, and all warfare involves sociopolitical suspensions of the ethical, whereby the otherness of the enemy is radically accentuated, a situation that permits and legitimates their victimization. War is, in truth, that situation in which the killing of other people on a grand (or even total) scale is rendered not only licit but requisite, even glorious, by virtue of the fact that they belong to a rival group to whom ethical norms do not extend, the enemy having been effectively defined as subhuman or even nonhuman.

Yet another example of these principles is found in the shields that form a crucial part of a warrior's equipment among the several Dayak peoples of Borneo. In general, shields function not only as an important implement of defense in warfare prior to the introduction of gunpowder but also as a movable social border that separates one's self, one's group, and that territory in which one feels some measure of security from the enemy. In an advance, shields mark the incorporation of conquered territory, booty, and prisoners into one's own group; in retreat, they mark the group's contraction, as land, stragglers, and the fallen are left outside. In the classic warfare of the Zulu, for instance, and in other powerful kingdoms of southern Africa, rival armies assumed formation in lines opposite to one another, each warrior holding a five-foot rawhide shield in front of him with his left arm. Standing behind this row of shields, the opponents exchanged insults with one another, verbal combat (in the forms I have discussed) preceding physical. Thereafter, the regiments closed, and each one tried to break through the enemy's walls of shields. Finally, when an army felt itself defeated, its members dropped their shields in token of surrender, whereupon the battle would cease. What was signified in this action was that the vanquished group renounced the social borders that they had previously maintained, thereby relinquishing their independence and accepting incorporation as a subjugated part of the victors' polity.

Dayak shields are used in similar fashion and bear similar significance but are remarkable for the iconographic content of the designs painted and carved upon them. Most noteworthy is the bifurcation of design, for on the inside of most Dayak shieldsthat is, the side facing toward the beareris the image of two protective ancestral figures; on the outside is a snarling monster. The import of the ancestors is not hard to judge; being the founders of the bearer's social group, they define that group and represent it. Insofar as there are others who descend from these same ancestors, the warrior has comrades who will take up arms together with him to defend their group against outsiders (i. e., those descended from other ancestral lines). The group's sense of identity and solidarity are thus nothing more than the sentiments called forth by the image of these ancestors, and it is such sentimentsmuch more than the wooden shieldsthat provide protection and security in battle and beyond.

The monsters on the outer face of Dayak shields are more difficult to interpret, however, for they are susceptible to multiple readings. On the one hand, these ferocious figures, marked most prominently by bulging eyes and exaggerated fangs, would seem to represent the enemy, particularly when considered in juxtaposition to the ancestral figures. Accordingly, one may posit a series of correlated binary oppositions, the effect of which is to dehumanize the enemy (in fashions similar to those discussed above) and thereby render his killing licit:

Inside: Outside::
Ancestors: Monsters::
Own Group: Enemy::
Protection: Menace::
Solidarity: Hostility::
Deaths Suffered Deaths Inflicted
must be avenged consti tute revenge
Killings illicit:
Killings licit or even requisite

In light of such observations as this, this writer is inclined to propose certain revisions to a classic text of Simone Weil, her justly celebrated meditations on "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force," written in 1940, shortly after the fall of France to Nazi arms and also after her own combat experience during the Spanish Civil War. In this essay, reflecting on death in battle, particularly as described in this epic, Weil came to define force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing, " going on to observe, "excercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us" (Weil, 1983). To be sure, there is a power and a grandeur in so stark a formulation, yet, given what has been outlined above, particularly regarding the nature of social borders in warfare and those patterns of dehumanization whereby an enemy is defined as subhuman, nonhuman, and/or monstrous, one must reject the idea that it is force itself, acting as some sort of quasi-personified agent, that "turns a man into a thing." Rather, the process is quite the reverse, and one can say with more justice and precision, pace Weil, that it is only when human actors come to regard others as "things" that they become capable of employing force, particularly lethal force, against them. Force here only completes that process of "turning into a thing" that begins in the sentiments and social patterns of human subjects.

To return to the Dayak shields, however, there is more that can be said. Thus far, this article has suggested that the image of the monster may be taken to represent the enemy, as seen through the dehumanizing gaze of the warrior. Such an interpretation, moreover, is consistent with a view of the shields as a marker of social borders, for in this instance one may clearly perceive the tenuous nature of such borders, something that becomes particularly obvious within the situation of the battle, for it is then quite literally only the thickness of the shield itself that separates the ancestral (representation of) community from the monstrous (figure of the) outside, safety from danger, self from other. In addition, there is significant material evidence to support such a view, for in the construction of many Dayak shields the monster images are rendered more grotesque still by the use of human hair as ornament: hair taken from the trophy skulls of slain enemies. Such enemies, having been viewed as monsters, were treated as monsters, and their corpses were used to depict the monsters that they were.

This datum, however, suggests another line of interpretation that may be advanced regarding the complex and polyphonous image of the monster. For it is obvious that the outer side of any shield is directed toward the enemy, especially toward one's immediate adversary in hand-to-hand battle. Further, it is equally obvious that the intended (and also, one assumes, quite real) effect of such an image is to intimidate or even terrify opponents, for in its very material substance (the actual hair of fallen victims), this shield announces the force, the valor, and also the cruelty of its bearer. It supplies graphic and tangible witness to the fact that he has taken enemy lives in the past and stands ready and able to do so once more. The shield thus displays the bearer's face as seen through the eyes of his opponent or (to put it differently) the face that he wishes to present to all enemies: for he becomes a monster against those whom he regards as monstrous, even as they do conversely to him.

Here is reached the final paradox of war and the warrior: a corollary to the pattern that has been observed whereby one must dehumanize one's enemies in order to employ force against them. In practice, it appears that a warrior must also dehumanize himself before he can become an instrument of slaughter, effectively eradicating such human tendencies as guilt, fear, and compassion. A well-articulated example of this is found in the samurai ideal of "no-mind," this being that psychomental statecultivated by years of meditation and training in martial artsin which the samurai's body and arms act as if automatically, with no hesitation born of thought, weakness, or doubt. Elsewhere, warriors frequently speak of themselves as animals: "lions" or "leopards" (East Africa); "two-footed wolves" (India and Iran); berserkers, of "those who wear the bear's shirt" (Scandinavia); or "crazy-dogs-wishing-to-die" (Crow), to cite but a few examples. To these data one might add the fact that Yanoama warriors march off to battle imitating the noises of a host of carnivorous beasts, from insects on up. The war song of the Yanoama is also noteworthy as a supreme statement of the warrior's auto-dehumanization, being entitled "I am a meat-hungry buzzard."

See Also

Human Sacrifice; Martial Arts; Violence.


Not surprisingly, some of the best attempts at academic analysis of the nature and ideology of warfare were made at the time of the Vietnam War. Among the valuable collections that appeared during this period, one should note Law and Warfare, edited by Paul Bohannan (Garden City, N. Y., 1967); War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, edited by Morton Fried, Marvin Harris, and Robert Murphy (Garden City, N. Y., 1968); Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce ancienne, edited by Jean-Pierre Vernant (The Hague, 1968); and War: Its Causes and Correlates, edited by Martin A. Nettleship, R. Dale Givens, and Anderson Nettleship (The Hague, 1975). A slightly later work, and in a different vein, is The Warrior Tradition in Modern Africa, edited by Ali A. Mazrui (Leiden, 1977). Special attention should also be given to Pier Giorgio Solinas's "Guerra e matrimonio," in Potere senza stato, edited by Carla Pasquinelli (Rome, 1986), pp. 2147.

Among the most important case studies are those drawn from Melanesia, which, given the relatively late date of "pacification" there by colonial authorities, provided an extremely informative field for gathering data. Here, one ought to note Klaus Koch's War and Peace in Jalémo: The Management of Conflict in Highland New Guinea (Cambridge, Mass., 1974); Andrew P. Vayda's War in Ecological Perspective (New York, 1976); and M. J. Meggitt's Blood Is Their Argument: Warfare among the Mae Enga Tribesmen of the New Guinea Highlands (Palo Alto, Calif., 1977). Other valuable case studies include Peter Birkett Huber's discussion of the Anggor in War: Its Causes and Correlates (cited above), pp. 619661; Napoleon A. Chagnon's essay on the Yanoama in War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression (cited above), pp. 109159; and Fred W. Voget's "Warfare and the Integration of Crow Indian Culture," in Explorations in Cultural Anthropology, edited by Ward H. Goodenough (New York, 1964), pp. 483509.

John Ingham's study of Aztec sacrifice is found in his "Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan," Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984): 379400. A brief discussion of the Dayak shields is W. Münsterberger's "Die Ornamente an DayakTanzschilden und ihre Beziehung zu Religion und Mythologie," Cultureel Indië (Leiden) 1 (1939): 337343. Simone Weil's essay "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force," translated by Mary McCarthy, can be found in Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre Dame, Ind., 1983).

New Sources

Lincoln, Bruce. Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago, 1991.

Partner, Peter. God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam. Princeton, N.J., 1998.

Bruce Lincoln (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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