The Anthropology of War

The Anthropology of War– Keith F. Otterbein

                While I was studying at George Washington University’s Elliott School, I had a penchant for buying books on military history. I’ve always had a problem with purchasing books and studying a field with so many great books was the perfect excuse. It seemed like I was acquiring knowledge when I bought a book, never mind the fact that there are only so many hours in the day. Occasionally I would add up all the pages and compare them to the number of minutes in my life. Each year more and more books hit my shelves, always just a bit more than I can actually read. The math was easy. I was going to die with a pile of unread books by my bedside. That would be true even if I wasn’t constantly acquiring more books, which I am.

                Regardless of that dismal calculus, I sometimes try to chip away at the glacier of tomes in my house. So, I picked up a slim volume called The Anthropology of War by Keith Otterbein. The origin and nature of human warfare is a topic that has always fascinated me. There are certain “facts” floating around about violence in the world of hunter gatherers and other societies. One of my favorites is the statistic that the death rates from homicide in these groups is higher than the global rate throughout the twentieth century. That includes the world wars and all the other conflicts that devastated the modern world. It doesn’t take many ambushes that kill twenty people before the proportional death rates skyrocket in a society of only two hundred people. It reminds me of the Stephen King and Peter Straub book The Talisman, where a small conflict in a less populated parallel universe leads to the Second World War in our own.

                If Otterbein makes one good point throughout this book, it is that these facts may just be, as Stephen Colbert would put it, truthy. They feel right, and seem to provide ammunition for a worldview that I hold, so I accept them without a thorough level of criticism. Now I’m not saying that primitive societies don’t have higher homicide rates than modern ones, they almost certainly do. I’m just saying that this is a very difficult thing to quantify.

                I want to make a quick point about using the term primitive here. Yes, it’s incendiary, and yes it carries a lot of baggage. I don’t mean it to put down these societies. There’s nothing wrong with being primitive in my mind. The word just means that these groups live in ways that would have been familiar throughout ninety-nine percent of the human experience. Perhaps there is a better word to encapsulate all these different groups. If there is, I don’t know it, but something links societies like the Yanomamo, Dani, and Ilongot. Someone please enlighten me. Primarily, I use the word to mean a lower level of technology. I believe that smaller societies, tribes, chiefdoms etc. lack the technology to organize at greater levels. So, in that sense only they are primitive. Otterbein talks about monotheism for instance as an idea that allows greater societal control and thus larger societies. I agree with that. Things like monotheism are superior organizational technologies. Societies with them are larger and more powerful than ones without them, not morally or qualitatively superior.

                Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. The main point I wanted to make about this book is that it reminded me of a problem with every general theory of military history that I read while writing my thesis. Sadly, it afflicted my own work as well. I was responding to Victor Davis Hanson’s famous book The Western Way of War. The thesis is basically that we have a particular way of war in the west that is inherited from Ancient Greece. Some of that argument is concise and based on particular facts about Greece and the Mediterranean lifestyle, but much of the book wanders off into vague generalities. This is especially true when Hanson talks about other parts of the world, areas that he is not a specialist in.

                Broad theories of history are dear to my heart. I love reading all kinds of history and pulling facts from all over that reading to create theories. It’s the antiquarian in me. But a lovely historical diversion doesn’t make for powerful analysis. It’s almost a form of brainstorming that asks other people to do the hard work. That is a strength of this sort of generalist thinking.  A weakness, and a terrible temptation, is the ability to cherry pick historical details to make one’s point. Otterbein meanders between a tight, scientific anthropological analysis that attempts to classify societies by war-making culture and a slapdash description of historical incidents. Frankly, he is weakest when he moves beyond the level of simple chiefdoms. This isn’t surprising. You can’t really spend ninety percent of a book talking about line battles and ambush, then jump into a mention of Hiroshima. Those are vastly different situations.

                This book would have benefited either from sticking to the strengths of anthropology, or from blowing up the sections on more technologically advanced societies into a much longer book. Darwin’s Origin of Species* is one of the most successful books to ever put forth a broad, inductively based theory. It is successful because it is exhaustive, literally. If a reader can suffer through all the details of finches and barnacles, it is hard not to be convinced of the overall theory. Darwin’s book was only the starting point for two centuries of evolutionary theory, but its broad thesis is incontrovertible. Otterbein’s field of the anthropology of war needs such a thorough treatment, and this short book isn’t up to the job.

*I always think of Darwin’s book as “Oranges and Peaches” thanks to the movie Party Girl. Anyone else?

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