Chapter 3. A Short Chapter, About a Tiny War

This is probably the chapter in which the average “alternative” reader leaves the book aside, his expectations shattered.

Instead of a rosy picture of the good savage, we are introduced to the inherent, chronic violent territorial actions of traditional societies, something you don’t want to return to for sure.

Just consider the following quote:

One of the two succeeded in fleeing, but the other was overpowered and killed. As Wilihiman men dragged off the dying Asuk-Balek, young boys ran alongside him, piercing his body with tiny spears. The killing triggered wild rejoicing and singing everywhere among the Wilihiman, followed by a celebratory dance.

Anything we can learn from that?

In this chapter, Diamond describes a war between groups in New Guinea that has been profusely documented. The image we get from it about traditional societies is not very gentle: Ambushes and open battles, massacres and exterminations, violence among people that are members of the same tribe and speak the same language, boys trained to fight in childhood, and the belief that the enemy is not really human.

To make things more depressing, this raw violence is combined with plain inefficiency, and we discover that the main reason that wars in traditional societies are not more lethal is just because military are very disorganized, and possess only not so harmful technologies.

Wars do no have clear-cut causes, they are chronic and can be activated by the stealing of a pig. The weather is also key and a a battle can be cancelled if the parts consider there is a meaningful probability of heavy rains.

Papua_Dani (2)

Dani people, ready for war

Against the romantic myth that systematic warfare, genocide and attacks to the civil population is an invention of the XXth Century, Diamond makes it clear that all these aspects were and are also present in traditional societies. In the very enlightening section at the end of this chapter, Diamond compares relative death tolls in contemporary wars like WW II, and the war described so far:

The relative death toll of the Dani War— the number of Dani killed as a proportion of the total population involved— rivaled or eclipsed the casualty rates suffered by the U.S., European countries, Japan, or China in the world wars. For example, the 11 deaths suffered by the two Dani alliances on the Gutelu southern front alone, in the six months between April and September 1961, represented about 0.14% of the alliances’ population. That’s higher than the percentage death toll (0.10%) from the bloodiest battle on the Pacific front during World War II: the three-month struggle for Okinawa, employing bombers and kamikaze planes and artillery and flame-throwers, in which about 264,000 people (23,000 American soldiers, 91,000 Japanese soldiers, and 150,000 Okinawan civilians) died […] The 125 men, women, and children killed within an hour in the Dani massacre of June 4, 1966, represented about 5% of the targeted population (about 2,500), the southern confederations of the Gutelu Alliance. To match that percentage, the Hiroshima atomic bomb would have had to kill 4,000,000 rather than 100,000 Japanese, and the World Trade Center attack would have had to kill 15,000,000 rather than 2,996 Americans.

As we are getting used to, some parts are very verbose, and it is difficult to see the point, like in the detailed description of the two alliances at war, the Gutelu and the Widaia.

This chapter clearly falls in the “Thanks God I don’t live in a traditional society” and I found it both informative and entertaining.


3 thoughts on “Chapter 3. A Short Chapter, About a Tiny War

  1. Nothing much to add. This is a short chapter with an illustration of what probably comes later in next chapter. I imagine that the “war chapter” ended up being to long and had to be somehow split.

    On other hand, I am not so sure that there is any more much of the naive “alternative reader”, as you call them, who still believes in the infinite goodness of savage people. That idea seduces people, of course, (just think of Avatar movie) but I am not so sure that they are going to defend it aloud and explicitly.

    Although it may simply be that I haven’t talk about this subject much lately :).

  2. I’m a bit behind the schedule… “This chapter clearly falls in the “Thanks God I don’t live in a traditional society” – I do agree with that but on the other hand in a traditional society, one was prepared for what might happen, we are not leaving in an illussion of safety

    • This is an interesting question when comparing the use of violence in old and modern societies. However, I really recommend that you read first the forth chapter before we start a discussion on that issue, because there is there a lot of details of the ways war differed between them and now, the resulting mortality rates, etc. There is also a reflection on which of both situations is closer to the human psychology.

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