The World Until Yesterday. 4. A longer Chapter, About Many Wars

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

As promised by the title, this chapter is long and is really worth reading in its entirety. Diamond tries to reach three main goals here:

  • Describe war in traditional societies as objectively as possible and to compare it with war in modern times
  • To open a discussion about several issues and to state his clear opinions on them
  • To annihilate intellectually Monsieur Rousseau, King of Illuminati.

The descriptive part is impressive. There is an initial presentation of methodological issues, definition of war, sources of information, problems related with every one of these sources, etc… that creates in the reader, once again, the feeling that we are dealing with somebody who really knows what he is talking about. And this is something that I more and more appreciate in these times of shallowness.

We come to know the kind of tactics used in tribal warfare, more or less similar to modern times with some exceptions like that of the treacherous party. Think of how many billions of dollars would have Obama spared the US taxpayer just inviting Osama Bin Laden to a dinner and giving to him poisoned Orangina!

But outside tactical issues. Traditional war happens to be a very different business from our wars. It is an almost continuous state of violence, which confronts face to face people who know each other. There is no discipline, no orders, death is always at short range, soldiers have to go back to their work because they are not professionals and, the most striking of all, it is a total war. There are no prisoners, no spared enemies, no occupied territories. The objective of war is the killing of every man, woman (sometimes they are taken as spouses), and children of the other group, the destruction of their houses and belongings (when they cannot be raided) and their total annihilation.

It is not the case that all traditional societies are equally violent. Some of the are quite pacific, others they are not, but in average we find a surprising conclusion:

Average values [of war-related death rates] for modern states are about one-tenth of average traditional values. (p. 140)

And all this never ending violence comes, among other reasons, because there is not a powerful enough authority to end war and to force every one to stop violence.

And here begins the discussion part. Diamond presents us with an idea that he has already anticipated in previous chapters: states have developed because of its ability to end violence unlike what happens in tribal societies:

That difference between states and small centralized societies is a major reason why states exist at ll. There has been a long-standing debate among political scientists about how states arise, and why the governed masses tolerate kings and congressmen and their bureaucrats. Full-time political leaders don’t grow their own food, but they live off of food raised by us peasants. How did our leaders convince us or force us to feed them, and why do we let them remain in power? (p. 148)

And also in a quote that would have made 19th century Britannia leaders shed tears of emotion:

When tribal warfare is finally ended by forceful intervention by colonial governments, tribespeople regularly comment on the resulting improved quality of life that they hadn’t been able to create for themselves, because without centralized government they hadn’t been able to interrupt the cycles of revenge killings. (p. 148)

Implicit in all this thinking is the assumption that systems evolve following a citizen well-off criteria of selection. A modern anarchist would say, however, that this is non-sense. Systems evolve by natural selection by means of political units destroying each others using war, invasion, annexation, etc… and the selection criteria is the power to do so indifferently of the well being of the members of each model of political unit.

Diamond’s argument is interesting and worth discussing and probably has truth in it but I think that there is much more in the process of creation and evolution of the state form of organization.

Diamond also, to certain left-wing activists’ horror, comments that the western intervention in tribal societies decreases the level of violence in the long run although it may have diverse short term effects (sometimes increases, sometime decreases violence). He criticizes the scholars and intellectuals that try to hide the fact of tribal violence in order to avoid it to be used as a neocolonialism tool:

I sympathize with scholars outraged by the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. But denying the reality of traditional warfare because of political misuse of its reality is a bad strategy, for the same reason that denying any other reality for any other laudable political goal is a bad strategy. (p. 153).

I cannot agree more with him.

Are we genetically inclined to violence? Yes, but also to cooperation and compassion.

It is equally fruitless to debate whether humans are intrinsically violent or else intrinsically cooperative. All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances. (p. 157)

Humans have expanded to the whole planet as sparse groups of hunter gatherers. This groups have grown, improved their methods of production and then have begun to collide with one another and fight for limited resources. This is the origin of wars then and now. Some groups succeed by eliminating others till the final game with the European invasion of the World from the 15th century on.

And finally lets have a look at the elegance and heartlessness of intellectual contempt in its purest form:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, already mentioned for his speculative theory of state formation not based on any empirical evidence, had an equally speculative and ungrounded theory of warfare: he claimed that humans were naturally compassionate in a state of nature, and that wars began only with the rise of states. (p. 152)

Ahh the Enlightenment… Too much light can harm your sight


9 thoughts on “The World Until Yesterday. 4. A longer Chapter, About Many Wars

  1. After reading this chapter, I understood perfectly why this book got so many bad reviews from the intellectual left. It is a direct punch to the gut to all the posmodern relativism, post-colonial studies and the like.
    There is a common legend among the “progressive” that tries to turn warfare in traditional societies into a sort of harmless, ritualized performance, something like our “tomatina”.
    But Diamond in this chapter and the former builds a strong case against such idea of “ritualized warfare”. Just these two chapters make the book worth reading.
    However I do agree that “too much light can harm your sight” , when talking about Modernity and Enlightenment, I can’t help but make the -pedantic- observation that Rousseau was mostly an outsider within the Enlightenment movement. His praises of the “good savage” were, in a big deal, designed as a critique of reason as guys like Voltaire, Diderot, or D’Alembert envisioned it. Man is by nature good and society -yep, Modern, Enlightened society- turns him into a selfish beast.

  2. I guess that you meant:
    “However I do NOT agree that “too much light …

    Well here you are right. I mistrust more and more the Enlightenment movement and do consider that “too much light harms your sight” but it is true that using the fantasies of Rousseau to attack the Enlightenment is not fair at all.

  3. No, Carlos. I do agree with you about mistrusting the Enlightenment project. The way I see it, humans are a complex mix of light and darkness, and it is not wise to obsess to bring light to every aspect of our lives. Our friend Taleb helped me a lot to revise my intuitions about Modernity.

  4. After reading this chapter, I started to think that it may be better not to be prepared for war at all than to constantly fear death.
    On p. 135, Diamond refers to Mesa Verde as an example of a location of a settlement for defence purposes only: “Finally, other archeological settlement sites are on hilltop, cliff-top, or cliff-face locations that make no sense except for defence against enemy assault. Familiar examples include Anasazi Indian settlements at Mesa Verde and elsewhere in the US Southwest, on cliff ledges and overhangs accesible only by ladders.” I happen to have visited Mesa Verde (very impressive!) and as far as I know the main reason for the location of the settlement beneth the cliffs was the climate.

    • I haven’t visited Mesa Verde and didn’t know anything about it before. The Wikipedia page talks about climate issues but also about “easily defensible settlements”. The problem is that the book (Diamond’s) doesn’t provide notes and bibliography and so we cannot trace the back where we takes his arguments from.

      Does Diamond have any kind of bibliographic notes for the book somewhere in the web? If not, it really undermines the quality of this work.

  5. Pingback: Chapter 6: The Treatment of Old People: Cherish, Abandon, or Kill? | El Pla Subtil

  6. Pingback: Straw Dogs: 5. Non-Progress | El Pla Subtil

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