Book Review: “War Before Civilization”

For the first time in my blog’s as-of-now short lifespan, I’m doing a book review. Expect many more book reviews in the future.

As I mentioned in my seminal (“…more like semenal, am I right?”) “Why I stopped being a progressive” article, I am an anthropologist by training. A biological anthropologist, to be more precise. The reason why I specify this (ie: specifying I graduated with a BS rather than a BA) is because, as I mentioned in “Humanity In Its Splendor” (I’m pompously going to assume you have all read this), the field of anthropology has a schism, a schism as deep as the schism between the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox: the schism between cultural anthropologists and biological anthropologists.

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that cultural anthropologists are responsible for, at the very least, giving legitimacy to all the left-wing idiocy that is thrown about in “respectable” circles today (whether or not it’s responsible for creating it is a matter of debate: I personally lay more blame on sociologists and other Ivory Tower theorists: at least cultural anthropologists go into the field and have some pretense of being scientists). And all three of them, when faced with data that defies their theories, will have cognitive dissonance kick in something fierce and double down on their theories. Robert Trivers, one of my professors at Rutgers University, discusses this in his tome The Folly of Fools, and, as he admits in its pages, he himself has fallen prey to this in his past (I would agree with that notion, but perhaps not in the way that he, a man who claims there were 100 million Indians in the continental United States before the white man arrived, thinks)

And that 300+ word introduction is what brings me to the subject of this article: Lawrence Keeley’s (PHD, Oxford University) War Before Civilization, a relatively recent (1994) textbook that scholastically analyzes the subject of tribal/pre-state warfare and compares it to modern warfare, while toying with some of the implications of what this data means for humanity as a whole. Simply put: if you have any lingering beliefs in “noble savagery”, or a primordial “Golden Age”, this book will absolutely shatter them: for his heavily footnoted analysis shows that, proportionally speaking, primitive warfare (whether looking at archaeological evidence, or modern hunter-gatherer tribes) is every bit as brutal and deadly as modern warfare, and in some ways is more efficient than modern warfare (to cite Page 34, pre-modern Tahitian tribes mobilized 50% of their men for combat, and in primitive war, every man is on the front lines. In contrast, even Nazi Germany could only mobilize 30% of its men for combat roles, and the rest of which were in support roles.)

He goes on to cite tactics that are comparable to the most atrocious behaviors of modern states: such as making flint arrowheads specifically designed to break off the shaft and hook into the enemy’s flesh (similar to expanding “dum-dum” bullets that are today banned by the Geneva Convention), and soaking spears and arrowheads in rotting flesh and various poisons specifically to give enemies a long, drawn out death. Indeed, some of the situations he describes can only be compared to extortion (a cited example is of the New Mexican Pueblos, who found it “advantageous” to “trade with” (ie: ‘give stuff to’), Comanche marauders to avoid violence, Page 124).

The most common form of warfare is constant back-and-forth raids (some tribes report 25 raids in one year) that seek to bushwhack any man, woman or child they can find, and on average result in killing 4-5 each time. Bear in mind that killing a few people every month or so is devastating for a small tribe of ~1000 people. Indeed, Keeley describes a pre-Colombian incident in Canada, in which a series of low-level raids between the Dogrib and Yellowknife tribes culminated in a raid that killed 34 Yellowknives, accounting for 25% of their population. “The Yellowknives never recovered, and the descendants of demoralized survivors were absorbed into other groups” (Page 67). To put this into perspective, if the USA lost 25% of its population, it would lose 77.5 million people. Not even the Soviet Union in World War 2 lost that high of a proportion of its population.

In addition to the tactics discussed above, he cites numerous archaeological instances of fire being used as a deadly weapon (Page 19), pre-historic massacres of hundreds of people (page 70), and the extremely high prevalence of trophy taking in prehistoric war (whoops, it turns out the “white man taught Indians how to scalp” story has been a lie all along, Page 100).

Damningly, Chapter 5, “The Skulking Way of War”, is essentially an extended deconstruction (no, a demolition) of civilized notions of elan and tactical/disciplinary superiority leading to victory. Abundant evidence reveals how primitives (who, bear in mind, have usually been informally training in their battle methods since they could walk) are frequently capable of winning battles with civilized, disciplined soldiers when on an even footing (“…only the most careless Indians failed to get out of [General Pope’s] way”, page 75), and how logistical superiority (referred to in the book as long-term strategic planning to differentiate from tactical planning), combined with tactics adopted from the primitives, is ultimately what leads to victory in colonization (with an implication that an ideal fighting force would essentially be a force of millions of trained guerillas with the financial and technological resources of a First World Nation: “In all its successful military campaigns [against the Indian tribes], the US Army utilized primitive methods backed by civilized resources to defeat natives that could equal them in the former”, Page 76).

The military trivia I found to be most fascinating was an anecdote about a New Guinean chief who, upon seeing an airplane for the first time, requested a ride and to be allowed to bring a collection of boulders onto the plane, for the purposes of dropping upon enemy villages that the flight route would pass over (his request was denied). In contrast, it took civilized man 15 years to discover the military applications of airplanes.

To be perfectly fair, while Keeley is very much a realist, he is not a pure Hobbesian: he goes to great pains to show how, in contrast to Hobbes’ idea of “all against all”, even the most bellicose warrior societies expressed a distaste for war: “War is bad, and nobody likes it”, says a Papuan headhunter (Page 144). Similarly, he describes a surprisingly common feature of primitive religion-that a warrior who has killed a man in battle has to, in some fashion, spiritually “cleanse” himself of this heinous deed (through various means such as fasting, sexual abstinence, ritual, etc.). On page 146, he even describes prophetic nightmares of veterans of battle that are recognizable as symptoms of PTSD. The nigh-constant warfare of primitive tribes seems to stem from a combination of competition over resources (with the high-minded justifications typical of civilized warfare such as revenge and safety) and the underlying paranoia that, simply, if they didn’t, the other people would.

The most interesting aspect of discussion in the book was the analysis of “why”: why have modern people chosen to pacify the past, and why do people cling to these outdated Rousseau-ian ideals of being “children of nature”? Despite showing respect towards these warlike tribes, Keeley pulls no punches criticizing the pacification of the past. On Page 23, he almost explicitly refers to white guilt by name (…”this atmosphere of Western self-reproach and Neo-Rousseauian nostalgia is prevalent in anthropology”), citing it as the latest battlefield in the long war between Hobbesians and Rousseauians, and the rest of the book is filled with examples of scientists failing to notice the most blatantly obvious signs of armed conflict and brutal combat. Indeed, the entirety of Chapter 11 deals with this question of “why”.

Keeley’s answer for “why” is that the post World War 2 period had people losing faith in progress and correspondingly regaining an interest in Rousseau’s philosophy. The Atomic Age made it impossible to see warfare as anything beyond suicidal lunacy. Beyond that, anti-imperialist feeling and the disappearing primitive led quickly to romanticizing of the latter: “It is easy for Rousseau to triumph over Hobbes when ‘man in a state of nature’ is no longer raiding your homestead” (page 168). Also helping matters was the loss of specifically European imperial power, leading European intellectuals to see THEMSELVES as oppressed indigenes under the thumb of NATO or the Soviet Union, (Page 166). Finally, Western man’s desire for “atonement” for his perceived sins leads him to wish tribal peoples to be more righteous and spiritual (from the First World perspective, of course), and accepting the myth of a Lost Eden encourages man to “put off” fixing problems in modern society. As Samuel Johnson said, “he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”.

While these theories are not necessarily wrong (and in many cases are correct), I feel the groundwork for modern progressivism was already lain by Rousseau (rather than those rediscovering him in the 1950s), and possibly earlier: one can argue that Tacitus and Herodotus were the first to write down this idea, but in my opinion, any sedentary person who works from sunrise to sunset in the hot sun can easily romanticize a life of hunting game and irregular work as long as he doesn’t look too close. Thus, I theorize that the concept of a “noble savage” has existed as long as agriculture has.

Similarly, criticisms of imperialism have existed almost as long as imperialism has itself (word to the dense: I am NOT endorsing imperialism). If anything, it seems that a generation of intellectuals that had already been exposed to nonsense about “Noble Savages” and proto white guilt just had their beliefs affirmed by the carnage of World War 2. And these people have in turn spread their philosophy throughout the greater culture, in turn becoming something of a new civic religion.

And herein lies the irony of Keeley’s claims of a loss of faith in progress: people today fanatically believe in “progress” more than ever, it’s merely a different sort of progress: the kumbaya fantasy of multiculturalism and globalist interdependency, a fantasy that Keeley himself seems to believe in despite his brilliant analysis of the past (it’s worth noting that his fantasy seems to be somewhat more sensible than the modern reality, in that he is at least advocating for a true “melting pot” rather than a situation where resentment of the majority population is encouraged from all ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities).

Also worth noting is that Keeley does not automatically deem a nation state as being more “Dangerous” than the one-world fantasy: “…The antidote is an effective political organization with regulatory powers, whether it is a band, a tribe, a nation, or the Earth”. While he is something of a progressive, he holds the same dubious honor as Karl Marx, of being more sensible than his modern philosophical progeny. This sort of “social safety net” he advocates is quite attainable in a relatively small (population wise), homogenous nation-state (see: Scandinavia before the 1990s, Japan, etc.), but it’s application to the world on the whole is…unlikely, to say the least.

With the “why” of progressive idiocy answered to a reasonable degree, I would frankly be more interested in asking the question of “how”: HOW did this belief become such an ironclad dogma in the modern West? Keeley doesn’t have an answer, and, to be quite honest, neither do I. This would indeed make for a fascinating tome, if Dr. Keeley is reading (of course he isn’t). With multiculturalism’s failure ongoing as we speak, perhaps we will see a scholarly debunking of this Rousseau-ian philosophy in the future.

While War Before Civilization is not perfect, it is pretty close to a perfect analysis of its subject matter (it has the audacity to look at the obvious evidence and “find the trout in the milk”, to quote Thoreau). It implies that an idealization of “noble savages” is a universal trait, but demonstrates why this fantasy is wrong. It is somewhat densely written (it is an academic work first and foremost, with lots of figures, statistics, and inserts), but a thought provoking work of anthropology which has a fair amount of implications for the modern world (particularly in its relation to guerilla warfare, and how an indigenous minority can successfully combat and perhaps defeat the powers that be). Highly recommended.

Click here to purchase War Before Civilization