If a theory of war exists at all, it is a confused one encompassing
acts of individual violence and games of rugby. Violence is traditionally
explained in terms of man’s evolution, and of his increasing greed.
Our taste for meat, the story goes, made us stronger and more
sociable than other primates, and we were prepared to hunt to
satisfy this taste. When we became farmers, we substituted hunting
with stealing other people’s herds and grain; thus the origins
The problem then becomes one of how to describe a phenomenon that
is bound up in the dynamics of a particular society: in terms
of gender, for example- ‘war provides an outlet for innate male
aggression’- or race- ‘war embodies the fear of a foreign Other’.
If you are going to claim that war is caused by innate male aggression,
you have to answer the argument that male aggression is culturally
constructed, and partly by war. Women’s traditional exclusion
from war does not prove that women are not ‘natural’ warriors.
Similarly, the argument that sees war as a product of primal racial
hatred loses force when you consider that nations are often imaginary
and provisional entities in the first place, united not necessarily
by race or history, but by the very idea of nationhood, often
itself constructed by reference to war.
Ehrenreich convincingly questions the testosterone-led theory
of war by pointing out that the Man-as-Master-Species assumption
is far from accurate. Apparently, (and this is Ehrenreich at her
best), the noble hunter-gatherers did not organise themselves
in the style of 1950’s suburban Americans, with the male setting
out to hunt every morning to provide for the wife and kids, (as
the 1950’s suburban American anthropologists would have it).
Far from it; the more likely scenario was much less glamorous-
a case of chasing animals into bogs and over cliffs to kill them.
Significantly, the whole group would join in, women with their
children as well as men, and they would all be at risk from larger
predators. The man as protector-provider just did not exist at
this crucial stage of human development.
Eventually, war did provide a forum for the reinforcement of cultural
oppression- reaffirming men’s status over women’s or the feudal
knight’s over the peasant’s. But the appeal of Ehrenreich’s somewhat
speculative argument is that it by-passes explanations of war
that accept these constructs of gender or class as given. She
maintains that the feelings surrounding war are not necessarily
to do with combat itself, but reflect the need, originating in
prehistoric times, to reinforce our tenuous status as predator
rather than prey. Notions of glory, manliness and the warrior
elite come later.
Although the book tends to be patchy in terms of tone, especially
at times when Ehrenreich adopts the voice of the scholars she
is quoting, it presents information in such a way as to keep modern
relevance foremost. Ehrenreich engages with our instinctive understanding
of war as a bonding ritual, but emphasises its long-forgotten
roots as a defensive, rather than aggressive, pattern of behaviour.
A stance that is well timed given our increasing preference for
a more modest mythology of origins.
Reviewed by Cath Walsh