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Blood Rites:
Origins and History of the Passions of War

Barbara Ehrenreich

Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War
Barbara Ehrenreich
London 1997

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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 of war.

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


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