War is armed combat (fighting with weapons) between warriors or soldiers from two different political communities. This definition puts emphasis on learning to use weapons because learning to use weapons is socialization for armed combat. Warfare by definition is differentiated from other forms of killing—those that occur within political communities; these are, namely, homicide, political assassination (unless it is the leader of another polity), feuding, capital punishment, dueling, and human sacrifice. The study of war should focus upon pairs of political communities or pairs of alliances (of course, a single political community could be at war with an alliance). The warfare that occurs over a period of time between two rival entities (political communities or alliances) constitutes a “warfare system.” An intergroup relations approach is useful in analyzing warfare systems: how relationships between polities influence relationships within polities and how these in turn influence relationships between polities. Each warfare system is unique.
Examination of the best-known warring societies makes it clear that warfare systems are so different that their comparison as wholes is difficult. Famous warring societies in the ethnographic record include the Alaskan Eskimo, Andamanese, Balona, Cherokee, Cheyenne and Sioux, Dani, Figi, Higi, Iban, Ifugao and Kalinga, Iroquois and Huron, Jivaro, Kofyar, Kwakiutl, Maori, Maring, Mohave, Montenegro, Mundurucu, Murngin, Navaho, Nuer and Dinka, Pima and Papago, Tausug, Tibetans, Tiwi, Tonga, Waorani, Western Apache, Yanamamo, Yoroba, and Zulu. Archaeologically known warring societies include the Aztec, Easter Islanders, Greek Hoplites, Inca, Maya (once considered peaceful), Moche, Samurai Japan, Shang Chinese, Sumerians, and Zapotec. For comprehensive bibliographies see Divale (1973) and Ferguson (1988).
Anthropologists who study war have found that war is a near universal; it occurs with great frequency at all levels of sociopolitical complexity. Societies without war are rare. Even societies without war may be part of a warfare system. For example, a hunting-gathering people such as the peaceful Semai of Southeast Asia have been attacked so frequently that they have become a refugee group or enclaved people. The two most common reasons why a few societies are peaceful are that, at the time they were studied, they had been conquered and become a dependent native people or they had long lived in an isolated area or been recently driven to one. Otterbein found four such societies in his cross-cultural study of war: Copper Eskimo, Dorobo, Tikopia, and Toda.
Hunting-gathering bands have been erroneously considered by numerous anthropologists to be peaceful. The belief is held so widely that it can be called a myth. Numerous cross-cultural studies, however, have shown that the percentage of warring bands ranges from 75-92%. This result is based on a review of six cross-cultural studies, two of which focused on bands. Peaceful hunter-gatherers, thus, are only 8-25% in these samples. The myth of the peaceful band grew out of evolutionary or developmental theory that arose in the Foundation Period (c. 1850-c. 1920), flourished during the Classical Period (c. 1920-c. 1960), and persisted to the present.
To dissect warfare systems it is necessary to select several key variables or dimensions. The goals of the combatants or the reasons that the military organizations or polities go to war are appropriately examined first. Comparative studies have identified four goals or causes of war: defense (including revenge), plunder (including spouse capture), prestige (for individuals and polity), and political control (which includes either hegemonic or territorial control). These studies show that defense and revenge are universal, if war is present. Defense and revenge are universally found because those who are attacked must respond in some manner: fight, flee, or surrender. And fight, if able, is the first response. The aggressors are likely to attack for one to three reasons: sustenance, sites, or spouses (the plunder goal)— the three Ss of war. Resources, including (according to may cultures) women, are seized, or land is taken for hunting territories, fields for crops, or habitation sites. The goals form a Guttman scale with plunder being more important than prestige; in other words, where prestige is found plunder is also, but where plunder is found prestige may not be. Thus material reasons for war, although not universal, are nevertheless more commonly found than prestige reasons. Thus, the sequence is defense- revenge, plunder, prestige, and political control. The four goals are related to level of political complexity. Indeed, only centralized political systems go to war for political control.
A second dimension is the composition of the military organization. How much training have the combatants had? Are the weapons used in armed combat hunting weapons or are they specialized weapons that require specialized training, often used in conjunction with other combatants? Otterbein has distinguished between nonprofessional and professional military personnel on the basis of whether they are part-time or full-time. The vast majority of small-scale societies (bands, tribes, and chiefdoms) have military organizations composed only of nonprofessionals, although some tribes and chiefdoms have full-time personnel. The backbone of nonprofessional military organizations is likely to be fraternal interest groups or localized groups of related males. On the other hand, the military organizations of states will most likely be composed of professionals. Officers are usually members of the upper class of the society. The commander-in-chief is usually the monarch. Commoners become full-time through conscription. If going to war is successful, the seized resources are likely to go almost entirely to the officers, the upper class, and the ruler. Fortified capitals and palaces are likely to follow. At this level of political complexity, defeat of a political community usually results in slavery of the commoners and execution of the upper class and royalty.
A third dimension is tactics. Basic tactics include ambushes, line battles, and sieges. Ambushes encompass two types of formations: surrounding enemy (in camp or settlement) or laying trap (along a path or road). “A detailed analysis of numerous cases over the past 30 years suggests that the ambush is probably used by all warring societies” (Otterbein). Ambush is perhaps a universal. Line battles may be arranged battles (the time and place negotiated in advance) or encounter battles. An attempted ambush may turn into an encounter battle if the intended victims detect the attacking military organization and stand their ground. For example, the Pearl Harbor attack was a successful ambush, but the attack on Midway Island was detected and the advancing Japanese navy was attacked and defeated. Sieges occur when the military organization of the inhabitants of a settlement, large or small, fortify and defend the settlement and the attackers devise means to overcome the defenses.
As noted, comparing warfare systems is difficult. There seems, however, to be “a two-component warfare pattern for bands and tribes (ambushes and lines) and a two-component warfare pattern for chiefdoms and states (battles and sieges)” (Otterbein). These two basic patterns appear to have separate origins.
A fourth dimension is gender relations. Political scientist Jonathan Goldstein in a survey of archaeologically and ethnographically known societies found, in spite of great differences in the manner in which war is waged, that gender relations were consistent across cultures. Men were the warriors, women seldom were. He reviews various theories and concludes that although the greater size and strength of men is a factor, the necessity of having role differentiation in a society leads to a classification of men as defender- providers and women as caretakers and food preparers. Men are socialized into the former role, women the latter. In combat men denigrate their opponents by classifying them in the female role.
Of the many theories of war proposed by anthropologists, cultural anthropologists seem to prefer five. They are efficient or proximate cause theories (for a review of theories see Otterbein). The goals of war theory has already been described. Innate aggression theory, although strongly attacked in the 1960s and 1970s, has a resiliency that keeps it alive. Cultural anthropologists of the time thought they had refuted the theory that war was in our genes. Studies in socio-biology since 1975 and observations of chimpanzee bands attacking one another have given renewed emphasis to the idea that perhaps the common ancestor of both early man and the chimps was a Killer Ape. Frustration-aggression theory also has never died. Perhaps the most acceptable version is that a “challenge elicits aggressive response.” A challenge is a frustration. It is typically a challenge to either or both the individual man’s status within a group or to his access to women or to other important resources, such as food and shelter. Sustenance, sites, and spouses, recall, seem to be the three basic reasons for war. Fraternal interest groups, the key component in nonprofessional military organizations, have been shown to be responsible for internal war. This social structural approach arose out of research on feuding. Military preparation itself also seems to be a significant factor in generating warfare.
- Ember, C. (1978). Myths about hunter-gatherers. Ethnology, 17, 439-448.
- Goldstein, J. (2001). War and gender: How gender shapes the war system and vice versa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kelly, R. C. (2000). Peaceful societies and the origin of war. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Otterbein, K. F. (1977). Comparative cultural analysis. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Otterbein, K. F. (Ed). (1994). Feuding and warfare: Selected works of Keith F. Otterbein. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach.
- Otterbein, K. F. (1999a). Clan and tribal conflict. In Lester R. Kurtz (Ed.), Encyclopedia of violence, peace, and conflict. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Otterbein, K. F. (1999b). A history of research on warfare in anthropology. American Anthropologist, 101, 794-805.
- Otterbein, K. F. (2004). How war began. College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press.