Thursday, February 25, 2010

The return of war

Every so often a book or an article shows up in the peak oil or sustainability community claiming that if only we could be nicer toward each other all our problems would be solved. The last in date is Building Cultures of Peace by Riane Eisler. Riane Eisler is doubtlessly a very nice person, and, as a citizen of a city razed during World War II, I share her detestation of war, inequity and tyranny. It remains that her approach is typical of a mode of thinking which has consistently failed for more than three centuries and will almost certainly catastrophically fail as peak energy moves us into dangerous water and announces the great return of war.

Riane Eisler's article opposes domination based cultures, associated quite stereotypically to “masculine values” to partnership based societies, based on so-called “feminine values”. Typical domination cultures are, of course, the Nazis and the Taleban, which aren't, by the way, cultures but pathological political movements within the German and Pathan cultures respectively. The realty is, naturally, more complex. There have been – there are still – peaceful societies but those were – are – isolated cultures surviving in marginal areas nobody in his right mind would covet – the !kung comes to mind – or subject cultures who have basically surrendered their warring capacity to somebody else – that s also the case of the !kung who have been under the domination of neighboring bantu chiefdoms before being integrated into European colonial empires and their successor states. Autonomous hunter-gatherers, for instance the Sentinelese, are generally quite generous with their arrows. They just lack the means and the numbers to field large armies.

More troublesome, however, is the idea that war is first a moral problem, which can be solved by defeating the bad guys and helping other people to become nicer. This Manichean attitude, associated with an ill inspired pacifism in face of obviously dangerous and perverse governments or political movements, has caused more violence than anything else in history. No amount of wishful thinking will remove the fundamental cause of violence and strife in our species, that is competition for scarce resources, but it can, and do, divert activists' efforts from constructive actions and mess cleaning toward villain hunting and scapegoating. Even a cursory look at the history of the twentieth century will convince anyone that the only likely result is a very sizable body count.

Contrary to what neo-primitivists would like us to believe, war is an almost universal fact of life among humans. In his study, War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Lawrence H. Keeley found that about 90-95% of known societies engage in war. Those that did not are almost universally either isolated nomadic groups (for whom flight is an option), groups of defeated refugees, or small enclaves under the protection of a larger modern state. Beside, the mortality in tribal warfare was horrendous. In the Arnhem Land in northern Australia, 25% of adult males died in violent conflicts in the late nineteenth century and both archeology and oral history show that massacres and outright genocides were common places before the advent of organized armies removed the common man from the fighting.

Historically, war has been a conflict resolution method and a way for some societies to get scarce but much needed resources – not necessarily the most efficient one in every circumstances, mind you, but still an useful one in a world of hard limits. The same way all successful societies have learned to control suppress and divert violent instincts, all reasonably successful and healthy societies have learned to control warfare. This control could range from ritualized warfare waged by a small cadre of elite warriors to the modern “laws of war”. Contrary to the common wisdom, those rules were more often respected than not, even if for very pragmatic reasons. Thus, the very warlike Yanomamo of Brazil have a complex escalation system going from noisy chest pounding to Nomohoni, an all-out massacre brought about by treachery. Other groups conduct regular ritual fights – such as the Andean Tinku or the modern sport competitions – which alleviate communal tensions with little bloodshed.

Of course, at some point, somebody, whether he be called Napoleon or Shaka, will break the rule, generally at his great temporary advantage. This is, however, the exception rather than the rule and will quickly lead to the establishment of new rules.

The advent of industrialization and fossil fuels changed the face of war in two ways.

First, they enabled states to field – and feed – far larger armies without crippling their economy. Previously the size of armies had been limited by two factors : the necessity to keep enough men at home to tend the fields and the necessity to keep the warring men supplied. Various solutions were tried from seasonal warfare to corps of peasant soldiers, but modern mass armies were out of reach as long as the only available energy sources were the sun and the wind.

Second, they enabled polities to assert themselves without resorting to war. As long as the available resources were essentially fixed, the only way to better one's position was to lower one's neighbor's. There were exceptions – you could for instance divert trade in your direction or improve your infrastructure – but they were limited and at some point you were forced to expand or at least raid around.

This changed with industrialization as a seemingly unlimited internal growth became possible. The sharing of the fruits of growth were as unequal as ever but nearly everybody could at least get a bit of them. Besides, war became more and more uneconomical. What made the power and wealth of nations was less and less their natural resources – even if they were still important – but man made infrastructures, industries and skilled workers. All of these are far more easily destroyed by warfare. Besides, the better integration of state and society – what most people call patriotism – and the development of such social technologies as nationalism, guerrilla warfare and underground party made controlling an unwilling population more and more difficult and costly.

This, and the development of atomic weapons made war rarer and rarer in the core nations of the developed war. The last significant battle fought on American soil – a raid by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa - happened in 1916. Mainland France has been untouched by war since 1945 – there have been fightingsof various intensity in overseas territories up to 1998 and a low level insurgency in Corsica since the seventies but for the average French citizen, these are distant event without any effect upon his everyday life.

Wars still raged on the edge of the developed world but except when it made the price of such or such commodity skyrocket, it had less and less relevance for the average western citizen. They were often fought by professional soldiers in far away countries and at a very small cost. Few are aware, for instance, that France fought an undeclared war with Lybia in Chad during the eighties.

For modern westerners, war is something which is done abroad.

This is going to change with the advent of peak energy. Indeed, as internal growth becomes more and more difficult and political control of key resources more and more critical to the continued existence of an industrialized economy, the economics of war will change. With international politics becoming a zero sum game again – and even possibly a negative sum game – the only way to maintain one's standing will be by taking over other people's riches. At some point, trade will stop being a viable source of key materials and a country like France will have the choice between seizing them by force and watching its economy starve to death. We can be quite sure it will at least try to choose the former.

Moreover, resource depletion will blunt the edge of modern high-tech armies. The efficiency of these energy and resource hungry forces has been, in fact, declining for decades. They are very good at defeating conventional third world forces, but not so good at effectively control territories. In 1941, an embattled Britain conquered Iraq with a mere infantry division and held the country for six years without major problems. In 2003, a far richer America needed more than 300.000 soldiers and was far less successful at imposing a political solution.

This chronic inability to effectively control the territory will become steadily worse as the resources needed to make a high tech army becomes scarcer and scarcer. A Somali warband can work without oil or electronic support, an American division cut off from its bases is a sitting duck, a very costly sitting duck. Of course, this gradual irrelevance of high tech military is very unlikely to translate into outright defeat at the hand of “barbarian invaders”. Even resource starved, rich countries will long still be able to mobilize enough reserve to crush any kind of low tech opposition. What will happen will be that as their ability to control territory fades away, local warlords and gangs will grow in the interstices left by the retreat of official forces then replace them. It will be, by the way, a long process and even in countries where it is quite advanced – as in Mexico – state forces will happily destroy any warlord stupid enough to fight them in the open.

For the average westerner, however, this will make little difference. He will have to support – and even, in some cases, participate to – more and more foreign wars or surrender his prosperity. In the same time, he will be faced by a steady degradation of internal order. This process is less advanced in Europe than in America, but the general direction is the same, and those who see in our countries havens of peace and security should remember than in 2005 the French government was obliged to declare a state of emergency due to massive riots in urban ghettos.

What will become of “cultures of peace” in such an environment ? The answer is quite easy. With the possible exception of isolated enclaves, they will be gladly preyed upon by anybody bold or desperate enough to use force to ensure his survival. They will be forced into marginal territories, then will ultimately disappear, replaced by more competitive societies. This does not mean, of course, that predation is a better solution : it ultimately leads to the hollowed out society of today's American Empire. What this means is that democracy and freedom are worth nothing without the means and the will to defend them. The collapse of a civilization is always a troubled time, full of conflicts and invasions. Successful communities will also be those able to defend themselves. In such a violent world, Riane Eisler's irenic dream will have little place.


  1. Nice post. It's good to see a European who "gets it". Are you finally starting to wake from the socialist-progressive slumber you've been in since WWII? Will you finally grow some balls and save your civilizations from the invading immigrant/muslim hordes? I was shocked when I visited Europe several years ago and saw how un-European your capitals have become. It's clear that you have become too domesticated for your own good, and have forgotten that no civilization survives that is unwilling to defend its culture. This collapse may be the only thing that can save you, since it will sweep away the suicidal socialist elites who have led you down this dark path and bring a renewed sense of European pride. At least, that is my hope. If not, it's lights out for Western civilization.

  2. Doctor doomlove, if you look back at what was written during the last days of the Roman Empire you will find find a lot of ranting about "blond beasts wearing dirty hides", and they had weird religions too. While those guys were no pacifists, they did a good job saving what could still be saved.

    Note, by the way that their languages and religion got extinct quite quickly and that by 1000, their descendants were indistinguishable from the general population.

    Beside, the coming collapse will change western civilization beyond recognition and, yes, Islam may (or may not, remember Arianism) be a part of the picture. So may arabic or turkish languages (but who speaks Gothic today).

    It is the way history works

  3. I wish I could add something meaningful, in lieu of that allow me to say; excellent essay. I agree that peace will not be our legacy as it is not how we, as a species, function.

  4. The great difficulty that modern armies have in occupying and holding territory does not come from any great advances in the art of guerrilla warfare and resistance. Armies had little trouble with guerrilla resistance until the doctrine of hearts and minds before then it was a simple matter of eliminating the population that supported such resistance through terror, internment, deportation, or outright extermination.

    Amerindian tribes were highly skilled at hit and run, ambush and all guerilla fighting techniques, but by the 20th century the USA had no problems with Injun insurgencies for a very obvious reason, they had become a very small minority of the population.

    The main tools of guerrilla and resistance fighters are the same as always it is the weakening of the Western will that is the only change.

  5. Bryant, you are welcome

    Stephen, Amerindian tribes - I suppose you mean north American plain Indians - were doomed for the same reason mesolithic hunter-gatherer were doomed : because their economy could support far less people than their enemies'.

    The problem is elsewhere, however. Guerrilla warfare is not a tactic, it is a strategy combining hit and run tactics and the building of an underground rival administration which gradually undermines the ability of the state to rule effectively. There are examples of this in the pre-industrial period (Glendower, for instance, or Robert the Bruce) but they are few and far between. Usually medieval or ancient "guerrilla warfare" degenerated into mere banditry through lack of direction - look for instance at the haiduks in the Balkans.

    As for eliminating the population, that was rarely done - even the Spaniards didn't in America, smallpox did it. Eliminating or assimilating the nobility was far more practical. Besides, what was the point of conquering a territory if you have nobody left to work it ?