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20210124 – War: How Conflict Shaped Us




The main idea of this book is to look at the war as natural function of human society: what causes it, how it fought over time, what technological and psychological ways and means are used, how different parts of society from civilians to warriors participate in it and impacted by it, and how it defines or at least strongly influences various parts of culture.


Here author presents her approach to the phenomenon of war:” War is not an aberration, best forgotten as quickly as possible. Nor is it simply an absence of peace which is really the normal state of affairs. If we fail to grasp how deeply intertwined war and human society are—to the point where we cannot say that one predominates over or causes the other—we are missing an important dimension of the human story. We cannot ignore war and its impact on the development of human society if we hope to understand our world and how we reached this point in history.” She then discusses how contemporary societies were impacted by this phenomenon and how this impact defined various features of these societies from bureaucracy to language, art, social benefits, and what not.

Chapter 1: Humanity, Society and War
Author starts this with reference to Ötzi the Iceman – recently found frozen body of man who lived around 3300 BC and was clearly victim of violence. She then provides evidence from anthropological research and witnesses of hunter gatherers societies that support notion of violent conflict being a normal part of life. She then discusses connection between levels of societal organization and ability to make war, which are highly correlated. She also reviews some philosophical works related to role of violence and war in functioning of human societies from Rousseau and Hobbs to contemporary Ian Morris and Steven Pinker. Finally, she discusses what she believes are positive effects of war on society: technological advancement, bureaucratic organization, increase in scale of societies, and even increase in fairness, as in case when slaves are freed to become fighters and women get involved into production and could have careers when men are fighting.

Chapter 2: Reasons for War
In this chapter author looks at reasons for war from their description from Greek myths to contemporary world with such example as European dynastic wars, religious wars, WWI and WWII, and potential future war between USA and China. Another, and usually much more cruel type of war, are civil wars when one part of society uses violence to force another part to accept some different ideological mores than they have or just fight for resource allocation. She concludes chapter this way:” The excuses for war are many and varied, but the underlying reasons have not changed significantly over the centuries. The vocabulary may be different: where nations once talked of honor they now tend to say prestige or credibility. Yet greed, self-defense and emotions and ideas are still the midwives of war. And in its fundamentals, strategy, meaning the broad goals of war, has not changed. On land or sea, opponents seek to undermine each other’s capacity to wage war or destroy it forever.”

Chapter 3: Ways and Means
This chapters starts with discussion of how methods of war and weapons used are impacted by society’s values. Author goes through history from Peloponnesian war to New York gangs to discuss different attitudes and approaches. These approaches are very different between land warrior states like Sparta or Prussia vs sea power trading states like Athens or USA. There are also difference between concentration on decisive battle followed by some settlement and total war until complete annihilation. Author also discusses here technological advances and their impact throughout the history, information processing, control, and decision making, and drilling as precondition of success.

Chapter 4: Modern War
Here author refer to modern war as the type of war with mass mobilization such as started after French Revolution. Ideologically it became based on the Nationalism of Nation-States. Materially it became dependent on industrial capacity and technological/scientific abilities of societies. Author discusses defense vs. offence developments of XX century from trench warfare of WWI to blitzkrieg of WWII. Another big issue was development of ideologies, which made war much more cruel and costly due to mass mobilization of industries and population. All these put huge pressure on societies, which in some conditions led to explosion and revolution that changed characters of such societies. Author also digs into interesting details such as British traditional reference for Navy and contempt for Army. Author then looks at ideas that modern people have it too well and used to comfort too much, so they would not be able fight effectively, which since the beginning of XX century prompted leaders to plan for quick wars with low casualties, which is seldom the case in reality.

Chapter 5: Making the Warrior
In this chapter author discusses reasons that drive people to fighting, sometime even in cases when it is hopeless. She looks at wars of medieval England, American Civil War, Napoleonic Wars and others in search of psychological driving forces that made people to fight rather than desert. Certainly, it includes material rewards, but also satisfaction from prestige and raw power over other people. Not least is strive to avoid boring regular live of lower classes filled with lots of hard monotonous work with no fan. Author also allocates a few pages to discussion of women participation in war both in supportive and combat roles. Finally, author discusses training and drilling as necessary tool to convert thinking and feeling individuals into expendable cogs of military machine and how this process is based on innate qualities of human psyche.

Chapter 6: Fighting
Author’s discussion of the actual process of fighting obviously based on literature about experience of soldiers on land. Typically, the main characteristics of fighting is confusion because people see only what is happening next to them and even for top leaders information flow is slow and unreliable. Similarly, memoirs are unreliable because they are filled with attempt to modify real memory, usually to make it more heroic and beautify it, but sometimes make it scarier. So, author retells bits and pieces of various narratives. Author correctly notes that war is often exhilarating and liberating for some people, providing deep meaning for their lives to such extent that they go there again and again not capable to settle to routine and boring normal live.

Chapter 7: Civilians
The chapter on civilians is, as one would expect, about pain and suffering without glamour and glory. Author discusses in some detail fate of women of the losing side, using example of mass rape of German women by Soviet troops in 1945 and rapes of Muslim women by Serbian troops. Somehow, she did not find place for narrative about mass rape of Russian and Ukrainian women by fathers and brothers of these poor German women that lasted for 3 years from 1941 to 1944. Author also discusses meaning of industrial total war when civil population inevitably involved in production of war goods and deprived of consumption of normal goods, including food, sometimes to such extent that they die from starvation on mass scale as it was during siege of Leningrad. Author also points out that inflicting pain and suffering on civilian population of adversary is quite traditional way of conducting war, which is typically not involved only when war of not existential, but rather kind of negotiating tool used to settle some issues of relatively low import.

Chapter 8: Controlling the Uncontrollable
This chapter about rules making for conduct of war is somewhat curious because real existential war has no rules. The rules are applicable only when there is some area when both sides see some issue as equally beneficial for them, but since nothing is fully equal, any rules are bound to be violated. Author discusses as example American Civil War when both sides more or less adhered to some rules, specifically Lieber Code that tried to formalize rules, but this was not really existential conflict since both sides were culturally close, spoke the same language and used the same religion. Maintain or remove a peculiar institution of slavery on South was not really existential, even for vast majority of Southerners. Author also discusses in some detail Hague Conventions and various attempts to enforce rules by threatening punishment, which obviously could be applied only to losing side. The final part of the chapter discusses variety of international organizations fighting for peace or at least humane behavior during the war. Author also mentions another idea: any humanization of war makes it less threatening and therefore easier initiated and because of lasting longer it causes more pain and suffering than would occur if more powerful side won outright.

Chapter 9: War in Our Imaginations and Our Memories
The final chapter is about presentation of war in culture. It starts with Shakespeare, then goes to Goya’s pictures, Tolstoy and Remark novels. This is mainly about horrors and costs of war. There is also glorification of war and heroism, dehumanization of enemies, military music which serves both inspirational purposes to raise spirit of troops and utilitarian purpose of communications on battlefield. Author then discusses technological advances in imaging of war from photography to movies all of which opens huge opportunities for manipulation of people into supporting or opposing war, which become important part of any hostilities, especially based on ideology. At the end of chapter author discusses cultural narratives build after WWI and WWII by different participant countries.


In conclusion author discusses currently developed in Western societies mixed attitude to war. On one hand it is commemoration and interest to war stories and on other hand complete rejection of war as an option in conflict resolution. Author suggests that currently wars are moving away from being caused by conflict between states to being Civil wars caused by conflict within states, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or ideological. Author also points out:” It is possible at the very least to identify trends in war. The future, like the present, will hold two levels of war, the one employing professional forces and high technology, with all the power of advanced economies and organized societies behind them, and the other will be fought with loosely organized forces using low-cost weapons. And what is also sure is that the two sorts of war will overlap.” Overall author believes that wars are not going away and idea of globalization based on generally accepted rules seems to be not workable, at least for now, and that new technology that are coming on line will case huge, but unpredictable changes in military capabilities and consequently their use at war.


I think it is a nice review of the war as tool of competition between human groups from small tribes fighting for control of better hunting grounds to nation states fighting for dominance over global resources of all kinds and control over multibillion populations. I personally believe that massive industrial war between states is not coming back just because nuclear weapons eliminated illusion of invincibility for top leadership of such countries and their families. Survival in bunker someplace deep underground of radioactive desert does not seem palatable option for anybody. However, I think the war is not going away as violent conflict between groups, it just takes different form more of the ideological struggle for minds of adversary’s population which would allow transfer control over resources to aggressor without firefights and bombing. The great example of such new form of war is multidecade aggression of Chinese communist party against USA and Western world overall. It features a very effective bribing of Western elite paid for transfer of financial, industrial, and technological resources to China by providing cheap labor and shelter from environmental regulations that parts of the same Western elite imposed on their own countries. This war so far was as successful as Hitler’s blitzkrieg until fall of 1940 and it seems to be reaching the point when danger of losing its position and becoming some low-level servants in Chinese led global hierarchy is becoming increasingly clear to many in Western elite. At the point of this writing the American elite is still discounting this danger as less important than populist threat of Trump’s movement, but I think it is temporary pause. After temporarily succeeding in suppressing populist movement, elite will have to either reacquire its nationalist mantle and get at the lead of anti-China global war of independence, hopefully with minimal violence, or to be wiped out by internal civil war by resurgent populist movement much more powerful than what they’ve been dealing with so far.

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