The Anthropology of War

In light of the recent U.S. intervention in Libya, Scott Atran has a new post on the anthropology of war at Despite human attempts to conduct war in a calculated manner, he concludes that the decision to go to war is never completely rational. That is, war is more an emotional matter of status and pride, sacred values, and defining “who we are,” than a strategic cost-benefit analysis. To support this, Atran cites his recent National Science Foundation- and Defense Department-funded research with survey participants from Israel, Nigeria, and the U.S. Results suggest that variables such as “moral outrage” are extremely difficult to quantify, but respondents know when culturally-defined rules have been broken. In cases where sacred values are violated, Atran argues, we are motivated to violent action whether or not such action makes rational sense.

Whether or not you agree with Scott Atran’s conclusions, his post is thought-provoking and well worth reading. Chris Hedges covers similar ground in his 2002 book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Enjoy, and please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

– Jay Fancher

10 thoughts on “The Anthropology of War

  1. His calculus doesn’t seem to take into account the current American reality that the costs of war do not reflect genuine shared sacrifice. The variable of moral outrage about Libya would be calculated very differently if “going to war” required implementing a military draft?
    Also, recent world history has seen far worse atrocities in other parts of Africa than what has happened in Libya, but the U.S. did not experience sufficient moral outrage to intervene.
    What this tells me is that the Obama administration has acted far more rationally than emotionally. “Who we are” in this case isn’t a matter of sacred values, but a determination that we could act effectively, in concert with others, without significant unintended consequences, and within the limits of out resources and political will.
    In other words, we were motivated to go to this war because the action makes rational sense under the particular circumstances.

    1. What are these rational reasons? Obama said because they threatened to go house to house attacking the opposition that we must intervene. How is that rational? In the Ivory Coast, Congo, Sudan there have been “house to house attacking” that make Libya look like a picnic.

    2. Definatly thought provoking but what is the benefit of going to war with Libya? This is a serious question I am asking because despite the authors apparent dislike of Von Clausowitz it was he who stated, that “No one should start a war, or rather no one in his right mind should start a war without first being clear what they intend to accomplish and how they intend to do it”. The cynic might say we are their for the oil, which would certainly explain France and England, if I remember correctly Europe gets lots of its oil from Libya. But how can we be certain of an outcome that favors us?

      By going to war with Libya, and possibly removing Gaddafi from power he could be replaced by and even worse guy than he is. Secondly, and this may be the most disturbing point for me, one reason that we did not intervene in Africa is because sub-Saharan Africans don’t really rest high on our list of people we actually consider to be “like us” at least not to the administrations of that time. This willful saving of one group over another seems to reinforce the point the author is making that or choice of wars really does depend on “Sacred values” and sub-Saharan Africans were not a part of that paradigm. I have noticed how some media outlets have portrayed North African and Middle Eastern cultures as more like we are therefor sharing some of our values and some of our same sacred beliefs. This makes them less foriegn to us depsite that fact that there are still huge differences between our cultures. In a word it could be racism that has caused us in the past to turn a blind eye to the Sudan Rwanda and the Congo. and what could be more mad to the rational mind then racism?

  2. This is an interesting analysis, but I feel like it would be more accurate to say we are motivated to action, and having been socialized to violence as the tool of choise, lacking other options in our toolkit, people choose violence.

    I also feel like it’s a bit mundane to speak of people having “sacred values” of which they know when they’re broken. More interesting and exciting to wonder where those come from. What inculcates us with these sacred values, and the sense that they should be defended with our lives? Could pacifism and compassion be the “more sacred” values to some, and could a study like this include those who outright refuse war as an option?

    It almost seems like the outcome of the research referenced might be assumed in its design: since the aim is to study people who irrationally defend values with violence, they find them and present the behavior as an innate human trait which, of course, must be “managed” by leaders. Almost like those who study mating practices in a society that treats sex as a commodity and women as objects, and then writing that it’s innate human nature to do so.

    Might it not be possible that people choose violence because they live in an institutionally violent world that socializes them to violence as a natural and correct way to handle disputes? This principle operates in the realm of generational domsetic violence and sexual abuse. Why do we ignore this possibility at the level of society?

    1. I have discussed in various books and article some of the formal properties of “sacred values” as well as their various political and social expressions, including in seemingly intractable conflicts (Israel/Palestine, US/Iran, Pakistan/India, Pro-Life/Pro-Choice, et.) as well as their manifestations in religions and pacifist movements (Gandhi and MLK). It matters not what the means of concertation and execution are in conceiving of sacred values. And although were are acculturated to those sacred values that are insitutionalized in our respective societies, they are cognitively “contagious” and readily adopted by people because they are compatible with evolved mental architecture (without being innate or functionally pre-adapted).

    2. There is certainly some truth to what you are saying, a society like ours and many societies in the middle east tend to have a “shoot first shoot some more and then when everybody is dead ask a question” mentality but this is not something inborn within us this is entirely cultural.

      Recently a young woman of Turkish and German decent posed in the german playboy, and of course this got her a whole host of death threats from the islamic communities in Turkey and elsewhere. I don’t think anyone can call this rational, but we are not inborn to kill naked women, that would quickly cause or species to collapse. As for those who do not take to violence as a means of expression they tend to be in the minority of such things, not to mention that if you are studying war and how it is waged and why, asking pacifists isn’t going to get you very far.

      But more importantly, when you have to make this kind of an argument you have to narrow your parameters alot and some things are going to be left out. I know as an Anthropology student myself I have had to leave out information I found relevant for the sake of clarity alot of times.

  3. Hi, I’m currently a sophomore at NYU planning to switch concentrations to Anthropology next semester, and have just stumbled across this site. What perfect timing for this to be the first post. I am greatly interested in this analysis because in one of my courses, we are studying Totalitarion regimes, and these motivations towards violent outbreaks very similar to “mobilizing passions” described by Robert O. Paxton in his book The Anatomy of Fascism.

    My recent paper for this class also happens to be on the “Beauty of Violence” in which I tried to take an anthropological take on the justification of violence and war within society. From what I have read on this post, my own conclusions don’t seem so far off.

    So thank you very much for a very interesting entry!


    1. From our “About” section:

      “Anthropology is defined as the study of humankind and their origins, throughout different places and times. Anthropology is an interdisciplinary science, however the discipline focuses in detail on cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeological research.”

      Thanks for asking!

  4. Has anyone heard about Libya wanting to convert African currency to a gold standard. It is not a coincidence that the US started bombing before this plan came to fruition. If Libya achieved changing currency to a gold standard, it would cause oil prices to skyrocket in European markets. I feel that this is what justified the attack. The dictator was demonized by the media to cause a “moral outrage” which would garner support from the western populous. This is a form of battle-proofing to form a callousness toward the atrocities of war. It has been going on for ages and still is. What are the most popular video game amongst fighting age males? Modern Warfare 3… As Allen Feldman writes in Formations of Violence, “Techniques of battle proofing are deployed in military rites of passage that use corporal mortification, divestiture, and pain to test and harden initiates…In Vietnam, novice U.S. soldiers were forced by combat veterans in their units to engage in mutilations and mortifications of Vietnamese corpses…The recruit who had undergone this rite of defilement was seen as beginning the socialization process that would turn him into a reliable partner in war” (p.145, 1991). Conditioning one to accept violence and death creates a culture of brutality. Calling weapons “smart” or “precise” also fosters the notion that war is cozier and only the bad guys suffer. The reality is that these weapons often miss their mark and hit schools and churches, but this news is only reported on the back page at best. Thank you.

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