The Gods of War

Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War

by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 292 pp., $25.00

The Rosy Future of War

by Philippe Delmas
Free Press, 236 pp., $24.00

Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict

by Chris Hables Gray
Guilford Press, 314 pp., $23.95


War remains one of the ecstatic activities of mankind, like sport or sex. Why this should be so is the question at the heart of Barbara Ehrenreich’s extraordinarily interesting—and contentious—book. People have always thought they had good reasons for going to war and they always will: they want to acquire territory and resources, defeat their enemies, extirpate heresy or evil, secure the release of captive or enslaved peoples, and so on. Ehrenreich wants to argue, however, that war has never been a rational activity; it has not merely been the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz argued. Wars break out for frivolous reasons; they are sometimes pursued when almost everyone knows they are insane; they drag on when mired in stalemate; and they frequently end with both sides defeated. But it is not the failure of most wars to achieve their ends that makes them irrational, but the mystical manner in which they are given legitimacy for those who have to fight them.

The real question about war, Ehrenreich argues, is why we invest a disgraceful and disgusting if sometimes necessary business with religious or quasi-religious meaning. Why do human beings seek the blessing of their gods when they march into battle? Why do they regard dying in battle as a noble way to die? Why do people commonly experience the thrill of collective belonging when the trumpets sound and the troops march off to war?Why do such sacred sentiments endure despite the evidence about the horror of combat, the futility of victory, and the catastrophe of defeat?

Ehrenreich is neither an anthropologist of war nor a military historian, and she brings a fresh and sardonic wit to the lugubrious field of war studies. Her previous work—which includes a commentary on the inner life of the American middle classes during the Reagan years, as well as a book on the American male’s “flight from commitment”—would identify her as a feminist. But she dismisses feminist attempts to trace the emotions aroused by war back to some primal source of male aggressiveness. Feminism has got the causation back to front. It is not that males are made for war, but that war makes males into men, over the millennia transforming masculinity into machismo. War, she goes on, is not even primarily about fighting and face-to-face displays of aggression. It requires a host of non-aggressive psychic capacities: planning and perseverance, ruse and guile. “War…is too complex and collective an activity to be accounted for by a single warlike instinct lurking within the individual psyche.”

Killing is so far from being a natural instinct that many soldiers in the First and Second World Wars either didn’t fire their weapons at all or fired them over their enemies’ heads. This view, angrily denied by some veterans, was first advanced by the US Army historian S.L.A. Marshall in 1947. It has been defended, with weighty empirical evidence, in On Killing, a study of firing rates and of the ratios of kills to ammunition by the American military historian David Grossman. The history of warfare, he argues, is the story of conditioning men to overcome “their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.”*

By improving military training during and after boot camp, the US Army succeeded in making Vietnam-era GI’s more efficient at killing than their fathers had been during World War II, but with grim consequences for the mental health of those so conditioned. The high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam, Grossman argues, can be correlated to the increase in fire rates and kill ratios by soldiers in combat. With the exception of the 2 percent of the soldier population who either derive pleasure from killing or register no emotions at all, soldiers, Grossman concluded, do not want to kill and they suffer mentally, often for years afterward, when they have to.

Ehrenreich adduces other evidence of ordinary soldiers’ unwillingness to fight, including acts of desertion, feigning insanity, and even hacking off various of their own limbs. This does not necessarily suggest that killing is foreign to human nature as such. Men and women can kill with gusto when they feel they have been personally provoked or attacked. But it does suggest—to return to Ehrenreich’s original question—that war has been made into a sacred activity because it is so unnatural, because it requires men and women to do things they are instinctively unwilling to do to each other. The rituals of consecration, the priestly blessings, the training and drilling, the parades and march-pasts, the martial speeches—the elaborate way cultures stage-manage the business of going to war—all are designed, Ehrenreich argues, to invert the normal moral order in which most human beings live their lives. They are intended to provide divine warrant and social approval for rape and pillage, destruction and death. So the ecstasy of war—to return to Ehrenreich’s starting point—is a guilty ecstasy, haunted by a subconscious residue of moral trespass or violation.

If the ecstasy conceals guilt, it is ecstasy nonetheless. Ehrenreich sees in ecstatic killing the reenactment of some experience of empowerment buried deep in the history of the species. Previous commentators have traced the feelings of ecstasy back to the joys of the primeval hunt. Some have claimed that our long history as hunters of animals has encoded our genes with the thrill of the chase. But if our genes are coded to make men into hunters, why then do we feel so bad about killing?

The sacralization of war,” Ehrenreich argues, “is not the project of a self-confident predator…but that of a creature which has learned only ‘recently,’ in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.” Our ambivalent relation to violence, she writes, is rooted in an experience which we have managed almost entirely to repress: being preyed upon by animals ourselves. We began the human journey as prey—all our deepest fears and dreams remain colored to this day by the terror of being at the mercy of violent animals. Over millennia, we rose up the food chain from prey to scavengers and from scavengers to predators ourselves. When we go to war, she argues, the ecstasy we feel is our ancestor’s relief that we are going out to eat and not to be eaten:

Rituals of blood sacrifice both celebrate and terrifyingly reenact the human transition from prey to predator, and so…does war…. The anxiety and ultimate thrill of the prey-to-predator transition color the feelings we bring to all wars, and infuse them, at least for some of the participants, some of the time, with feelings powerful and uplifting enough to be experienced as “religious.”

It is a brilliant insight of Ehrenreich’s to realize that the moral history of our species begins with our being victims rather than aggressors. It is only because we once were prey that we fear violence and feel guilty when we commit it ourselves. For even as we turn predator, we may remember what it was to be prey. The ecstasy of war—the feelings of love, solidarity, and comradeship, together with the lust to kill that are part of war—reenacts our primal relief at ceasing to be prey and becoming predators.

This is a fascinating idea, but it’s not clear how it could either be proved or disproved. Ehrenreich insists she is not describing “a hypothetical event,” or telling a “‘just-so’ story, like the mythical rebellion, in Freud’s Totem and Taboo, of the ‘primal horde’ against its patriarchal leader.” But if the theory is based on real rather than hypothetical events, what evidence can she bring to prove that they actually occurred? Ehrenreich certainly tries to marshal the facts, such as they are. She has studied primatology and has made ingenious use of the archaeological evidence about the earliest human settlements and their struggles to keep predators at bay. She is familiar with the anthropology of early religion and writes of how the rituals of religion and the blood rites of war emerged at the same time. She uses studies of children’s dreams showing that urban children who’ve never seen a carnivore in their environment still dream of being eaten by wild animals. The paw prints of the marauding beast have, she believes, been left “deep in the human psyche.”

In the end, however, Blood Rites has to be assessed not by the evidence it presents for its case but as a tour de force in hypothetical anthropology. What is hardest to follow is Ehrenreich’s claim that war should be seen as a blood sacrifice to appease the gods for our transformation from prey into predator. The astonishing willingness of even modern societies to “sacrifice” their sons in battle, Ehrenreich argues, is an archaic replay of our attempts to propitiate the beast gods with burnt offerings. The modern nation-state, according to her reading, is the Moloch who must be appeased with a hecatomb of victims. This argument is difficult to comprehend: nations, she admits, evoke love. Why then is the nation also a beast demanding blood?

It is plausible to see religion as mankind’s prolonged apology for our victory over beasts of prey. It is even possible to explain the prayerful ceremonies that occur before and after battles as a reenactment of human anxiety about taking life. What is less convincing is the claim that war itself is a huge sacrifice of human victims on the altars of our unforgiving gods. How human beings explain and justify war does not necessarily account for why they wage it. We may justify war with sacrifices to the gods or with rituals that seem to recall such sacrifices; we do not necessarily fight wars in order to provide gods with human victims.

There also appears to be a contradiction in Ehrenreich’s account of how we view enemies in battle. In one place, she argues that while the enemies we face in war may be human, the emotions we bring to war return us to our primordial encounter with animals. Hence our compulsions to repeat that passage and to dehumanize the enemy. At another point, however, she takes issue with the claim that our natural distaste for killing requires us to dehumanize those we fight. War, she insists, “is not simply a clash of Others, made possible by an ignorant horror of difference. The warrior looks out at the enemy and sees men who are, in crucial respects, recognizably like himself.” Here, we meet the enemy and he is us. Elsewhere in Ehrenreich’s book, we meet the enemy and he is the beast.

She is also unclear how the archaic impulses, inherited from the deep past, are transmitted from our ancient ancestors. Ehrenreich stresses that these archaic replays are not a remembering in a Jungian or mystical sense. Nor are they the result of genetic programming. They are “psychological legacies” that war evokes in us, a “neurobiological possibility” that modern culture may either repress or encourage. Although the neurobiological mechanism itself remains to be identified, the memory of the beast is in us somewhere, she seems to be saying, and modern culture can either trigger or repress the primal emotions in our makeup. Hollywood movies play cat and mouse with those emotions for fun and profit; the army conjures them forth in boot camp. But most of us may not even know that they are there until life presents us with the terrible moments in which we must fight or flee, turn predator or become prey.

Ehrenreich stresses that we are not in thrall to these archaic reflexes. But any analysis that locates the roots of our propensity for warfare not in factors which we can control, like scarcity of resources or border disputes or political failure, but in the deepest and most unregenerate elements of our psyche, is bound to be pessimistic in its implications. Ehrenreich insists that we might be able to turn our warlike emotions against war itself, which, she argues, has acquired a life of its own. But since it is anything but clear what a war against war would amount to, we are stuck with war, she seems to be saying, because neither science nor religion, neither faith nor knowledge, has the power to pacify the archaic terrors deep in our psyche.


If this is the case, war would seem to have a bright future. Such also is the message of the acerbic book written by a French military analyst and economist, Philippe Delmas. Whereas Ehrenreich thinks war will always be with us because it is a neurobiological inheritance, Delmas believes, more prosaically, that it is here to stay because the international political system has broken down. He begins his argument with a succinct and chilling retrospective view of the nuclear arms race. While nuclear deterrence kept the peace, it acquired a mad momentum of its own. In 1946, there were nine nuclear weapons on the planet; by 1986, there were 60,000. By any measure, each additional weapon diminished rather than increased the security of its possessor. As Manuel de Landa has argued in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, arms races can be interpreted as influenced by processes of natural selection. In nature, predators and prey evolve in a mutually interacting system; as natural selection increases the speed of predators, for example, it also increases the speed with which their prey can run away. The same is true of the evolution of weapons. Thanks to the unprecedented capacity of modern states to harness science and technology to military ends, the dynamic of interacting natural selection ran out of control. It bankrupted one social system—the Soviet Union—and so worried the political leaders of the other that they initiated negotiations to scale back the growing war machine. By the year 2003, the United States and Russia will reduce the number of their nuclear warheads by 75 percent of 1984 levels and their destructive capacity by 80 percent.

This success, Delmas warns, has lured us into the illusion that peace is assured. But the weapons are still there. Each side will keep 3,500 nuclear warheads, equivalent to 440 pounds of TNT for every human being now alive. They remain, as Delmas writes, “in a hazy twilight between memory and warning.” We are all engaged, Delmas writes, in euphoric repression: having been terrified of these weapons for fifty years, we now have allowed ourselves to forget that they still exist. Yet they not only exist, the threshold at which they could be used has been lowered. Nuclear proliferation has spread them to states like Pakistan and India, which might persuade themselves that they could indeed survive a nuclear exchange. As for the Russians, they are less reliable as nuclear partners now than they were at the height of the cold war. Russia’s endemic political instability, Delmas argues, is directly related to the erosion of its military capacity. “Preparing for war justified holding together the Soviet empire,” he argues. As its military capacity deteriorates, so does Russia’s ability to hold itself together. As it does so, the risk of accident or blackmail from breakaway republics or insurgent populist dictators continues to increase.

The unraveling of the nuclear order, Delmas goes on to argue, has broken apart the alliance systems that kept the peace between states. There has been a renationalization of foreign policy in all states, with new frictions emerging between former allies. These make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to act together to stop wars in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Zaire. As nations renationalize their foreign policies and narrow down their external interests to those directly related to trade and national security, their strategic indifference consigns large parts of the world—the Great Lakes region of Africa, the areas bordering on Afghanistan—to chaos and state fragmentation.

The cold war standoff did not prevent war in these regions, but the Soviet-American struggle for power in such places did force the superpowers to prop up their client states and maintain their stability. Now, these states have been left to their own devices and, bereft of outside support, they have broken up along ethnic and tribal lines. In these regions, low-intensity conflict has become a way of life. War, like a virus, has worked its way into the very tissue of the Great Lakes regions, parts of West Africa, the southern Caucasus, and the Afghan region. It is the major employer, the chief economic activity. All power comes from the barrel of an AK-47.

What, if anything, can be done about the new epidemic of war in fragmenting states? International intervention might seem to be the answer, but the UN’s record of rebuilding failed states—Cambodia, Angola, El Salvador, Haiti, and Bosnia—is patchy. In the wake of Srebrenica, there is still no credible international strategy for protecting innocent civilians from ethnic gunmen.

Nor is war excluded in the richest parts of the world either. Economic and technological globalization in themselves, Delmas argues, are no substitute for a workable international political order. It is a pacifist illusion to suppose that free trade brings nations together. In 1912, most advanced European opinion still maintained that the integration of the European economies made war between them inconceivable. That war is invariably destructive of mankind’s essential economic interests has done little to prevent war from breaking out. Far from tying the world together in benevolent strands of fiber-optic cable, globalization may also heighten the economic rivalries which make for war. In the next century, a war between China and Japan for control of Asia is conceivable, Delmas argues, if America fails to use its economic and military power to prevent it from happening. Delmas is impatient—and rightly so—with all the loose talk about globalization doing away with the need for nation-states. Nation-states—and the treaty systems among states—have become more important than ever in maintaining the international stability upon which a global trading economy depends. Far from bringing peace with it, globalization erodes the economic sovereignty of states and thus weakens the stability and legitimacy of the state order.

If we want peace to prevail, Delmas argues, we will have to make the stability of states the overriding priority of foreign policy. For him the stability of China matters more, therefore, than human rights. No one will have any human rights if ethnic, regional, or class warfare breaks out in China and the country fragments. Stability also matters more than democracy. “The ceaseless promotion of our own values as universal and unique can only do us harm.” If we encourage human rights and democracy movements in unstable regimes, we may only raise expectations we have no way of fulfilling and we may even exacerbate the fragmentation which leads to civil war.

Delmas’s analysis will be challenged by human rights activists and liberal internationalists: they will observe that states are often the source of instability in the first place. States sow turmoil throughout the regions they control when they use their armed forces to tyrannize ethnic minorities, as in Chechnya and Turkey; when they launch incursions into neighboring states; when they keep their people in backwardness, as in Mobutu’s Zaire. This is why human rights activists in the world’s most unstable places have put such emphasis on developing the capacity of civil society to resist state injustice. Developing indigenous cultures respecting human rights and building up the capacity of local groups to take initiatives and protect themselves are essential ingredients for peace. The recent protracted demonstrations by students and political and civic groups in Belgrade were condemned by the Milosevic regime precisely for threatening the stability of the state. But at least they forced the regime to allow elected candidates to take office.

Delmas’s rather schematic analysis fails to recognize the importance of such “civil society strategies.” But they cannot work if all order has collapsed. Societies and cultures cannot function without states that work, and unjust, inefficient, but workable ones are often better than no states at all. The state is the institution responsible for waging external war; but it is also the only institution capable of controlling internal war. Since civil war has become the predominant face of war in the 1990s, the only way to bring war under control is to create states capable of doing what Max Weber once said they were essentially for: securing and maintaining a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence.


Postmodern war—as Chris Hables Gray calls it in his confused but information-packed book—presents at least two distinct aspects. One is primordial and low-tech: the machetes of the Rwanda killers. The other is sleekly high-tech: the cruise missiles of the Gulf War. In Afghanistan or parts of Africa, war is a labor-intensive trade, the business of half-trained, illiterate adolescents whose militia commanders often get their arms in the international trade in junk weapons. In these regions, war is what it has been for the rest of us for millennia, a way of life.

In the developed regions of the world, by contrast, war is vanishing from our consciousness. The age of mass conscription is over for good, and with it ends the imprinting of military rituals and codes of masculinity throughout our schools, public institutions, and family life. From being an activity which all able-bodied males in Europe and North America once believed might be their fate or destiny, war has become, within the last fifty years, a vestigial memory for most of us. We are handing it over to highly trained, computer-literate technicians and professionals, and they in turn seem to be handing it over to machines. Unmanned attack vehicles, self-targeting missile systems, pilotless aircraft—we seem to be in search of a form of warfare which will cost us nothing but money, and which will break, once and for all, the link between warfare and human sacrifice. The chief objective of postmodern war, as Gray argues, is no longer the killing of human beings, but the blinding and disabling of the computerized command and control systems of the enemy.

If this is so—if wars of the future are fought by and among machines—human culture will be significantly changed. All of the books under review bring home the extent to which war has been the decisive influence in the shaping of human instinct, institutions, and character. War militarized the male and the male militarized the routines of factory, office, and school. As the military begins to recede as the most influential model for human organization, styles of management will emerge that depend less on command, more on cooperation. A different kind of masculinity—one less obsessed with command and obedience—becomes possible when the military model begins to lose its grip over our imaginations.

If the world is increasingly divided into a majority of well-to-do cultures who have abandoned war and an impoverished minority for whom war is a way of life, the chances for solidarity between them seem dim. Already, the developed world looks upon the wars in fragmenting states as incomprehensible throwbacks to forms of insanity that we have left behind. This breakdown of any clear sense of responsibility on the part of the powerful nations is often attributed to racism, moral indifference, or a failure of strategic vision on the part of our leaders. Another possibility, however, is that such societies continue to believe in the gods of war and we no longer do. The most potent expression of such a breakdown of solidarity is the unwillingness of most nations, led by the United States, to support military intervention in ethnic civil wars around the world. This is surely a deeper reluctance than mere recoil from the pain of the Vietnam experience. Could it have something to do with the waning credibility of military sacrifice as a military ideal in Western culture? It may be we are losing our capacity to do good in the world because we are no longer willing to risk the moral danger of doing evil.

  1. *

    On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Little, Brown, 1995), p. 13.