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…

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