Monday, December 17, 2007

The Origins of War

Saying of the week: "We are what we think. All we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." -- The Buddha

I've been considering writing a story that delves into the origins and nature of violence, in particular, of war. To that end, the following is a brief study (what I hope to be the first in a series) of the origins of violence in human culture. An attempt by me to get my head around a subject.

Before the time that civilizations of the ancient world erected walled cities and then established armies to protect them, the human race did not suffer war. Many peoples, from China to Greece, look back to a golden age when war and strife were unknown, and when, as Lao-tse puts it, one village might look at the smoke rising from the chimneys of another nearby village, without envy or rivalry.
As nomads, there surely was violence between roving bands, just as with many species in nature, but scarcity of food, violence, and death were mainly the results of natural adversities, not the direct result of man. Thus, the nightmares of destruction and extermination that has plagued man over the centuries seems a result of man's progression from hunting/gathering to farming/animal husbandry, which created industry (tool making, trade) and resulted in the building of towns, which grew into cities.
It seems logical to assume that once cities began to arise, along with the growth of law and reason, the city's founding fathers created a small force to protect their wealth from neighboring tribes. So were armies created because of man's neurotic anxieties to protect his wealth? Regardless of which came first, the armies or the need for armies, it seems that civilization's first great achievements awakened new fears and neurotic anxieties, which became embedded in the institutional life of every succeeding city, state, and empire.
With man's great leap forward -- which brought walled cities, the beginnings of astronomy, mathematics, the plow, the potter's wheel, the loom, and of course, metal weapons -- there came a new figure of authority, the all-powerful king. The king was the secular ruler, the chief priest, and in some cases, a living god. His will was law. I believe that the need for a king came about because an army needs a leader -- large assemblages of men moving and acting as if they were one, obedient to the royal command. But once the king had control of the army, he assumed total control over the people. The entire kingdom fell subservient to the king's personality, subject to all his/her positive and negative whims.
These new governments achieved a hitherto unattainable security and wealth, which spurred a growth in population, industry, and trade. As farmers and tradesmen grew wealthy, they grew greedy. They not only wanted more land, they particularly craved cheep labor to take the burned of manual labor off their own backs, so they could better enjoy the fruits of their economy. What happened then, I believe, is that the army that was established as purely a protective entity, took on the additional roll of raiding the neighboring kingdoms for additional wealth, and primarily captives which were used as slave labor.
The king increased his wealth by expanding his territory and by selling the captives to the merchants and farmers, the merchants and farmers got new land and cheap labor. Everyone benefited. But in time, the raids brought about the collective reprisals and counter raids that became institutionalized as war. Behind war, then, and even behind the need for stability and safety, is this the greed of people who crave prosperity without applying their own labor, or at least those who would prosper at the expense of other people's freedom.
If my thinking holds true, war, then, was a specific product of greed -- mainly if not solely, the outcome of an organized effort to obtain slave labor and expand the kingdom's territory. In a relatively short time, armed might itself took on a seemingly independent existence, and the extension of power became an end in itself, a manifestation of the health of the state.
The most threatening aspect of civilized man's original error is that, long after slavery has been eradicated, war still presses on us today, and we regard our most self-destructive acts as normal and unavoidable.
(to be continued)

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