Lesson Objectives:

  • compare similarities and differences between human and non-human primate war
  • recognize the contributions of primatologists in developing theories for human war behavior
  • describe the role of the state and morality in human war
  • assess the role of war in changing social structures
  • formulate a position on the implications of anti-social human behavior in a war environment

War is the epitome of anti-structure. It is a liminal state that occurs when people organize together and disengage from society in order to engage in anti-social activities directed toward transforming existing structures. War entails a wide range of tools and strategies, from violence and bodily harm to psychological intimidation and coercion; and the nature of war is defined by the form and scope of the society that wages it (Keegan, History Of Warfare).

Every society engages in war, and war is also a pervasive aspect within non-human primate societies. In her book, In the Shadow of Man (1974), Jane Goodall provided one of the first documented accounts of organized conflict between chimpanzee groups called troops.  According to her research in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, chimpanzee groups occasionally raid other groups in proximity in order to extend their territory or establish/maintain dominance within the territory. The participants in the attack are usually male. Yet prior to their departure, the entire troop engages in a performance of excitement that includes shaking branches, beating sticks, and screeching. After the troop returns, the raiders are welcomed back into the group by being groomed. Goodall also noted that raiding helped forge social alliances between chimpanzee males who raided together. During the raids, the attackers engaged in forced copulation with female chimpanzees in the invaded group, gang killings of captured males, and cooperative cannibalism. Th video shows a chimpanzee attack, torture and kill event. (It is disturbing and watching it is optional.) If you choose to watch it, consider the likeness of this event with similar behaviors and activities performed by humans. Do you think these behaviors are hardwired in human behavior, or do you consider violence deviant and contrary to the human condition? (We will address violence later in this module.)

Primatologists and evolutionary biologists rely on primate behavior to explain the human capacity for violence and war. Some biological anthropologists, such as David Watts of Yale University, claim that war is an extension of animal behaviors aimed to enhance survival by protecting territory and increasing competitiveness. This perspective is referred to as the Imbalance of Power Hypothesis which posits that animals, including humans, engage in cooperative violence because it helps them acquire resources and territory. This controversial theory suggests that evolutionary processes favor primates that have a tendancy toward war and violence. Read the following article to learn more about the evolutionary antecedents of war: http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/050209_warfrm.htm

War & Morality

One of the key differences between human and non-human war is that humans create a moral justification to legitimize their fight. Non-human primates raid, attack, steal, and rape without concern regarding the moral righteousness of their actions. Humans on the other hand, construct webs of meaning to lend significance to their actions and garner social support (Why Nations Go to War, John G. Stoessinger). For example, former President George W. Bush relied on religious rhetoric such as the ‘Axis of Evil’ when referencing the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Similarly, Jihad provides a moral impetus to engage in acts of war against non-Muslim social groups. Genocide and ethnocide is generally accompanied with a moral rhetoric to justify the atrocities and acquire social acceptance of violence and destructive behavior, such as the use of race science by Adolf Hitler to justify the mass extermination of millions of Jewish people.

Propaganda, or media aimed at persuading public opinion toward a cause or action, is an effective means for promoting the moral justification for war and violence. In contemporary societies, propaganda is a central part of war campaigns carried out by nation-states.

War & the State   

In most cases, state systems are characterized by a monopoly on violence. This means that selected members of the state are entitled to carry out acts of bodily harm and property damage that are otherwise forbidden to remaining members of the society. Despite state sanctioned use of violence, it often remains necessary to garner public support for acts of violence committed on the part of the state.  Government propaganda relies on nationalism in order to sanction war-based violence and mobilize citizens to participate. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the first scholars to refer to Civil Religion in his book entitled, The Social Contract (1762).  According to Rousseau, civil religion unifies constituents and lends sacred authority to the state. This is achieved within the political arena by aligning state interests with Deity, virtue and righteousness. Robert Bellah (1967) built on Rousseau’s framework to address American patriotism as Public Theology which he describes as an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the nation. From Bellah’s perspective, the public theology grants sacred significance to the nation which is symbolically represented though the national flag, anthem, documents, and sacred stories known as histories. This sacred significance enables nationalists to sacrifice their ego (lives) for the interests of the state and sacred authority of the state allows nationalists to engage in behaviors and activities that are otherwise considered morally reprehensible.

Propaganda and public theology are essential components of national war. Watch the video below. What are the similarities and differences between the first moral justification to invade Iraq based on atrocities in Kuwait and the second moral justification to invade Iraq based on weapons of mass destruction?

Structuring Anti-Structure

Anti-structure brought about by war, particularly large-scale war conducted with industrialized weaponry, can result in a significant amount of human suffering.

Chemical Attack on Halabji by S. Hussein 1988

In his book, Memoir of Solferino (1882), Henri Dunant provided a detailed account of the impacts and casualties experienced by citizens during a time of war. His work led to the establishment of an international relief agency, now known as the Red Cross, and a treaty recognizing the relief agency (Geneva 1864). Dunant received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work, and a series of Hague Conventions (1899, 1907) began to implement a wide range of rules and guidelines as protocols for war-time conduct. After World War II, the Nuremburg Trials and Tokyo Tribunals helped develop a sophisticated arrangement of international laws designating war-time crimes. Despite significant attempts to regulate activities and behavior during war and conflict zones, atrocities and anti-social activities persist.

Rape as a weapon of war has recently received considerable attention as a result of investigative research by scholars such as Lisa Jackson who used her own experience as a rape survivor to unveil the rape epidemic taking place in  the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The following news reports about the activities of U.S. soldiers in Iraq shocked Americans and launched a nation-wide debate regarding the psycho-social impacts of war participation.

The Telegraph: ‘Abu-Ghraib Abuse Photos ‘show rape

Although the news reports often state that the military blames the incident on one soldier’s ‘personality disorder’, psychologists are now beginning to question the psychological effects of long-term immersion in the liminal state of anti-structure known as war and the training practices used by the state to prepare soldiers for war.

War & Liminality

War is a liminal state of anti-structure when participants disengage from social structure and engage in activities and behaviors that are otherwise forbidden (such as murder, torture and property destriction) in order to transform the existing structure to a new structure.

After enlisting to participate in anti-structure, the state provides training aimed at physically and psychologically preparing soldiers to enter and perform in anti-structure. Sometimes, physical and psychological training is integrated through the use of songs, or cadences, during extensive and strenuous physical training. Investigators are beginning to take a closer look at military cadences in response to several reports of soldiers singing the cadences while participating in war crimes such as the raping of the 14 year old girl in Iraq. The cadence below was used in military training during the Vietnam War era, and  according to military personnel, it is still used by the U.S. Army today.

 Napalm Sticks to Kids

A-10 A-10 flying high, drop that napalm from the sky.

See those kids by the river. drop some napalm watch them quiver.

Napalm (emphasize napalm) sticks to kids! Napalm sticks to kids!

See those kids by the lake. drop some napalm watch them bake.

Napalm (emphasize napalm) sticks to kids! Napalm sticks to kids!

See those kids in the hut, shove some napalm up their butt!

Napalm (emphasize napalm) sticks to kids! Napalm sticks to kids!

 A more recent cadence reflects the contemporary Gulf War and makes use of the Pejorative term, ‘Haji’ to refer to Arab men.

 ‘Haji’ Cadence

I went to the desert, where all the Haji’s play,
I loaded up my M4, And I began to spray!

I went to the Souq Where all the Haji’s shop,
I pulled out my K-BAR, And I began to chop

 In light of recent research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), critics are calling to question the long-term effects of training policies and practices aimed at preparing participants in war as well as extended immersion in the war environment. Psychologists and cognitive anthropologists are now beginning to suggest that anti-social behavior occurring in the war environment is a product of anti-structure rather than the agency of one individual. This has also called for greater attention to the effects of children who are immersed in was anti-structure throughout the duration of their lives (Leavitt 1994; Davidson 2003; Santa Barbara 2006).


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Discussion: Considering that the state of war is based on liminal anti-structure, can we establish rules and guidelines for activities and behavior during war time? How can we delineate a moral distinction between a war ‘crime’ and state-sanctioned killing and property destruction? Who is to blame for events such as the rape of a 14 year old in Iraq? Taking into consideration the descriptions provided by Nordstrom and Dumant and the impacts incurred by war participants, what do you consider an adequate justification for an act of war?  How important is that justification when you consider the position taken by Abu-Lughod? Be sure to use the terms and concepts presented in this course.