Monday, December 28, 2009

War, Peace and Morality

One of the most valuable tools to anthropologists is the study of micro-cultures (my term). I am referring to isolated cultures whose development helps us understand the way human beings behave in groups. Examples of these analogs are the Cherokee Indians, Zulus, Peruvians, etc. These cultures contribute to our understanding of the people of European antiquity when knowledge about them is lost or incomplete.

I ran across a discussion of the Cherokee Indians society which posits an interesting idea about primitive society. The Cherokee were divided into a warrior group separate from the rest of the tribe and its religious leader. It is thought that this was a necessary division because the warriors needed to know how to fight and not make peace. Similarly, the religious leader was responsible for the anti-war point of view – that is the pursuit of peace and negotiation with outside groups. In this case, war and peace created a separation of powers because it was impractical (and possibly dangerous) to put both in the hands of one individual.

A Cherokee-like division of power is not as well differentiated in ancient Greece and Rome, although one would not expect it to be in a complex society. The Athenians elected ten Archons, and of them, one was the overall leader, one was the military leader, and one was the religious leader. But the Archons as a group made decisions on peace and war. In Rome, after the time of the kings, the religious function was separated from the administrative function, and the Pontifex Maximus was given the sole purpose to maintain the religious apparatus of the Republic. He had no say in any decision on war, which was the prerogative of the Senate, although some Pontifices were also Senators.

Protection from attack has been a unifying aspect of human society since the first time people came together in groups. In the primitive world as the Cherokee world, there was no concept of morality of war. If you were attacked, you fought back. In the more advanced political systems (Polis, Republic) that came later, the unified fear of an enemy was not enough, in itself, to bring on war. The government was structured to force rigorous debate before moving ahead.

Does religion have a place in this? Not in Greece and Rome. There were war gods and peace gods and warfare was considered part of life. Religion was a state activity, managed by officials of the state, so individuals played no part in the decisions regarding war and its morality.

Fundamental to Christianity is the concept of morality in life and in war, so in the United States, were religion is separate from government, the morality of war becomes a sharp debate when our justifications are weak. The historical notion of attacks on our culture have been replaced with an abstraction. Attacking Viet Nam was designed to block the designs of China – a step the government felt necessary to assert superiority in the cold war. Now we have a terrorist enemy who has no borders, and we don’t know how to attack him.

This means that a unifying perception of an outside threat to our culture is missing! We’re not threatened as Americans; we’re threatened as individuals – whoever happens to be close by when the explosion occurs, suffers. In other words, a physical threat has been replaced with a psychological threat, something that is less direct and harder to deal with from a moral standpoint.


Robin Cantin said...


Perhaps you'll want to clarify your statement about the morality of war in the ancient world. Self-defense has always contained its own justification, but ancient civilizations debated at lenght the concept of 'just wars' as we'd say nowadays. Armed conflict between Greek poleis raised complex questions. The Roman Republic felt the need to identify a specific casus belli before committing to war (more window-dressing than morality but the fact that they felt they needed to justify their actions remains).
Another point: in primitive cultures (including Cherokee?), armed conflict was highly ritualized and subject to limitations, so that crippling casualties would rarely occur. The Iliad is actually a pretty good read on the malaise in societies finding themselves pushed on the brink of total war. John Keegan explores that theme very systematically in some of his books (not the Iiliad, but the slippery slope toward anhinilation).

Mike Anderson said...


Good comments. I need to change some wording in the post to make the points clearer. Thanks.

monkeyface said...

Goo stuff. Any chance on getting some more native American references? Was there an Aztec polis? (that may sound absurd but I'm serious). Were native American political systems more or less like earlier versions of our own... or were they headed towards something else... just wonderin.


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