, , ,

Worldbuilders and fiction writers often feature wars in their settings, often many wars. This is natural, given the importance of wars and their consequences in humanity’s recorded history. But note that I said “recorded” history. There are still a handful of societies (predominantly foraging societies without formalized leadership) in which war and feud does not take place. That does not mean that such societies are peaceful necessarily; often, homicide rates are quite high. (In one society without war, the Gebusi, homicide was traditionally thought to account for almost a third of adult deaths!) But while individuals might kill individuals, and groups might attack and kill offenders as a form of capital punishment, no one in these societies kills another solely because of his or her membership in a group.

Usually, your invented world will feature social organizations complex enough that the idea of war already exists for your inhabitants. But it’s still worth taking a few minutes to think about what makes war possible, and what it requires.

As used as we are to the idea of war, it can be hard to step back and consider that when you think about it, war is really weird. I’m supposed to kill that man in a uniform over there not because of anything he has done, or might do, but just because he’s wearing a uniform? And he’s going to try to kill me for the same (lack of) reason?

A great review of the anthropology literature on the subject is in Raymond Kelly’s Warless Societies and the Origin of War. Kelly distinguishes war from other forms of violence, such as brawls or assassinations, with the following characteristics:

  • War is collectively carried out.
  • Participants deliberately use deadly force.
  • The “deaths of other persons are envisioned in advance and this envisioning is encoded in the purposeful act of taking up lethal weapons.”
  • War involves advanced planning.
  • The killing in war is seen as justified, morally appropriate, and praiseworthy.
  • Finally, and in contrast to collective executions which target a specific individual, in war the targets are any member of a group, regardless of individual guilt or innocence.

Kelly points out that the default is for people to assign responsibility to individuals—if A murders B, B’s family will try to kill A, but not A’s brothers or sons or cousins. For a society to come up with the idea of feud (punishing an entire family for the crimes of one of its members) requires the concept of what Kelly calls social substitution, that killing A’s brother is somehow “just like” killing A. The same idea applies to war: war can only exist if the targeted people are socially substitutable, and killing one of them is as good as killing another.

There are two basic ways this can come about. Kelly the anthropologist focuses on the more common one, which is the development of durable group identities such that for A to murder B is an offense not only to B, but B’s group—and the offense came not merely from A, but from A’s group. In this view, war (and its smaller-scale cousin, feud) is carried out between groups. But that requires the concept of the group to be present.

He finds that in almost every case where war is not present in a society, the society is unsegmented, meaning that social organization features only the bare minimum of group identities. People who live together will cooperate, but there are no forms of organization that go beyond the immediate local group; and if you leave one group and join another, there is no sense of lingering affiliation with your previous neighbors. Extended families rarely function as a unit beyond the immediate nuclear or polygynous family. Vague senses of regional belonging can develop from periodic shared feasting and the like, but not in the sense of a shared nationality. Even being in the same language group doesn’t necessarily create the conditions of collective action as a group. Finally, and unsurprisingly, strong political leadership does not exist in these societies.

By contrast, once the concept of extended families takes root, once people feel loyalty to a group as such, once strong political leadership welds people into larger units of action, then war and feud are usually on the menu. The group as such has social reality and can suffer injury when its members are harmed. Moreover, your neighbors are viewed through the same lens (often with reason), so that if one member of a neighboring tribe kills your compatriot, the entire tribe is blamed.

(This is not always, or even usually, irrational. Indeed, collective punishment can sometimes be the only way to avoid a situation where outsiders commit violence against you with impunity.)

But war does sometimes exist even in unsegmented societies. How does it start, even in the absence of group identities? That gets us to the second driver of war: the perception that all members of another group pose threats to you as an individual. For example, the unsegmented Slave Indians who once lived near the Great Slave Lake in Canada, were so called because they were frequently attacked by the Cree Indians, who killed the males and took the women and children as slaves. Despite this, astonishingly, there is no record that the Slaves ever engaged in retaliatory raiding against the Cree or developed the concept of warfare as such. But other unsegmented societies facing persistent violence, such as the Andaman islanders, did develop a concept of war in response even in the absence of strong group identities of their own.

Sometimes, such a perception of threat can arise even without previous violence. If two communities live nearby, and suddenly there is a drought so that there isn’t enough food for both, and there’s nowhere else to move to, the communities are suddenly locked into a battle to the death (through no fault of either side). Kelly argues that this was part of what happened in the Andaman case—war developed as a concept when some groups were squeezed into too small a space, and were forced to compete for food.

(Incidentally, the concept of war-as-threat-perception was a big part of my PhD dissertation, for any of you with a few weeks to kill and a craving for boredom…)


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned fourth book in this series, working title War for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)