George Walford: War is Fun!


Shall we ever win free of war? It would take more than a crystal ball to answer that question, but we can at least look at some of the indications.

In the experience of civilised people today, and of their forebears over generations, war occurs in a world dominated by capitalism and the state. A body of respectable opinion (respectable intellectually if not always socially) draws the conclusion that these three institutions form an evil trinity; in order to free ourselves from war we must put an end to the other two. Certainly we cannot rely upon elimination of capitalism alone to bring permanent peace, for war on a large scale, and developed to the full extent of the facilities available, flourished under feudalism and in the early chattel-slave societies. Every ancient empire of which we have knowledge, in Mesopotamia, India, China and Central America as well as in Europe, devoted a substantial part of its resources to warfare. And not only the empires. Probably every known state, capitalist or not, has engaged in military activity, and this leads many of the people who take an interest in such things to identity warfare with the state. Get rid of the stale, as well as capitalism; then we shall live in peace. Study of communities without the state, both past and present, fails to support this expectation; the warm glow of pcace loving benevolence surrounding them in some accounts has its origins more in optimism than observation. We have already reported on the Yanomamo of the Amazonian forest (see Shotguns in Eden, IC 63), that while domestic ferocity may distinguish these people from other tribes, readiness to engage in warfare and fighting does not. As we shall see, these practices have formed a normal part of life for many stateless communities.

Harold Barclay, finding that many societies have existed without the state, also finds there engaging in war and other forms of deadly combat. African tribal horticulturists inhabiting savannah grasslands used cavalry to dominate their neighbours, while those in the forest and tsetse belts relied mainly on the bow. Among the Lugbara come blood feuds and fighting between tribes. The Konkomba engage in war, Inuit and San fight and kill individually, and the Yurok have the blood feud. Among the Tiv lineage segments fight fiercely, and strangers unprotected by treaty arc likely to be killed. Tonga clans feud with each other. Anuak headmen able to assemble armed force impose control upon neighbouring villages, New Guinean clans go to war., and so do the Ifugao of the Philippines, the Taulipang and Jivaro of South America. The Nuer have endemic feuding (and Evens-Pritchard reports them warring against the it neighbouring Dinka). [1]

Another anthropologist, Harry Turney-High, writes with military experience; it was after taking part in the Second World War that he provided our title: ‘A fact which some people have failed to realise is that war is often fun. Frankly, men enjoy soldiering, the dangers of which have been exaggerated.’ The remark goes directly against the currently accepted ethos, yet when one looks at those news photos showing lorry-loads of young men, (and occasionally young women) waving their Kalashnikovs, it is difficult to avoid the impression that they are, indeed having the time of their lives. This was even more so with primitive war, often more an athletic than a military affair. Primitive fighters sought to kill, and risked being killed, but this has always added spice to the fun. especially when the risk looks greater than it is; somehow war arrows hit home less then than those fired in the hunt. (Marksmanship experts find this still happening with bullets today).

Turncy-Highs book, Primitive Warfare, its practice and concerns, [2] consists plainly of reports, collected from standard anthropological works, of fighting among stateless peoples. Valuing societies according to their efficiency (‘He who waits also serves, but he usually serves his enemy who has not waited‘), he introduces the concept of the ‘military horizon,’ arguing that ‘true war’ comes only with the state. This form of combat displays features usually lacking from the uncivilised version, such as the use of disciplined formations under officers, the attempt not merely to defeat the opponent but to destroy his will and ability to fight, and engagement in campaigns rather than isolated battles. The Old Testament account (in Judges) of the Israelite campaign against Gibeah provides Turncy-High with an early example of true warfare; otherwise he writes only of the ‘primitive’ version. (I follow him in using this term, intending it to indicate the relative stage of development reached by the communities in question, not implying any judgement upon the inherent abitilics of their people). One or two African peoples, such as the Dahomeans, and the Zulu in Chaka’s time, were under strict rule although without any organisation that can well he called a state, and these engaged in something hard to distinguish from true war but, broadly, the distinction holds good. This does not mean, however, that fighting among peoples without the state could not be a deadly matter. Primitave War demolishes the illusion than the pre-state, pre-indcstrial world provided relaxed and peaceful living.

Warfare, civilised or primitive, requires the use of weapon, of tools designed for killing human beings. Although some archaeologists have spoken of weapons during the Palaeolithic stage, Turney-High condemns these reports as ‘extremely civilian.‘ Much work has been done on the origin and development of weapons, with typological series being established. The argument reasons from form to function and, during even the Neolithic, evidence for the presence of weapons remains doubtful; in the Palaeolithic it does rot appear at all. [3] The Eskimo, a people living the palacolithic life until recent limes and using highly sophisticated hunting equipment, never produced a purpose-made weapon; ready to fight and kill when the situation calls for it, they use their everyday tools. (The importance Turney-High ascribes to weapons appears from just one sentence: ‘The Romans re-learned the value of the short thrusting sword from the Iberians, which is the chief reason why most of the civilised world is governed by the Roman Law‘).

The argument for the pacific nature of primitive communities has recently tended to focus upon the ‘native Americans’ (meaning not those born in the country but the tribes living there before the whites arrived), contrasting their supposedly harmonious life with the savagery of the conquering Europeans. Thomas Keegan, writing on the history of warfare in general, takes a different view. He reports that by the 18th Century some ethnographers, (he names Latifau and Demeunier) recognising war as an intrinsic feature of the societies they studied, had begun to use the fighting between American Indians to exemplify primitive warfare, and Tumey-High himself did most of his fieldwork among Amerinds, some of them, as Keegan remarks, ‘among the most warlike people known to ethnographers.‘ [4]

As exemplars of fashionable pacifism the women of primitive communities rank above even the Amerinds, but once again those who have studied the subject (rather than projecting their own preferences upon the early people), present a different picture: “The early settlers were often impressed with the ferocity of Indian women, as European colonials have been both in Africa and Asia.” [5] Almost universally, the presence of women provides a stimulus for the young males to show off their fighting ability, but things often go beyond that. American Indian women would occasionally accompany a war party, looking after supplies, while in Guiana and among the Choctaw women sometimes helped their husbands in the field. Among the Iroquois, and perhaps among the Cherokee (where they decided the fate of captives) the women declared war, and among several Plains Indian tribes they led the victory dance, displaying the scalps taken by the warriors. Sometimes the women’s part was to mangle the wounded. The Omaha women mutilated the bodies of the fallen, while some of the Upper Dakota allowed their women to torture prisoners to death. [6] One author is quoted as remarking that the feminine touch supposed to soften the evils of war was too often applied with a hot coal. The accounts of ‘Red Indian tortures’ that gave us shivers in our schooldays had a basis in fact, and so did the reports of combativeness that led us to picture these people mainly as warriors.

As Mohammed began his work in the early 7th Century the Arabs (then having local kings but no centralised state) still engaged in tribal feuds, in banditry and raiding; women among them departed from later ideals of female gentleness. In the ‘battle’ of Uhud (the outcome of a raid on a caravan): “The women mutilated the corpses and made themselves bloody necklaces from the ears and noses. Hind carved open Hamsa’s breast, tore out the liver of the man who had killed her father at Badr, chewed it up and spat it out.” [7]

In Africa the women usually played a more passive role, but they still helped to bring war about. Girls would sometimes shame a cowardly fiance by undressing in front of him, and for the warriors to be successful the women at home had to observe the taboos. Contrary to legend, women very seldom took part in the actual fighting, although it has been reported that the female guard of the King of Dahomey did so. [8] Among some Polynesian peoples the women cheered on the warriors, and a Kiwai warrior would sometimes turn over a wounded enemy for them to finish off.

Another author, Douglas Bamforth, has studied the archaeological evidence for violence on the Great Plains before the whites arrived, and reaches the conclusion “that high-casualty warfare was endemic in at least some parts of the Great Plains for hundreds of years prior to Western contact… ” Tribal warfare, with extreme violence, required neither European weapons nor contact with Europeans; the data suggest that it “resulted from indigenous cultural-ecological processes rather than from external influences. Specifically, it seems likely that periodic, unpredictable and severe food shortages were characteristic of the region, at least after AD 1250, and that such shortages triggered intertribal violence.” [9] (Tumey-High remarks that the Amerinds lived on the verge of starvation in what later proved to be a land of plenty). At Crow Creek one village of some 50 houses (Bamforth dates it to around 1325 A.D.) had fortifications; ditch and palisade. Nobody goes to that much trouble unless they feel themselves under threat, and the inhabitants of this village had good reason for their fears; excavation has revealed some 500 skeletons buried in a trench within the ditch. The condition of the bones (growth arrest or Hams lines) indicates repeated severe malnutrition during life; it also identifies them as belonging to victims of a massacre of virtually the whole village, followed by scalping and mutilation. (Contrary to a persistent legend, Europeans did not introduce scalping to America; it seems to have arisen as a refinement of headhunting, the scalp being easier to handle than the whole head). [10]

Tumey-High lists, among the non-state societies engaging in primitive warfare in North America, the tribes of the Canadian Tundra, the Omaha, Creek Confederacy, Kansa, Iowa, Sioux, Kutenai, Flathead, Ojibway, Algonkians, Iroquois, Modoc, Maida, Assiniboin, Blackfoot. In South America the Jibao and Arikara. In the Pacific various Polynesian and Melanesian peoples, the Maori, the Kiwai of New Guinea. In Africa the Zulu, Thonga, Ibo and Dahomeans. Other students add early Britain and Ireland.

Most American Indian fighters were disorderly, and command no more than advisory; each warrior decided for himself when to retire. Omaha war parties, for example, were not organised into formations and no one awaited an order either to attack or to withdraw; each warrior fought independently. In most of these tribes the young men strove to become warriors; for them, at least, war was indeed fun. This enthusiasm also had its reverse side; a warrior who did not feel like fighting could emulate Achilles sulking in his tent, and nobody had authority to order him out. This freedom to choose whether to fight or not, and to leave the fight if one feels like doing so, links up with the very low body counts of primitive war. Yet the figures can be misleading unless we take full account of the circumstances; the loss of one hunter from an Indian village living constantly on the edge of starvation might be more serious than the loss of a hundred from a civilized community of similar importance.

The Plains Indian chiefs were distinguished by personal prominence and persuasive powers rather than authority. The greater seriousness of fighting among more closely-organised peoples appears in Turney-High’s remark that some of the Polynesian tribes (they had established chiefs with powers of coercion) would have slaughtered the American Indians as efficiently as the whites did, and probably more quickly. (They would also, he says, have crushed Homer’s Greeks.)

Unlike any serious writer on the subject today, Turney-High has nothing to say about the effects upon the American Indians of infectious diseases introduced, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes intentionally, by the Europeans. What he does say, however, makes it seem doubtful whether these did much more than facilitate the invasion; primitive warriors cannot stand against civilised forces. Contrary to the impression often gained from popular fiction, the Plains Indians did little to hinder the advance of the whites, not from any inherent or racial qualities, but because the hunting way of life precludes determined pursuit of a collective aim; unlike the soldier, the warrior fights more for honour than from duty. (Though the Plains Indians ‘stunt’ of striking an enemy with a coup stick instead of killing him has been explained as “a result of access to European goods, particularly horses.” [11])

Although these Indians were often excellent horsemen, they did not possess the qualities of fine light cavalry often ascribed to them. The disaster to the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn was due more to Custer’s incompetence than to Indian skill; he had repeatedly been defeated in the Civil War, and even failed to take part in the victory parade because his horse ran away with him. [12] (One American has remarked that the famous painting of Custer’s Last Stand would be better known as Custer’s Last Mistake.) In America it was less the bison-hunters than the meso-American civilisations with developed states and intensive cultivation that put up serious resistance to the Europeans.

The effect of this difference showed up also in Africa, where hierarchy was more developed than on the American plains. Here kings, chiefs and generals (though these European titles do not exactly fit African practices) exercised more effective command, sometimes backed by iron discipline, and the Europeans had a harder fight. In the early 19th Century Chaka, building on changes that had already begun, organised the Zulu into regiments under savage discipline. With 100,000 men under arms he fought battles of annihilation, [13] killing (according to estimates) easily a million, with results affecting something like a fifth of Africa. (Keegan considers and rejects the suggestion that Chaka had learnt military organisation or tactics from the Europeans). In warfare, more clearly than in most other activities, the idea that large numbers can be forced, against their inclination, to obey a small minority, has only to be formulated to collapse. Who can dragoon the dragoons? Chaka’s type of warmaking was no more forcibly imposed upon most of those who did the fighting than the primitive form had been. It was certainly distinguished by the use of discipline, but this, to be effective, must always be self-discipline: “They were regimented (ukubuthwa) and were glad to be. The kings gave them real meaning.” [14] Against such methods the individualistic fighting of the peoples without established organisation could not survive; eventually Chaka had to go a long way to find an enemy.

In Polynesia and Melanesia too (here, also, firmly-established chiefs were common), all males who had been through the puberty ceremony were expected to take the field. (Caesar reports that among the Gauls the last man to respond to a recruiting summons was elaborately tortured to death).

The Eskimo, gatherer-hunters par excellence, had no chiefs with authority and did not make war, although attacking Indians found them very willing to defend themselves. Internal fighting among them was virtually an athletic contest, with breaks for meals and rest, and similarly with the Californians and Banks Islanders.


Now to try and make something of all this information. Although Turney-High has marked off true war as outside his field, what remains does not form a simple unity; it falls into two parts. Nearly all the peoples whose actions he reports had taken at least the first steps, beyond spontaneous fighting, along the path that leads to true warfare. Their men valued themselves as warriors, they were under an obligation to fight (more or less strong according to the degree of social development) and their combats were prepared for in advance, the warriors training with special tools, weapons, made for the purpose.

A few, however, acted in a different way. War formed no regular part of Eskimo life, and although fighting back when attacked they had no weapons, using only their normal hunting implements. The Kalahari Bushmen (aka the San) behave in much the same way as the Eskimo. Although prepared to use violence when it seemed advantageous to do so (“the Bushmen killed Hottentots to get Hottentot cattle, since this was the easiest way to get the best food” [16] these peoples, unlike most of those Turney-High writes of, were not warriors, they did not seek or value combat: “The glorification of man-killing has always required a higher culture than [theirs].” [17] And the Australian Aborigines do not win a place at all in this account of primitive warfare.

We can bring this distinction to a point by recognising another horizon, preceding Turney-High’s military one. It appears as part of the process whereby warfare first comes to be accepted as an established part of life, coming with, or soon after, the transition from palaeo- to neolithic; weapons (as distinct from tools) do not appear at all in the first of these stages and their presence remains doubtful in the earlier part of the second. Although even less definite, and harder to recognise, than Turney-High’s one, this horizon yet forms a part of the first and most profound of all social changes, the transition from the informal band to organised society with hierarchy, command, religion and dependence upon food-production, the change of which the centralised state with its bureaucracy forms the culmination.

Among the peoples on one side of this transition (Turney-High’s use of ‘primitive’ almost obliges us to term them ‘pre-primitive’) life consists for the most part of the sheer basics, of foodgathering, socialising and enjoyment, with combat playing hardly any larger a part than it does within any animal species. What we know about this way of life suggests that the people following it will have fought under the same circumstances as they engaged in other activities, namely when there was some direct, immediate and personal advantage to be gained.

In crossing the first horizon (indefinite as its limits are) new features of behaviour begin to appear. Satisfaction of personal or family needs ceases to be enough. Command, at first transient and informal, starts to become firmer, bringing the beginnings of hierarchy and making social status an object. Fighting may be fun, but it is fun the warriors are under social pressure to engage in. For those seeking outstanding glory there were, among the Arapaho, Gros Ventres, Mandan, Blackfoot, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Dakota and other peoples, societies whose members (sometimes whose leaders only) pledged themselves never to retreat in battle; others remained free to leave the fight if they chose. In the communities that had moved closer to the centralised state, among the Zulus and the Dahomeans, and the Gauls as reported by Caesar, this changed; expectations, and admiration for the successful warrior, hardened into coercion of the minority who did not participate willingly.

On the one side of the horizon, freedom to act (within the limited range of behaviours available) as one finds convenient. On the other, expectations to satisfy with, at first, glory and status to be won; later, as society becomes more closely integrated and obligations more definite, duty to fulfil.

This brings us to the second military horizon, the one recognised by Turney-High; that once crossed, we are in the familiar world of the centralized state claiming, and largely achieving, a monopoly of social force. This enables it to engage in true warfare, but it also does something else. Among non-state peoples true war is unknown and it can even be plausibly argued that (except in the stage immediately preceding the state) they did not have war at all, only fighting. There was certainly something else they did not have. They did not know true peace. Small-scale violence, raiding and skirmishing, were endemic between communities, and within them, in the absence of an overriding public power, individual security depended largely on private force. (In the later stages prior to the advent of the centralised state this develops into tribal feuding, with vendetta and blood-price). The developed state brings true war, and by taking most of the fun out of fighting this goes far towards bringing true peace; most of the citizens of developed states, through the greater part of their lives, enjoy a degree of security from violence unknown in earlier societies.

As war becomes more deadly peace acquires greater value; the threat of nuclear annihilation has precluded warfare immediately between great states for half a century now.


1. Barclay H. 1990 (1982) People without Government; an anthropology of anarchy. London: Kahn & Averill)
2. Turney-High H. 1949 Primitive Warfare, its practice and concepts, Columbia: University of South Carolina
3. Turney-High 18
4. Keegan J. 1993 A History of Warfare London: Heinemann 89
5. Turney-High 157
6. ibid 162
7. Rodinson M. 1971 (1961) Mohammed Harmondsworth: Penguin 141
8. Turney-High 159
9. MAN, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Volume 29 No.1 March 1994, 109
10. Turney-High 200
11. MAN 98
12. Turney-High 94
13. Keegan 29
14. Turney-High 88
[15 missing in original]
16. ibid 206
17. ibid 207



In Britain and America politicians found guilty of sexual indiscretions often lose their jobs. This has not always been so. In 1884, the Democratic candidate for the Presidency having admitted that he might be responsible for an illegitimate daughter, his supporters argued that this did not effect his suitability for public office. Agreeing that their opponent had a spotless private life, they suggested retiring him to this sphere for which he had shown himself so well fitted.

Returning to Britain, Eric Stockton points out that if Nelson’s affair with Lady Hamilton had incurred the penalty recently visited on Tory misbehaviour, the battle of Trafalgar might have had a different ending?

(1.NYR February 3, 18; 2.Lady Godiva No.83)

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.