Sunday, October 29, 2006

Blood Rites: Origins and
History of the Passions of War

By Barbara Ehrenreich

"In this ambitious work, Barbara Ehrenreich offers a daring explanation for humans' propensity to wage war. Rather than approach the subject from a physiological perspective, pinpointing instinct or innate aggressiveness as the violent culprit, she reaches back to primitive man's fear of predators and the anxieties associated with life in the food chain. To deal with the reality of living as prey, she argues that blood rites were created to dramatize and validate the life-and-death struggle. Jumping ahead to the modern age, Ehrenreich brands nationalism a more sophisticated form of blood ritual, a phenomenon that conjures similar fears of predation, whether in the form of lost territory or the more extreme ethnic cleansing. Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War may not offer a cure for human aggression, but the author does present a convincing argument for the difficulties associated with achieving peace..."

[We were especially intrigued by Ehrenreich's speculation on prehistory, and how the prospect of being "prey" rather than "predator" shaped our social selves and rituals. Susan Faludi's review in The Nation follows as the first comment, below --Carl Davidson]

1 comment:

Carl Davidson said...

Book Review:
'Blood Rites'

By Susan Faludi

The Nation
May 12, 1997

Anyone who has tried to debate the virtues of war with an eager cadet or loyal Marine knows what it must feel like to dispute the Resurrection with a priest. Warriors are intransigent on the advisability of war, and their resistance springs not from bullheadedness but from a kind of religiosity. Theirs is the hymn of the true believer.

The religious dimension of war's calling has baffled journalists seeking logical explanations for why Marine recruits submit to bloody chest-pinnings or why Citadel cadets guard their all-male "Corps" like the Holy Grail. Clever questions elicit only misty eyes and enigmatic mantras about "sacrifice."

That a spiritually ecstatic experience defies words makes sense; you wouldn't ask a whirling dervish to explain himself. But why should war be a spiritual experience? Why is the taking up of arms felt to be not just a job -- and not just an adventure -- but a metamorphosis of the soul? And why is that passion shared not just by the buzz-cut recruits at Parris Island but by most onlookers, who find themselves strangely stirred by the sight of uniformed troops moving as one, the blur of the smoke-filled battlefield, the sound of the bugle?

This is the question Barbara Ehrenreich poses in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. "What is it about our species that has made us see in war a kind of sacrament?" she asks. "Violence was, well into the historical era, at the very core of what humans define as sacred."

Those familiar with Ehrenreich's work know to expect the bracingly unexpected. In books such as The Hearts of men and Re-Making Love (written with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs), Ehrenreich turned received wisdom convincingly and wittily on its head -- arguing, in Hearts, that it was men, not women, who first rebelled against fifties domesticity and, in Love, that it was women, not men, who were the true revolutionaries of the sixties sexual revolution. But in Blood Rites, Ehrenreich has outdone herself in breaking with conventional history, and the result is thrilling in that seeing-the-world-anew way.

Ehrenreich lays waste to the two longstanding explanations for war: that it is either a practical pursuit of policy, A la Clausewitz, or an expression of a darkly irrational innate flaw in the human psyche known most commonly as "male aggression." She bypasses the superficial debate about whether we engage in war for rational or irrational reasons (neither position holds up: World War I was hardly rational, she notes, and the irrational male drive for war doesn't explain the droves of male deserters). Instead, she attacks the question at its root: the assumption that we engage in war and acts of violence because we are predators, Man the Hunter.

The "hunting hypothesis," which has been evoked to explain everything from why men roam to why women wind up as the primary caretakers, has its own fatal flaw -- a flaw that seems, once Ehrenreich points it out, screamingly obvious: It conveniently ignores the fact that for a vast period of our time on earth, we were prey.

Our peculiar and ambivalent relationship to violence is rooted in a primordial experience that we have managed, as a species, to almost entirely repress. And this is the experience, not of hunting, but of being preyed on by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator...but that of a creature which has learned only "recently," in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.

Eventually we designed the bow and arrow, but that was a mere 15,000 years ago. Eventually the big cat populations dwindled and we emerged as the new kings of the forest; but in the sweep of history, that was only yesterday. That we made such a change may be humankind's unique accomplishment. "No other animal," Ehrenreich observes, "has experienced the kind of evolutionary role reversal achieved by our species within just a few hundred thousand years.... Only the line of Homo made a decisive advance up the food chain."

That the primal experience of our species is terror, not dominance, has implications for human development that reach to the most profound levels. "Here is what we might call," Ehrenreich writes, "the missing link within the theory of human evolution itself: how a poor, shivering creature grew to unquestioned dominance. Before and well into the age of hunting, there must have been a long, dark era of fear." If our ancestors' primary need was to ward off the claws and teeth of menacing animals, then "we can imagine human evolution being driven, not only by appetite, but by the imperatives of defense."

The memory of our helplessness haunts us still, all the more for being repressed. The remembered terror, and the pleasurable adrenaline rush of re-experiencing it at a safe remove, might explain all kinds of curious modern obsessions of the human race, Ehrenreich suggests: why urban children's number-one fear is wild animals; why we have a boundless appetite for horror and monster-stalker films; even why we avidly watch the Discovery Channel's many programs about wild-animal attacks -- what Ehrenreich so accurately calls "predation porn."

But the fear of being devoured and our desperate quest to find a way to reverse our fate as prey, Ehrenreich is saying, yielded something far more significant and unspeakable than shows about roaring lions. It led human beings to embrace a vision of violence as sacred, as transformational and transcendent as the Resurrection. Through bloody rites, perhaps humans could shed their cringing status and be reborn predatory and triumphant.

If we seek an `original trauma' that shaped the human response to violence," Ehrenreich writes, we have no need to postulate some primal guilt over hunting and killing. The original trauma -- meaning, of course, not a single event but a long-standing condition -- was the trauma of being hunted by animals, and eaten. Here, most likely, lies the source of our human habit of sacralizing violence: in the terror inspired by the devouring beast and in the powerful emotions, associated with courage and altruism that were required for group defense.

The first sacred act of violence was the sacrifice of animals -- and humans -- to the always carnivorous God. (As Ehrenreich points out, from Zeus to Jehovah, the gods were never hungry for anything but meat -- much to the frustration of Cain, whose offer of grain did not impress his Maker.) Again, Ehrenreich up-ends the apple cart of conventional thought: Sure, sacrifices to the gods celebrated man's successful kills, she says. But they also had "a very different dramatic function: that of re-enacting the predation of animals on humans." It is here that sacrificial violence and religion meet; they spring from the same desire -- to transubstantiate ourselves from prey to predator, from the cringing underdog to the supreme being. The sacrificial ritual "mimics the crisis of a predator's attack," but allows the human observers to identify with the victor. The participants in the blood rite merge with the predator-god, experiencing a brief, ecstatic sense of enormous strength. The blood rite is a re-enactment with a new, triumphal ending. Like the engorged Rambo, the rite's actors restage their Vietnam-esque nightmare, but this time, as he would put it, "we get to win." And because our memory of ourselves as helpless prey is at least as intractable as America's shame over failure in Vietnam, we compulsively replay this moment of primal transformation over and over again -- Rambo II, Rambo III, ad infinitum -- trying and failing each time to convince ourselves that we have at last reached the promised land of invulnerability.

Ehrenreich chronicles the transformation of religious blood rites into a social and political ritual where sacrifice could "achieve a truly spectacular scale." She disputes the standard explanation that war grew out of agriculture and its attendant need to seize property and possessions: War, she observes, came before agriculture, and anyway wars were waged as much over symbolic trophies (like scalps) as they were over property. War was not merely about guarding one's crops; it was more deeply an extension of the desire to re-create the moment of metamorphosis from stalked to stalker. It was the blood rite writ large -- and turned in on itself. War, she suggests, is an autoimmune disease: our defense mechanism gone haywire, savaging our own selves.

In war, we not only relive our resistance to predation; we recall the intoxicating group sacrifice and collective defense action of ancient times that released us from "the long, dark era of fear." The call to arms against a common enemy is deeply satisfying and exciting because it allows us to re-experience the defensive solidarity with which we had finally defeated our first common enemy -- the long-toothed beast. In war, we recall our earliest cliffhanger moment: "a primal battle that the entire human species might easily have lost."

But why is war such a male event? For Ehrenreich, war is not just the product of boys-will-be-boys testosterone excess. The advent of war reinforced a gender division that had already begun to surface in blood rites by the time of the big-game hunts, which had become -- unlike the early days when the whole clan chased animals over cliffs -- exclusive and showy all-male affairs. War may have initially become a male event not because men were such brutes but because, "with the decline of wild predator and game populations, there would have been little to occupy the males who had specialized in hunting and anti-predator defense, and no well-trodden route to the status of `hero.'"

Ehrenreich explores the emergence of gender differences in war, from the days when the predator-god honored in sacrifice often "had a woman's face" to the recreation of the violent sacrament as a male conquest that cast women as victims. While the data, as Ehrenreich concedes, is "scant" on the subject, "it does seem likely that the ascension of `mankind' to the status of predator was followed, near to historical times, by the descent of woman in the opposite direction: from someone who could be imagined as possessing lethal force to a creature more commonly conceived as prey." Ehrenreich is not arguing that war today is just "something for men to do," only that it has its roots, in part, in a loss of utility for a male elect. War would evolve into a mass ritual of armies, but the legacy of these roots ("a few good men") is still with us. The war hero became by definition a man -- and war became the ultimate making-of-the-man process. The sacrament of violence was intimately and inextricably wedded in this moment to the making not only of Man the Hunter but of Man the Man.

The second half of the book traces the evolution of war's justifications -- as a source for human-sacrifice victims, as a Christian crusade and, finally, as a "defense" of the nation-state. This was not a progression toward enlightenment. "Modern" war in the name of nationalism was a huge step back to the primal drama of prey-to-predator sacrament. In what Ehrenreich suggests may have been a response to capitalism's isolating and anomic effect, people yearned for primitive group solidarity, and nationalism filled the bill. In this version of war, the "nation" became an entity that "requires blood in order to sustain its life -- the blood of actual human beings." The nation became "another version of humanity's primordial enemy and original deity: the predator beast" for "it is only in the era of nation-states that Europeans routinely came to see the enemy as a monster or beast."

The end of the cold war has not ushered in an age of peaceful coexistence. Instead, the sacraments of violence have mutated once more -- backward again -- to tribalistic self-elected bands of prowling men, miniature and even one-man armies with guns purchased on the open arms market, stalking whatever prey (or federal building) crosses their path.

In reframing the human quest as a defensive, rather than offensive, journey, Ehrenreich disturbs long-held views about the origins not just of violence and war but of language, intelligence, the creation of fire and human sociality. In so doing, Blood Rites opens the door to exploring a whole range of aspects of what we call human. Evolutionary theorists will likely dispute a number of her speculations; Ehrenreich has discovered what could be an engine for human development, and in her effort to see how every attribute of humanity might be driven by this motor, she may at times overreach. Are we sociable creatures, as she suggests, primarily because as vulnerable, clawless critters our survival demanded that we learn to cooperate and care about one another? (Plenty of preyed-upon animals have not developed these traits.) Does language really have its roots in an alarm call, to warn other humans that a stalking tiger was nearby? Was fire harnessed mainly to ward off predators? Ehrenreich has introduced an idea that is so fresh and sweeping, it will take some time and thought to sort out its implications. One hopes that scientists and war historians will be inspired to test and refine her postulates, rather than shut out an important new paradigm just because it is audacious and comes from outside of academia.

To defeat war, Ehrenreich concludes, we must fundamentally shift our understanding of war. We think of war as something inherent in our nature or in the nature of some men, when we should be thinking of it as something we unleashed in the world, like a computer virus, which now has a life of its own. War, she suggests, may be like a "meme" -- the cultural equivalent of a gene that lives to self-replicate. To resist war, we must see it as a kind of living force apart from ourselves:

Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war -- a warrior elite or, in our own time, the chieftains of the "military-industrial complex"-- risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome.... So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the "enemy" is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace.

To fail to take that giant step is to allow a horrific irony to prevail. The blood rites that ultimately culminated in war were created to relieve and remake our ancestral burden of being prey. Yet in creating this ritual we ultimately created a foe that, unlike lions and tigers, truly crushed us. We created war in order to escape our legacy as the hunted, only to find that it is the monster of war that we cannot elude. We began by quivering before big cats; we now tremble before the Bomb. As Ehrenreich observes: "If war is a `living' thing, it is a kind of creature that, by its very nature, devours us. To look at war, carefully and long enough, is to see the face of the predator over which we thought we had triumphed long ago."

COPYRIGHT 1997 The Nation Company L.P.