The Context of War

War is of long standing in human experience and it has been studied for millennia. Yet both our fascination with it, and our knowledge of it, keep expanding, especially as we look backward in time to investigate earlier and earlier examples of inter- and intraspecies violence.

For example, it was long thought that during the Bronze Age in northern Europe, there was no large-scale warfare. Skirmishes between bands and defenses of territory or homesites were assumed, but not large, organized military activities. But recent discoveries now tell a different story. Some 3,200 years ago, for example, two large armies totaling approximately 4,000 warriors fought in what is now northern Germany at the Tollense River. They were not defending their immediate homes, nor was it a chance encounter of rival bands.

In fact, both groups were heavily armed and many miles from any settlements. For several days they fought, maimed, killed, and died. These warriors left behind hundreds and hundreds of remnants and shards of that battle. This extensive site is now considered the first Bronze Age battle discovered in northern Europe. It is remarkable for its character as a full-fledged war on open ground in northern Europe.1

Coincidentally, perhaps, the battle at the Tollense River took place in roughly the same time frame as dozens of other major battles and wars occurred all across Europe and the Mediterranean basin, including the sack of Troy, the destruction of various Mycenean cities, the occupation of Cyprus and Crete, the destruction of the Hittite, and in other cities all across the Levant as well as in parts of Egypt.

Termed “The Catastrophe”—although it was probably not one for many of the successful “Sea Peoples” who caused it—its widespread nature remains a cautionary tale of how war is old, large-scale, and destructive.2

Indeed, by the time of the Tollense River battle and “The Catastrophe” of the Mediterranean, war was already many millennia of years old, as Wayne Lee indicates in his intriguing article, “When Did Warfare Begin?” For him, “War does not dominate the archaeological record but it does suffuse it.”3 He then cites evidence of intra- and interspecies violence found in walled cities 9,000 years ago in Turkey. Lee also sees what he terms “warfare” even much earlier than that, in the butchered and presumably eaten human remains found in the caves of 35,000 years (Les Rois in France) and 50,000 years (El Sidrón in Spain). It is even likely, he claims, that warfare extended far back into the unrecorded history of hunter-gatherer bands, although, because of their very transitory and migrant nature, that is very difficult to prove. Other writers such as Nichols Longrich also hypothesize that Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens engaged in armed conflict for 100,000 years over Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.4

War thus seems to predate “government” or “civilization.” We have, of course, no way of telling exactly when wars really began but we have these beguiling hints that it is very, very old.

We know that war also dominates some of our oldest and most influential written accounts, illustrating our species’ commitment to purposeful violence. Think, for example, of the earliest writings on the subject. Almost 3,200 years ago, the longest poem (with 2,000 verses) in the world, the Sanskrit Mahabharata (attributed to Vyas), celebrates an intense struggle between two Aryan forces in what is now India. The war and description of its concomitant violence exceeds even that found in the very bloody Iliad of Homer, which is more familiar to European or American readers.

The Mahabharata portrays what is essentially a dynastic struggle between two clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, for the throne of Hastinapura, a conflict culminating in a final cataclysmic battle, Kurukshetra, between them. The battle is eventually won by the Pandavas, and in the description of the battle, there is one haunting, overpowering, intense image which for me sums up the impact of war on humankind.

During the final climatic battle of Kurukshetra, the elder warrior Bhisma is shot with so many arrows by his foe Arjuna that when he falls from his chariot, his body cannot touch the ground: “There was not in Bhisma’s body space of even two fingers’ breath that was not pierced with arrows.”5

What better metaphor for human suffering caused by war and its claustrophobic embrace?

Likewise, 2,500 years ago, Thucydides, writing in the last decade of the 5th century BCE in his The History of the Peloponnesian War, captures in book 3 the wild, untamed nature of conflict and war, even among people of the same language and culture, which can be overwhelmingly violent. He points to the seemingly unending nature of war when, writing about the Corcyran Revolution, declaring, “The suffering which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same.”6

And of course, what of the most celebrated of stories from the Western tradition, Homer’s 2,700–year-old Iliad, which is a long and very detailed account of war in all its glory and pathos?7

Its story of Achilles, the ultimate warrior, has been told and retold countless times, but it still provides perspective and context for our appreciation of war’s influence on human history. If even a half-god can be ultimately destroyed by war, what will be the fate of humans throughout time and space ever since?

On the surface, of course, the central story of the Iliad is about gods and human interactions set against the backdrop of a 10-year-old war. But as Simone Weil so cogently and profoundly asserts in her long 1939 poem, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” it is the war itself that is the real subject of the Iliad.

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force as a man’s instrument, force as man’s master, force before which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul seems ever conditioned by its ties with force, swept away, blinded by the force it believes it can control, bowed under the constraint of the force it submits to.8

It is precisely that force and its compelling nature that provides the holistic background for this book, as the nature of warfare presented in all three works gives us the added horror of familiarity because the participants speak the same language, worship the same gods, share the same cultural norms, and yet fight as if their opponents were only true “Others,” worthy of slaughter.

The long arc of the Tollense River, the Mahabharata, and the Iliad, then, all tell of war’s supremacy and ultimate power, which remain with us today. War is thus an institution and a beguiling attraction seemingly unstoppable throughout human history and prehistory as well as into its future.

Humans have long tried to grapple with war’s impact and nature. Virtually since its inception in the human record, war has been studied, pondered, and written about, yet much of its ultimately metaphysically true nature remains unknown, perhaps unknowable, even as the same questions are asked over and over.

Despite thousands of years of study, then, the ultimate causes and roots and ubiquitous nature of war remain elusive. Some say war is in our genes and therefore nearly immutable. Others say war begins with our cultures and that if we change cultural norms, we can reduce, even eliminate war. Still others believe war is a combination of genes and culture. But, and this is a big “but,” no one knows for certain. All we know, and continue to know, is that as a species, Homo sapiens has shown an enduring propensity for war’s practice and perfection.

Is war the results of hormones and DNA or more prosaic causes such as lust, greed, desire to dominate, to seek freedom, gain riches, subjugate, enslave, take, or defend?9

We do not know. Perhaps we cannot know, even though many of us may have once thought we knew or could know or were certain we did know. Perhaps from time to time, we came close to pinning down the hows and whys as well as the wheres of war, but we still do not really know its ultimate nature.

Luckily then, the metaphysical essence of war is not the subject of this book. For our purposes, war is simply the space-time milieu, the phenomenon, the matrix and context within which humans kill others for a multiplicity of purposes. It remains with us in all its horrible and monstrous power.

Again, as Simone Weil so cogently puts it,

For those who have supposed that force, thanks to progress now belong to the past, have seen a record of that in Homer’s poem; those wise enough to discern the force at the center of all human history, today as in the past, find in the Iliad the most beautiful and flawless of mirrors.10

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!