Military history

Part I


Chapter 1

Origins 1: Evolution

Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits.

—Charles Darwin

In this chapter I argue that there are elemental features of human strategy that are common across time and space. These include deception and coalition formation, and the instrumental use of violence. These features are so elemental that traces of them can be found among chimpanzees. Chimps are self-aware, understand others well enough to deceive them, and show gratitude or retribution according to whether they have been given or denied support. They have forms of communication, think through difficult problems, and plan ahead.

Years of careful observation of chimpanzees, first in the wild and then in special colonies at zoos, challenged the previous view that their social bonds were limited. It became apparent that individual chimps in the same area came together regularly and developed complex relations. They not only worked together but also had fights. Of particular interest for students of strategy, chimpanzees were political in their behavior. They built up coalitions, offering grooming, sex, and food to potential supporters—all in order to prevail in conflicts. But they also appreciated the importance of limiting their conflicts so that they could live cooperatively thereafter. They kissed and made up after a violent quarrel. By showing their vulnerability they invited trust.1

During the 1970s, Frans de Waal observed the chimpanzee colony at Arnhem Zoo, making copious notes as a remarkable series of dramas began to unfold. In his 1982 book, Chimpanzee Politics, he drew some startling conclusions about the complexity of chimpanzee society. In his view, the evidence of coalition formation and power struggles among the chimps deserved the label “political.”2

Raw strength could only take chimps so far. When dominant males asserted power, their hair stood on end to make them appear larger and more ferocious than they actually were. They charged at groups of subordinate apes—who immediately scattered—and then received due respect through some submissive greeting or by being groomed in an elaborate fashion. De Waal realized, however, that as the hierarchy changed, those gaining power were not necessarily the strongest. Social maneuvers were of even greater importance as other chimpanzees joined in on one side or the other and shifted their allegiances. Changes in the hierarchy were not abrupt, but orderly.

The first change charted by de Waal began with the established dominant male, Yeroen, initially enjoying the support of most of the females but appearing unsure of how to respond to a conspicuous challenge to his authority by another male, Luit. In a definite affront, Luit mated with a female right in front of Yeroen. Then Luit got another male, Nikkie, to join him to tilt the balance of power in his favor. During the course of the power struggles, the tactics deployed involved not only displays of strength and determination but also measures designed to encourage females to defect, such as grooming them and playing with their children. Yeroen’s angry tantrums, which might once have made subordinates wary of defecting, gradually lost their impact as they became more frequent. He eventually gave up. This struggle led to another. With Luit now dominant, Yeroen was prepared to work with Nikkie to regain some of his past prestige, even though he would not become dominant again.

Actual fighting played only a small part in this process. Biting, the most dangerous act of aggression, was rarely used. De Waal concluded that rather than changing the social relationships, the fights tended to reflect the changes that had already taken place. The apes appeared to know that they should limit violence among themselves, for they might have to unite against external rivals. They also seemed to understand the need for mediation and reconciliation. Once a goal had been achieved, the patterns of behavior changed—for example, both the winners and losers became less aggressive.

According to de Waal, the core elements of this strategic activity were the ability to recognize each other individually and to perceive social relationships, including how others might combine to form coalitions and how these coalitions might then be broken up. To make choices, the chimpanzees needed to grasp the potential consequences of their actions and be able, to some extent, to plan a route to their goal. As chimpanzees exhibited all these attributes, de Waal concluded that “the roots of politics are older than humanity.” His later work built upon these original insights, pointing to evidence that primates can show tolerance, altruism, and restraint, meaning they have a capacity for empathy. Empathy involves at least emotional sensitivity to others and at most an ability to understand another’s point of view. This, de Waal argued, is “essential for the regulation of social interactions, coordinated activity, and cooperation toward shared goals.”3

Deception also turned out to be a vital strategic quality. It involved deliberately sending untrue signals with a view to changing another’s behavior. Apes tricked other members of their group out of food or sneaked off for some furtive courtship when alpha males were not paying attention. Again, this required a degree of empathy with other apes. It was necessary to understand the normal behavior of others if only to appreciate how they might be misled.

What we might call “strategic intelligence,” for both chimps and humans, evolved through interactions in a complex social environment as much as from the demands of survival in a harsh physical environment. Consider the human brain. The brain consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy, far more than any other organ, while making up only 2 percent of an adult’s body weight. Something so costly to maintain must have developed to meet a vital need. Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp studied eighteen species from all the major branches of primates and correlated the size of the neocortex to the amount of deception the species practiced. They established a link between the size of the brains and general social intelligence, including the ability to work together and manage conflict, as well as trickery.4 In evolutionary terms, the value of these skills was not hard to imagine in the face of challenges from other species that might be stronger but also more stupid. If neocortex size set the limits on the mental world of a particular animal, then it would also set limits on those with whom relationships could be formed, and therefore the number of allies available at times of conflict. So, the larger the brain the greater the ability to maintain substantial social networks. The concept of “Machiavellian intelligence,” as promoted by Byrne, established a link between strategy and evolution. The sort of basic survival techniques identified by Niccolo Machiavelli for sixteenth-century Italy turned out to be similar to those necessary for survival in the most primitive of social groups.5

The concept developed as part of a conjunction of research on the physical development of the brain, close observations of both primates and humans, and considerations of the influence of ecological and social factors. The early intellectual challenges facing our ancestors would have involved thinking through how to get up high trees without falling down and constructing safe places to sleep once there, or the sequence of manual actions necessary to acquire and eat particularly nutritious but hard-to-get-at foods with spines or thick skins. Physical tasks required a sequence of activities, and so it became necessary to plan ahead. Whatever the ecological imperatives and physical demands that increased brain size, at some point the key driver became the need to maintain sizable and coherent social groups. Working effectively in groups required understanding the particular characters of other members of the groups, how they were ranked in the hierarchy and with whom they had attachments, and what all this might mean in specific situations.

Strategies of Violence

One important complexity was the need to take on other groups with whom there were no social bonds, what Charles Darwin called “the struggle for existence.” A sense of the potential for cooperation and the limits to conflict might shape social relations within the “in” group, but different imperatives come into play once there is a confrontation with an “out” group. Individual aggression is common in animals, but warfare—groups fighting each other— is less so. Ants are among the most warlike of creatures. Their foreign policy has been described as “restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies whenever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week.”6 As ant warfare is conducted by specialized warriors with no capacity for reproduction, the population of the colony is not threatened by their loss in battle. Warfare among ants has a clear purpose: a struggle for food and territory. When one colony defeats another, stored grain is taken to the victors’ nests and the other colony is killed off or driven away. Ant warfare is in no sense strategic. It relies on relentless and ruthless attrition through brute force. The ants stick together; build up a superior mass; and wear down the enemy defenses by constant, vicious, and no-holds-barred attacks. There is no scope for bargaining and negotiation.

By contrast, studies of chimpanzees demonstrated a strategic intelligence at work. Males of other species might fight each other one-on-one for the opportunity to mate with females. What was noteworthy about the chimps was that on occasion one group would take on a neighboring group, and some chimps would die in the conflict. This was not a routine feature of chimpanzee life. It became more likely under certain conditions, again suggesting strategic behavior rather than mere aggressive instinct.

Some of the most notable observations of chimpanzees at war come from Jane Goodall, the pioneering student of the social lives of chimpanzees. She began watching them in 1960 in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, and found a number of occasions when individual apes had been murdered by males from neighboring colonies. A particularly dramatic conflict occurred at Gombe after a community split as the result of a falling out between two alpha males. Hostility continued between the two communities, known as the Kasekala and the Kahama. It led to a protracted conflict between 1973 and 1974 which concluded with the extinction of the Kahama. The males of the Kasekala took over both the Kahama’s territory and their females.7 Goodall observed that, when acting defensively, the chimpanzees would call each other to a fight and move rapidly toward where they were needed. Border patrols would also be mounted to explore potentially contentious territory. Because of the risk of being caught by a superior group, these patrols were conducted with great caution, avoiding unnecessary noise and checking regularly for signs of the other, hostile community. Normal boisterous behavior was saved for when they returned to familiar territory. What was most striking about these patrols was that on occasion they turned into something more predatory as the chimps moved away from the borders and quite far into neighboring territory. There would be long and silent waits until there was an opportunity to attack a vulnerable victim. After catching their victims by surprise, the attacking chimps would leave their enemies dead or dying.

It has been argued that it would be unwise to generalize from this study because of the artificial conditions created by the reduced habitat and Goodall’s influence over the food supply. She used feeding stations to draw the apes out of the forest, which encouraged competition among concentrated groups. By contrast, de Waal was able to observe chimpanzees by manipulating the distribution of food to reduce conflict levels. Goodall acknowledged—and regretted—that her intervention prompted more aggressive behavior but pointed out that it did not invalidate the finding that in certain conditions chimpanzees acted in particular ways. Moreover, her findings are not unique. Close observation of communities elsewhere also showed a capacity for warfare, albeit occasional.

Why did they fight? Richard Wrangham identified the sources of conflict as “improved access to resources such as food, females, or safety.” Power relationships between neighboring communities mattered because of the chimps’ need for ripe fruit, which was in turn a consequence of their digestive systems. When fruit was scarce, individual chimpanzees traveled alone or in small groups to find more; because of the uneven distribution of fruit supplies, the territory of one community could be well endowed while another was bereft. This was a recipe for conflict, and an explanation for why a stronger community would seek to take advantage of a weaker one. Wrangham argued that adult male chimpanzees “assess the costs and benefits of violence” and attack when the “probable net benefit is sufficiently high.” A consequence of a kill was that the relative position of one community was significantly enhanced (as these communities were often not large, the loss of one member made a real difference.). He called this the “imbalance-of- power hypothesis, which stated that coalitionary kills occurred because of two factors: inter-group hostility, and large power asymmetries between rival parties.”8 This explained why killing took place but not the origins of the underlying conflict—the struggle for a scarce and vital resource.

More striking than the incidence of extreme violence was the calculating attitude to conflict. Goodall observed that “a small patrol will turn and flee if it meets a larger party, or one with more males, even within its own range; whereas if a large party, travelling out of its range, meets a smaller party of neighbors, it is likely to chase or attack.” When there was greater symmetry among the numbers of adult males, the typical result was “visual and auditory display exchanges without conflict.”9 The important point, therefore, was that the apes were astute when it came to working out power balances. They tried to avoid a fight if they were weaker, readily retreating in the face of superior force, but moved in when they were stronger. Thus it is no surprise that no instances of one of the attacking pack getting killed were recorded. What made the difference was not strength in battle but “the relative size and composition of parties when they encounter each other.”10 This pragmatic attitude to violence underlined its instrumentality.

The evolutionist, therefore, saw strategy as a natural consequence of scarce vital resources and the struggle for survival. But it was not just a question of the survival of the fittest, in terms of raw strength and instinctive aggression. The survivors would also need to have outthought their opponents, to have shown a better grasp of social relationships and how to manipulate them. From the start of time, success could come as much from being smart as being strong, and it was especially smart to get others to help overpower opponents.

Similar patterns have been discerned in so-called primitive warfare among humans, although what passed for strategy appears to have been “customary and unspoken” and can now be inferred only “from the conduct and effects of warfare.”11 The strategies appear to have been largely attritional, with the enemy being worn down by regular battles and raids, normally with low casualties but also surprise massacres on occasion. Victory would be total: wealth and food plundered, houses and fields destroyed, women and children killed or captured. As logistic support was minimal, it was not possible to engage in prolonged combat or extended maneuvers because either food or ammunition would soon be exhausted. Raids had a number of advantages. They were hard to guard against, as security was normally poor and small groups moving at night were hard to detect, and it was possible to withdraw if the odds looked unfavorable. There was, according to Azar Gat, every incentive to avoid open warfare. Before attempting a killing it was best if the victims were “caught helpless, relatively defenseless, and, above all, little capable of effectively harming the attackers.” These factors led to a “remarkably uniform” pattern of warfare, manifested within “any society of hunter-gatherers and primitive agriculturalists studied.”12

From the study of these societies and those of chimps we can identify some of the elemental features of strategic behavior.13 These features emerge out of social structures that invite conflict. They require some recognition of the distinctive attributes of individuals who are potential opponents or allies, and sufficient empathy with these individuals’ situations to make it possible to influence their behavior, including by impressing or misleading them. The most effective strategies do not depend solely on violence—though this can play an instrumental role, by demonstrating superiority as much as expressing aggression—but benefit instead from the ability to forge coalitions. Little in the rest of this book will suggest that this list should be expanded. The elements of strategic behavior have not changed, only the complexity of the situations in which they must be applied.

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