The History of the Culture of War
13. The Arts and the culture of war
14. Nationalism
5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


The mass media has replaced the arts as the principal propaganda tool of the culture of war. It is no longer so necessary for the emperor to employ artists in the construction and decoration of monuments and murals and coins that glorify military victory and military conquerors, because CNN and Fox News, like the "yellow press" of an earlier generation, can reach a much larger audience and more quickly.

In extreme cases, the arts are still mobilized by the state to justify war. For example the propaganda films of Leni Rieffenstahl supported the policies of the German Nazi government. Similarly, the films produced during the war in the allied countries of Russia, England and the U.S. also served as propaganda for the war effort. On the other hand, when countries are not at war, in recent centuries, the arts have remained more independent of the state and often they are neutral or convey messages against war and the culture of war.

I will not try to make a global survey of this question, but assume that a few observations about the experience we have in the last few decades in the United States probably does not differ greatly from what has happened elsewhere.

At times, the government censors films and other artistic creations that call into question the culture of war. During the McCarthy era of the Cold War in the United States, Congressman Richard Nixon, later to be President, led government hearings to investigate so-called "communist" influences in Hollywood, and, as a result ten major film directors were "blacklisted" so that they could no longer make films. They became known as the "Hollywood Ten."

Aside from the matter of government control, an effective analysis of the arts needs to be done from a class perspective: arts for the ruling class; and arts for the ordinary people. With a few exceptions such as popular music to be discussed below, most artists can only make money by directing their creations to the tastes of the ruling class, and this class, under the present structure of society, is strongly linked, consciously or unconsciously, to the culture of war. Under these circumstances, rather than provide images or creations to justify this culture, many artists get around the question by avoiding political issues altogether.

An important exception, at least in recent years, has been the politicization of popular music. Anti-war music has proliferated during times of disputed wars such as the War in Vietnam and the present war in Iraq. Odetta, Bob Dylan and John Lennon were heroes to the anti-war movement of the 60's and more recently, the Dixie Chicks gained notoriety over their criticism of the War in Iraq. As a result, Lennon was the object of investigations and harassment by the government, and for a time, the songs of the Dixie Chicks were banned from the radio by most of the major media networks.

Thanks to technological advances in the reproduction of music that has made it so widely available, government and media censorship often increases the popularity of music, thus having the opposite effect from that intended by the censors. In the U.S. this was the case for the songs of Lennon and of the Dixie Chicks which gained more popularity than ever as a result of the attacks on them. Censorship had a similar effect in the Soviet Union. I recall my first chance meeting with a young lad when we were waiting in line at a cinema in Moscow in 1976. When he saw that I was an American, he confided in me that he loved the Beatles' music, but that he was in a dilemma because it was banned by the authorities. Should he or should he not buy a contraband tape of the Beatles which was being spread rapidly through the adolescent underground thanks to the availability of tape recorders? Whatever the final decision of this lad, there is no question that many young people did circulate contraband music, and this kind of dilemma, cleverly encouraged by the West, played a role in the loss of legitimacy of the Soviet political system.

14. Nationalism

Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it has become an essential element of the culture of war promoted by the state. This is described simply in the following excerpt from the paper Religious Nationalism and Human Rights by Little (1994):

"The notions of "nation" and "nationalism," as we use them today, are relatively recent, and so is the passion for achieving "national self-determination." Up through the Middle Ages, it was not customary in Europe to draw sharp political boundaries between different "peoples," each of whom shared a distinctive language and culture. In fact, our "modern world" came into being as one people strove to define themselves over against others by securing and centralizing the means of government and armed defense on their own behalf. So occurred the modern preoccupation with building the "nation-state." A people or nation did not achieve self-fulfillment until it ran its own state."

". . Above all, a nation is supposed to be something one will die for, if need be. It is certainly something that inspires self-denial on behalf of the greater group. ("Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask only what you can do for your country.")"

In recent history, when a state prepares to go to war against another state, or when a people prepares to go to war to seek its freedom against an occupying power (i.e. wars of national liberation), appeals are usually made to nationalism and patriotism and people are urged to prepare for sacrifice, even death, on behalf of their nation. Often nationalism is associated with a state religion or a state language to the extent that legitimacy is denied to other religions or languages. The extreme case was that of Nazi Germany where the claim was made that there was a national race and that it was genetically superior to other races. In such extreme cases of nationalism, other nations are seen to be alien or enemy, and nationalism is thus used to justify making war against them.

The argument can be made that some forms of nationalism are not linked to the culture of war, but only serve to promote a sense of identity and an attitude of solidarity among people who share a common history or language.

To take part in a discussion about this page, go to the Peace Dialogues:

discussion board

World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?