The History of the Culture of War
The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: It's increasing monopolization by the state 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


During the 5,000 years from the beginning of recorded history to the present time the culture of war has become more and more monopolized by the state, retaining the three functions: conquest, defense and internal control (the latter remaining a taboo topic). The involvement of the state with the culture of war has become stronger over the course of history as the state has prevented the development of warfare by other social structures and it has enlisted new partners, including capitalist business and industry during recent centuries. Although warfare has frequently occurred outside of state structures, with one set of exceptions, stateless warfare has not been dominant. The most important exceptions were from the 4th to 13th Centuries after the fall of the Roman empire when much of the world was overrun by nomadic warring tribes originating in Central Asia, the Xiongnu and the Huns followed by the Turks and the Mongols (see the UNESCO History of Humanity, Volume III). It is a tribute to the modern assumption of the dominance of the state that this period is often called the "Dark Ages."

Over the course of time the economic benefits of plunder and slavery have been extended and replaced by colonialism and neo-colonialism externally and by feudalism and then capitalist exploitation internally. In reaction to these developments, a fourth function of war has appeared: revolution and national liberation by which the ruling class of the previous state may be replaced by a new ruling class with its own culture of war that had been refined through the revolutionary process. Two increasingly important aspects of the culture of war in recent years have been the military-industrial complex and the international "drugs-for-guns" trade. The culture that supports war has been further reinforced by the invention and use of racism and nationalism.

The greatest change in the culture of war has been the enormous expansion of control of information including control of the mass media, overtly or covertly, by state power and its allies in the military-industrial complex. Other than these changes, however, the fundamental nature of the culture of war has remained remarkably stable since the beginning of recorded history: it has become increasingly a monopoly of the state, essential to the maintenance of state power.

Before considering the state in detail, we need to consider claims that two other institutions, the multi-national corporation and the United Nations, have taken over functions of war and the culture of war traditionally carried out by the state.

It has become fashionable in certain academic and political circles to say that the role of the state as the decisive power in the world is being taken over by the multi-national corporation. Sometimes it is said that the multi-national corporation has now taken control of neo-colonialism or imperialism.

There is an extensive literature on the influence of the multi-national corporation on state policy, including its influence on the political decisions concerning the culture of war. At this point, however, let us ask a more restricted question, "Have the multi-national corporations taken on a decisive role in the culture of war?" To answer this question, let us consider armies, armaments and armed conflict. Although many multi-national corporations have their own internal police forces, sometimes armed with heavy arms such as helicopters and machine guns, in no case do they have the same power as the military forces of even rather small states. Also, in some cases they engage mercenary forces, such as, for example, those have been engaged to guard oil facilities in Iraq and Colombia. In a few cases they have been involved directly in the overthrow of legitimate states, for example the role of International Telephone and Telegraph in the overthrow of the Chilean government of Allende. In that case, however, they did not act on their own, but in concert with the CIA and the secret approval of the U.S. government. Similarly, in Nigeria, the Rivers State Internal Security Force, though it is funded by the Shell Oil Company to protect their installations, is still officially a military branch of the government.

To summarize, at the present time there is little evidence from actual armed conflict or material preparation for armed conflict that the multi-nationals have usurped the role of the state as the major player in the culture of war.

In fact, the state's internal culture of war ensures that it retains a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. If a multi-national corporation were to begin establishing a private army within the boundaries of an established state, one could imagine that the state would force it to disband or limit it. There are two exceptions. One is the case of paramilitary forces that are, in fact, secretly related to state power (for example, today in Colombia). The other exceptions are revolutionary movements that try to conceal their development of armed forces or else take advantage of mountainous terrain such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara did in Cuba, or as is now taking place with the Taleban and its allies in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In two particular aspects of the culture of war the multi-nationals have become major players: the use of the mass media for propaganda and the production of armaments by the military-industrial complex. These will be discussed further below, but in both cases, these functions are carried out in coordination with and not independent of the state.

The United Nations, in the eyes of some observers, was designed to become a superior authority in the world that would replace the power of the state. If this were to occur, then the UN could, in theory, assume or replace the role of the state as the major actor in the culture of war. However, this has not come to pass.

From the inception of the United Nations until the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Empire, the United Nations was prevented by the Cold War from expanding its powers, as the East and West could not agree on policies in the Security Council. After the fall of the Soviet Empire, the UN Security Council was able to act by consensus. The Council endorsed the attack on Iraq in the first war of the Persian Gulf, and there seemed to be some movement towards the UN as a super-power. When I was working in the UN system I was told that the 38th floor of the UN Secretariat building in New York had become like a military headquarters with uniformed military men from the U.S. and NATO saluting each other as they passed in the corridor. That was the when the Secretary-General issued his proposal entitled An Agenda for Peace (United Nations 1992).

A close analysis of An Agenda for Peace suggests that it would have been more appropriately named, An Agenda for War by the United Nations. The concept of "peace" was the old concept meaning the "absence of war" and the document did not address the culture of war. Instead, it was proposed that the United Nations establish a standing military force that would be ready to intervene at the discretion of the Security Council. In practical terms, that means at the discretion of the five super-powers who control the Security Council: France, UK, US, Russia and China.

The proposal for a standing UN military force has not been implemented, and I am not aware of anyone who seriously believes that it will ever be implemented. It may be assumed, for want of a better explanation, that the Member States of the United Nations simply have no desire to cede their military authority to any other body. There are some regional military agreements, such as NATO in Europe, but even in the case of NATO there is often a tension between the demands on the combined force and reluctance by European states to contribute further. For example, as of this writing, France has not rejoined the integrated military command of NATO from which it withdrew under DeGaulle in 1966.

In fact, the states show no serious intention of giving their war-making power to the United Nations. Instead, the state remains the principle agent of the culture of war.

The very definition of the state for sociologists like Max Weber depends on warfare and the monopoly of force. As mentioned earlier, his definition of the state is the organization that has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (Weber 1921).

The definition of the "failed state" similarly depends on the monopoly of force, in this case, a failed state is one that has lost the monopoly of force. Although the UN has not undertaken a precise definition of this term, in practice it coincides with the following definition to be found in Wikipedia:

"A state could be said to "succeed" if it maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders. When this is broken (e.g., through the dominant presence of warlords, militias, or terrorism), the very existence of the state becomes dubious, and the state becomes a failed state."

Continued on next page

To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of 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?