The History of the Culture of War
4. Prisons and penal systems 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


Prisons and legal and penal systems are an integral part of the internal culture of war. One way to measure their extent is the rate of imprisonment. At the present time, here are figures from the countries with the highest levels, as published on the website of The International Centre for Prison Studies of Kings College, London :

By far, the largest prison population is that of the United States at 2,293,157, which is also the highest per capita rate at 756 per 100,000 population. Russia is second with 629. Although China has the second largest prison population at 1,565,771, its per capita rate, 119 per 100,000, is much less because of the fact that its population is so much greater.

Criminal justice systems are heavily biased by race and social class. For example, the imprisonment rate for African-Americans in the United States is ten times higher than for whites. Punishment of law-breakers from the ruling class is much lighter than those from lower classes, and the laws themselves are written in such a way that theft and other crimes by lower classes may be deemed legal for the ruling class. An example is the so-called "Savings-and-Loan Scandal" in the United States in which hundreds of billions of dollars were stolen, but with very few convictions or imprisonments as a result. One of the accused who did not go to prison was the Neil Bush, son of one President and brother of another.

Western penal systems and criminal justice systems continue to be based on principles that have hardly changed from Biblical times: "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". Criticizing this approach, Mahatma Gandhi stated that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." The principles are so widely accepted that it was very revealing for many of us in the United Nations when South Africa used a different approach in their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after the overthrow of Apartheid. The TRC, under the leadership of Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, gave those accused of crimes under Apartheid the option of confession, reparation, forgiveness and rehabilitation. His book, (Tutu, 1999) is "must-reading." In the light of the TRC and other similar approaches, many have criticized Western systems of justice for failing to provide reparation to victims, who are usually left out of the process, or procedures for confession, forgiveness and rehabilitation for the perpetrators of crime.

Capital punishment in the Western systems of criminal justice gives the state the right to murder within the country just as war establishes the right of the state to murder in other countries. Although capital punishment has recently been abolished in Europe, it continues to be practiced in the United States and many other countries.

Legal systems and punishment for disobedience of the law in the bourgeois democracies are designed, above all, to protect private property, and especially the property of the state. This has been true since the beginning of the recorded history of the state. As Leslie A. White (1959) describes in The Evolution of Culture:

"As a means of safeguarding the property foundations of civil society, the state punished theft with severity. Among the Aztecs thieves were enslaved. Petty theft in the Inca state was punished by flogging; theft from the state was punished by death. The Ganda killed a thief if caught in the act; otherwise he was mutilated. In the great urban cultures of the Bronze Age death or mutilation was the usual punishment for theft. Whether drastic punishment acted as a deterrent or not is a question for which we have no adequate answer. But whether it did or did not, it was employed for this purpose. And the frequently lethal reprisals imposed by the state certainly kept many persons from committing the offense a second time.

White makes clear that property law was an invention of the state, because there was no such practice before then: "the economic systems of primitive society place human relationships - human rights and human welfare - above property relations."

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?