The History of the Culture of War
Warfare and the origin of 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


Contemporary theories on the origin of the state, such as that of Carneiro (1970), often give a decisive role to warfare:

". . there is little question that, in one way or another, war played a decisive role in the rise of the state. Historical or archeological evidence of war is found in the early stages of state formation in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Japan, Greece, Rome, northern Europe, central Africa, Polynesia, Middle America, Peru, and Colombia, to name only the most prominent examples."

Carneiro's analysis of the early state corresponds to the descriptions that we have seen above, involving military leadership and a class-structured society based on slaves that were taken prisoner through warfare:

"While the aggregation of villages into chiefdoms, and of chiefdoms into kingdoms, was occurring by external acquisition, the structure of these increasingly larger political units was being elaborated by internal evolution. These inner changes were, of course, closely related to outer events. The expansion of successful states brought within their borders conquered peoples and territory which had to be administered. And it was the individuals who had distinguished themselves in war who were generally appointed to political office and assigned the task of carrying out this administration. Besides maintaining law and order and collecting taxes, the functions of this burgeoning class of administrators included mobilizing labor for building irrigation works, roads, fortresses, palaces, and temples. Thus, their functions helped to weld an assorted collection of petty states into a single integrated and centralized political unit.

These same individuals, who owed their improved social position to their exploits in war, became, along with the ruler and his kinsmen, the nucleus of an upper class. A lower class in turn emerged from the prisoners taken in war and employed as servants and slaves by their captors. In this manner did war contribute to the rise of social classes"

The Carneiro thesis on war and the state was not new, although he added an aspect concerning the importance of geographical barriers so those defeated in battle could not escape and were therefore subjugated. For example, prior to reviewing Carneiro's theory, Otterbein (1973) mentions many earlier approaches that also considered warfare as crucial to the origin of the state:

"Spencer (1896), an evolutionist, argues that leadership and subordination developed first in the military and were then transferred to the political system. Thus an increase in the efficiency of the military resulted in an increase in political centralization. The "conquest theory of the state" is developed by Gumplowicz (1899: 119): "states have never arisen except through the subjection of one stock by another, or by several others in alliance . . No state has arisen without original ethnical heterogeneity . . " Conquest theory is further developed by Oppenheimer (1914: 55-81) . . "

The Carneiro analysis is not universally accepted, and there are other theories that do not give such a central place to warfare. For example, in his books The Early State (1978) and Development and Decline: The Evolution of Sociopolitical Organization (1985), H. J. M. Claessen downplays the importance of warfare, although as Carneiro (1987) points out in his review, other authors in the latter book acknowledge it:

"Since Claessen minimizes, if he does not actually deny, the effect of war and population pressure on the rise of the state, it is not surprising that he should reject the circumscription theory of state formation, which relies heavily on both (p. 257). But if Claessen gives the circumscription theory short shrift, some contributors to the volume appear more sympathetic. Bargatsky, for instance, writes that "In Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga a development along the lines indicated by Carneiro (1970) was well under way in precontact times" (p. 309). Even stronger support comes from Ronald Cohen, who says, "In effect, warfare . . . plus circumscription, produces statehood. States not only make war, but war makes states" (p. 279; see also p. 278)."

Some more recent studies such as that of the formation of the Zulu state in the 19th Century, tend to confirm the Carneiro analysis. Mathieu Deflem (1999), in his article, Warfare, Political Leadership, and State Formation: The case of the Zulu Kingdom, 1808-1879, says that "Carneiro's theory explains the origin and territorial expansion of the Zulu Empire." Deflem also gives credit to the theory of Elwood Service concerning the transition from chiefdoms to the bona fide state, and in this case the very definition of the state is related to warfare and its monopoly on the use of force.:

"The crucial characteristic of political states is that central authority becomes fully established and institutionalized in formally regulated offices. State-controlled laws are formal, and judicial offices are assigned to act as third parties. Unlike chiefdoms, the political structure of states is fully differentiated, visible and territorially bounded. States have a monopoly over the threat or use of physical force, both internally, through a formalized judicial and punitive system of repressive laws, and externally, by means of an organized and permanent army."

The very definition of the state for sociologists like Max Weber depends on warfare and the monopoly of force. Weber (1921) defined the state as the organization that has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." As mentioned above, the Harappan civilization has been considered "stateless" precisely because it did not have warfare. In describing that civilization Thompson defines the state as "an organization exercising 'paramount control' over society (Fried 1967, 237), that is, monopolizing all large-scale use of force - and often acquiring routine acceptance of its 'legitimacy' (as emphasized by Weber)."

Why was the Harappan civilization unusual in not developing warfare or a state organization. Thompson speculates that the agricultural and commercial basis for the development of its cities was so dispersed that warfare would not have been "profitable":

It can be argued that the Harappan example supports the Carneiro thesis that warfare plays a decisive role of warfare in the origin of the state; because the Harappan people did not engage very much in war, they never developed a state, and certainly not an empire in the classic sense. At the same time, however, it also provides an example in addition that of Crete, of an ancient civilization that was not engaged in extensive warfare. As so often in scientific analysis, it is the exception that proves the rule.

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?