The History of the Culture of War
A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history
The internal culture of war: A taboo topic
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 preceding descriptions, with the exceptions of Crete and Harappan civilizations, provide a clear picture of warfare at the dawn of history. The usefulness of war was completely transformed by the state from its usefulness in prehistory:

1. A source of wealth in terms of plunder and slavery
2. A means of defense against attacks by other states
3. A means of internal control to deter or defeat internal revolt

The scope of the culture of war associated with warfare was expanded, but included all six of the aspects that had evolved during history, plus five others. The first eight of its aspects below correspond to those listed in the original UNESCO document on the culture of peace (United Nations 1998), while the last three are added here:

1. armies and armaments
2. authoritarian rule associated with military leadership
3. control of information through secrecy and propaganda
4. identification of an "enemy"
5. education of young men from the nobility to be warriors
6. male domination
7. wealth based on plunder and slavery
8. economy based on exploitation of people (slaves, serfs, etc.) and the environment
9. religious institutions that support the government and military
10. artistic and literary glorification of military conquest
11. means to deter slave revolts and political dissidents including internal use of military power, prisons and executions.

All of the various aspects of the culture of war at the dawn of history were inter-related, forming a single integrated system in which each aspect reinforces the others. This corresponds to the description of cultural phenomena by Leslie A. White (1959) that was quoted in the first section of the present book. The causal relationship between warfare and the culture of war is in both directions: warfare produces a culture of war and a culture of war produces war.

One important aspect of the culture of war in the above list did not receive very much attention in the accounts that we have quoted and needs further discussion in the following section:

11. means to deter slave revolts and political dissidents including internal use of military power, prisons and executions.

The internal culture of war: A taboo topic

It is not easy to document the history of the internal use of military power to deter and suppress internal revolts, or the prisons and executions associated with it. It is hardly mentioned in the UNESCO history. However, we may assume that the internal use of military power has been one of the important functions of the culture of war since the beginning of civilization, as described by Leslie A. White (1959) in The Evolution of Culture:

"Warfare tends to maintain and even to intensify the class structure of nations. Peoples of the vanquished nation are subjugated. The masses of the victorious nation have become subordinated to absolute rule as a condition of waging war, while the ruling class becomes enriched and more strongly entrenched in power.

"Class struggles: The lot of the subordinate class is often a hard one, and excessive privation and toil, coupled frequently with harsh and brutal treatment, incite them to revolt. Slave revolts, insurrections of serfs, uprisings of peasants are chronic and periodic occurrences in civil society.

An insurrection of the masses took place in Egypt as early as 2200 B.C., according to Moret and Turner. Another uprising occurred during the Twentieth Dynasty. "Both had their origin in the failure of the ruling classes to permit the masses to have sufficient food," says Turner, "and both were accompanied by disorder, murder, and robbery." Iranian peasants rose against the priests and nobles in the Mazdakian revolt about A.D. 500, seizing land and cattle and transforming their villages into communistic communities. There were uprisings of peasants and miners in China under the early Han emperors. In Sparta, secret agents circulated among the helots, one of the two servile classes, to search out and kill "anyone who was disobedient or showed signs of possessing superior intelligence." A quarter of a million slaves rose in revolt in Sicily in the second century B.C. They were starved into submission, and thousands of them were crucified. A slave revolt in Italy led by Spartacus in 73 B.C. was eventually put down on the field of battle; 6,000 of his followers were crucified along the Appian Way. These are but a few examples of the countless insurrections and uprisings throughout the length and breadth of civil society for centuries on end."

It is the business of the state . . to put down these insurrections in order to preserve the integrity of the nation within which they occur. And the sternest measures are employed in this process . . "

In modern times we have interior ministries, police forces, national guard forces, and a range of prisons and other punitive institutions to maintain internal control, but it is not clear from the descriptions of early empires how revolts by political dissidents and slaves were normally kept in check. We may assume that military force, imprisonment and execution were employed. We know, of course, that Socrates was imprisoned and executed by the Greeks and Jesus by the Romans, and there are stories like the following about the control of slaves, this story coming from ancient Rome (Bennetts 2002) :

"In 61 AD, Nero's urban prefect was murdered by one of his slaves. Under an earlier Augustan law, every slave under the same roof at the time of such a murder was to be put to death as a deterrent. The entire household of 400 slaves, including men women and children were condemned to death, despite the protests of some members of the Roman Senate against the punishment of women, children and the innocent.

One historian who dealt with this question was Friedrich Engels, concerned, along with his close collaborator Karl Marx, with the question of class struggle. In his book Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels (1884) makes the point that the state, from its very beginning, included a "special public force" to maintain its class structure.

"The second distinguishing characteristic [of the state] is the institution of a public force which is no longer immediately identical with the people's own organization of themselves as an armed power. This special public force is needed because a self-acting armed organization of the people has become impossible since their cleavage into classes. The slaves also belong to the population: as against the 365,000 slaves, the 90,000 Athenian citizens constitute only a privileged class. The people's army of the Athenian democracy confronted the slaves as an aristocratic public force, and kept them in check; but to keep the citizens in check as well, a police-force was needed, as described above. This public force exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men, but also of material appendages, prisons and coercive institutions of all kinds."

The lack of attention to the internal function of war is all the more remarkable since the internal use of force is essential to the very definition of the state. In general, it receives so little attention in the descriptions of ancient civilizations (both by those civilizations at the time and by contemporary historians), that we may consider it as a taboo topic. The taboo against discussing this continues to the present day, as will be considered in the following section.

What is the origin of this taboo?

Early empires, as described above, glorified their external military exploits against foreign enemies in their propaganda, art and religion, while they downplayed the internal use of the military to maintain order within the state. The glorification of the power of violence of the military rulers against external enemies should have impressed the citizenry sufficiently to discourage revolt. If, on the other hand, the rulers had emphasized the internal use of the military, it might have been counter-productive, producing a climate of fear and suspicion, much as Thucydides described when Hellenic society "became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow." As described above by White, religious institutions played an important role in supporting the internal culture of war by masking its force with elaborate rituals and teachings. The ruler was not said to rule by force but by religious "divine right." Over time, the capacity of the state for internal intervention became assumed but not questioned. Those who dared to raise questions would risk being considered as subversive.

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?