The History of the Culture of War
Summary of the history of the culture of war 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


In summary, the culture of war has been an integral part of human culture from early in human evolution. Every aspect of human culture has been profoundly influenced by it, including family structure, the upbringing and education of children, distinctions between men and women, the invention and maintenance of the state, the invention and maintenance of exploitation and racism, and the resultant economic systems including international trade and globalization.

By the end of prehistory, the culture of war was probably pervasive, judging by archaeological evidence. The best hypothesis is that ritual warfare was maintained by most societies and, in the long run, this prepared them to survive otherwise catastrophic famines by raiding the supplies of other communities, or defending their own supplies at such a time. The culture of war included both psychological preparation for war through myths, rituals and traditions and physical preparation through the regular practice of combat, ranging from sporting competitions and initiation rites to ritual warfare and periodic raids and feuds. Judging by the cross-cultural analysis of existing ethnographic data, prehistoric culture of war probably included warriors and weapons, authoritarian rule associated with military leadership, control of information through secrecy, identification of an "enemy", education of young men to be warriors, and male domination.

Male domination was pervasive by the end of prehistory because of the need to exclude women from anything concerning warfare and its related activities of big game hunting and metal-working. Women had to be excluded from warfare in order to resolve the contradiction resulting from the fact that war was carried out against the same neighboring groups with which one inter-married. This made it likely that wars would be fought between the husband of a woman on one side and her father and brothers on the other side. Women could not be trusted with the secrets of warfare, and this was essential because raids, which had to be planned in advance, carried the risk of being ambushed and defeated if women revealed the plans to the "enemy".

With the invention of the state, war was transformed. This is true whether or not one accepts the well-accepted hypothesis that the state evolved out of warfare. Since writing was invented at more or less the same time as the state, we know a great deal about this period from ancient manuscripts.

Warfare took on new functions, two external and one internal. The tribe or group was no longer the actor, but instead it was the state that monopolized the means of violence within its borders. The new functions of warfare were in support of the state: external conquest and defense and internal control. Externally, war was used to increase the power and wealth of the state through military victories, plunder and slaves, and it was used to defeat attempts at invasion by other states. Internally, it was used to prevent and/or defeat attempts at insurrection by slaves or other exploited peoples or rival political forces.

Under the state, the culture of war was also transformed in order to serve the new functions of warfare. Power was based on military leadership and a class-structured society that exploited slaves that were taken prisoner through warfare. As a result, the culture of war became more complex, retaining the characteristics inherited from prehistory, as described above, and adding new characteristics, including wealth based on plunder and slavery, an economy based on exploitation (slaves, serfs, etc.), means to deter slave revolts and political dissidents including internal use of military power, prisons and executions, religious institutions that support the government and military, and artistic and literary glorification of military conquest.

From the beginning of recorded history until 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. Internal war has been and continues to be 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.

Over the course of time the economic benefits of plunder and slavery have been extended and/or 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. Revolutionary movements have traditionally been organized along the lines of the culture of war, and, as a result, the states that have emerged as the result of armed revolution have themselves become new cultures of war.

In recent history, the culture of war at the level of the state has been further reinforced by the development of the military-industrial-complex in which a major section of the newly developed capitalist class has joined its forces with the state. Simultaneously, although in secret, the culture of war has come to include the trade of drugs and guns. Internal military intervention has been put at the service of the capitalist class for the suppression of the labor movement and revolts by the unemployed. Racism and nationalism have been added as essential components that justify and support all other aspects of the culture of war.

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; it has become increasingly a monopoly of the state, essential to the maintenance of state power.

The internal functions of the culture of war explain why state power cannot allow a culture of peace. Perhaps the nation-states would be able to devise a new international system through the United Nations that would protect them from external invasion and conquest, but there is no indication that they are willing to abandon their "right" to use force internally, nor are they even willing to discuss the topic which remains, for the most part, a taboo, i.e. forbidden discussion. Under normal conditions, the authoritarian control exerted through the electoral process of so-called democratic governance at the national level, and the control of information through the mass media, religious instruction and educational systems ensure the power of the state.

Of course, there are great differences between states at any given moment in the extent to which their culture of war is evident. The rich states of the North, for example Scandinavia, are in a better position to hide their internal culture of war through provisions of the welfare state and more liberal systems of electoral participation and education while the poorer states of the South are often less able to accomplish this. But this difference itself is a function of the culture of war, as it rests upon the neo-colonial exploitation whereby the Global North continues to get richer at the expense of the Global South. The United Nations system helps to maintain this exploitation through the policies of the UN Security Council which maintains nuclear and political superiority and the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization which maintain the economic superiority of the North.

In a word, the usefulness of the culture of war at the present time continues to be its support of the unity and power of the state.

Is there an alternative: can a culture of peace be developed to replace the culture of war? I think so, and in that belief I have written two companion books to this book, one a strategy proposal (Adams 2009) and the other a utopian novel (Adams 2008).

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?