Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two Modes of Warfare

Most tribal societies have frequent, low-intensity conflicts with their neighbors. Battle has a lot of posturing and noise, but can be called off if someone gets seriously hurt. It seems at first to be a sort of limit-setting behavior, much less aggressive than modern warfare. As near as we can tell, this type of tribal conflict was worldwide (though not universal) up until historic times. Those with permanent dwellings in cities behaved differently, but the outlying villages and tribes showed this pattern in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and even much of Europe. There is archaeological evidence that this pattern was common thousands of years ago as well.

Is seems safer than what occurred later with massed armies and invasions, but the death rate was actually higher. 20-30% of male skeletons show death by violence that is more likely human than animal. Intriguingly, some groups show less than half that rate of death. As less violence is a prerequisite for living in larger communities, it is perhaps these less-violent tribes that were able to form larger coalitions and settle down. Their greater numbers would have made them less-conquerable by their neighbors, further reducing the need for warfare and increasing the possibility of living in amity.

The death rate was (is) higher in these tribal groups because of frequency of battle. When you are fighting someone every week, the intensity does not have to be great for the number of dead to accumulate over time. But this was the pattern - bands of 150, fighting frequently with 2 or 3 deaths a year.

The second mode was complete extermination of another people, usually by surprise in complete disregard of the usual rules of posturing contact. After a period of escalation, one tribe would decide that the other should be simply gone. They would launch a night attack on the village and wipe them out. In historical times, anthropologists in New Guinea estimate that 30% of all tribes were exterminated by other tribes between 1850-1950. About one every few years, so you might not notice if you weren't keeping count of the whole area.

Absorbing this dual mode of warfare helps explain the conflicts between the Europeans and the Native Americans in the 17th C. The tribal peoples were used to limit-setting skirmishing, where few were hurt at any one time. The Europeans had a model more common to settled villages with armies and police forces about: in the event of trouble, suppress insurrection rapidly by making an example of a few. It is similar to the tribal view, but more intense. Fewer skirmishes, but more people die in them.

To the natives, such tactics were an escalation, carrying an immediate threat of all-out war - which was hardly what the settlers had in mind. Eventually, some tribes would massacre a small settlement, hoping to make a statement and put an end to it. To the Europeans, this was a further escalation.

Would things have gone better if we had understood them and they us? Perhaps not. At least in New England, all groups showed considerable forbearance and reluctance to go to war for the first 50 years - a remarkable run of coexistence, actually. But it doesn't take much, sometimes, for slight escalations to be seen as major changes in how people live near each other. Also, there are always people who are willing to take matters into their own hands, in defiance of leaders and agreements. The Europeans recorded the perfidies and violence of their own people, but were not privy to most of the same that was occurring in the Indian villages. As one would expect in such circumstances, their histories record that the colonists were mostly peaceful or merely defensive, with a few unfortunate bad 'uns of their own inciting violence. The natives they saw as more generally aggressive, though with many good and worthy people of their own.

The very few natives who learned to write early on do not record a mirror perspective from the originals point of view, as we might expect. It would seem natural that such a group would see the settlers as more aggressive, with their own people as more defensive, save for a few traitors and evil ones. But the literate natives record something in between - perhaps they had dual loyalties because they were perceived as traitors by their own tribes. As such, they may give the closest thing to an objective viewpoint from the era.

Yet in the long run, it certainly seems that such understanding could have been useful for all concerned.


Anonymous said...

Memories of King Phillip, no?

My 8th grade teacher read a book to us for 15 minutes in the morning about a boy in Western Mass kidnapped in some Indian War. Most likely after King Phillip, IIRC.

What is often forgotten about the European-Indian interaction on the frontier is that there was a fair amount of intermarriage. Like many Americans, I have a mixture of Indian and European ancestry.

karrde said...

Curious random tangent.

Are there multiple modes of warfare being enacted in the enterprise described as the Global War on Terrorism?

Can anyone elucidate, from the current vantage-point, what those modes are?

Anonymous said...

The conflicts between the European settlers and the Native Americans involved a lot of learning in both directions. As a New Englander wrote in 1677: "In our first war with the Indians, God pleased to show us the vanity of our military skill, in managing our arms, after the European mode. Now we are glad to learn the skulking way of war."

That skulking way of war proved very useful when the descendants of those early New Englanders came up against red-coated regulars a century later.

--Scurvy Oaks

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