Thursday, December 20, 2018

On the Origin of Wars

Statue of Genghis Khan in Mongolia
Jacob Bronowski, in his book The Ascent of Man, says that “the largest single step in the ascent of man is the change from nomad to village agriculture.”

But the rise of the settled communities, which were creating surplus produce through agriculture, led to conflicts between the settlers and the nomads. Bronowski traces the origins of war to this conflict. The nomads wanted to survive by stealing the surplus agricultural production and the settlers wanted to preserve the product of their labor, and they had no choice but to fight.

The invention of agriculture twelve thousand years ago did not establish the superiority of the settled way of life, but the discovery of the method of domestication of animals—sheep, goat and then the horse—energized the settled communities. Ironically, the domesticated horse also gave a significant advantage to the nomadic tribes, enabling them to travel to vast distances. Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol dynasty, made use of the horse to propel his army into China, Middle East, and Central Europe. Bronowski sees the wars of Genghis Khan as the final attempt to prove the superiority of the nomadic way of life, but the attempt failed.

Here’s an excerpt Bronowski’s book:
Genghis Khan was a nomad and the inventor of a powerful war machine — and that conjunction says something important about the origins of war in human history. Of course, it is tempting to close one’s eyes to history, and instead to speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organized war, is not human instinct. It is highly planned and co-operative form of theft. And that form of theft began ten thousand years ago when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a surplus, and the nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what they themselves could not provide. The evidence for that we saw in the walled city of Jericho and its prehistoric tower. That is the beginning of war.  
Genghis Khan and his Mongol dynasty brought that thieving way of life into our own millennium. From AD 1200 to 1300 they made almost the last attempt to establish the supremacy of the robber who produces nothing and who, in his feckless way, comes to take from the peasant (who has nowhere to flee) the surplus that agriculture accumulates. 
Yet that attempt failed. And it failed because in the end there was nothing for the Mongols to do except themselves to adopt the way of life of the people that they had conquered. When they conquered the Muslims, they became Muslims. They became settlers because theft, war, is not a permanent state that can far sustained. Of course, Genghis Khan still had his bones carried about as a memorial by his armies in the field. But his grandson Kublai Khan was already a builder and settled monarch in China… 
Civilization is always created by settled people, while the nomads, the people who are lacking in productive, social, and cultural roots have always been the war-makers.

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