Tuesday, January 05, 2010

More on War and the Hunt

Telling comments on the last post. I apologize for bringing you all into a conversation in the middle.

Here’s the deal: certain forms of violence hit humans, particularly men, at a very deep level. When Robert E. Lee says, “It is well that war is so terrible or we would grow to love it too much,” or a French survivor of the German occupation after WWII says that it was horrible and she never wants anything like that to happen again BUT she has never felt really alive since…

We need to look at that. Not pretend it doesn’t happen. Not arbitrarily decide that since it sounds icky to us, anyone who says that kind of thing must be crazy or deluded or wrong. It’s an important data point. If peace is important to you, you will never do anything about it by ignoring the aspects of violence that you want to disbelieve.

If humans are important to you, you do a great disservice to yourself by ignoring or denigrating things that don’t fit your worldview. No matter who you are, your experience with the world is very limited. Approaching disagreements with curiosity almost always works better than doing so defensively.

Do I love war? No idea. The time I spent in a war zone was pretty mild. I dislike the idea of war, but seen both good and bad results from it. I won’t pretend to have an opinion without a lot more input.

Now that that is out of the way-

Monkeys don’t hunt elephants. That’s important. Personally, I don’t see a lot that I like in chimp social dynamics, either. Those two thoughts are related.

It hasn’t been an exhaustive study for me, but almost everything negative in human society can be found in chimps- betrayal, punishing the different, bullies, even ritual murder. The chimp idea of altruism and self-sacrifice is to spend a few hours picking lice or share a bit of food. Monkeys don’t hunt elephants.

Humans do hunt elephants. With primitive stone tools we hunted a lot of big animals, some to extinction in North America. Canoes of men armed with stone tipped spears would go after whale in the Pacific Northwest, challenging some of the biggest animals alive in some of the cruelest conditions.

These are the things I see in humans that I don’t see in chimps and (don’t always see in humans, for that matter). But when I do see them, I see humans at their best.

Teamwork in dangerous conditions for the common good. Self-sacrifice up to and including death for people you are not even related to. The ability to set ego aside and follow someone else’s plan. Innovation towards a common goal. Team planning. Respect based on merit. Reward based on need (not all humans do this, but many do and did- children eat first from a hunt; potlatch; “Sergeants eat last.”)

There are other things too- the hunt and war drove technology, and tool use made human life what it is today. It is a straight line from the first obsidian or flint hide-scraper to the laptop I’m typing on now.

Hunting may have driven the development of language. Gathering doesn’t take a lot of words and farming only a little more and neither require speed and precision of information.

These are all very human things. These things we do better than chimps. These are things that got us to the moon and one day, hopefully, will take us to the stars.

Not many people hunt anymore and those that do have a huge technological advantage. It no longer requires the teamwork and careful planning of hunting a mastodon with spears. Few hunters are at risk except from each other.

Hunting is still important. You can talk all you want about the circle of life and man’s place in nature and ecology and Gaia but until and unless you have killed your own food (and wild food if you consider yourself a back-to-nature type) you’re just blowing smoke out your ass. It’s all platitudes. Hunting is still important for that, but it’s not like it used to be, far less a community necessity. It no longer drives technology.

People doing dangerous jobs in dangerous environments are the ones who still need and most often show these things that I consider hallmark human virtues.

I think this is part of the attraction of war- it’s certainly not the smells or the deafening noise or the terror. It’s not the snuffing out of irreplaceable individuals or the possibility of being snuffed out yourself. It is a place, one of the few places left, where the unique human traits of the hunt, the ones that have driven everything extraordinary that humans ever did, are valued over the monkey traits of maintaining the status quo and catering to feelings.

The best of humans comes out, but also the worst of monkey society: fear leading to acting out; violence used in ego or status defense instead of survival or to accomplish a mission; turf wars over information or credit that cost lives; ‘othering’- cultivating a racism or classism to make it easier for the monkey to kill*…

(Simultaneously, this is all bullshit to an extent. The people I hang out with are professionals, the ones who have made a conscious, experienced decision to deal with bad things. I don't spend time with the others, if I can avoid it. Hence there is a lot of sampling bias here. Were there professionals making what I cavalierly describe as human-level decisions in the Rwanda genocides?

Even if you don't spend time with people who are reacting like monkeys, even the best have chosen, or been born into, a side through social forces.)

* That’s another parallel, the high-end, most professional and effective soldiers and officers that I know work hard to understand the enemy culture and have profound respect for what they face, just as humans long ago often worshipped (that word is somewhat of an anachronism, maybe ‘reverenced’?) the animals that they hunted. Othering propaganda is necessary to get the monkey emotions involved.


Steve Perry said...

Well, your metaphor doesn't exactly get it out of the way quite so easily, war. I'm tending to agree with the opening line of the third-to-last-graph of your post.

Hunting for food is not war. Harvesting a wild pig to feed your family is not on the same level with systemized slaughter of your fellow sapients in large numbers.

It just isn't.

Humans are not monkeys. Yeah, we might all be apes, but there's a fairly large gap between lemurs and gorillas, and between them and us. I think extrapolating from a troop of howler monkeys or chimps to humans is a stretch. Hell, even extrapolating from the mores of one country or one tribe to another is often a stretch.

Yes, wars will sometimes be necessary. But looking forward to getting your chance to blow away the guy on the other side of the fence isn't noble. I don't think that makes one a real man, and if that's what it takes, I'm happy not being such a fellow.

I won't argue against the idea that testosterone likes to run naked down the path and beat the crap out of anything that gets in its way. I know the appeal.

But dear old Bobby Lee notwithstanding, people who love war have their bolts dogged down too tight for my taste. It sounds as if you are offering up a romantic notion on the comrade-in-arms-doing-manly-worthy-work, and while it might bring out the best in some men some of the time, it also brings out the worst in others, resulting in wholesale murder of grannies, children, and anybody who gets caught in the crosshairs.

Tell me I'm wrong.

Guys who shrug that off and say, "Well, shit happens in war." make me sure that real civilization is still along way off.

We aren't coming to agreement on this one ...

Jay Gischer said...

It is said of baseball that "The Game does not build character, it reveals it." So it is, it seems to me, with combat.

Character, as defined by habits and attitudes, changes but very slowly with time and patient, hard slogging.

What a person does under extreme pressure is mostly playback the most stress-trained habits they have.

Spending long periods of time in such a high-pressure situation means that there is a process of desensitization that takes place. And so you have the woman in the resistance, or the combat veteran who hasn't felt alive since.

It bothers me though, when you dichotomize monkey=bad and human=good. We are monkeys, and a lot of that monkey stuff is very very handy.

The politics of monkeys aren't a distraction, they are essential, and always there. I smile when a junior engineer says how he likes the fact that this company has no politics. Of course the company has politics, there's always politics. And some of it quite nasty.

How long did it take humans to figure out how to get 100 soldiers to work together in formation - the phalanx? And then 10,000 or 100,000? That's not really a normal behavior, though it is often rewarding. That's social stuff, politics. It's dangerous too; it's so powerful that you can get those 100,000 to do really terrible things.

Kinginsan said...

"Teamwork in dangerous conditions for the common good. Self-sacrifice up to and including death for people you are not even related to. The ability to set ego aside and follow someone else’s plan. Innovation towards a common goal. Team planning."

You mention these as things not present in chimps. I think you underestimate how similar we are to our closest relatives. The evidence can be seen here in this clip of chimpanzees waging war on another clan:

Planet Earth clip on chimp raiding parties

Thanks for all the blog posts, I really appreciate reading them and I always learn something new from them.


Chris | Martial Development said...

Rory, you make a good argument in favor of club sports. But when one puts a gun in every player's hand, volunteers another man's home for the playfield, and lies about the purpose and the rules of the game, it's not quite so noble anymore.

Emma said...

"Here’s the deal: certain forms of violence hit humans, particularly men, at a very deep level."

Why particularly men?

Ann T. said...

Dear Rory,
Well, I'm pretty lost among the apes, but I'm going also with the group here. I think you have dismissed the other pursuits and their virtues, by which I mean, their intrinsic qualities.

Take precision, for instance. The agriculturalists studied astronomy first. They needed to study meteorology more than hunters did--although it was useful to all of them. It's the settlers, not the vagabonds, that created Stonehenge and other early observatories.

Hunts are also comprised of sloppy kills and lucky accidents. Is it more precise to fish with a line or a net? Any dumbass can put a seed in the ground, but making it happen at the right time and place takes precision--knowing about ground temperature or a good strain of grain to grow.

Do you think farmers don't have loyalty? They sit on the same patch of ground while marauders run back and forth across it year after year. What else can loyalty be?

In Somalia, the person who goes to get water from the well is making a sacrifice for some "greater cause" and the other guy has a gun. Who is the best warrior there?

Last of all, throughout this you forget the history of women in war: mostly not as warriors as history understands it. But it was a period of unending trial for camp followers (a necessary component of war) disaster and physical risk. Are we going to say they didn't prepare weapons as well as food, or use them from time to time?

The distinction between hunting/war and 'warrior/person who is able to function selflessly in crisis'--you are not doing the distinctions proper justice.

Ann T.

karrde said...

[long time reader, first time poster...]

I'll join you in using the words "monkey" and "human" to describe these two kinds of traits. Whether the labels are accurate can be set aside for later, in my opinion.

I have little experience in hunting, and zero in warfare.

But I think I grasp what you are saying: it is far too easy for the inexperienced to mislabel the joy of struggle as a desire to kill fellow humans. (As it is equally easy to mislabel the joy of hunting as hatred of the animal hunted...)

I may have seen a shadow of that joy, when I focus my whole being upon a problem which requires trained skill. It has happened once or twice while I was working on a challenging program as a computer programmer. It has happened once when I was taking training in marksmanship with a rifle.

Travis said...

Don't know quite how tis fits in but wanted to raise it in regards to the whole war/human nobility thing. Met a Vietnam Vet once, guy didn't believe in war in general or Vietnam in particular. Number was coming up though. Didn't want to run to Canada. So he enlisted as a corpsman. Ends up being deep in the shit with the Marine Corps. Liked it.Thrived on the adrenaline rush and the life and death drama of war. Did 3 or 4 tours. Never fired a weapon at an enemy, philosophically oppossed to war, loved being in one.