Total war

I first heard the term "total war" many years ago in reference to a series of real-time strategy video games, like Rome: Total War. In fact, if you do a Google search for the term, the first links are game-related.

But in reading Stephen Pinker's new book, I've learned there's a much nastier connotation to the term: genocide. Total war means not just killing your enemies, but their families too. You burn their villages and utterly wipe them. And while the relatively famous Biblical accounts of divinely-commanded genocide in the Old Testament are almost certainly fiction, total war wasn't that unusual in tribal warfare.

It's interesting to consider why. How could anyone, even tribal humans, do such horrible things? I've talked before about the hard-wiring of our empathetic circuitry – why wouldn't that be sufficient to stop people from killing babies? Pinker recounts events, detailed through historical writings and archeological findings, of truly grisly atrocities.

Imagine two feuding tribes. They both feel threatened by the other, and reason that to protect their own existence, they must kill the other tribe. But they don't wait for war; instead, they conduct a raid, piercing the first victims with arrows as they meander out of their tents to pee. In the ensuing commotion, the rest of the men and all the children are slaughtered. The women are mostly killed, but the occasional nubile young woman will be kidnapped and forced to bear the children of her family's murderers. From the Bible, in the book of Numbers:
31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Why would anyone do such horrible things? Survival. Because women can only bear so many children, and because a single man can impregnate many women, women were viewed as commodities. Kidnapping the women and raping them ensured the propagation of one's own tribe.

Why kill the children? Simple: because it could be reasoned that any offspring would grow up and desire revenge, threatening the safety of the tribe in the future. The safest thing to do, it would seem, was to resort to total war – wipe them out.

My point with all this isn't to justify such horrors. But I think that we tend to look upon the savagery of our tribal ancestors with scorn and disdain, and seldom stop to consider that intellectually, physically and emotionally, they weren't much different us at all. In a time when resources were scarce, starvation and disease were lurking constantly in the shadows, infant mortality was high and the threat of predation was imminent, there was much more competition and such hostilities seemed rational. And had any of us been born into such cultures, the odds are that we would have been gutting pregnant women and slaughtering children too.


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