Philip Carl Salzman: Is Peace Normal?

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In Israel, there is a political lobby group called “Peace Now,” as if peace were a circumstance that could be brought into being by the political will of one party. The same sentiment was expressed, somewhat less arrogantly, by Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, when he famously (or infamously) said that Israelis were tired of fighting and beating their Arab neighbors. The assumption appears to be that peace is normal and war is anomalous, and thus if war is present, someone must be doing something wrong.

But the historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that it is peace that is anomalous, and war that is normal. Even desiring peace, as opposed to desiring victory, is anomalous.

Nothing is more normal in tribal life than hostile attack against one’s neighbors. In fact, usually there was a normative graded scale of conflict according to distance: those closest to one were fought with more restrictions, and those more distant fought more freely. For example, among the Nuer of the southern Sudan, within settlements men fought with only clubs; between settlements men fought with spears, but did not kill women or burn housing, and Nuer could not be taken as slaves; outside of the Nuer, fighting the Dinka, not only were the men fought to the death, but the very young and elderly were murdered and settlements were burned, with youths and nubile females taken as slaves. The same was true among the Bedouin: in raiding among the camel-herding tribes, camel herds were taken, men were fought, but women were not interfered with, and families were left a few milch camels to support their subsistence needs (William Irons, “Livestock Raiding among Pastoralists”). But in raids among non-tribal peoples, no such provisions were made, and women and men were taken as slaves, to provide household labor and sexual services.

In tribes, all men are warriors, a few ritual specialists excepted. Responsibility for social control and defense is diffused throughout the group. Each man must hone his fighting skills and be ready to fight, whether against neighboring groups, other tribes, or more distant peoples. It is common that rights of passage for young men involve fighting and returning with a trophy. Raiding between tribes for livestock and other valuables is a constant sport and means of production. We have to keep in mind that in labor-intensive subsistence economies, under constant threat from adverse environmental cycles, increased production, even reliably maintained production, is arduous and chancy. By far the easiest and most exhilarating (if not the least dangerous) way to increase income is by predatory raiding of what others have sweated to produce. Among Bedouin, raiding and warfare were endemic . Furthermore, prestige rested upon success in raiding and generosity in distributing the captured camels among one’s kinsmen.

Emir Nuri Sha’alan of the Rwala Bedouin produced, through a long series of multiple marriages, thirty-nine sons. Of these, thirty-seven died violently, mostly in raids, seeking fame and fortune before they married, and the thirty-eighth was killed after he married but before he had children. “The [camel] economy was booming,” wrote William Lancaster, “the inner desert was still inviolate and raiding and warfare extremely bloody.” The Hamawand Kurds are described as “adapting their whole society to an economy based on war and looting.” Charles Lindholm has described the “continuous and fruitless struggles for power” characteristic of segmentary tribal societies, which in some cases extended to conquering and ruling settled societies.

Among the Baluch of the Sarhad region of Iranian Baluchistan, until 1935 when the tribe fell under the control of the Iranian crown, raiding of Persian caravans and villages was not only common, but regularly organized on a tribal basis, with raids twice a year led by the Sardar, chief, in addition to raids initiated on a more spontaneous basis anytime during the year by any tribesmen who cared to undertake the venture. Livestock, grain stores, carpets, and other valuables were seized, as well as captives to be kept as agricultural slaves, or married (with no bridewealth required), or to be sold. When I did my ethnographic field research among the Yarahmadzai Baluch, the matriarch of the Dadolzai lineage was a woman who had been captured forty years earlier from a Persian village by a fourteen-year-old raider, now long her husband. If anything, the Yomut Turkmen of northeastern Iran were even more assiduous raiders. They viewed the racially distinct Persians as free game to be captured at will and sold into slavery at markets in Central Asia. When not slave-raiding in Persian villages, the Turkmen preyed on Persian caravans. At the same time, they also pursued intratribal feuds and intertribal wars among the several Yomut tribes.

If tribes are notoriously bellicose, can the same be said for other forms of societal organization? Hunters and gatherers have come to have a reputation for peacefulness. After all, they live off of the plenty of the land and have no possessions to speak of; what would they have to fight about? And yet fight they do. A worldwide ethnographic survey indicates that 64 percent of hunters and gatherers had warfare at least every two years, while 26 percent had warfare less often; only 10 percent were described as warring rarely or not at all. Even among the peaceful 10 percent, homicides, executions, and vendettas were common, at a much higher level than in industrial societies. Agrarian societies usually produce sufficient goods for a surplus to be skimmed off by the dominating clergy and military, who use their powers primarily to control the populace. But these are static societies, and increase of riches requires expansion, commonly territorial and military. For the military elite and their priestly allies, conquest and empire bring new recruits and new dependents, new glory and new wealth. Once again, war provided the means that production did not.

Only in the 17th century, with the development of science and technology, was a dynamic of ever-increasing production initiated. For the first time, in the increasingly industrial societies, riches did not depend upon expropriating wealth from others. The military became less dominant, and more under the control of civil authorities. Fewer people were involved in the military, and non-military virtues came to the fore. Industrial societies internally were and are the most peaceful in history, with stunningly low rates of physical conflict and intentional death. And yet, wars for expansion continued, for glory and for wealth, success enabled by industrial capabilities. No amount of wealth attained is, it appears, ever sufficient. And glory, status, and honor, while universally desired, must be, by their natures, differentially distributed and thus inevitably scarce and awarded only to the most successful.

The Middle East, not yet industrial and still to a degree tribal, enjoys neither dynamic production nor a demilitarized public. Governments tend to be predatory and individuals’ security rests largely with kinship groups. Such groups contest for status conceived as honor, as well as for economic resources and benefits. Governments look beyond their borders for expansion, as well as for enemies to frighten their “citizens” into solidarity and support. In such societies, when a gain appears possible, it is normal to engage in armed conflict. It is only when such a gain appears undeniably impossible that a temporary period of peace seems attractive.

As members of industrial, civil societies, we are ill-prepared to appreciate the nature of non-industrial societies. Each man and woman makes the world in his and her own image. It is normal for us to universalize our particular cultural norms and expectations to the world at large and all peoples in it. But such projection is unavoidably misleading, and acting on our assumptions guarantees major contusions as we bump into reality as constructed by the “other.” Anyone who convinces himself that he must have peace at all costs, probably does not understand what “all costs” means, and shall end up paying on the other’s terms. A “solution” at any cost to conflict may well be considerably worse than the conflict itself. If we feel compelled to pursue peace, we might more realistically call our group “Peace, If Possible,” and consider how to generate the conditions necessary, beyond our hopes, both for the establishment and maintenance of a peace, if inevitably only a temporary one. The main condition for peace, I would suggest, is that gain from conflict appears to one’s opponents undeniably impossible.

Illustration: Georges Washington, “Retour d’une razzia: Oued R’hir, Afrique,” 1876. The painting depicts a raiding party returning home to the walled city of Oued Rhiou, located between Algiers and Oran.

Professor Salzman is a member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East .

Philip Carl Salzman: Is Peace Normal?

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

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