To Go to War, First You Must Hate the Mountain

This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought, right there in front of you. Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die! You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn! How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does until what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning. Sit down and talk!

–The Doctor

Like a fish to water, humans are to relationships. It’s the medium in which we move and from which we extract everything we need to thrive. It’s what allowed us to move beyond scavenging, to deeply understand the world around us, and to form cultures that can hold that wisdom across time.

War is a wound that breaks that world.

There are some who argue that war is as old as time, that it’s a part of the human condition. That chimpanzees go to war. Or ants. Somebody, somewhere, is already digging up another example.

It’s justification, pure and simple, trying to excuse away the excesses of today by saying it happened yesterday, too. The problem is it didn’t. More and more evidence is pointing to the fact that war is an artifact of civilization.

Even more plainly, in order to wage war, first you must hate the mountain.

A Little Light Combat…

Anthropology first. Modern analyses are confirming what tribes have long been talking about. Conflicts exist, especially at the edges of territory, and fights, even deaths, are as old as time.

But war? Why would you even want to go to war? “Their” territory is different than yours. “Their” way of life is different and you’d have to alter yours in order to thrive in their environment. Who wants that kind of work?

Occasionally a disaster would force a land into conflict, or a family feud that sucked in everyone else. Just as often, though, the story would end in one culture adopting the refugees, or a person-of-peace figuring out a way to end the blood feud.

And just to make sure you understand, there were some nasty spots. Borders where tribes actively pushed against each other violently. Still, despite the blood, it often didn’t end up in a ‘victor’.

Think of it more as ‘population control’. And before you got judging folks for that, remember even civilized cultures send their 18 year olds to die, for far less noble reasons than ‘protecting the boundaries’.

For the most part, conflict stayed at the level of ‘bar brawl’ despite what we’d recognize as war-like technologies: axes, bows, swords, etc.

So what happened?

Hello, Agriculture

Gardening: plant a lot of different things, or encourage this behavior in your local ecosystem. Very resilient system. Bad luck can kill a lot of stuff but if you have variety, there’s usually some food to fall back on.

Agriculture: plant a limited amount of things by ripping up your local ecosystem. Fragile system. Bad luck wipes out your crop and you starve.

So why do it?


That’s the simple answer.

I always turn back to the Sumerian creation myths. Easy go-to. Runs like this: most cultures in that area relied on gardening by the river. Flood season provided all sorts of cool opportunities for growing things.

Something happened. Common story is the weather went crazy, affecting both the ocean and the river. The proto-Sumerians were so devastated by the death count that they were willing to first give up their freedom and then, later, enslave others, in order to deal with it.

One of the cornerstones of animism–or as I’d like to argue, of humanity–is our ability to perceive and nurture a relationship with anything. It can be an animal we’re hunting or a plant we’re trying to nurture. It allows us to spot symbiotic relationships which we can turn to our advantage.

But in this case, the Sumerians felt betrayed. They grew to hate the land, to Other it. And from that sprung farms and cities. The physical path–growing annuals–was already available because they relied on flood seasons. The social technology was to train their kids to maintain that hate.

From Ag to Cities to War

Once you’ve learned the trick of pretending you don’t like something, it’s easy to apply that to whatever you like. The river becomes a monster you have to kill. The mountain ceases to be Grandmother and turns into something you can mine.

And once you hate the mountain, can you imagine how easy it is to hate a group of people you rarely interact with?

Can you see how easy it becomes to wage war on them?

After all, once upon a time, some humans waged war against a god and his lover. Against all odds, they won. And their victory has doomed us ever since.

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