The Evolution of the Military
The Predation Era
Human life is taken to be another variety of natural life, which has evolved over the past few million years, starting out in East Africa and spreading globally. It seems that, during that time, a variety of hominid types appeared and subsequently either became extinct, or interbred with other hominids.
Untooled early humans, whatever their subsequent history, do not appear to have been predators, but plant gatherers. They lacked the speed and power of the major predators, as well as the incisors and claws.
Humans are relatively slow-moving, unarmoured animals. This must have made them easy meat for almost any large predator. If human numbers were, for millions of years, relatively low, it is probably because heavy predation kept their numbers down, and restricted them to a few refuges inaccessible to their predators.
Since one effect of intense predation is to increase reproduction, this was probably a period when human societies organized to maximize reproduction. In such society, fertile women were prized, and had high status. Female newborns were preferred over male. For hundreds of thousands of years, human societies were matriarchies. This was the era of the Great Mother. Men, by contrast, were dispensable. If human males survived into adulthood, they were employed to perform dangerous and potentially fatal tasks which precious females could not be used for. Male life expectancy was probably considerably less than that of females.
If humans were disadvantaged in speed, strength, and armour, they were advantaged by being more intelligent and dextrous than almost any other animal. They lived by their wits. And they used their hands not only to collect food, but to build shelters and hides, and make simple tools. Humans who knew the habits of predators, the alarm calls of other species, the locations of every kind of food, every river and lake and cave, and who could learn and teach a variety of skills within human societies, were much more likely to survive than those who were relatively ignorant or unintelligent. Natural selection, as it acted on humans, acted to remove the least intelligent, the least skilled, the least knowledgeable, the least dextrous. Human intelligence grew because only the most intelligent and dextrous humans survived and reproduced, and because human societies were able to retain and teach their skills to subsequent generations.
With rising intelligence and dexterity, humans began to forge ever more sophisticated tools. They learned how to cover themselves with the hides of animals, or with woven cloth. They learned how to make knives, axes, baskets, ropes. With spears, clubs, shields, body armour, they began to be able to drive away predators. The first human armies were almost certainly not formed to fight other humans, but to defend against predators. They were composed of males, because males were dispensable in matriarchal society. Most of the military skills of using spears, swords, javelins, arrows, slings, in disciplined military formations, using carefully worked-out tactics, probably emerged when humans began to confront their predators. What had been easy meat for lions, tigers, wolves, and hyenas, became increasingly difficult, as these predators met with gradually mounting resistance.
This was an heroic age, as human groups gradually ventured into hitherto forbidden lands. The labours of Hercules, which begin with the strangling of the Nemean lion, and continue with the slaying of the Lernan Hydra and the Stymphalian Birds, may well be an echo from this time. Theseus also was a destroyer of monsters.
If predation had been the main restrictor of human numbers, the defeat of their predators resulted in an explosion in human numbers. Humans streamed from their refuges, and moved in relative safety across hitherto impassable country. Armed, mobile human groups gradually came to range across entire continents.
With rising human numbers, matriarchal society began to break down. Female fecundity, which had maintained human numbers during the predation era, ceased to be an asset, and began to become a liability. The requirement to maximize reproduction began to give way to a requirement to restrict or minimize reproduction. The status of women began to fall, and of men to rise. Male children came to be preferred over female. Restrictions on female sexual relations began to be imposed. Matriarchy turned into patriarchy.
It seems unlikely that humans could have become hunters before they were able to defend themselves against predators. They had to learn how to defend themselves before they learned to attack. The largely defensive military skills which they had acquired in combating their predators could only now be employed to hunt other animals. The spears and arrows which could so effectively drive away or disable a predator could be used to disable and kill any large animal. Humans became carnivores, while remaining the herbivores they had always been. This threw open new supplies of food. Human societies could switch between hunting and gathering as circumstances directed. Where rising grazing animal populations had reduced plant cover, humans would become predators. When overgrazing brought a collapse in the grazer population, and the recovery of plant populations, humans would switch back to gathering. In this way, perhaps by also learning how to preserve and store foodstuffs, their dietary adaptability meant that they could survive crises which full-time grazers and predators could not. After all, lions can't switch to eating grain or fruit or roots. And deer cannot switch from grazing to hunting rabbits and birds.
Since a large animal represents enough food to perhaps sustain an entire human hunting group for several weeks, hunting large animals meant big payoffs for comparatively modest efforts, and a more idle life. After a big kill, the hunters could feast at leisure. But single human hunters could not capture large animals. This could only be done by a group of hunters. The bigger the prey, the larger the hunting group required. Such hunting groups required organisation, and a command structure. The hunting group had to work in close concert. A single commander would oversee the chase. The other members of the hunting group obeyed his orders. Strict discipline was necessary for success. - the alternative was chaotic and ineffective pursuit. These commanders would also decide when and where the group should move next, as the seasons changed, and animals migrated.
The hunters probably tended to become specialists. They became highly skilled at hunting particular animals. As they specialised, they began to lose other hunting skills.
As humans expanded across the globe, there was probably little or no conflict between the pioneering human societies. Food of every kind was probably abundant, and if it was not, a human society could simply move on to new lands. Inter-human conflict probably only arose when expansion ceased, and rising human populations began to encroach on each other. Only then did the military skills developed first to defend against predators, and later to hunt animals, begin to be employed in war.
If one-time all-purpose hunter-gatherers began to produce specialist hunting societies, they also produced specialist gatherers.
During the period of expansion, nomadic humans would have lived off the natural bounty of the land, simply moving on to fresher fields when it became inadequate. It was only when nomadic movement was checked, either by natural barriers, or by existing inhabitants, that humans began to cultivate the land. Already knowing what plants grew where, and in what climates, they began to use this knowledge to create farms on which crops were intensively cultivated, fields of wheat planted, orchards set out, fishponds stocked. Previously nomadic human groups settled on farms. The farms produced far more food than uncultivated land. They began to fence off their fields to keep out grazing animals. Private property came into existence. And they began to employ other predators - dogs, cats, falcons, snakes - to ensure that birds and rats and mice did not destroy their crops. They began to harness cattle to plough their fields, and horses and donkeys to carry their loads.
Settled life brought many other changes. Nomadic groups had to travel light. They probably lived in tents, slept in hammocks, and carried the minimum impedimenta. But once settled in one place, they were able to build substantial wooden or mudbrick or stone houses. They could construct robust furniture. They could make heavy clay pottery. They could use numerous heavy tools, such as ploughs. After all, none of it would be moved very far, if anywhere at all.
Settled life had disadvantages. Farming settlements on fertile soils would generally not have access to metals, or leather, or even timber. They could only acquire these through trade with localities which were rich in the materials they needed. The excess produce of the land - grain, fruit, cattle - could be used to exchange for knives, leather, timber. As this trade increased, so paths between settlements became roads, and fords became bridges, and rivers became the canals down which timber and stone and grain and cattle could be transported in bulk.
Settled farming existence also brought a lapse in hunting skills. The farmers were engaged in creating fields, building irrigation systems, sowing and guarding and harvesting. Another task was to keep grazing animals, attracted by the abundant crops, off their farms. They built walls, ditches, hedges, fences. As every type of grazing animal attempted to invade their farms, the farmers enlisted all kinds of predators in their cause. Birds of prey, snakes, cats, and hunting dogs stood guard over their crops. They became valued members of human society, acting to curb insect and bird and rat predations. When, occasionally, there was not enough natural food to support these guards, humans actively fed them, to ensure they stayed resident.
Farming settlements did not require the iron military discipline of human hunting groups. Only occasionally, as at the harvest, did farmers need to work in concert.
The Nomadic Kings
While some human groups adopted a settled existence, the remainder continued a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. But this existence became increasingly difficult, as nomadic hunting groups multiplied and began to dispute between each other over access to hunting grounds. And at the same time, the game on which they fed grew smaller and scarcer. The life of hunting, which had once been so easy, became more and more arduous and uncertain.
The rich farms which had begun to multiply, quite separately, in fertile river valleys, now began to attract their attention. Quite simply, there was an easier life to be had looting largely undefended farms and settlements, than continuing to hunt increasingly scarce game. As the hunters turned on these rich farmsteads, at the outset they probably merely looted and devastated them. The farmers, if they were not killed in the assault, would not have survived long on their devastated farms, which fell into complete ruin.
When the looted farms did not recover to produce harvests in following years, the nomadic hunters probably began to restrict their predations. They ceased to devastate the farms, murder the farmers, and take all their food, but instead began to leave sufficient stocks behind for the farmers to continue farming, and produce harvests in subsequent years, for collection by the hunters.
In effect, they forced the farmers to pay a tithe or a tax. In an annual cycle of nomadic movement, they would return each year to claim some portion of the harvest. And they were able to enforce the payment because it was they who possessed the hunting discipline and weaponry which converted into military power, while the farmers did not. Since the farms produced much more grain and fruit than the original uncultivated land, the farmers were generally able to pay what was - initially at least - a relatively low tax.
With farmsteads multiplying, and each one paying the tax, a new life beckoned for the nomadic hunters. With enough farms paying tax, they could abandon hunting, and live off their tithes alone. But they had to ensure that other nomadic hunters didn't come and demand taxes from their farms. They had to drive out anyone who tried. They had to jealously protect their newly acquired assets. Nomadic hunters thus became the first kings. They continued to hunt and chase, and to restlessly move their court from place to place, in royal progress. But they were now resident kings of tax-yielding farmlands.
The nomadic hunters, living off the natural bounty of uncultivated land, were probably seldom numerous. They were able to subdue larger numbers of farmers by dint of their superior weaponry, mobility, and discipline. But as farms increased in numbers, and were able to support far higher populations, sheer weight of numbers increasingly began to favour the peasant farmers against the minority armed aristocracy. If this did not result in the overthrow of the king, it at least translated into reduced taxation.
There were several ways in which such kings could improve their fortune. The first way was to increase the level of taxation. But this would only work up to the point where the more numerous farmers refused to pay, or openly revolted. The other way was to grab farmland from adjoining kingdoms. The more land they could hold, the larger the tax revenues of the king, and the larger the army he could maintain. And the larger the army that the king could muster, the easier it became to overrun adjoining kingdoms, and acquire still larger tax revenues. The expansion of kingdoms into empires had a self-feeding logic.
While such empires expanded, their aristocracy expanded in numbers, and junior members could hope to be promoted to seniority as time passed. But if the empire ceased to expand, or, worse still, contracted, then promotion ceased, and the numbers of the aristocracy decreased. In this eventuality, an internal power struggle began among the aristocracy, each trying to keep their privileges and status. This could lead to civil war within the aristocracy, and the breakup of the empire, and invasion by outside forces sensing an opportunity. Thus empires had to keep on expanding, or else disintegrate.
This made for more or less continuous war, and for the continuous development of military tactics and weaponry. The army with the latest weapons, and the newest tactics, and the strongest discipline, and the most astute generals, would triumph.
At the same time, toiling under an almost crippling burden of taxation, the farmers were largely indifferent to which king ruled them. In times of war, almost everything they possessed was requisitioned. In times of peace, tax demands would be reduced, but would still remain almost intolerably high. Innovations which increased farm output would only result in higher taxation. And innovations needed time and education which the farmers did not have. So agricultural techniques and technology remained largely static, while military technology continuously evolved.
The End of War
This approach to the evolution of the military does not invoke any kind of "aggressive" character to humans. Hunting is primarily a way of finding food, and since animals (particularly large ones) represent a substantial store of energy, successful hunters of large animals probably only hunted them intermittently, feasting on their winnings, idling for days or weeks afterwards. Successful hunters of big game probably lived very idle lives.
When the happy hunting times were over, and most of the big game had disappeared, hunting life became much more arduous. Hunters had to make do with smaller prey, with smaller winnings from greater efforts. It was probably as their idleness fell that the hunters turned their attention to the farmsteads that had grown up along river valleys. Hunting and killing was all they knew, and in the farm settlements they found a surprisingly easy new target, which allowed them to maintain their hunting skills and culture.
The nomadic hunters, who became the aristocratic overlords of the settled farmlands, seem to have despised a farming society that was yoked to the land. Rather than interest themselves in improving the productivity of the farms, and increasing their wealth by bringing new lands under cultivation, or building roads and bridges, they resorted to military conquest to gain new lands and enlarge the income of taxes and tributes which allowed them a largely idle life. The uncultivated lands became their hunting playgrounds, on which they could live their customary nomadic lives, while a steady supply of pigs and cattle and game from the farms assured the supply of their customary food.
Military culture is descended from ancient human hunting culture. It stressed discipline, courage, endurance, leadership, obedience, heroism. Its social life revolved around the chase, and in the intoxicated feasting that followed. The military man was a gambler prepared to stake his life, win or lose.
Military conquest, however, simply changes the way the economic cake is carved up. It does not increase human wealth. If anything, war always reduces human wealth, in damage and devastation and loss of life. But in a technologically static society, when the amount of idle time is static, the only way for one group of individuals to gain is at the expense of another group. For the military, the option was either leisure and wealth after victory, or slavery and death after defeat. Military power does not act to increase human idleness in any way, but merely to redistribute it. If anything, military technology, in the form of the need to build walls and ramparts and ditches, in fact reduces human idleness.
If war has been endemic in human society, it is because human idleness has always been low, and this has regularly triggered wars in which one group of people attempt to get others to work for them. Since endemic war results in the prioritization of military tools and technology, civil technology languishes. A vicious circle sets in, whereby idleness-increasing technological development takes second place to military technology, ensuring that human idleness remains static, and ensuring that military conquest continues to be the only way anybody can increase their idleness. In such a circumstance of subjection, there is no incentive for the subjected to innovate ways to simplify their lives, because any improvement they made would only be taken in increased taxes or tributes. If a slave finds an easier way to perform some task, then his master will reward him by finding him other work instead, rendering the innovation futile. A Babylonian living 5000 years ago would instantly recognize modern houses, and the foods served in the clay dishes inside, hardly changed in all these thousands of years. He would be entirely baffled at the astonishing progress in weapons development over the same time.
It is necessity, not some instinctual aggression, which drives wars. Whenever human idleness is high, there is no necessity to subject other peoples, because there is no need to make other people perform work, because little work needs to be done. Conversely, when human idleness is very low, humans lack the resources of idle time in which to conduct wars, even if they wish to.
If glory was attached to military success, it was because that success brought slaves, booty, and the tax tributes of subjected peoples. Victory meant an easy life. Nobody was interested in war for its own sake.
If wars of enslavement and subjugation offered the only way for a small elites to increase their idleness, it was primarily because human idleness was low (and made still lower through subjugation and taxation). If human life had been largely idle, there would have been no incentive for one group of human predators to attack and enslave another.
War will only end when human innovation directs itself away from military development and towards simplifying ordinary human life. Perhaps the greatest single innovation of the last century was not the automobile, or the airplane, or television and radio, but rather the humble washing machine. Here, for the first time in thousands of years, human ingenuity began to liberate men (or rather, women) from the simple but unending chore of washing clothes. It is when human ingenuity fully devotes itself to making ordinary human life easier that the need for one overworked people to enslave another will vanish, and with it entire profession of arms - which will in time be seen not only as barbaric and wasteful, but stupid and futile.
To the extent that human ingenuity is directed (as perhaps, very slowly, it is now being directed) to easing the toil and trouble of everyday life, to that extent war becomes unnecessary.
And, with the arrival of nuclear weapons, and Mutual Assured Destruction, several millennia of weapons development has perhaps reached its apogee. All-out nuclear war is (almost) unthinkable because suicidal, and weapons development now moves towards lighter and more accurate weapons. Smart weapons increasingly allow extremely accurate targeting, using lower power warheads, with minimal casualties. Street demonstrations are not met with rifle fire, but with water cannon and rubber bullets. If weapons development continues along this path, it becomes possible to contemplate the possibility of wars in which very little material damage is done, and combatants are disabled or immobilized rather than killed.
However, after many millennia of conquest and empire, the conviction that wealth is only acquired by the defeat and subjection of rivals apparently still remains foremost in the minds of many government strategists.
Related: Martial and civil society
Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 20 June 2003