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A Search to Understand and Resolve Passions of War
Find below my review and analysis of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War by Barbara Ehrenreich.
In Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich clearly states that “the aim of the book is not to explain the existence of war but, more modestly, to understand the uniquely ‘religious’ feelings humans bring to it” (232). The main theme is an original theory by Ehrenreich, asserting that "Blood Rites" (society's embracing of blood sacrifice and its related rituals) are the origin point for the emotions that have led to a love of violence and the “sacralization” of war. However, I believe her theory about the origin of Blood Rites, as well as the theme that we have developed a love for violence do not provide a constructive understanding of our passions of war, or a significant solution for them.
Ehrenreich Describes Passions Of War
Ehrenreich starts by acknowledging “that war is a means, however risky, by which men seek to advance their collective interests and improve their lives” (8). The history and evolution of war itself is not so much debated, that it is likely “hunting is an antecedent of war” (21). She remarks that the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and the storage of goods most likely accounts for the transition from hunters to warriors as a way of provision. Ehrenreich's concern is our passions of war. She declares that society embraces war, making it seem like something more uplifting and worthy. Society shows signs of generosity, community and enthusiasm during times of war, even among those who would never see combat. She describes a historical event during World War I of “women rip[ping] off their dresses and offer[ing] them to soldiers in the middle of a public square"(13). Ehrenreich advises that military ceremonies and the modern-day memorial of our fallen also act as a tool to bolster war during times of peace. Ehrenreich points out examples of war in nature, from apes to ants, where the tactical killing of one's own kind can be found. What is unsettling to her is that we are the only species for which war seems to meet the same physiological needs as love and religion.
Ehrenreich compares her endeavor to that of a psychologist trying to help their patient uncover the original trauma that caused their compulsive pattern of disturbing behavior and that to understand it can be the first steps to correcting it (21). Ehrenreich marks Blood Rites as our earliest form of socially accepted violence and therefore theorizes that they are the origin of our passions of war. She believes that as we overcame predation, we began to reenact the fears and anxieties caused by life in the food chain. She goes on to describe a society so intoxicated by sacrifice that it became a religion of violence. She rejects the popular view of killer instinct, and instead concludes that our propensity for war is passed down through the generations cloaked by religious sacrament. She brands the current day ideals of Honor in Sacrifice and Nationalism as the evolved form of blood lust that originated during Blood Rites. Ehrenreich continues by stating that these fundamentals act as a mental triggers that releases us from our morality during the prospect of war and give us a thirst for blood that is like no other found in nature.
Based on what you know so far
In my opinion, Ehrenreich does well to bring attention to the emotional elements of war, to reject killer instinct and argue that war has a conscious level. However, Ehrenreich's point of view fails to tie the good of humanity in with the bad. This demonizes the human race and characterizes society as unnatural. I believe this pits the reader against society, making it hard for the reader to relate to the material, identify their own personal tendencies, or to internalize constructive solutions. Rather, it seems to me that there is a more organic origin for our unsavory passions of war that offers a theme of impartiality, and provides more insight as to how they came to be as well as how to control them. If we understand our own basic predispositions, we can start to understand the flaws of society. I theorize that we are much more like nature than we realize. The origin of our passions of war has less to do with violence and more to do with survival. The uplifting emotions of war are not tethered to violence as the root of passion; rather passion is the root of violence. I believe that passion is a force of its own and its origin is derived from life's most basic instinct to survive and reproduce.
The Foremost Form Of Competition
The only authority I may have on the matter is the shared human condition, the perspective as a war veteran and an intro to psychology class, so I am without expertise. Quoting Einstein, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious” ("Albert Einstein Quotes"). With that said, I would like to try and tackle the same task that Ehrenreich set out to do, yet with a less demonizing tone that I believe will make the material more approachable. By doing so, I hope to also make a case for the argument of my thesis. It appears to me that to find the first socially accepted, or at least the first practiced form of violence, you have to go back to the most basic form of competition among all species, plant and animal alike, whether it be interspecies or across species. You can then conclude that every living thing at the very core of its existence competes to survive, and just as much an instinct as the will to survive, and as necessary for the continuation of a species, is the need to reproduce.
Sexual reproduction as opposed to asexual reproduction allows for individuality and a diversity of genes. This diversity acts as a natural defense against rapidly evolving enemies, such as parasites, viruses, bacteria and predators. The instinct to pass on and obtain good genes elicits sexual selection, by which the predominant caregiver of the species offspring, often female, having more invested are selective over the kind of mate they choose. This discriminate process of sexual selection creates competition among the less invested, often male, gender of the species. The males, having the same basic instinct to pass on genes, have developed exaggerated or ornate characteristics that the female gender finds to be evidence of health and wellness. This gives the ‘more fit’ males a competitive advantage. All the unique splendor and color in nature can be tied back to sexual selection; bright-colored flowers, animals with decorative features and creatures with displays of singing, dancing and showing off. All have been found to be examples of perceivable fitness indicators: traits specifically evolved to advertise good genes, good health, and/or better psychological functioning (Andersson). Miller states, “that during human evolution, mate choice by both sexes focused increasingly on intelligence as a major component of biological fitness” (“Sexual selection” 2).
Brain size in our lineage has tripled over the last two million years, reflecting the evolution of unprecedented mental and behavioral capacities. Over three million years ago, our ancestors were already successful, social, fairly bipedal, tool-making hunter-gatherers on the African savanna — and they had brains only slightly larger than the chimpanzee's. Then, two million years ago, for no apparent reason, brain size started growing exponentially in our lineage but not in other closely-related hominid species who shared the same habitat (Miller, “How mate choice shaped human nature” 24).
An Organic Origin Of Our Passions Of War
As humans, we are more intelligent than what is needed for basic survival. Our brain is more extravagant than what is normally found in nature, when compared to nature, it is our ornate characteristic. Our intelligence is what we base our process of sexual selection on and we use creativity to display and determine intelligence. Sexual selection within our species has led to more complex and creative behavioral courtship displays, which have been central in human evolution and remains central in modern human life. Today these practices are more commonly acknowledged as ‘the arts’: occupations requiring skills that are typically acquired through practice. Song, dance, music, literature, theater, artistry, sports, and you can't leave out politics or war, all are an evolved form of courtship. They all evoke passion, and often conflict I might add. Even the everyday job, though maybe not equated to ‘an art’, is an expression of genes; we identify others and ourselves by what we do. It is because of this very nature that occupation is regularly a topic of introduction. Through the arts, war included, we unintentionally gage health, wealth, power, success and intelligence. We are stimulated to display and determine good genes through these displays, awakening the masses, stirring up emotions, and kindling desire. This is the reason we are drawn to the arts, and I believe this is the origin of our passions of war.
The History Of Our Passions Of War- An Alternate Perspective
In the early years of our hominid ancestors, it's understandable that survival would have been our first and primary ‘art form’: camouflaging, foraging, evading and eluding predators. The instinct to increase the value of one's own genes, drive men to be competitive. Meaning these activities would have been the first passions of men, learning to be creative, cunning and clever, learning to effectively forage and find meat without becoming prey, learning to provide. Not only would a man with these successful qualities have the admiration of his peers, but also women as the predominant caregiver would be drawn to men who displayed these traits. They serve as evidence of a better survival rate for the man as well as the ability to provide for and protect her while she cares for their children. Giving a man with these attributes a sexually competitive advantage, he would likely have a better pick of mate/s with physical attributes that indicate successful childbearing as well as the intelligence to teach and pass down life lessons to their children.
It's not hard to gather that our need for meat and our willingness to take on creatures to obtain it led to a hunting culture which involved the development of hunting skills like learning to corral, track, trap, as well as the creation of weapons and their mastery. These activities would be the art of its generations and the influence of passion expressed through body painting, costumes and jewelry made from the kills, drumming, dancing and as Ehrenreich centers around, the re-enactments of animal sacrifice and Blood Rite Rituals. Aside from merely surviving, the art and celebration of hunting would make up one of our earliest mediums in which to regulate gene diversity.
Intelligence cannot be measured by sight alone. We require a means by which we can display and determine intelligence; this means is through the arts and occupations, which serve as a source of provision and act as our process of sexual selection. I agree with Ehrenreich that war is not the result of killer instinct or a predatory nature. Even if the human species were not a meat-eating and therefore non-predatory species, conflict would still exist from the earliest and the most basic forms of competition to survive, acquire a mate and provide for offspring. You don't have to search the animal kingdom long to find evidence of competition among omnivores over territory, resource and mate. Darwin affirms, “there can be no doubt that with almost all animals, in which the sexes are separate, there is a constantly recurrent struggle between the males for the possession of the females” (213).
As farming and herding replaced hunting and gathering and as hunters turned to warriors, the skills required to win wars would become a new art form with the same passions and celebration that we brought to hunting, making war a similar outlet for gene expression. As a warrior a boy could prove himself a man, masquerade his abilities, earn status among cohorts, acquire provision and women could gauge intelligence, power, fitness and a potential spouse’s ability to support and protect. Historically, men have used this process of competitive advantage to acquire high levels of status and great power. Unfortunately, coalition forces, armies and political leaders have not always stopped with defense or acquisition of provisions as a form of public relations and courtship, but have used their strength in number to conquer or suppress people. This is often done with the taking of women as a commodity of war or status. King Moulay Ismail, a medieval ruler, sired over 800 children, and the first emperor of China, was reported to have sired even more through his much larger selection of wives, concubines and female servants. (Betzig).
After farming and herding relieved time spent on surviving and hunting we were able to begin and concentrate on other means by which to express ourselves that did not directly involve security or acquisition, in which case, you can see an expansion of other arts. Men, initially play a dominant role in the arts. As such, women were traditionally not allowed to become soldiers, write, act, participate in politics or work for that matter. I am in no way suggesting that women are any less capable or intelligent than men, just that historically the arts and occupations were predominantly used by men to compete for status, rank, reputation, merit, provision and women, and that the same is true of war.
The ‘’Sacralization’’ Of War
Ehrenreich argues that the ‘’sacralization’’ of war resulted from bloodshed and ritual sacrifice that reached a level of religion and worship, citing examples of sacrifice present in almost every modern religion. I on the other hand, don't see war as uniquely sacralized. This can be argued to some degree in many of the arts. For example, paintings sell for millions, musicians are adored by thousands, every action of actors are tracked by paparazzi, poet's words are immortalized, brilliant composers are studied for centuries, leaders of politics have statues in their likeness and sports are glorified. All can feel like a drug, can spark deep feelings of emotion, can make us feel like something greater than ourselves and initiate sexual desire. Successful men and women in their field are often admired and epitomized as sex symbols. Gene Simmons, the front man of the rock band Kiss, has reported bedding around 4,800 groupies (Kissasylum.com). The arts can even make us express ourselves in ways that are animalistic, like the roar of a crowd as Ozzy Osbourne “bit the head off a live dove; a few months later he bit the head off a bat tossed to him by a fan” (Rolling Stone).
Passion Is a Weapon
My plea is that to go looking for “passions of war” is too narrow an observation. They are not limited to war, but are akin to all passion. Ehrenreich denies that war can be the result of instinct because it is too thought out, that it must be the result of conscious decision, but passion is an instinct and it can influence the way we use our intelligence, making passion very much capable of war. Passion is a weapon; through it we find purpose, innovation, determination and ambition. It can evoke our every emotion and invoke response. It is our pastimes, our sensuality, and our evolutionary force. It can inspire to a level of religion and it is our greatest survival strength. However, when used against one another such is the case of war, this strength that drives development, organizes people, and inspires purpose means the survival of one, but the death of another. Just as any other source of power, passion can be abused and/or manipulated.
Self-sacrifice, a duty to mate and offspring, commitment to your group: during the time of our hominid ancestors these ideals may not have had the modern-day stigma of Honor in Sacrifice and Nationalism, but it is safe to say that they were required to emerge from a time dense with predators that were far more capable than men. I disagree with Ehrenreich’s claim of Honor in Sacrifice and Nationalism being evolved from the violence of Blood Rites, as they would have to predate them as the popular ideals of sexual selection that brought us out of the food chain. These ideals are not simply a catalyst of evil, or the proponents of blood lust.
You Don't Have To Look In The Past
You don't have to look in the past to identify the true nature behind passions of war. Analyze the way modern day society differentiates between a soldier and a serial killer, or a police officer and a murderer; all kill, but as Ehrenreich points out, why would women rip off their dresses in public and hand them to soldiers? Why is the police officer uniform one of the most common stripper uniforms? Based off Ehrenreich's theory, it is a perverse emotional response to violence. My contention is that the attraction is not for the violence; rather the soldier and police officer symbolize good genes. In contrast, the murderer’s inability to control rage and the serial killers lack of remorse are not associated with good genetic traits, and we are therefore instinctively repulsed. In fact, advancements in psychology have shown us that these are often traits of a mental disorder. I think this lack of distinction is why Ehrenreich is convinced that we have a dark flaw in our psyche that gives us some sort of sexual affinity for violence. But why then, once any aspirations of sexual appeal are dashed by the horrors and reality of war, do we have so many men and women return from war with the well-known affliction of post-traumatic stress? Some are haunted by the experience and memories, unable to return to normal life, unable to rejoin society, driven to alcoholism, drugs and even suicide.
I agree that passion in the context of war is very alarming, but we are not seduced by war rather we are seduced by passion. I do not have the illusion that we are not flawed, but I do believe we are no more flawed than nature; to be alive is to be flawed. Driven by the will to survive you are born bias, selfish and willing to live at the expense of others. That is why I hope it is clear that passion is an instinct that is not derived from right and wrong, only one's own survival and continuation of genes. Passion has the ability to influence the way we use our intelligence, allowing decisions and activities performed during the drive of passion to feel normal and justified. Hitler was fond of saying, in private, “What luck that men do not think” (Hicks). “Consequently, German training and propaganda were not directed toward presenting facts and arguments, but rather to arousing the passions of the masses. Reason, logic, and objectivity were beside the point” (Hicks). Passion can endure suffering and can cause suffering. Robert J. Vallerand studies the Psychology of Passion and mentions, that “When we look at the concept of passion, one thing that becomes clear is that it seems to bring about the best and worst in people” (32). Ehrenreich notices the duality of passion herself when she brings up the paradox that a pro-war rally is likely to experience the same transcendence of emotion as an anti-war rally.
We Learn From Consequence
Passion can have a blurred line between right and wrong and can have both good and bad consequences. It is the consequence of our actions and our morals that help us to determine right from wrong. We learn from consequence. Unfortunately, this is often after the fact, but we understand consequence, society convicts with consequence as a form of remediation. Even parenting has a lot to do with teaching morals and the concept of consequence. Ehrenreich commits her efforts to proving we have developed a love for violence. Going into great detail describing an expansive and encompassing history of cruelty. Though we don't see eye to eye, Ehrenreich does provide a great narrative for the consequences of passion that lack both restraint and humility. This is why we pass down our experiences and history from generation to generation so that we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, learn to reign in passion and build on our moral code. Ehrenreich brands us as un-natural, but if I were to brand us as anything, it would be as an adolescent society trying to mature.
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Ehrenreich concludes that we can fight passion with passion, that the passions of an anti-war movement can overcome passions of war. I feel this requires a voice of caution; passion can turn to violence and foster the ‘lines’ that divide us. What is war, but the passions of one against the passions of another? We need to put an emphasis on using intelligence to guide passion, not the other way around. Ehrenreich confesses, as if to offer a possible solution, that she has locked arms in protest against soldiers in uniform, but elected government officials who represent and remain in office by the will of the people are the ones who deploy the military. I for instance, did not join the military to kill or be killed, but fresh out of high school, I admit, I hoped to find purpose, obtain a paycheck, pave a way for college and find my place in society. Rather than single out a subgroup of men and women, who are willing to defend the people that back them, it seems to me that campaigning ‘hearts and minds’ of all of society to break down the ‘lines’ that divide us would be more productive.
An Alternate Solution
Unlike any other creature, we have intellectual control over our evolution. Not only can we learn from the past in an effort to change our future, but we can also essentially determine natural selection. Using women's rights as an example, we can decide what we want and make it important; this can be done rationally, through the processes of discussion, debate, persuasion, diplomacy and education. Once the majority sees it as important, it becomes popular and once popular, it becomes a medium of passion and part of sexual selection. By way of natural selection, those who cannot conform will have no place in society and so we evolve. This example resulted in the breaking down of the spheres of gender and changed the cultural landscape. A man, hard set to finding a meek, passive, timid woman, with the virtue of piety, purity, submissiveness and the domesticity that was popular before the turn of the 20th century would have a difficult time maintaining a relationship in this modern social structure.
Yes, we need to un-popularize war, but faced with the threat of mankind who can lay down their defenses, when confronted with the prospect of war, loss of life, land, culture, and everything we hold dear, what else can feel more important? We still face the challenges of disunity. Nationalism can join people together within a set of borders, but borders also hold to separate us apart, we need to continue to work on worldwide integration and cooperation. Our passion to survive is strong, but if we continue and try to advance at the expense of our own, we may not survive ourselves.
To Sum It All Up
I agree with Ehrenreich that we do not have the hopeless disposition that the theory of killer instinct would lead you to believe. We do however have a tendency to let passion get the better of us. Passion is our most powerful survival weapon and we have realized its strength, but the grim reality of passion associated with violence is proof that our passion requires we develop more self-control. Still, we are not without the ability to improve; we have the intelligence to supersede instinct and to direct our future. We have passion, not to just survive, but to laugh; to love and to learn, Honor in Sacrifice to put the needs of others in front of our own, Nationalism to unite us as one nation of humankind and religion to rein in passion and direct our morality so that we might live peaceably within ourselves and with those around us. Let the memorials of our fallen be a reminder of the consequence of our failure to negotiate our differences. People who let passion rule their life can accomplish both great and terrible things. That is why it is important to be selective as to what we give meaning to, not just war, but greed, envy, jealousy, bigotry and hatred; all can steal from the object of passion and consequently rob us of our time, energy, resource, joy and lives.
The theme of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War is that we have developed a love for violence, but this theme is ineffective at providing a constructive understanding of our passions of war or a significant solution for them. The reader is left to criticize society without a good understanding of how we all can fall victim to passion. Blood Rites are only a small part of the foremost competitive nature to survive and pass on genes. Recognizing this provides a relatable perspective and the understanding that our focus on intelligence has led to unmatched mental and behavioral capacity, and that the solution to controlling passion is a focus on restraint, humility and intelligence to resolve our issues, passions of war included. We are still learning.
The Jury Is Still Out
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© 2017 jamesmnr
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on December 21, 2017:
This is very interesting. War, society and religion all intertwined. Is war inevitable? Could humans have evolved without an "instinct" for war? I need to study this and think about it some more.
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on December 15, 2017:
This is a great article and I look forward to your next one. I believe we can use our intelligence and reason and mature out of warrior behavior to Peace Officer Behavior. See: