Military history



Tribal Wars of Mass Destruction

IF WE ARE to understand the type of war waged by modern guerrillas and terrorists, it is highly illuminating to immerse ourselves in the past. In particular it is essential to grasp the basics of guerrilla warfare in the ancient and medieval worlds, a time when such tactics were adopted by groups ranging from the Jews of the Holy Land to the nomads of Inner Asia and the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands. All of the great empires of antiquity, whether in the West or the East, had to devote considerable resources to combating this scourge. And many ultimately failed. Ancient guerrillas may have been primitive by modern lights—they lacked weapons such as the AK-47 capable of inflicting mass slaughter, they did not answer to a Politburo, they did not solicit funds from sympathizers abroad, and seldom did they issue bombastic communiqués to justify their existence—but nevertheless they could be exceedingly effective. As we shall see, they brought down the empires of Mesopotamia and Rome, and they overran significant parts of the Chinese Empire. No polity in the world was safe from the predations of terrifying and ruthless raiders, bound together not by political or religious ideology, like many modern-day insurgents, but simply by ties of tribe and kinship. Revolts against imperial authority were also common in conquered lands. Ancient sovereigns, even in undemocratic polities, had to learn to temper the harshness of their response by delivering benefits to those they governed to forestall future revolts. Thus was born what is today known as counterinsurgency.

Classical history was well known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet these invaluable lessons in the power and ubiquity of low-intensity conflict had been all but forgotten—or, if remembered, discarded as relics of a primitive age with little application to the modern world. Writers as distinguished as Clausewitz and Jomini imagined that guerrilla warfare was more novel than it actually was; they were shocked and dismayed when they encountered it. Even today there is a tendency to think that there is something new about guerrilla tactics—that they are a departure from the norm, which is assumed to be state-on-state conflict.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While there are many novel aspects of low-intensity warfare as it has developed since antiquity, the essential concept itself was already well established by the time that David, one of the first guerrillas whose name we know, became king of Israel around 1000 BC. (David’s credentials as a guerrilla were established not in his legendary combat with the Philistine champion Goliath but rather in subsequent years after he had been forced to flee the jealous wrath of his own king, Saul, and took to leading an outlaw band in raids on Amalekite and Philistine settlements in the Judaean wilderness.)11

Guerrilla warfare is as old as mankind. Conventional warfare is, by contrast, a relatively recent invention. It was made possible by the development of the first agricultural societies after untold millennia in which the hunter-gatherer reigned supreme. Farming communities for the first time produced enough surplus wealth and population to allow for the creation of specially designed fortifications and weapons as well as the hiring of specialists to operate them. That process began after 10,000 BC in the Middle East and a few thousand years later in the Americas, Europe, and East Asia. The first genuine armies—commanded by a strict hierarchy, composed of trained soldiers, disciplined with threats of punishment, divided into different specialties (spearmen, bowmen, charioteers, engineers), deployed in formations, supported by a logistics service—arose after 3100 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia.12 The first full-scale battle between two such armies of which we have a detailed account occurred in 1468 BC near Megiddo, a town eighteen miles southeast of the modern Israeli city of Haifa. It pitted perhaps five thousand soldiers from Egypt against two thousand soldiers from a coalition of local city-states.13

Considering that Homo sapiens has been roaming the earth for at least a hundred fifty thousand years and his hominid ancestors for millions of years before that, the era of conventional conflict is the blink of an eye in historical terms.14 Moreover, the process of state formation and with it army formation took considerably longer in other parts of the world. “Even as late as 1492,” notes the geographer and historian Jared Diamond, “all of North America, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific islands, and most of Central and South America didn’t have states.”15 In some of those places, states emerged only during the past century, and their ability to carry out such basic functions as maintaining an army is tenuous at best. Somalia today represents one of the most extreme examples of such state failure, but many other territories are not far behind.

Throughout most of our species’ long and bloody slog, both before the development of urban civilization and since, warfare has been carried out primarily by bands of loosely organized, ill-disciplined, lightly armed volunteers who disdain open battle. They prefer to employ stealth, surprise, and rapid movement to harass, ambush, massacre, and terrorize their enemies while trying to minimize their own casualties through rapid retreat when confronted by equal or stronger forces. These are the primary features both of modern guerrilla warfare and of primitive, prestate warfare whose origins are lost in the mists of prehistoric time and which has only recently been extinguished in the remote jungles of Amazonia and the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Guerrillas therefore may be said to engage in the world’s second-oldest profession, behind only hunting, which draws on the same skill set.

Since at least the days of the Greeks and Romans, primitive warfare and by extension guerrilla warfare has seldom been accorded much respect by Western soldiers and scholars, who have tended to view it as an “irregular,” “unmanly,” even “dastardly” activity and to label its practitioners barbarians, criminals, or savages.16 To take a typical example, Massachusetts colonists in the 1600s complained that Indians fought “in a secret, skulking manner, lying in abushment, thickets, and swamps by the way side, and so killing people in a base and ignoble manner.”17

It is not hard to see why prejudice against guerrillas has been so pervasive. Prestate warriors are, in the words of John Keegan, “cruel to the weak and cowardly in the face of the brave”18—precisely the opposite of what professional soldiers have always been taught to revere. They refuse to grapple face-to-face with a strong foe until one side or the other is annihilated in the kind of warfare immortalized, if not invented, by the Greeks.

Battles among nonstate peoples have often consisted of nothing more than two lines of warriors decked out in elaborate paint shouting insults at one another, making rude gestures, and then discharging spears, darts, or arrows from such long range that they inflict few casualties. Primitive societies lack an organizational structure that can force men on pain of punishment to engage in costly close-quarters combat in defiance of a basic instinct for self-preservation. This has led some observers to suggest that nonstate peoples do not engage in warfare at all but rather in “feuds” or “vendettas” that are for the most part ceremonial and have little in common with “true” war as practiced at Cannae, Agincourt, or Gettysburg. After moving to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, for example, a professional English soldier wrote with scorn that Indians “might fight seven years and not kill seven men” because “this fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.”19

What such critics overlook is that battles constitute only a small part of primitive warfare. Most casualties are inflicted not in these carefully choreographed encounters but in what comes before and after—in the stealthy forays of warriors into the territory of their neighbors. The anthropologist Lawrence Keeley writes, “One common raiding technique (favored by groups as diverse as the Bering Straits Eskimo and the Mae Enga of New Guinea) consisted of quietly surrounding enemy houses just before dawn and killing the occupants by thrusting spears through the flimsy walls, shooting arrows through doorways and smoke holes, or firing as the victims emerged after the structure had been set afire.”20

Following such an attack, the raiders might disperse before large numbers of enemy warriors could arrive, only to return a few days later, hoping to catch another enemy village unawares. All adult men participate in this type of warfare, and quarter is seldom asked or given. Surrender for warriors is not an option; if they suffer the dishonor of defeat, they are either killed on the spot or, as was common among the Iroquois Indians of northeastern North America, they might be tortured to death and then partially eaten. At the end of such an encounter, the victor rapes the loser’s women, enslaves them and their children, burns crops, steals livestock, destroys the village.

Primitive warfare has been consistently deadlier than civilized warfare—not in total numbers killed (tribal societies are tiny compared with urban civilizations) but in the percentage killed. The Dani tribesmen of New Guinea, the Dinka of northeast Africa, the Modoc Indians of California, the Kalinga headhunters of the Philippines, and other nonstate peoples studied by ethnographers over the past two centuries suffered considerably higher death rates from warfare annually (sometimes five hundred times higher) than did the most war-ravaged European countries, such as twentieth-century Germany and Russia. The average tribal society loses 0.5 percent of its population in combat every year.21 If the United States suffered commensurately today, that would translate into 1.5 million deaths, or five hundred 9/11’s a year. Archaeological evidence confirms that such losses are no modern anomaly: at one early burial site in the Sudan, Djebel Sahaba, which was used sometime between 12,000 and 10,000 BC, 40 percent of the skeletons showed evidence of stone arrowheads; many had multiple wounds.22 That shows the ubiquity and deadliness of warfare at a time when, to the modern eye, guerrillas would have been barely distinguishable in intellectual sophistication from gorillas.

There was little ideology or strategy behind the kind of war waged among tribal warriors in prerecorded times or even more recently. They did not employ “lightning raids by ad hoc companies,”23 in the words of one modern scholar, because they concluded, after careful consideration of all the alternatives, that this was the surest way to hurt their foes. They fought as they did simply because it was the way their fathers had always fought, and their grandfathers before them. It was all they knew. That sort of instinctual guerrilla warfare remained the commonest kind until recent centuries.

What changed with the coming of the first civilizations is the kind of foes that tribal warriors confronted. Before circa 3000 BC, tribal guerrillas fought exclusively against other tribal guerrillas. While that type of tribe-on-tribe warfare continued long after 3000 BC, it was supplemented and sometimes supplanted by warfare pitting tribes and rebels against newly formed states. The history of ancient Mesopotamia—a time long before the events described in the Bible or the Iliad—is replete with struggles between guerrilla-style raiders and the world’s first states. It is not much of a stretch to describe these conflicts as the world’s first insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.

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