Civilization and War as Social Technologies

21 December 2008

Civilization and war go together like a horse and carriage.

Before being interrupted by a snowstorm, in The Lethality Peak I wrote, “The evolution of society is driving an evolution in the warfare that emerges from changing societies… we find that civilization and war are in a relationship of co-evolution, each driving the development of the other, and each being driven in turn.” This is an observation worth considering at greater length.

evolution in the dictionary

Coevolution has been defined in many ways, though all refer specifically to biological evolution. Here is a good example:

“coevolution is a change in the genetic composition of one species (or group) in response to a genetic change in another. More generally, the idea of some reciprocal evolutionary change in interacting species is a strict definition of coevolution.”

Here is a less biologically specific definition:

“The term coevolution is used to describe cases where two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”

This latter definition is technically not biologically specific if we admit what chemists and geologists call mineral species. The above should be sufficient to give the reader a general idea of what I am talking about, and any similar definition can be generalized to cover the descent with modification of entities other than biological entities. Thus a generalized definition of coevolution might involve, “where two (or more) entities reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”

A graphic illustration of the coevolution of life with its environment.

A graphic illustration of the coevolution of life with its environment.

Civilization and war are two such entities engaged in reciprocally affecting each other. Also, both civilization and war are temporal phenomena, so that both have histories and exhibit descent with modification. In the case of coevolution, histories are intertwined, and I don’t think it is in any sense a controversial claim to assert that the histories of civilization and war and profoundly intertwined. The social organization of civilization makes war possible; one could construct a Kantian transcendental argument to demonstrate that the very existence of war depends upon the existence of civilization.

Which came first? The chicken of war or the egg of civilization?

Which came first? The chicken of war or the egg of civilization?

Any attempt to separate the histories of civilization and war and to see them in isolation creates a chicken-and-egg scenario in which one goes round in a circle fruitlessly attempting to show that either civilization or war emerged first in human history. In prehistory, we can identify both proto-civilized institutions (such as art, as evidenced by the material culture of a people) and proto-military institutions (such as raiding parties that hunter-gatherer peoples might send out against rival bands of hunter-gatherers). By the time human history laboriously makes its way into the historical period proper, among the earliest texts are inscriptions commemorating conquests.

Akkad, Sumer, ca. 2217-2193 BC, 1 partial tablet, 10,0x11,5x4,7 cm, (originally at least ca. 20x25x5 cm), 2+2 columns (originally 5+5 columns), 18 compartments remaining in a formal archaizing cuneiform script of high quality.

ROYAL INSCRIPTION OF KING SHAR-KALI-SHARRI OF AKKAD, DESCRIBING HIS CAMPAIGNS AND CONQUESTS: Akkad, Sumer, ca. 2217-2193 BC, 1 partial tablet, 10.0x11.5x4.7 cm, (originally at least ca. 20x25x5 cm), 2+2 columns (originally 5+5 columns), 18 compartments remaining in a formal archaizing cuneiform script of high quality.

The steady advance of technology throughout the historical period has lent its power both to civilization and war, making possible both the raising and the razing of great cities. Cities have growth in size and magnificence, while war has grown in scope and ferocity. It has long been a point of fascination for me that civilization creates the forces that make possible the destruction of civilization. (1) (2) That is because war is impossible without the organization provided by civilization (allowing for the phenomenon of proto-war in pre-historical societies). And it may be equally true that civilization (as we know it today) is impossible without the spur to action provided by war. War may be seen as one of many challenges (in a challenge and response theory of civilization) that prompts a people to greater efforts and achievements.

Besides being involved in a relation of coevolution, civilization and war are both what I call social technologies. Several times in this forum I have referred to “social technologies”. This is a concept, like that of the coevolution of civilization and war, that deserves further expansion.

What is technology? It could be defined adequately in many ways, but I will take the definition from Frederick Ferré’s Philosophy of Technology as a convenient place to start. He defines technologies as, “practical implementations of intelligence.” (3) Primarily when we think of implementations of intelligence we think of what an archaeologist would call “material culture”. But human forms of social organization are as much implementations of intelligence as are machines. Indeed, there is a sense in which human institutions are social machines. (The historian John Roberts said that the Byzantine Empire was “a machine for getting people into heaven” — this captures our meaning of social technology quite nicely.)

the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven.

Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven.

Both civilization and war arise from and require in turn extensive social organization, that is the say, the implementation of intelligence in the organization of human activity as well as the creation of special institutions devoted to particular purposes. This makes them social technologies. Moreover, two social technologies in coevolution are two sets of practical implementations of intelligence with their histories intertwined. The coevolution of civilization and war together constitute human history.

Hittite chariot archer: war and civilization were born twins.

One practical consequence of this observation is that civilizations will make war based upon the assumptions, presuppositions, meanings, values, and purposes of that civilization. In other words, war is a cultural expression. We find this most obviously exemplified in highly isolated civilizations and the forms of ritualized violence that they have perfected when spared the immediate pressure of an external enemy (I am thinking, inter alia, of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance). However, even in cases in which an external enemy demands a strictly utilitarian approach to warfighting, a given civilization’s way of making war is still profoundly specific to its culture.

an Aztec Jaguar Warrior

Ritualized violence as a cultural expression: an Aztec Jaguar Warrior

This observation in turn has profound implications for strategic thinking. External enemies that derive from distinct civilizations present not only a military danger, but also the special danger of the unexpected. When Germany and France bled each other white during the First World War, such unexpected dangers were not part of the strategic calculus as both nation-states came from the same civilization. But when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001, it came like a bolt from the blue. Both the methods and the motivations of the attackers constituted a strategic shock of the first order.

A paradigm case of 'strategic shock' as well as of the clash of civilizations.

To fight such an enemy effectively, we would need to understand their civilization, and we may need to fight their civilization as much as their warriors. If taken seriously, this proposal would be controversial in the extreme. It has become a commonplace for politicians to reassure both their constituents and the world that, when they take military action, they are not acting against a people or a culture or a civilization, but only against violent militants whose grievances have turned deadly. But the controversial nature of war against an enemy civilization should not be rejected tout court simply because it is controversial.

. . . . .


(1) Poetically, one can say that civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Psychodynamically, one can say that civilization, like the individuals who bring it into being, has both a life force, a creative urge, as well as a death drive, a destructive urge.

(2) I should point out that war is not the only force that can threaten the existence of civilization. Probably most civilizations have met their end due to incremental environmental degradation leading to a collapse of food production.

(3) Frederick Ferré, Philosophy of Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 23

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Grand Strategy Annex

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9 Responses to “Civilization and War as Social Technologies”

  1. xcalibur said

    Would you say that the Roman gladiator games were a form of ritualized violence?

    What about modern competitive sports? I think sports are basically our culture’s solution to this issue, and I think it’s very effective – since they’re less violent and more regulated than the violence rituals of past societies.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, I would identify Roman gladiatorial games as ritualized violence, and the Pax Romana would seem to point to the need for surrogate forms of violence to supplant armed conflict. But the Roman world was never short on armed conflict on its borders, and the full explanation of the role of gladiatorial combat in Roman society is much more complex. There is a significant literature on the subject that I have not mastered, so I should probably stop here.

      In regard to modern competitive sports, yes, they too are forms of surrogate competition, and they too, however, demand a much more comprehensive analysis as they cannot be reduced to ritualized violence as a surrogate for armed conflict. The science fiction extrapolation of this idea is the film Rollerball, but the weaknesses of this kind of diachronic extrapolation are pretty obvious.

      Sport, of course, was as central to classical antiquity as it is central of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which suggests that it is rooted in human nature and the human condition. I suspect that any future civilization will have sport just as certainly as it will have war, social hierarchy, and settlement (i.e., settled life). I guess that this is a subject that demands study in its own right. I’ll have to read Ortega y Gasset’s essay on the sportive origins of the state and see if I have anything to add to this discussion.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        Indeed, the gladiator games and sport in general are complex subjects. They involve ritualized violence, but that is not their only social function.

        I come back to this a year later because I was recently reading about aristocratic culture (the courtization of the warriors is a very good piece), and it occurred to me that the “gentleman’s duel” is another form of highly ritualized violence, designed to be an outlet for the war/aggression impulse. What’s interesting is how persistent this social institution was. It evolved with technology from dueling with swords to guns, and lasted up until the modern era.

        I think the duel as a ritual of violence is a good avenue for research (as is the highly nuanced aristocratic court culture, but that’s another topic).

      • geopolicraticus said

        The duel is a perfect example of ritualized violence that, in western countries, survived well into modern times. On the margins of Europe the vendetta survives in a few societies (the Basques and Albania), and this, too, may be considered a different kind of ritualization of violence. As you point out, ritualized violence can serve multiple social functions, so that two kinds of ritualized violence (like the duel and the vendetta) will probably overlap but not serve all of the same functions. The historical accidents of the evolution of a particular society will determine what forms and expressions of ritualized violence best complement the culture.

        It strikes me now that it would be useful to have a taxonomy of forms of violence, which would include, at a minimum, ritualized social violence, revolutionary violence, and state-sponsored violence, which latter in turn includes corporal and capital punishment, warfare, and so on. Given Weber’s definition of the state as the legal monopoly on the use of force (i.e., violence), non-state forms of violence must accommodate themselves to the state’s monopoly on violence. Ritualized social violence involves a number of limits that render the violence no challenge to the state, and therefore not a social danger to the established order. Revolutionary violence represents the breakthrough of forms of violence to which the state asserts its monopoly, but which it nevertheless cannot control, which reveals a weakness and an opportunity for further revolutionary violence and possibly the overthrow of the established order.

        Best wishes,


  2. what do you mean by “the special danger of the unexpected” ?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Those who plan and prepare for war do so according to certain assumptions, and some of these assumptions are rooted in the specific culture of the individuals. When two peoples belonging to the same civilization go to war, they know what to expect from each other because they share a common culture. But when two peoples from different civilizations go to war, they do no know what to expect from the other, so that each contingency that arises because of the war can be unexpected and therefore something for which planners did not prepare.

      The unexpected in war tends to have a greater impact because it violates the conceptual categories of those impacted; they do not understand what is going on, so they do not know what to do or how to respond. This is a much more dangerous military situation than the expected in war because it is disruptive and opens up a window of vulnerability. If the enemy can exploit this window of vulnerability, they have a great advantage in the war. However, the impacted party may choose to disproportionately respond precisely because they do not understand the appropriate response. Thus war, which is by nature unpredictable, becomes even more unpredictable when the unexpected is involved.

      Most formulations of the principles of war (there are many such formulations) include “surprise” as one of these principles. Acting unexpectedly increases the surprise of a military action, and therefore gains an advantage for the side taking this unexpected action.



      • I am quite interested about your statement where you said “To fight such an enemy effectively, we would need to understand their civilization, and we may need to fight their civilization as much as their warriors.”

        for me, it is sure extremely controversial as you said. because it would make greater collateral damage in the process. sample case, after 9/11 happenned, prejudice against islam and middle east people spreading out widely, especially when the attackers bringing the name of islam in their action. say the US Government actually fight their enemies culture, would they fight the whole religion of islam and the middle eastern culture too even though most of them are not responsible for the terrorist attck ? ? and what if after they did it, it turns out that they fight the wrong particular culture ? it would just make the conflict even bigger while their true enemy would have a strong casus belli to justify their action, thus making it ineffective. how would you prevent that ?

      • geopolicraticus said

        Dear Hamid,

        Thanks for your excellent questions. I can see that it would be necessary to go into this in much greater depth and detail in order to avoid catastrophic misunderstandings, but the view I advocated in this post certainly does have a radical interpretation that is applicable in some circumstances.

        Note that I wrote in the passage you quoted, “…we may need to fight their civilization as much as their warriors.” That does not mean, in any given military conflict, that escalation will always be to a total war. When a limited war is intended, fighting the enemy’s civilization means learning about the enemy’s civilization and using this knowledge to fight more effectively and to reduce the special danger of the unexpected. Here considerations of collateral damage are important, and we would want to limit the collateral damage as we limit the war.

        When a war is a total war, or even a war of extermination, then collateral damage is part of the total war plan; in other words, in a war of extermination it is intended that civilians will be targets equally to soldiers, as well as the enemy’s cities, infrastructure, and so on. The war on the eastern front between the Nazis and the Soviets was as close to a war of extermination as any that occurred in the twentieth century, and here “collateral damage” was not even an applicable concept. If destruction could be inflicted, it was …the more devastating the better.

        A response to a terror attack, as in the example you gave of 9/11, is understood to be a limited military action and not a war of extermination. This requires an equally limited action against the civilization of the enemy. The US chose to take measures not to be interpreted as waging a war against Islam, and thus the civilizational component of the war was limited to merely learning about the enemy to the extent possible. Even this was controversial, if you are aware of the resistance to the US military’s “human terrain system,” deployed in order to fight more effectively within enemy territory.

        Your remarks imply that there is an interesting question about identifying the relevant civilization of one’s enemy in order to fight it. I agree that this is an interesting question, and I have no easy answer for it. And, yes, a miscalculation here could lead to catastrophic escalation.

        War is changing. There are no more peer-to-peer conflicts between superpowers. The emerging paradigm is that of hybrid warfare, and hybrid warfare is, by its nature, limited warfare. In order for a war of extermination to break out today, escalation would have to pass through many stages (what Herman Kahn called rungs on the ladder of escalation) that have not been passed in decades. Total war today means nuclear war and possibly human extinction. Almost everyone is clearly aware of this, so conflicts, even among superpowers (as during the Cold War) are carefully limited. In this environment of limited conflict, a full scale war against an enemy civilization is not something anyone wants to talk about in public, but it remains for me a matter of purely intellectual interest.

        Best wishes,


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