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War ... What is it good for? Well, lots of things. In this exhilarating, far-reaching and often startlingly insightful query into the human race's passion for organized killing sprees, Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich claims that war has "a life of its own," and examines that life -- from its ancient birth to its current incarnation, as well as its possible futures. Ehrenreich, noted for her gender- and class-related social criticism, clearly revels in her status as "reckless amateur," rushing in "where the prudent scholar fears to tread." She proffers a 300-book bibliography with dizzyingly cross-disciplinary entries -- on everything from cannibalism to Nazism, Goddess worship to physical anthropology -- only a handful of which, she notes, directly tackle theories of "the passions of war." It's this presumed gap that she attempts to fill, and she does so, quite often brilliantly.
In the first and more provocative half of the book, "Predation," Ehrenreich dissects both what war is and those theories of war that she finds wanting. The inadequate explanations include that old stand-by: some human -- and particularly male -- instinct towards violent aggression. As Ehrenreich puts it, "Wars are not barroom brawls writ large ... Most of war consists of preparation for battle." And most men, as any drill sergeant knows, must be carefully trained to become killing machines. Nor does "aggressiveness" explain war's peculiarly collective spirit -- inspiring, in many, feelings of honor, community and a distinctly religious fervor that provides "one of humankind's great natural 'highs.'"
Ehrenreich posits, instead, a human relationship with war so old that we have forgotten its origins and ancient logic; consequently, it might seem jarring, even contradictory, to contemporary sensibilities. At the core of Ehrenreich's complex argument is humanity's fear of predation -- of being hunted by animals, of being prey. As she says, "the sacrilization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator ... but that of a creature which has learned only 'recently,' in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night." The logic goes like this: Humans slowly and painfully transformed themselves from quivering prey to canny hunters. About 12,000 B.C., skilled hunters had so depleted the once mighty animal population that they started warring with each other. This elite hunter-to-warrior class -- with the special privileges it once earned for fending off very real bloodthirsty beasts -- has survived to this very day, as have the vestiges of its underlying psychology (which include deeming the enemy "Other," bestial and subhuman).
Ehrenreich traces these fascinating vestiges, perhaps too swiftly, throughout the rest of human history -- from the age of medieval knighthood, when war and religion became inextricably intertwined, to contemporary nationalism and women's involvement in warfare. The book clocks in at a mere 241 pages, and the content sometimes shows some strain in its breeziness: Ehrenreich's provocative, intuitive ideas simply aren't given enough room to fully cohere. But her explanation for war is the last thing one might expect -- satisfying -- because her equation includes both the subtleties of human nature and a stunningly wide range of human experience. -- Salon