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Death and the Heroic in Ancient Combat
The Greeks, as I have learned, are accustomed to wagewars in the most stupid fashion due to their silliness and folly. For once theyhave declared war against each other, they search out the finest and most levelplain and there fight it out. The result is that even the victorious come awaywith great losses; and of the defeated, I say only that they are utterlyannihilated.
-Herodotus, The Histories1
ERODOTUS: HISTORIAN OR LIAR? Researcher or fabricator?Famously denounced by Cicero as a fraudster, depicted by some modern historiansas a fictionalizer, he can be seen as the precursor of some ratherdistinguished modern historians who have had, to put it delicately, a littledifficulty with the all too often indistinct boundary between history and"imagined history." But in looking back to the earliest evidence ofwarfare and the fates that befell warriors on those prehistoric and ancientkilling grounds, the Herodotian dilemma-that confused swirl of myth and fact,of dispassionate observation and passionate "interpretation"may serveus well, for the reality is that we walk on uncertain ground, and we would bewell advised to tread it gingerly.
As the quote that heads this chapter suggests, Herodotuslooked at the warfare of his age (fifth century BCE) and saw anything but aheroic clash of arms. Greek warriors could be almost lemminglike in theirtunnel-visioned stampede to oblivion. His view echoes the modern debate-ahawks-versus-doves standoff-about our ancient and prehistoric ancestors.
Was it a clash between those who saw their interests bestserved by ruthless violence and those who saw their interests served byavoiding bloody conflict and reaching some kind of peaceful accommodation? Thehawks see primitive man as truly primitive. This hawks-and-doves dichotomy isreflected in modern studies of early battlefield lethality. There are those whocontend that early combat was merely ritualistic, full of sound and furysignifying nothinga great deal of prancing and empty threats that were designedto minimize the death count. The argument is that in societies of low birthrateand high natural mortality, bloodletting, which could only harm bothantagonists, would be avoided. Instead of real warfare they organized amutually agreed-upon charade in which theatrical gesture replaced killinganargument anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley dismisses as "the increasinglyirrational meandering in a neo-Rousseauian, postmodernist 'woo-woo land.'" However, the "flower-war" school gained traction in the 1960sand 1970s, perhaps as a reaction to what was seen as the military brutalism ofmuch of the twentieth century, which, despite its self-congratulatory"modernity" and humanism, set a new benchmark for savagery.
John Keegan in A History of Warfare (1993) promotes theidea of self-restraining warfare being a characteristic of"primitives" who "have recourse to all sorts of devices whichspare both themselves and their enemies from the worst of what might beinflicted.?.?.?. Most important of such devices is that of ritual, whichdefines the nature of combat itself and requires that, once defined ritualshave been performed, the contestants shall recognise the fact of theirsatisfaction and have recourse to conciliation, arbitration andpeacemaking."3 But before we can rest in the comfortable assumption thatprimitive warriors were simply thwarted peacemakers, Keegan puts us right:"It is important?.?.?.?not to idealise primitive warfare. It may take avery violent turn." Indeed, Keegan adds, a little euphemistically, it may"have material effects undesired by those who suffer them"-undesiredas in being tortured before being eaten. Our primitive forebears could beunfussy diners.
Robert L. O'Connell in his influential 1989 survey of warand aggression also promotes a view of primitive battle as essentially one oflow lethality:
Most probably fighting was, as it is now amongcontemporary hunting-and-gathering people, a sporadic, highly personalizedaffair, homicidal in intent and, occasionally, in effect, but lacking asustained economic and political motivation beyond that of revenge and,sometimes, women. Under such conditions, ambush and raiding are the preferredmodes of operation, and the target often is a single "enemy." Pitchedbattles, when they occur, represent tactical failure. The object of the forayis rout, not prolonged combat. In such an environment the attacking party willclose only if surprise is reasonably certain; otherwise the aim is to stay atlong range and exchange missiles.4
The distinction O'Connell and Keegan make between"formal" battle and ambush or surprise attack is critical inunderstanding the risk primitive warriors ran. It has been posited that informal battle the total casualty rate (wounded and killed) could be quitehigh-perhaps in the 30 to 40 percent range-compared with, say, an"average" American Civil War battle casualty rate of 12 to 15percent. But because these primitive battles were often standoffs employingrelatively unsophisticated missile weaponry, the death rate was low comparedwith that of modern battle: one killed for about thirty wounded; whereas bycomparison, one man was killed for about every five wounded at Gettysburg, andat the battle of the Somme in 1916 some British battalions took one killed forevery two men wounded. 5 However, some primitive pitched battles could be quitedeadly if the protagonists closed with shock weapons such as clubs, axes, andlances (a pattern that would become characteristic of Greek and Roman warfare).For example, combat among the woodland tribes of eastern North America (beforeEuropeans introduced firearms), in which up-close shock weapons such as clubsand axes predominated, could be highly lethal. However, if we look only atpitched battle the true picture of primitive-warrior fatality would be severelydistorted because the favored mode of battle was what we might term"irregular": ambushes and raids. The loss rate of each incident mayhave been quite low relative to modern warfare, but their frequency andferocity elevated the cumulative kill to "catastrophic mortalities"so that "a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had afar higher probability of dying in combat than the citizen of an average modernstate."6
The picture, then, of our warrior ancestors does not fitnotions of heroic warfare in which one warrior meets and defeats another as anequal. Much more likely, the style of doing battle was opportunistic andmotivated largely by an intuitive risk/benefit analysis. When life is squeezedinto the tight margin of survivability, grandiose gestures will give way tocareful calculation. A sure kill by a mob swarming, in a brief moment ofadvantage, over a numerically inferior enemy may not be pretty, but it cuts theodds of harm to the attackers significantly. Early humans were no differentfrom most hunting packs. This was the way they had learned to overcome animalprey, and it was a tactic equally effective against human enemies. In some waysit is not so different from insurgent warfare of our era, which is also basedon isolating and overrunning small groups of the enemy in ambushes and traps-infact on any opportunistic tactic that increases the odds of success, no matterhow "underhanded" it might be. Whether it be Europeans fightingnatives in North America (settlers referred to it as "the skulking way ofwar"); the French fighting Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsular War ofthe Napoleonic era; the French and Americans fighting in Vietnam in thetwentieth century; or the Soviets fighting the mujahideen and Americans theTaliban in modern Afghanistan, insurgent tactics reject a definition of theheroic; based that is, on open and transparent confrontation.
When did we start killing each other in combat? Somescholars date the earliest warfare to 2 million years ago.7 Homo habilis lived2.31.4 million years ago, while we, the relative newcomer Homo sapiens, did notmake an appearance until about 250,000 years ago. It was among the fraternalinterest groups of our hominid hunter ancestors some 400,000 years ago, thatthe territorial instinct turned lethal.8 They killed one another not only toprotect what they already had but also to extend their spheres of influence inorder to maximize their chances of surviving and thriving.9 The self-interestof the band was, and remains, the great motivator of warfare. We may havedressed that self-interest in a flashy rhetorical uniform, and the bands maynow be nation-states, but it is nevertheless still connected to our most basicand ancient instincts. We cannot quite rid ourselves of the ripe stink of thepelt.
About 1.7 million years ago Homo erectus began to spreadout of Africa carrying clubs, and about 400,000 years ago wooden spears withfire-hardened tips were added to the armory.10 However, it was the introductionof missile weapons that gave a tactical shape to prehistoric warfare that wouldbe characteristic of battle ever since: the proximity of shock versus the longrange of missiles. Homo neanderthalensis, a competitor of Homo sapiens, wasphysically stronger and long experienced in the use of stone-tipped spears forboth throwing and stabbing. But it was the nimbler and more inventive H.sapiens who would succeed in driving Neanderthals from the richer huntinggrounds, thereby squeezing them into an evolutionary cul-de-sac that reducedtheir chances of thriving and, ultimately, of surviving.
About 40,000 years ago H. sapiens developed a weaponstechnology that would profoundly shift the balance of combat power: theatlatl.11 Faced with adversaries who in up-close combat could make best use ofdirect muscular power, H. sapiens needed a counterpunch. The atlatl was awooden missile launcher, sharing some of the physics of the sling, for hurlingshort, spearlike darts. It was one of the first force multipliers, increasingthe range of the hand-thrown spear by about four times (from 25 yards to 100,with fairly predictable accuracy up to 30 yards),12 and it afforded the criticaladvantage of being able to fend off a physically powerful opponent who couldmake good use of shock weapons, and grievously hurt him from distance. It meantthat the atlatl-wielding group could start an assault earlier than an enemyarmed only with clubs and hand-thrown spears. In some prehistoric actuarialcalculation, the increased risk to the attacked and the concomitant reductionof risk to the attacker translated directly into the margin of success. And bythe time the bow and arrow made an appearance around 20,000 years ago, Homoneanderthalensis was extinct.13
The bow brought some very distinct advantages over theatlatl. It had greater range; ammunition was lighter and therefore more of itcould be carried; it was an easier weapon to learn to operate. Above all, itoffered the great tactical advantage of being much more versatile-it could beused in open combat, but more important, it was better adapted to ambushwarfare, where it could be fired from cover. But change in history does notwork with the crisp exactness of a page being turned. The atlatl, for example,was still used by Aztec and Inca warriors well over 40,000 years after itsintroduction (as were Stone Age swords, the edges embedded with slivers ofrazor-sharp obsidian, capable of lopping off a conquistador's horse's head inone terrible strike).14
Whether atlatl or bow, the long-range missile weaponradically changed battlefield prospects. Now a David could kill a Goliath; anincompoop a genius; the lowest the highest. It was the start of the greatsocial leveling of combat killing. The ever-increasing sophistication ofmissile weaponry (the atlatl of the Aztecs defeated by the arquebuses of theconquistadors, the arquebus by the musket, the musket by the breech-loadingrifle, and so on), and the concomitant reduction of high-risk, close-actionshock combat is one of the core themes of warfare. Killing from a distance isinvariably preferable to the riskiness of close combat. And so, over millenniathe evolution of missile weaponry has all but rendered shock weapons redundant.Clubbing and stabbing, although occasionally resorted to, are no longer thetactical lingua franca of modern battle, despite exhortations-even in quiterecent history-for soldiers to go in with cold steel. As a consequence, thebattlefield has become "empty": In most cases the warrior does notsee whom he kills or is killed by. In fact, there is a prospect that we will soincrease the distance between combatants that killing may well be done by dronesand other smart weapons that will make the heroic traditions of close-combatshock warfare as antiquated as the duel between Achilles and Hector, and"modern" small-arms fighting as quaint as medieval swordplay. Thebullet or heat-seeking bomb does not give a jot for courage or trial-by-arms;they fly to the heart of the matter with unblinking dispassion. But perhapsthis was ever so. The arrow is nothing but the uncritical servant of thearcher, no better or worse than the unmanned drone or the man with his fingeron a computer key, whereas the swordsman and the spearman, the soldier wieldinga bayonet, must look into the eye of his fellow warrior, see his fear, hear hiscry, smell his blood. And in that contact there is a whole moral world; a worldthat might be hateful, angry, terrified, disgusted, full of regret, or crazedwith exultation-but never dispassionate, never coldly unhuman.
Despite the fact that killing by long-distance missilesis on some level a more efficient handling of risk, earliest warfare endowedclose-quarters combat with a much higher heroic status. There were quitepragmatic reasons for the distinction. The most effective warriors had thebravery to close for the kill. The risks were great but the prize greater. Theprimary benefit was quite straightforward: The decisive killer was the mostproductive, and the one likely to ensure the well-being of his immediate familyand the larger group. In him lay their future; to him was accorded power,influence, status, something the hero can translate into power with verytangible benefits. The prehistoric hunter's claim on the kill would bemirrored, later in the history of combat, in the ancient warrior's claim to thepanoply of his defeated enemy (with its echo in modern warfare in the taking ofsouvenirs from the defeated).
Close-combat killing defined the heroic for millennia.There is a tension, constant for most of military history, between shock andmissile tactics that arises from the constraints imposed by the physicalproperties of the weapons. Put simply, shock weapons-clubs, swords, stabbingspears, maces, et cetera-were more effective killers than missiles, but thewarrior had to get close to his enemy, which is dangerous: "These veryshort ranges create severe psychological and social difficulties that rendershock weapons the weapons of choice among only the more severely disciplinedarmies of high chiefdoms and states.?.?.?. And more important, to reach thisclosure the warrior must pass through the killing zone of the enemy's fire weapons."15