Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age

Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age

by David D. Perlmutter

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From the dawn of time to the present, from the days of mammoth hunting to the era of Scud-busting, pictures of war constitute the most persistent genre of images human beings have created. In fact, human beings are the only creatures who engage in these two activities—organized violence and the making of pictorial images—and the author shows how both art


From the dawn of time to the present, from the days of mammoth hunting to the era of Scud-busting, pictures of war constitute the most persistent genre of images human beings have created. In fact, human beings are the only creatures who engage in these two activities—organized violence and the making of pictorial images—and the author shows how both art and war emerge from the same source: the hunter's eye.

This book explores and analyzes the thirteen thousand-year legacy of pictures of war from various cultures over the centuries, from the Stone Age cave paintings and monumental sculpture of the ancient Near East to the art of the classical period and the Middle Ages, from pre-contact Mesoamerican imagery to Napoleonic propaganda and totalitarian art and on to the instantaneous images of the Gulf War.

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"There have been countless books on revolutions in warfare. David Perlmutter has written an extraordinarily important book on what is permanent in warfare and on the relationship between the permanent and the transitory. By looking at war through the prism of images that humans have created to prepresent warfare, Perlmutter has plumbed the relationship between the experience of war, imagining war, and the evolution of warfare. He has gone beyond ordinary books about warfare to consider the relationship between war and the human condition. Visions of War is more than a contribution to the study of warfare. It is an important contribution of the study of war as a dimension of human exsistence." —George Friedman, Chairman of Stratfo and author of The Future of War

This book explores and analyzes the 13,000-year history of pictures of war spanning from Stone Age cave paintings and the monumental sculpture of the ancient Near East to the art of the classical period and the Middle Ages, from pre-contact Mesoamerican imagery to Napoleonic propaganda and totalitarian art, and on to the instantaneous images of the Gulf War. Perlmutter teaches mass communication at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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St. Martin's Press
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First Edition
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Visions Of War

Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age

By David D. Perlmutter

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 David D. Perlmutter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7250-9




War, said the philosopher Heraclitus, is the father of all men and all things. Every nation, people, and institution, contemporary or past, has in some way been shaped by war; many have been extinguished by it. From 1496 B.C.E. to 1861, as one writer described, there "were but 227 years of peace and 3130 years of war; in other words thirteen years of war for every year of peace. Considered thus, the history of the lives of peoples presents a picture of uninterrupted struggle. War, it would appear, is a normal attribute to human life." The social historian Pitirim Sorokin found that most of the nations of Europe had engaged in some form of war for at least half their existence.

Nor is war a historical anachronism: the immense, unparalleled losses of life in the last hundred years have made the twentieth century a "century of blood" (Eric Hobsbawm), a "stinking" century (A. L. Rowse), and the "Black Century" (George Steiner). Even though there has been no worldwide or cataclysmic war, there have been only 26 days of world peace since 1945, and some 150 wars have been fought or continue to be fought under such guises as traditional wars between nation states, border clashes, preventive incursions, punitive expeditions, revolutions, civil wars, "dirty wars," police actions, state terrorism, peacekeeping missions, anti-insurgency campaigns, ethnic cleansings, and humanitarian interventions. In all it would take 4,000 Vietnam Memorials to inscribe the names of the victims of the wars of this century alone.

War is also a uniquely human enterprise. In the activities of social insects like ants, many of the strategies and outcomes of battle as we know it are visible. Weapons of a kind are used by some animals; for example, polar bears will push blocks of ice onto sleeping walruses. Among chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, there are fights between individuals and gang assaults on isolated members of other communities. Human beings, however, fight planned, sustained, complex battles over years and over wide areas, employing up to tens of millions of combatants and hundreds of millions of workers in the war economy and using technological devices designed to kill enemies. Expressed motivations for war such as fulfilling treaty obligations or defending a faith are limited to Homo sapiens. Alone among the planet's fauna as well, we create images to memorialize, celebrate, understand, or decry our wars.

Yet the origins of war are obscure. We do not know when the first group of men began to kill their neighbors, kidnap the women, steal possessions, or seize land; nor do we know whether the aggressors considered these activities necessities of survival, points of honor, or ethnic imperatives. The Egyptians under Rameses II fought the first major battle (recorded in writing) against a Hittite army at Kadesh in c. 1300 B.C.E., but civilized warfare, between cities and states, reaches back much further. The initial motives for wars of smaller scale, between families, groups, and tribes, are even more distant. There are signs of murder, organized and individual, among the archaic populations, such as Homo erectus, living a million years ago. Among the nearest human subspecies to our own, the Neanderthals, violence was widespread, though it is unclear whether from accidents, animal attacks, or fighting. In one study, 40 percent of Neanderthal individuals in Europe and Asia show signs of traumatic injury to the head. Among the remains of the later stone ages in Eurasia and Africa, weapons, and tools to repair and improve weapons, are common, but we do not know whether those weapons were used by men on other men.

Neither do we know the idea, era, provenance, or medium of the first artificially created visual image. Some recent discoveries are tantalizing: geometric shapes on Australian rock surfaces date to about 40,000 B.C.E.; specimens of rock art in Tanzania are placed at the same time; a piece of bone upon which one of our ancestors inscribed what may be the outline of a horse's head dates to 70,000 B.C.E.; a 230,000-year-old pebble carved in a rude human shape was found in Israel. However, we will never find a "picture zero," only those that may date earlier than other samples. What is understood is that the first picture-making industries, the first instances of a widespread cultural practice of making representational images, appear among anatomically modern humans in the Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) era about 35,000 to 12,000 years ago.

This art does depict battles — but not the ones a historian of war art might seek. For example, in the Lascaux cave in Dordogne, France, on the wall of a barely accessible shaft are several figures painted around 14,000 to 18,000 years ago. [Fig. 3] As no natural light penetrates the cave's depth, the images must have been viewed with stone lamps that cast a dusky, flickering glow. The shapes themselves seem relatively straightforward. A giant bison, evidently wounded, appears to charge a fallen, stick-figure man wearing a bird's-head mask. Below the bison is what may be an arrow or spear. Nearby is a staff with a small bird figure at its hilt. Farther below may be an atlatl, a hooked instrument with which ancient and modern hunter-gatherers launched a spear with improved speed, accuracy, and power. (To the left, out of frame, a rhinoceros departs the scene; six dots extend from its rear.)

The first great student of prehistoric art, whose interpretation defined it for half of the twentieth century, the French priest Henri Breuil, saw such visual imagery as the initial signs of a spiritual florescence in the Stone Age. In his summa, Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, the abbé reflects: "[F]or the first time, Men dreamed of great Art and, by the mystical contemplation of their works, gave to their contemporaries an assurance of success in their hunting expeditions, of triumph in the struggle against the enormous pachyderms and grazing animals." Breuil argued that cave painting was sympathetic magic, or "la magie de la chasse," reflecting the fertility of prey creatures and illustrating the process that would lead to the success of the hunt. Through this prism, every sign, squiggle, line, and shape on the cave walls became an element within a magical realm.

Yet, in many ways, the Lascaux scene is atypical of the art from which it sprang; the cave imagery of the Ice Age rarely displayed overt violence or pictures of men or small animals like birds, and nothing of social customs and traditions. The actual weapons presumably used in hunting prey are commonly seen impacting or lying near the great animals.

In fact, the duel of the bird-man and the bison reflects the early prevalence of the habits of body and mind that give us the capacity for the warfare that we picture and practice to this day. This interpretation can be disputed, however, and is not provable. To use words from one culture to describe the activities of another is always a political act. It is an ethnocentric value judgment to impose the term "war" to describe the activities of hunters of the Ice Age. The peoples of that time probably had no word for war and would be amazed at the concept. Yet the actions they engaged in were the genesis of those that later human beings applied to war, and the state of mind that sustained the hunter is identical to that which drives the warrior, even when the opponents and victims are of different species.

The art, ideas, and folkways of the Upper Paleolithic are of great interest to understanding who we are because so much that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom first appeared or became common then. The era has been called one of the "big surprises" of history, a cultural revolution, and a creative explosion. Even if the achievements of the time had earlier origins and precedents, the era's art, as paleohistorian Paul Bahn puts it, "constitutes a dramatic qualitative and quantitative advance on earlier evidence for symbolic activity."

The greatest flourishing of Upper Paleolithic cave art — or rather, the area in which we have found the most evidence — is Franco-Cantabria, what now comprises the northern coastal region of Spain, the Pyrenees mountain range, and the Dordogne and Rhône River valleys in southwestern France. Here, archeologists have found the most sites of habitation, the greatest amount of statuary, cave and rock paintings and markings, carved bones, antlers, and stones, the most elaborate burial sites, and the most signs of social and technological complexity. In size the art ranged from tiny statuettes of women to immense wall paintings of the fauna of the prehistoric peoples' world. The main period of the production of art occurred during the last great peak of glaciation, the Ice Age. Despite harsh conditions, the hunters enjoyed their own version of an "affluent society," among one of the richest accumulations of megafauna (large animals) in the natural history of the world. It is likely, then, that the character of the region encouraged different groups to cooperate, albeit temporarily, to fully exploit the environment. War among humans may have been unnecessary because cooperation (in seeking and killing game) brought about the best return from violent effort.

The end of the Upper Paleolithic world came when the glaciers retreated to their present position north of Europe. In Franco-Cantabria, thick forests replaced the tundra and steppe landscapes. The modern observer who associates open spaces with barrenness and the forest with life cannot understand the calamity this was for the peoples of the time. When any society makes the transition from exploitation of wild game and plants to a cereal economy, acute and chronic nutritional disasters — ranging from famine to iron deficiency, degradation of dental health, rise in infectious diseases, increased infant mortality, and a reduction in life span — are the inevitable results. The newly created woodlands could only support about 20 to 30 percent of the animal life that existed in the previous era. The cultures that produced much of what we associate with prehistoric art changed or collapsed. The caves were forgotten and abandoned, the paintings not to be uncovered for 10,000 years.

It is also from the Ice Age that we have the first unambiguous evidence of men slaughtering each other. This image from Cougnac in Southeastern France shows a human figure pierced by either spears or arrows. [Fig. 4] Yet, in the fossil record, what we find barely fulfills the definition of war as "all organized forms of intergroup homicide involving combat teams of two or more persons, including feuding and raiding." In an Italian site, the skeleton of a child was found with an arrow or spear point buried in the spinal column. Other fossil remains bear the marks of arrow wounds as well. For example, the right ilium of a human pelvis from the San Teodoro site in a cave in Messina, Sicily, is pierced by a small flint flake. There are currently twelve other sites from the Upper Paleolithic era that show evidence of arrows used to kill humans. In the few excavations outside Europe, interhuman violence is also apparent. In the northern Sudan, at the site of Jebel Sahaba dating to about 10,000B.C.E., we find evidence of a "lethal society." Fifty-nine skeletons were uncovered, of which more than half indicate extreme violence, such as crushing, cutting, and blows to the skull; weapon points are imbedded in some of the bones. The violence crossed lines of age and sex, and was thus probably not the result of hunting accidents or personal feuds.

Nevertheless, evidence of interhuman violence in the Upper Paleolithic is more scarce than for any other period in modern man's time on earth. In the next eras, the Mesolithic-Neolithic (c. 9000–4000 B.C.E.), and during the subsequent rise of urban civilization, evidence of systematic warfare becomes frequent, indisputable, and immense. Moreover, in the record of the bones, there is one curious fact about injuries suffered in the Upper Paleolithic: there are more wounds found on the remains of women than of men. But male-female ratio may be a spurious statistical anomaly — the sample size of the injured dead is tiny. Furthermore, these wounds are not necessarily the result of personal violence or war, but may be due to natural calamities in the harsh, rugged environment and the relatively thinner bones of females. In any case, after the end of the Upper Paleolithic, the ratio is reversed (with men having more wounds than women) and, moreover, violent injury is frequently associated with weapons; combined, these are certain signs of offensive or defensive violence. We can speculate, therefore, that although there was violence between people in the Upper Paleolithic, organized, purposive warmaking as we know it existed only on a small scale or was directed not toward other men but toward other species.

Pictures of interhuman violence are rare, though we should not assume that this reflected a generally pacific state of society. To find the more important and revealing pictures of war, we should look at unlikely figures, the many images of animals on the cave walls. To the modern eye, they are bucolic, like photographs in a nature magazine or scenes from a wildlife documentary. Arther Ferrill, like most historians of war, largely dismisses the Paleolithic as not being of interest to his field. "The cave paintings," he writes, "reflect very little evidence of warfare or of advances in weapons technology. There are several thousand scenes of animals, and, on the whole, they are idyllically peaceful." But the absence of overt violence (people killing each other or gutting animals) in art does not necessarily correspond to the absence of violence in society. Many peoples, from the Spartans to the Yuan dynasty of China to our own contemporary Western culture, may display visual arts that have no concordance with or are unrepresentative of actual warmaking practices.

In fact, the cave images were the first art of war, a war whose stakes were no less life and death than the battles of Roman legions or U.S. Marines. These were the images spawned from a culture whose most important component — to the exclusion of almost all other aspects of social life — was the killing of big game. To understand the origins of the vision of war, we must engage these images, and try to appreciate them through the hunter's eye.

The Focus on Big Game

Because we lack any written sources, eyewitnesses, or even the most tenuous myths or traditions from the time of its creation, cave art may serve as a Rorschach test for the fancies and agendas of competing researchers. How can we adopt the warrior's eye when the artist-hunter and his culture have been dead for at least 12,000 years? The almost three hundred decorated caves and shelters that have been uncovered and explored thus far display a version of reality that seems to defy sense — our sense, that is. The people of the Upper Paleolithic Franco-Cantabria were hunters and gatherers; over the millennia their environment varied, but generally it was dominated by lush tundra covered with game, rivers and seas teeming with fish, and skies filled with fowl. The people mated, bore and raised children, fashioned clothing and shelters, hunted and gathered food; no doubt they also told tales of their own lives, weaved legends of the supernatural, and organized themselves into interlocking family groups. Their art varied too, from body tattooing to necklaces of beads and animal teeth, wood carvings, clay sculpture, and the famous cave paintings.

But the art upon which the Stone Age people expended their greatest labor, resources, and time — the cave paintings — is largely limited to only one subject: big game. The French prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan conducted a survey in the late 1960s of some 90 caves and 1,955 portrayals of animals. He recorded that about 93 percent of the pictures were of large game such as reindeer, horse, bison, aurochs (the giant prehistoric bovid), red deer, ibex, and mammoths. At the Font de Gaume cave near Les Eyzies (Dordogne), France, for example, the galleries display some two hundred images, of which there are eighty bison, forty horses, twenty-three mammoths, and other large creatures, the fewest of which are predators; only one of the images is of a human figure.


Excerpted from Visions Of War by David D. Perlmutter. Copyright © 1999 David D. Perlmutter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David D. Perlmutter is currently area head for political communication at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He is the author of Photojournalism and Foreign Policy and has published articles in a number of scholarly journals, including Historical Methods, Visual Anthropology, and Journal of Communication.

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