Mobile Menu

Anthropology of War

by digross, January 1, 1970

Shooting Script

  • What are the different groups involved in conflict? (internationally recognized government, unofficial state, military, ideological, religious, commercial, needs-driven, international, humanitarian, journalists, anthropologists, etc.)
  • What are they struggling over? Where are they collaborating?
  • What is the purpose of battle in this war? (to kill soldiers, to frighten and control civilians, to kill civilians, to change public opinions, to effect political change, etc.)
  • How are various groups organized? (hierarchical armies, fiefdoms, paramilitary units, guerilla units, militias, mobs, political parties)
  • How is communication handled? (direct orders, written vs. unwritten orders, public radio, verbally, etc.)
  • What are the fighting rituals in the war? (uniforms, weapons, use of weapons, use of terror, acceptable atrocities, participation in war crimes, etc.)
  • What are some rules of participation in the war? (age and gender distinctions, class and ethnicity and language distinctions, skin color and cultural distinctions, etc.)

Possible Contributers

Carolyn Nordstrom, Eric Stover



Thinking about war from the anthropological model gives the observer new ways of understanding it, and frees journalists from the traditional, simplistic, political descriptions that officials and spokesmen use. The anthropological model gives us new questions to ask, new avenues to investigate. Documenting war as a human behavior, not just a struggle between armed people, leads to a broader, more comprehensive description.

How does an anthropologist look at war?

Until the 1980’s, anthropologists didn’t really have any tools for studying war, according to Carolyn Nordstrom. Usually, we think of war as organized, lethal violence between two sides who are struggling for control over something. From the anthropological point of view, war is a behavior among many, and there are many ways to do it. There’s no need to define what is and isn’t war, since the study is about people, anyway. Instead of asking about the entity, “war,” we ask about people involved in violent conflict, which we can label “war.”

Step back a moment from the understanding of war as a battle between opposing sides. From the anthropological point of view, war is a cultural activity, like an elections, a festival, or a marriage ceremony. It is done differently in different places, has various meanings, purposes, and participants.

Anthropology has suddenly become a popular way to analyze war since the end of the Cold War. Whereas analysis had focused on states and political entities, when the Soviet Union collapsed, this approach had no target. Anthropology stepped in; it is the study of people without the obfuscation of Cold War ideology.

Different Ways of Warring

The European experience, that wars bring rape, pillage, and attacks on non-combatants, is not universal. There are peoples who have wars but have no history of war crimes. Even in the 20th century, the way Europeans and Americans prosecute war has evolved. World War I was a battle between soldiers. In World War II, the concept of “total war” was introduced, and all means of production became military targets, including civilians. In Vietnam, the U.S. was after neither territory, nor resources; it was after minds. The main purpose of battle became to terrorize the enemy.

More than Two Sides in a War

Often, we speak of the two sides in a war. In an internal war, there is usually a government and a resistance. In an international war, there are two governments. However, this kind of political analysis is never accurate, and often misleading. A war is much more than just the battlefield. The anthropologist looks at all groups involved in a conflict, without making divisions based on apparent political affiliation.

Foremost, governments are heterogeneous, not homogeneous. There are divisions, factions, powerful parties and weaker ones. Governments are not even clearly defined, since commercial or military interests may play roles, officially and unofficially.

What are some of the groups involved in a war? They include:
* different factions of the military
* splinter groups within military factions
* paramilitaries (which are usually military groups which allow various powers to carry out military actions they do not wish to be associated with publicly)
* Civilians of various political factions, social and economic backgrounds
* Militias (true citizen paramilitary organizations)
* Women (as non-combatants) and children
* Outside aid organizations, such as the U.N., aid organizations, the OSCE, USAID, NGO’s, religious groups, individuals
* Outside participants, such as governments of other countries, ex-patriot communities
* Outsider individuals, such as arms merchants, smugglers, journalists, diplomats, mercenaries, military advisors, human rights workers,

journalists, anthropologists

So, following the anthropological model, war is a human behavior in which all these groups participate, in different ways. Notably, all these people are part of a modern war.

Resources and War

Anthropology also looks at war in terms of resource utilization. This is a more comprehensive approach than realist political approaches, because an anthropologist would investigate more than just the most powerful political entities (the government), to describe the situation in human terms, not just political.

For example, to have a war, a military needs weapons. It needs money to buy those weapons. Typically, this means taking money from civilians, in the form of taxes or theft. It also means taking other resources, such as natural resources (e.g. diamonds, zinc, cobalt). This can also mean “political resources,” such as the ability to trade, conduits of trade, and alliances.

Control and manipulation of these political resources can bring money or material resources, too. For example, various governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America “owned” the alliance with the U.S. or U.S.S.R. in their countries during the Cold War, and received money and weapons in return. The Contras in Nicaragua “controlled” the alliance with the U.S. The government of Afghanistan controlled the alliance with the U.S.S.R. Indonesia’s control over southern shipping routes has been a reason for it to reason money and support from the U.S.

Culture and War

In addition to looking at the participants in war, and the resource utilization in war, anthropology looks at the culture of the participants. In the list of participants, above, each group or individual is part of a sub-culture, and brings culture to the whole.

Nordstrom has found that arms merchants, for example, will introduce weapons into wars, or change how a weapon is used. This behavioral change can be a significant cultural change, such as when the introduction of light assault rifles allows children to become soldiers.

Mercenaries, too, often bring change; sometimes these changes are accepted by the local culture, and sometimes not. Nordstrom once learned of a particular kind of violent torture/rape, previously unheard of in the country. She was able to track it from a border, into the country, to the point where the practice ceased, because it was considered a form of atrocity that was unacceptable in the culture! Presumably, it was brought in by a mercenary but not adopted by the local fighters.


Recent Comments

    shortcode not loaded