Cultural Understanding in the Nature of War

by Luigi Kapaj

War is an incarnation of dispute resolution. Understanding war in this way affords some insight into the degree of violence used by various groups in disagreement with one another. People can reach a cultural understanding where even their most extreme disputes resulting in war are conducted according to some conventions or in a highly ritualized manner. Violence can be anticipated, and expected at its worst extreme, when such understandings are absent either through contact between new cultures or a sudden change to the status quo.

There is a tendency to examine war and its causes as distinct from diplomacy or other manner of settling disputes. Rather than treat war separately, it should be understood in the context of how a society handles disputes with another group. Instead of asking "what is the cause of war?" The question that should be asked is "how do different groups resolve their disputes?" War is not so much what happens when other methods like diplomacy fail as it is part of a broader spectrum of ways conflict is dealt with. This is evident in the various approaches to warfare.

Some societies had developed formalities in the way in which they conduct war with one another. This evolves from a combination of extended coexistence and mutual respect. This mutual respect tempers their anger and behavior.

In the most extreme examples, war becomes more of a ritual than a protracted campaign of violence. Maya and Inca would settle a dispute, after much posturing, with taking prisoners and a sacrifice. Zulu warriors, prior to Shaka Zulu, would line up and spend most of a battle taunting an enemy tribe. A Japanese Samurai was expected to follow rituals in all stages of a confrontation and was judged on his adherence to these rituals over any outcome of a battle.

Many societies evolved to a point where they maintained mutually understood terms by which war is conducted. In the era of Chinggis Khaan's rise to power, the nomadic Turko-Mongolian tribes fought frequent wars and observed a few customs when dealing with any nomadic tribe. The leaders were only executed with the same respect as shown their herd animals, and others were allowed to switch loyalties and join an opposing tribe. On the occasion such respect was extended to sedentary cultures such as during the conquest of Russia, it went largely unappreciated. The feudal lords of medieval Europe developed a similar, though superficially opposite, custom where the leaders were typically taken prisoner and ransomed while the civilians were largely ignored. This later evolved and was codified into the Geneva Conventions where the terms of war, including the behavior of a soldier and the treatment of captives, between countries was clearly outlined. These examples occurred in regions were societies coexisted and intermixed for hundreds or thousands of years sharing many similarities in how they utilize their land to survive, intermarriage, religions, related languages, similar levels of technology, and at times a common powerful enemy such as China or the Saracens.

Such conventions break down during an encounter between conflicting cultures that lack mutual respect.

European colonization of other continents exemplifies the nature of this form of conflict. Both the British and Zulus maintained conventions when in conflict with their immediate neighbors yet when in conflict with each other, the result was total war with extreme consequences. Likewise with the Spanish invasion of the Inca and Aztec nations, all their customs of war were either disregarded or completely misunderstood by one another resulting in the annihilation of entire civilizations.

In more modern times, and closer to home, this lack of respect can be clearly seen in the current U.S. conflict with Iraq and the associated "War on Terror". America has a multitude of laws regarding the treatment of prisoners including amendments to its constitution and participation in international treaties yet these customs are completely disregarded with prisoners of this conflict. Instead they are held in prisons, such as Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, where such laws and conventions are ignored. Similarly, the members of the Iraqi resistance ignore many of their own customs that would be extended to others of like culture, such as the Islamic law that Muslims should not fight Muslims or to offer non Muslims an opportunity to convert before killing them. Even when customs are observed by either side, such as ritual executions and economic sanctions, they go largely misunderstood, if noticed at all, by the opposing side.

Another factor in the breakdown of mutual understandings, even where many of the similarities exist that should lead to conflict being handled with some restraint, is when there is a lack of history for such terms and rituals to develop. Aside from the obvious encounter between new cultures, a lack of history can be created through a sudden sociopolitical upheaval. When the ground rules for coexistence are removed, people lack the framework to resolve conflict in any manner short of extreme violence as apparent with Ethnic conflicts.

There are three main sources for ethnic conflicts of the 20th century. The economic collapse of The Great Depression, combined with a political shift to fascism in a country already devastated by a recent war, led to the total breakdown of relations between Germans and Jews in a country where they had previous coexisted in a mutually beneficial manner. European colonies, upon gaining their independence, typically faced massive violence in sorting out disagreements among groups that previously would have had some formality to their relations. Even the United States fell into civil war, its bloodiest war, when initially trying to resolve cultural disputes between different regions over views on slavery and centralized authority. With the fall of communism around much of the world, many groups after hundreds of years of coexistence turned disputes over resources into some of the most violent forms of conflict. The common factor in the rise of such levels of violence to settle disputes was the political destabilization.

The 20th century has also given rise to arenas where the most extreme levels of violence are noticeably absent.

The Cold War was neither cold nor peaceful, but makes an excellent model of mutual understanding leading to set conventions. Both The Soviet Union and The United States shared some recognition of each other as equals and in their short history managed to evolve on similar footing. Their spheres of influence at the end of WWII, advancement of technology in both military and space, and development of nuclear weapons advanced at a similar pace creating the effect of a shared history. This also led to a mutual respect of their military capacity to annihilate one another. As a result, they developed a system of dispute resolution involving restraint from total war. Spies were captured and exchanged. Though never fighting directly, they instead fought by proxy through funding and arming opponents to each others allies often expanding minor squabbles into protracted conflicts, but conflicts that did not hurt themselves. They would fund opposition in their neighbors such as Afghanistan or Cuba, but shy away from a direct military confrontation as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Disagreements were handled diplomatically, or fought under well understood terms.

Modern industrialized democracies are said to have never fought against each other in war. The truth is that they face many disputes that are resolved under strict terms, even rituals, due to shared history of development as well as their similarity of culture. Needs for resources are resolved through trade or treaties. Economic issues are handled through the imposition or removal of tariffs, sanctions, and embargos. Violence upon a citizen is resolved through the sacrifice of the offending individual through extradition and allowing the person to be subject to the other country's laws and punishment. Some animosities are ritualized through sports. Industrialized democracies face all the disputes that can lead to war, but have evolved a system of resolution requiring mutual understanding.

Many contemporary disputes around the world can be better understood with respect to the history and mutual respect of the groups involved. Israel and Palestinians have fought for years under the terms of attacking civilians and residences rather than open military conflict, and have so far continued a planned peace process despite a breakdown in direct relations, perhaps hinting at achieving some level of mutual understanding that could temper future conflicts. China and Taiwan are expanding direct trade relations yet could collapse into direct war should the situation change through Taiwan declaring independence. It is possible that the frequency and violence of ethnic conflicts in Africa can subdue over time if some mutual framework be achieved otherwise it could take hundreds of years to develop on its own. The violence in Nepal erupted out of the political upheavals of Royal family members being murdered and the dissolution of its parliament, but is limited in scope as the shared culture is still understood and the degree of changes are not high.

India and Pakistan have both developed nuclear weapons and have subsequently developed a mutual understanding in their military capacity. This can be attributed in part to a shared history since their independence from British rule as well as some similarities in culture. As more countries develop nuclear weapons, it remains to be seen how little shared history or similarity of culture is necessary to develop a mutual respect or if the threat of mutual annihilation alone is enough to foster specific terms of conflict resolution to avoid total war.

Conflicts and disagreements will continue to arise. How they are dealt with can be understood in terms of the nature of the relations and respect between who is in disagreement. Though time is always a factor in tempering the worst violence, mutual understandings can be fostered. Creating a framework of relations, as well as allowing different societies to know and understand one another's customs, is necessary to resolve disputes with the lowest level of violence. The historical precedent is that the absence of mutual understanding leads to the most violent warfare.


© 2006, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on August 30, 2006

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