When an army feeds its horses with grain, and kills its cattle for food, and when the men do not hang the cooking pots over the camp fire, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death. Sun  Tzu, The Art of War.

War. Possibly the Alpha and Omega of Human history. But what, as the Edwin Starr song asks, is it good for? The answer is, of course “Nothing!”  And yes, war does indeed suck most heinously. But war has always done things, had, in other words, a function, unpleasant as it may be to admit this, and tempting as it is to simply see it as stupid and destructive.

What I want to put out here, in brief, is the idea that war created states. The unintended consequence of this was that peace often ensued, often for long periods. There is a debate currently underway in the historiosphere about whether civilization–that is to say “state societies”– is more violent that hunter-gatherer society. The argument rests on the idea that states actually create the basis for peace, the state itself having a monopoly on violence. When war then happens among states, it is often cataclysmic, and thousands, or millions, are killed.

This did not happen among hunter-gatherers. However, in hunter-gatherer societies war was also endemic, but looked very different. Violent conflict — if you don’t want to call it war–was frequent, maybe even constant. The death toll was small, but relative to population it was very significant. This constant trickle of death was a tit-for-tat status quo in which no killing went unpunished and we see echoes of it today with so-called Vendettas among “tribal” Mafias.

What does war do, then? Looking historically, its possible to see how struggles between states tended to create larger states, as one took over the other. Pointless and destructive as war was, it often resulted in long stretches of peace, such as the Pax Romana, created by Rome taking over all of its neighbors by the first century A.D, that is to say most of the first emperor, Augustus,’ reign.   Or the Pax Mongolica–again, created by the Mongols dastardly rampages initiated by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, which created the largest contiguous empire in history, in addition to the largest free-trade zone.

Perhaps the poster child in the argument is Warring States China (475-221 BCE). China itself is the largest and longest-lived state in the world. First unified under the Qin, from which China derived its name, the geographical region it encompassed had until 221 BCE been ruled by multiple warring states. This process of war whittled the number of states down to one, from seven.

Before this archeologists estimate that China in the second millennium BCE had thousands of polities.  Only one process drove this “unification” from many polities to one China: War.  This is why both the written records (books like Sun Tzu’s the Art of War, and the books of the Han court historian Sima Qiam), and the archeological record are all about war.

War historian Azar Gat talks of the constancy of war in the Shang Dynasty (c.1500 BCE): “Waged against rebellious vassals, other states that were emerging the Shang’s periphery, and tribal neighbors, warfare was a constant state occupation.”

Not much had changed a few hundred years later under the Zhou: Says Francis Fukuyama in his Origins of Political Order:  “War was without question the single most important driver of state formation during China’s Eastern Zhou Dynasty.”

The process of “state formation” continued after the Zhou, through the “Spring and Autumn Period,” (770-475 BCE). Over some 300 years there were only an estimated 38 years of peace. Over 1000 separate wars were fought in this period.  If subsequent years saw fewer wars it was only because there were fewer adversaries to fight them.  However, if the frequency of wars declined, their intensity increased: One historian reported that 245,000 soldiers died in one day in 293 BCE, and 450,000 in 260.

Such incredible war mongering required money, lots of it, and this meant…taxes. Bureaucracy in other words was a direct creation of warfare.

So go the written sources. Exhibit A on the archeological front, however, would probably be the Terra Cotta Army, approximately 8000 life size clay soldiers, long with chariots and horses, buried with Shi Huangdi, the Qin’s first emperor.   The dead were believed to need the things they needed in this life, and an army was top of the list.

Once China had been unified (by war) it became surprisingly peaceful. Subsequent to defeating its last enemies, the Qin dynasty dismantled its last fortification, confiscated all weapons in the empire–except those of its own army–and cast them into a series of giant statues, erected across the empire (none of them remaining today, sadly).

What happened next is what always happens: A unified state means the focus of war turns towards other states.

Thus, in China at least, the story of state creation.

Next up, we’ll talk about the process that made ancient Egypt…

About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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