Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview
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6 ‘Total War’ and the Ethnography of New Guinea


‘I may add at once that I am a convinced pacifist. I believe that modern warfare cannot in any way be shown to be beneficent’, Bronislaw Malinowski wrote in 1922. Having declared so, Malinowski continued that

savage warfare is something quite different, the toll in human
life and the suffering which it takes is as a rule relatively small.
On the other hand, it provides a wide field for physical exercise,
the development of personal courage, cunning and initiative,
and the sort of dramatic and romantic interest, the wide
vision of possibilities and ideals, which probably nothing else
can replace. (1961[1922]: 212)

He illustrated his point by relating something he had learned during fieldwork:

Round the east end of New Guinea, where cannibalism and
headhunting flourish, the natives had the unpleasant habit of
making nocturnal raids, and of killing without any necessity,
and in unsportmanslike manner, women and children as well
as combatants. But when investigated more closely and con-
cretely, such raids appear rather as daring and dangerous
enterprises, crowned, as a rule, with but small success half-
a-dozen victims or so rather than as wholesale slaughter,
which indeed they never were. For the weaker communities
used to live in inaccessible fastnesses, perched high up above
precipitous slopes, and they used to keep good watch over the
coast. Now, when European rule has established peace and
security, these communities have come down to the sea-coast
and to swampy and unhealthy districts, and their numbers
have rapidly diminished. (ibid.: 213)

Malinowski concluded this argument by addressing the colonial authorities with the suggestion that their effort to first pacify all their legal subjects was ‘by no means an unmixed blessing’ (ibid.).

Such a conclusion was no longer on Malinowski’s mind when, in 1940, he set himself down to write ‘An Anthropological Analysis of War’, which was to provide backup for the fight against Nazi Germany. But however much his political concerns had changed, the Malinowski of 1940 still maintained that wars which were known ethnographically were quite different to the wars of the modern era. Comparing instances of ‘man-hunting in search for anatomic trophies’ with ‘[w]arfare as the political expression of early nationalism’ and ‘expeditions of organized pillage, slave-raiding, and collective robbery’, the anthropologist declared that ‘[i]n a competent analysis of warfare as a factor in human evolution, they must be kept apart’ (1941: 538–41, 538). At the evolutionary stages of ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’, Malinowski found that


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