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New Left Review 47, September-October 2007

Gopal Balakrishnan takes issue with an ambitious attempt to apply evolutionary paradigms to human history, which would locate the wellsprings of conflict in the combative make-up of the species. Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization as an instance of neo-social darwinism adapted to the multicultural spirit of the age.



How should Western military interventions of the past decade be situated within the millennial epic of human civilization? The theme itself, in all its hoary grandeur, might bring to mind lectures on civic virtue and occidental destiny from Harvard or the Hoover Institute. But Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization has little in common with these best-selling tributes to exemplary republics and military orders. [1] Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization, Oxford 2007; henceforth whc. I borrow from Frederick Engels the title of his spirited riposte to military-technicist accounts of the unification of Germany. See Engels, ‘The Role of Force in History’ [1887–88], Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 26, pp. 453–510. Instead of a few glosses on famous battles, Gat—a specialist in Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a major in the idf Reserve—has attempted nothing less than a survey of the entire history of organized violence, from the hunter-gatherer origins of humanity to the current security predicaments of liberal democracies. War in Human Civilization sets out to resolve questions that have long been at the centre of controversies in anthropology and historical sociology. What is war? Has armed strife been endemic to all known forms of human society? Did violent group conflict take place amongst pre-historic hunter-gatherers, did it begin with the onset of agriculture, or take off after the formation of the first states? What role has war played in different forms of society, from the earliest city-states to the present day?

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Gopal Balakrishnan, ‘Role of Force in History’, NLR 47: £3

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