Book review: Blood Rites by Barbara Ehrenreich
Jenny Bunker finds a re-issued book on the passions of war more pertinent than ever
Blood Rites by Barbara Ehrenreich (Granta)
With revolutions across the Middle East, international entanglements in Libya and Ivory Coast and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, this reissue of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War may seem remarkably timely. But then, when wouldn’t it have seemed so? War, the author notes, appears to have a life of its own, shape-shifting but omnipresent.
What Ehrenreich gives us is an evolutionary account of war, eschewing the rationales offered for individual conflicts in favour of a naturalised genealogy of the phenomenon itself. Wide-ranging in anthropological examples but concentrated in focus, the book’s particular concern, as the subtitle indicates, is with the passions we bring to war. These are quasi-religious in nature: neither blood-lust, Ehrenreich suggests, nor death-drive being the most characteristic but rather the loved-up, festival feeling of oneness with one’s fellows.
The first part of the book considers our prehistory. Overturning the truism that war is an extension of our predatory instincts, Ehrenreich argues that it is our earlier and much longer existence as prey that shaped the institution. The experiences of being at the mercy of a powerful enemy and, in response, banding together for protection predate our own predation (if you’ll excuse the pun). It may offend our pride to acknowledge that our fore-runners served as meat for other creatures, but that victim status has haunted our rituals ever since, from blood sacrifices to initiation rites and, ultimately, to war.
It is to war itself, and its metamorphoses in the historical period, that Ehrenreich turns in the second half of Blood Rites. An extremely adaptive beast, war thrives just as surely among modern nation states as it did among ancient tribes. In one era we may justify wars to ourselves as necessary to secure resources, in another as required by a deity or to convert unbelievers – the blood-letting continues.
If anything, humanity and its civilisations look to be tools used by war rather than the converse. The warrior knight required horse-handlers and weapons manufacturers; the feudal peasantry and craftsman class emerged. Mass wars of the modern era needed a much larger pool from which to draw their conscripts; the nation state was born. Leaching our resources, devastating our populations, war is the real predator of mankind.
Ehrenreich is perhaps best known for her 2001 work Nickel and Dimed, an exposé of the misery of America’s working poor. Her interests in class and gender find expression in Blood Rites too. She borrows from Jack Goody the addendum to Marx that civilisation is shaped as much by the means of destruction as by those of production. As to the question of gender, war, she proposes, arose as a solution to the problem of finding a role for men after the decline of hunting. It has the additional virtue of initiating boys into manhood, offering a second birth free from the shame of dependency on women.
Detailed but never dreary, Ehrenreich has clearly chewed over a lot of turgid scholarship to save us the bother. Blood Rites is a cocktail of diverse sources and academic approaches and as such can seem to slip down a little too easily, leaving the reader with a spinning head. Reading it I sometimes felt the craving for some solid scientific analysis – less digestible but perhaps ultimately more satisfying.
Like the passions of war themselves, then, this book is an intoxicant: it will go to your head. But it is a stimulant too, offering plenty of food for thought for any with an interest in evolutionary psychology, anthropology, philosophy or political science. Ehrenreich herself, though, ultimately sees Blood Rites as a call to arms: at last the time has come to unite in fighting our deadliest predator of all, war itself.