Return of the Warrior

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“War … is a means to achieve an individual goal: the warrior’s desire for glory, the warrior himself is his own goal. Will not to power but to glory.” — Clastres

“I am a spear that roars for blood”—Song of Amergin

Rejecting entirely the ideologies of humanism and progressivism, I pose the figure of the savage warrior. The society of war, understood as opposed in every way to the anonymous mechanized war of the 20th and 21st centuries, ruptures the society of the State, the society of the techno-industrial world. The warrior stands at the crossroads of life and death, the human and the animal, memory and oblivion. Negotiating a constellation of cosmopraxis is his task. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro draws our attention to the differences between treatments of the dead among Andean and Lowlands tribes. In the case of the former, the Incan traditions of entombment and the funerary industrial complex venerate the ancestors, the founders of the state, the bureaucrats, the administrators. In the latter, in the societies of war, the dead are treated as enemies, to be eradicated and forgotten via ritual ingestion. There is a war between the living and the dead. Those that worship the dead reinforce chains of bondage. Those that devour them wildly assert their own autarchy. The warrior renounces heredity, no honor can be gained through lineage. It is only his own acts of valor that may award him the glory he seeks. In what follows I will contextualize the figure of the warrior apropos its most elegant theorist, Pierre Clastres.

Clastres’ voice speaks like an echo of things long forgotten. A tendency, a gesture that walks alongside us but hidden in the shadows of millenia. We know Clastres’ words before we have ever heard them. The fire of the warrior flickers inside us all. De Castro: “One sometimes has the feeling that it is necessary to read him [Clastres] as if he were an obscure pre-Socratic thinker.” Indeed we can truly perceive the essence of the world in the bloody ghosts he conjures. De Castro points us to Clastres’ comparison between Guarani shamans and Heraclitus. All philosophies of dynamism and the world are woven together to form a banner against the monolith of the machine. If, despite its timeless chthonic resonance, reading Clastres fills us with the experience of strangeness, of destiny, of darkness and mystery, we can see that all we need to do is pull the blinders from our eyes. Clastres invites us to hear once again the beat of the drum that echoes in our blood. When we dive into the familiar yet murky lagoons of the warrior soul, Clastres reminds us, there is only one question: how far are we seriously willing to go? He understood, as we must too, that the cosmic fate of our civilization is at stake.

“Nothing is more outmoded than the man of war: he has long since been transformed into an entirely different character, the military man.”

It is tempting and common, De Castro remarks, to think of Clastres as a hedgehog, that he only has one idea but it is vast beyond measure. The primitive warrior stands against the state. Tribal war, in all of its brutality and cruelty, exists to prevent the annihilation of the universe. As we shall see, however, Clastres’ writing detonates into a galaxy of poetry and philosophy, diffuse and sparkling against the dark sky. For ultimately, it is not the State, but the meaning of humanity itself that the warrior exposes and drags into the light. In the words of Claude Lefort: “Only man can reveal to man that he is man.” Thus what Clastres shows us about the meaning of violence and war becomes of metaphysical concern, not merely and in fact in opposition to the realm of politics. The boundaries, the demarcations of territory are transgressed by the warrior. In its absence of this transgressive force, we are domesticated livestock. The warrior, who raids, abducts, and scorches, crosses all lines and resists all control beyond his own meaning. It is glory alone, and the prophets who direct him towards its achievement, that impel him. He comes, he goes. The laws he follows supercede the pettiness of the State. The monstrosity of techno-industrial society overcodes and overdetermines at every opportunity. Nothing threatens its hegemony like the deterritorialization of war. For this reason, the figure of the nomad, understood as proto-warrior, has been seized by thinkers such as Bruce Chatwin and Deleuze and Guattari. Clastres directs our gaze to the warrior, proudly sustaining a world of multiplicity with every thrust of the spear and each bloody scalp adorning the walls.

“Throughout his work, Kleist celebrates the war machine…Goethe and Hegel are old men next to Kleist.”

In being-for-war, death is a biocosmic event that produces alterity. The warrior rushes toward death. It is not clear that the desire for glory entirely eclipses the desire for death. The dead continue to fight in spirit form, the shaman brandishing his axe is besieged by them at all times. The Yanomami shaman Kopenawa says that when the earth begins to rot “humans will become other, just as it happened in the beginning of time.” Vengeful spirits will hack the sky to pieces with their machetes, the forest behind the sky will fall upon us. So swift will be the end that we will not have time to scream. The spirits, untethered from the earth, will smash the sun, moon, and stars. And there shall be nothing but darkness.

It is the year 1970. Pierre Clastres lives among the Yanomami and declares them “the last free society in the world.” He remarks upon their incredible flatulence, a product of the high levels of banana in their diet. At night Clastres is left alone in the camp with the women for the men have gone off to raid. They attack their enemies at night and run back into the jungle to avoid the inevitably swift counterattack. The dead are burned upon a pyre, their bones ground to dust to be snorted. Days of leisure and laughter are punctuated by forays across the river. Canoes full of men covered with scars. Men gather in the dirt to duel over wives with clubs. Clastres travels with several canoes of armed warriors to trade for drugs. The hallucinogenic seeds needed grow only in the territory of a particular tribe. The hold a tight grip on their monopoly. In addition to tools and other useful items of trade, there is great demand for prestige items. These include women’s dresses, which are worn by the warriors, who have no concern for gendered attire. They blow the drug into each other’s nostrils through reed tubes. As Clastres’ party prepares to leave a young boy from the other tribe jumps into their canoe. He wants to go with them. His mother pulls him back and he beats her with a paddle. With the help of several other women, she succeeds in dislodging him from the canoe. He bites her.

“The sea as a smooth space is a specific problem of the war machine.”

Boys in Yanomami society, Clastres observes, are “encouraged to demonstrate their violence and aggression. Children play games that are often brutal. Parents avoid consoling them. The result of this pedagogy is that it forms warriors.” The missionaries have failed utterly to dispel their love of violence. Guns given as gifts by the Salesians, with the stipulation that they be used for hunting and nothing else, are quickly integrated into the Yanomami war machine. “Try to convince warriors to renounce an easy victory,” Clastres writes, “These are not saints.” The presence of firearms of course makes it possible for larger scale massacres. Clastres points out, however, that it is common practice to invite a tribe to feast with the intention of slaughtering them all. Such acts are never forgotten and blood feuds are passed down through the generations. In a day with twenty-one hours of leisure time, there are ample opportunities to cultivate animosity for one’s enemies. As Clastres writes in his journal,

One late afternoon among the Karohiteri, a storm breaks out, preceded by violent whirlwinds which threaten to carry away the roofs. Immediately, all of the shamans position themselves along the tents, standing, attempting to push back the tornado. This wind, these gusts, are in fact evil spirits, surely sent by shamans from an enemy tribe.

At last the shaman captures the evil spirits in a basket and chops it to pieces with his axe. Clastres scorns peace. His dream and prayer for the Yanomami is “a thousand years of war! A thousand years of celebration!” Harmony, he writes, is gained only through the digging of mines, drilling for oil, factories and shopping malls, police.

The thesis that Clastres is best known for is simple: the permanent state of war that one finds in most indigenous societies is a strategy, deliberately employed, to retain territorial segmentation and prevent the development of the State or monolithic culture. Tribal war resists globalization. Clastres:

The war machine is the motor of the social machine: the primitive social being relies entirely on war, primitive society cannot survive without war. The more war there is, the less unification there is, and the best enemy of the State is war. Primitive society is society against the State in that it is society-for-war.

Thus the Incas, enshrined in their stone temples and sky citadels, looked upon the tribes of the forest with fear, hatred, and disgust. To the perfumed Inca aristocrats, the lawless, kingless inhabitants of the pampas and jungles were less than human. In this regard they set the standard which the Spaniards would later adopt in dealing with all Amerindians.

Techno-industrial society condemns violence even as it facilitates and makes possible degrees and kinds of violence unimaginable to even the most blood-thirsty and cruel of traditional societies. We are taught to fear and abhor violence. We are taught that there is no meaning in war. Even as this culture wages ruthless war against the cosmos itself. This incoherence resonates throughout society. When Clastres wrote of violence among the Yanomami, Tupi-Guarani, and Guayaki in the 60s and 70s, the culture among the anthropologists was no different. Violence was either dismissed from scholarship or it was deployed by racist ethnographers to denigrate primitive societies. Clastres did not fear the knife and saw in the spilling of blood a truth that has been repressed and forgotten. When the Europeans, hiding like hermit crabs in their steel armor, came to the shores of North and South America, Australia, Africa, Siberia, and the Islands of the Pacific, they were struck without exception by the love of war they found among the people. Nomads and farmers alike, primitive communities, were seen to be “passionately devoted to war.” To the Europeans, this love of war was repugnant to their doctrine of peace and the Indians had to be taught to abandon their violent ways through hundreds of years of torture, ethnocide, and genocide.

No matter where we look among primitive communities we will find violence blazing forth like a torch in the dark night. For all the cultural variations and nuance, this one thing appears to be universal. The myth of the peaceful primitive is pernicious. As we will see below, part of the reason this myth exists in the first place is the absence of an understanding of what war means outside the context of our own stunted and repressed conceptions of violence. Clastres writes: “one image continuously emerged from the infinite diversity of cultures: that of the warrior.” What is the meaning of this figure? How do we explain or understand the universal love of war? What does it mean for our society to have turned its back on this primal force, to abandon it to be the work of robots or sterile corporate employees? We have lost “the spectacle of our free warlike vitality.” And it has been replaced by a most murderous and vile peace.

Anthropologists have tried to understand primitive violence in a variety of ways and much of their thinking has trickled down to the layperson. They echo the poisoned gifts of ‘the enlightenment.’ The meaning of violence is consistently misconstrued. The figure of the warrior and his quest for glory dismissed and devalued. And because of this, the entirety of the primitive spirit misunderstood. In the first case it is argued that violence and war simply evolved as a survival mechanism via hunting. Andre Leroi-Gourhan being one of the foremost proponents of this theory. For Leroi-Gourhan, the warrior is simply an extension of the hunter. Mankind’s need for food produced the hunter and the hunter, the man who possesses weapons and knows how to use them, produced the war and the warrior. Leroi-Gourhan writes

Throughout the course of time, aggression appears as a fundamental technique linked to acquisition, and in the primitive, its initial role is hunting where aggression and alimentary acquisition are merged.

In other words, if aggression is innate, which it appears to be, then it must serve an evolutionary function. Leroi-Gourhan imagines that the instinct for violence must be used productively and in that regard his mind is limited by needs as banal as food. Violence for him is nothing more than a predatory urge adjusted through the prism of social economy. Clastres cuts through Leroi-Gourhan like a hot knife through fat.

Our disagreement with Leroi-Gourhan is not that he treats humans as animals, on the contrary. The difference is that he attributes the wrong animal instinct to human violence. “Human society,” Clastres writes, “stems not from zoology but from sociology.” Clastres disarms Leroi-Gourhan with surprising ease and dexterity, which any hunter will have already noted. Aggression is entirely absent from the experience of the hunt. In fact, to hunt in an aggressive mindset practically ensures that you will go home hungry. As Clastres says “what principally motivates the primitive hunter is appetite, to the exclusion of all other sentiments.” He also allows for the importance of ritual in the hunt. Of aggression, it is entirely absent. The motives for war and violence in primitive cultures, Clastres explains, lies far deeper. War is pure aggression, the desire to annihilate your enemy, the desire to bathe in blood, to raise grisly trophies to the heavens. No, a far greater need than hunger is at work here. Clastres: “even among cannibal tribes, the goal of war is never to kill the enemies in order to eat them.” So much for Leroi-Gourhan and his “naturalist discourse” of war.

The second, and perhaps most persistent, theory of primitive violence is based in economics. This belief is widespread at all levels of society. People commit violence and go to war over resources and material wealth. This notion is inevitably accompanied by a contempt for the act of violence, it is an avenue, a strategy, of the poor, of those who have no other (better) recourse. As Clastres remarks, this idea is taken as being so obvious that it hardly requires justification. Violence arises from competition over a scarcity of resources. In our hearts we know this not to be true. What an unsatisfying, if persuasive, argument. The origins of this belief can be traced, Clastres directs us, to the 19th century, in which it was taken for granted that the primitive life was one of “poverty and misery.” The primitive here is imagined as a destitute and wretched citizen of the techno-industrial world, who has been turned vicious and cruel by privation and scarcity. Since they are unable to provide for themselves, they must go to war for the scraps.

This notion of primitive scarcity is further bolstered by Marxist anthropology. Clastres, who was a member of the Communist Party until 1956, understands the pitfalls of progressivism. What is Marxism if not the Marxist theory of history, Clastres writes. In order for this apparatus to function, the earlier stages of human history must be shown to be deficient:

So that history can get underway, so that the productive forces can take wing, these same productive forces must first exist at the start of this process in the most extreme weakness, in the most total underdevelopment: lacking this, there would not be the least reason for them to develop themselves and one would not be able to articulate social change.

Unfortunately, as is now well established, primitive cultures experienced very little scarcity and their productive capacity was vast. Here Clastres reiterates Marshall Sahlin, “primitive societies, whether it be a question of nomad hunters or sedentary farmers are … veritable leisure societies.” In light of this fact the economic theory of primitive war collapses utterly. The idea of going to war with a neighboring tribe for food or some other resource is perfectly nonsensical. As Clastres points out primitive communities are profoundly self-sufficient and when trade is necessary it occurs peaceably among neighbors. It is also well observed that numerous primitive communities were faced with such dramatic abundance that they developed festivals solely devoted to the ritual destruction of resources. No one has ever gone to war because they were hungry.

The final anthropological theory of primitive war that Clastres identifies is embodied in the idea of exchange. Here we find Clastres pitted against his teacher Claude Levi-Strauss. For Levi-Strauss, primitive war is the shadow side of primitive commerce. Communities are obliged to participate in systems of exchange. When these systems are successful they experience productive and mutually beneficial commerce. When exchange collapses or goes sour war erupts. Levi-Strauss writes “commercial exchanges represent potential wars peacefully resolved, and wars are the outcome of unfortunate transactions.” This view of war presents it as a terrible accident, implicitly arguing that commerce is the superior form of social interaction. How quick we are to welcome the suffering of the spirit if it will save us from the suffering of the flesh! And yet how quick the body heals itself while the spirit clings to its wounds. Anything but war! Cries techno-industrial society and its spokesmen. But yet can we even say that commerce does not murder and torture the flesh? Are not the crimes committed in the names of commerce greater by far than those of war? Levi-Strauss and his colleagues could not ignore this fact: “commerce is often an alternative to war, and the manner in which it is conducted shows that it is a modification of war.” Yes, commerce has a body count that would put history’s greatest wars to shame.

In other words, Levi-Strauss sees exchange as the most elemental aspect of primitive group dynamics. Everything else is understood as merely a variation on a theme. Clastres will not accept this. It is war, he rages, that makes us what we are.

In the techno-industrial world we see commerce as a universal imperative. But commerce is only required when communities have become weakened and lost their ability to sustain themselves. We know that life within primitive communities was one of abundance and leisure. Given that, we must re-evaluate Levi-Strauss’ notions of war as simply an example of commerce gone wrong. The very essence of the primitive community lies in its autarchy, “we produce all that we need (food and tools), we are therefore in a position to do without others. In other words, the autarkic ideal is an anti-commercial ideal.” Of course this is not to suggest that commerce did not exist at all but Clastres is absolutely right in challenging the analysis of his teacher. To suggest that the relationship within primitive life to war and commerce is accidental and primary, respectively, is to radically overstate the importance of commercial transactions in such communities. Levi-Strauss would have us believe that war is the accessory in relation to the principal, commerce. Thus, Clastres writes, Levi-Strauss completely overlooks the importance of war.

“Early Islam, a society reduced to the military enterprise.”

So if war within the primitive context is not a substitute or mutation of commercial exchange, nor a struggle for the control of resources, nor an evolutionary trait developed by predators, what is it? And how can we understand its nearly universal presence? These are the questions that haunted Clastres shortly before he died at the age of 43, during a car accident in 1977. At the time of his death he was working on a new book that would specifically analyze the meaning of war in primitive society. Two essays from that unfinished volume remain. In these texts Clastres refined his idea that warfare and torture were deliberately implemented by primitive communities to prevent the emergence of the state or other hegemonic powers and thus to prevent radical inequality. The violence imposed almost constantly on all members of society reminded everyone of their place:

The law they come to know in pain is the law of primitive society, which says to everyone: You are worth no more than anyone else; you are worth no less than anyone else. The law, inscribed on bodies, expresses primitive society’s refusal to run the risk of division, the risk of a power separate from society itself, a power that would escape its control. Primitive law, cruelly taught, is a prohibition of inequality that each person will remember.

This is the monism of primitive life. Violence cultivates the assemblage of multiplicities, to borrow a phrase from Clastres’ followers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Furthermore, Clastres demonstrated, contra Hobbes, that warface only occurred between different groups, not within them. We return to where we began, war is about nothing but the pursuit of glory.

The key point to be made about war in the tribal context is that it itself is a goal, it is a response to a need. For Clastres, the primitive society is one that is both singular and plural, diffuse and concentrated, dispersed and congealed. It is no wonder that his work was so influential for Deleuze and Guattari and their theorization of the nature of schizophrenia and the rhizome. We can immediately perceive the shadowy presence of the body without organs in Clastres analysis of the primitive group. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The tribe is an ensemble made of tiny ruptures in the form of its members. Clans, military orders, ceremonial brotherhoods integrate the individual. What are we? We are here. We are the place. We are the things associated with this place. We are its stuff. The locality of the primitive community makes its sedentary or nomadic nature irrelevant. Whether settled farmers or roaming hunters. There is a place and a territorial right. To be abroad, away from home is an experience of terror. In this sense there is also a “movement of exclusion,” those beyond the forest, beyond the plain, the other. We might be tempted to think of war as a symptom of territorialization. But then wouldn’t the anthropologists find that wars occur in defense of tribal boundaries? It is not so. War is offensive. Territory is invaded, penetrated, rather than maintained.

How is it that the primitive world appears as a galaxy of stars? Self-contained groups and bands that each in its own difference light up the night.

Each community, in that it is undivided, can think of itself as a We. This We in turn thinks of itself as a totality in the equal relationship that it maintains with the equivalent We’s that constitute other villages, tribes, bands, etc. The primitive community can posit itself as a totality because it institutes itself as a unity: it is a whole, because it is an undivided We.

How is this multiplicity maintained when within the community there exists such unity? Simple. There is nothing there for the economically or politically ambitious man. One who accumulates can do nothing but watch as his riches are devoured by his kin. He who aspires to power becomes chained to the throne, his throat ripped out and made to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for the law. This is his reward if he does his job well. If not he is butchered. The shape that looms up before us is a monolith. A vision of death, stasis, calcification. Without movement or energy. But the crystalline soul of the primitive world, cold, hard, and perfect, is shattered, burst open and given life in the flaming heart of war.

Finally we come to it. The twisting heart of the jungle and the chaco, lit by the uncanny ghost-fire of the moon. War is a way for the tribes “to probe the very being of their society.” What is the nature of the undivided world? It is to refuse to identify with others, outsiders at best. We are who we are because we are not you. And we will assert our identity in blood. We are all the same! Proclaims the industrial machine, the fiber optic nerve stem of civilization. We are all united in the slavishness of techno-industrial society. We are identical. We are living death. “Identification,” Clastres writes, “is a movement towards death.” The warfare and bloodshed of primitive society is a celebration, “an affirmation of life.” The monad is always threatened by decay and collapse. The crumbling force that lays waste to all our monuments. War is the power that resists dispersion.

We know that war is universal among primitive communities. Clastres cautions us against the extracting from this fact a confirmation of Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” Such, indeed, is the war of techno-industrial society. The globalized world is facilitated by a war machine that runs at such an accelerated pace that hegemonic power and dominion spreads unabated. Everyone and everything is an enemy and as such everything is victor or vanquished. Gradually all opposition is subdued. All autonomy is brought under control. Pax imperium. Peace reigns only after the earth itself is buried beneath a mountain of bones. Peace is death. The friendship of all is impossible because it annihilates the nature of identity. The enmity of all is impossible because it leads to the silent peace of the grave. Clastres: “primitive society…cannot consent to universal peace which alienates its freedom; it cannot abandon itself to general war which abolishes its equality.” This is precisely Levi-Strauss’ error in equating primitive war with exchange, you can’t be friends with everyone anymore than you can be enemies with everyone.

This is the complexity of primitive society: there are enemies and there are allies. The former necessitates the latter. And these categories are always in flux:

a community never launches into a war adventure without first protecting itself by means of diplomatic acts—parties, invitations—after which supposedly lasting alliances are formed, but which must constantly be renewed, for betrayal is always possible, and often real.

Such alliances are created and maintained primarily through the exchange of women, which are also accumulated through via the spoils of war. This paradox, the exchange of women in securing alliances and the capture of women in war, illustrates, for Clastres the disdain toward exchange economy. Why should we trade for women when we can simply go get some for ourselves: “the risk [of war] is considerable (injury, death), but so are the benefits: they are total, the women are free.” Incidentally, here is a further refutation of Levi-Strauss’ proposition that primitive society is built around exchange. Clastres saw that exchange itself is only done in service of war, in other words, exchange only occurs as a way to a secure military allies.

War is a way of preserving the community. The cohesion, the permanence, and stability of primitive life are all achieved through an unending state of war. This does not mean, of course, that we are always doing wars, but we are always at war, we are always about war, we always are war. The permanence of war in primitive society creates the image and idea of totality upon which all else depends. My identity is preserved through war. I am different because of war. I exist at all through war. To maintain the uniqueness and separation of identities and communities is not a byproduct of war, it is the purpose of war. War produces “the multiplication of the multiple.” This is the force that resists the centripetal, the movement toward the center. The bloodshed of the warrior creates an elastic structure that allows for both dispersion and cohesion.

“For ages on end agricultural implements and weapons of war have remained identical.”

As we can see, what applies to a critique of the state also travels far beyond. When we talk about war and the warrior standing against the state, we understand that we are talking about something much deeper. Techno-industrial society itself depends utterly on the banishment of the warrior, who is subsumed into forms that are more amenable to this world and its logic. The bureaucrat. The accountant. The technician. As Clastres remarks, “the refusal of the State is the refusal of exonomy, of exterior Law, it is quite simply the refusal of submission.” There is no Law but our Law, the Law of the knife, the tooth. Insofar as war is directed outwards toward the enemy, the other, it is also an internal policy that preserves the integrity and stability of the community from within. War facilitates the preservation of autonomy in society and its indivisibility, its totality. We understand that the state is that which imposes division within society. The state is the apparatus of fragmentation and as long as primitive war remains, there is always a counter force to the power that threatens to blow apart the connections that keep us together. No amount of freedom can be suffered to erode.

“What the nomads invented was the man-animal-weapon, man-horse-bow assemblage.”

So who is the warrior? Who is this man that lives war? In the primitive context every man is no more or less than his capacity for violence. There is, of course, what Clastres terms “a hierarchy of prestige,” which is to say that some men are naturally more brave, their particular warlike skills may differ slightly. However, the status of the warrior and his place among his fellows does not confer upon him an increase in political power. There are no subdivisions within this group and command bears no honor; obedience and discipline have little truck here. Every man fights for one particular thing and the orders of the war-chief are not of primary concern. Indeed, as Clastres found, chiefs who presume to dictate to his warriors are ignored at best and slaughtered at worst. No, the warrior fights for his own personal ends exclusively, he “obeys only the law of his desire or will.” In this regard there is considerable variety in the figure of the warrior as it presents itself in primitive communities.

While it is true that we can say that primitive man is by definition a warrior, it is no less true that not all men are equally called to their task. The core of the war-making men is made up of those who have become enflamed by their passion for blood and glory. These are men who have devoted themselves utterly to violence and the pursuit of honor. They exist for nothing else. Every man is a potential warrior but not every one fulfills this destiny. Clastres puts it thus: “all men go to war from time to time… some men go to war constantly.” Clearly when a village is attacked, it can be assumed that all men will act as warriors. But it is this special class that must engage in warlike activities even in times of peace. They do not go to war to respond to the needs of others but because they hear the drum beating at all times within their breast.

Moments of external threat and collective danger can transform any community into a community of war and this is naturally universal. What is more particular is the growth of the warrior societies. Nevertheless there are ample instances of communities that have institutionalized the practice of war. In these communities there is an utter dedication to war as the center for all political and ritual power. We know this to be true of the Huron, the Algonkin, the Iroquois, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Blackfoot, and the Apache. But for Clastres the prime examples are to be found in the tribes of the Grand Chaco, a harsh, dry, thorny wasteland that covers much of Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. Among the chaquenos war is valorized above all else, a lesson learned the hard way by the Conquistadors.

So profoundly did the tribes of the Chaco worship war that the 18th century Jesuits had to simply give up their mission because they could do nothing to lessen their love for battle and bloodshed. In 1966 when Clastres traveled among the Abipone, the Guaicuru, and the Chulupi, the memory of ancient battles was still fresh and the idea of the warrior was still present in the minds of the people. Membership within the warrior societies is a form of nobility and the glory and prestige accumulated by a group of warriors is reflected onto the community as a whole. The role of society here is to enact ceremonies, perform dances and rituals that encourage and celebrate the achievements of its warriors in order to ensure that they will continue to seek prestige.

“The socketed bronze battle-ax of the Hyksos and the iron sword of the Hittites have been compared to miniature atomic bombs.”

Among these warriors it is the most aggressive who are valued the most and therefore they are mostly made up of young men. The Guaicuru established ritual ceremonies for entrance into warrior societies that were distinct from the initiation rites that all young men went through. And yet entrance into this select group also did not guarantee acceptance into the niadagaguadi, or brotherhood of warriors. The latter was ensured only by accomplishing particular feats of arms in battle and other warlike exploits. In other words, the choice to become a warrior means to pursue this goal with singular focus, determination, and most importantly, passion. The 18th century Jesuit Sanchez Labrador wrote of the Guaicuru: “they are totally indifferent to everything, but take care of their horses, their labrets, and their weapons with great zeal.” Fostering this care for violence is the main task of primitive pedagogy and European observers have frequently remarked with horror upon the brutal nature of the violence that is often done to very small children, who are given to understand this as a prelude to the life of war that they will enter. Labrador and his fellow missionaries were thwarted at every step by the fact that the concept of loving thy neighbor held no meaning whatsoever for the chaquenos and Christianization in that context was impossible: “The young Abipone are an obstacle to the progress of religion. In their ardent desire for military glory and spoils, they are avidly cutting the heads of the Spanish and destroying their carts and their fields.” The warrior, as we have said above, insists on the need for war at all costs, whether or not peace has been established.

The experience of the Jesuits in the Chaco is echoed by their French counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, as well. Champlain, in seeking to cement alliances and peace treaties between the Algonkin and Iroquois for trade purposes, is constantly being undermined in his attempts. He writes that his efforts were undone in one particular instance by “nine or ten scatterbrained young men who undertook to go to war, which they did without anyone being able to stop them, for the little obedience they give to their chiefs.” Here we see again that the chief is powerless before the warrior. War cannot be stopped, regardless of the political impetus to do so.

Even as they were engaged in exterminating a continent, the Europeans constantly attempted to interrupt local wars. The French did so by buying back as many Iroquois prisoners as they could from the Huron to spare them from torture and the tribes themselves from inevitable retaliation. A particular Huron chief responded thusly to one such offer for ransom:

I am a man of war and not a merchant, I have come to fight and not to bargain; my glory is not in bringing back presents, but in bringing back prisoners, and leaving, I can touch neither your hatchets nor your cauldrons; if you want our prisoners so much, take them, I still have enough courage to find others; if the enemy takes my life, it will be said in the country that since Ontonio took our prisoners, we threw ourselves into death to get others.

This inability to dissuade warriors from violence is by no means exclusive to European interlopers. The same dynamic can be found within communities as well. Clastres recounts a story told to him by the Chulupi about a famous raid on a Bolivian camp in the 1930s that was undermined by a group of young warriors who decided instead that the enemy should be massacred to a man. Feeling that this bloodthirstiness would compromise the success of the mission, the young men were excluded from the endeavor by the veterans and chiefs. “We do not need you. There are enough of us,” responded the young warriors. Clastres reports that they were no more than twelve.

“Genghis Khan and his followers were able to hold out for a long time by partially integrating themselves into the conquered empires, while at the same time maintaining a smooth space on the steppes to which the imperial centers were subordinated.”

As we have established, war functions in primitive society as a way to preserve autonomy and prevent the accumulation of political power and the growth of the state. The role of the warrior is to make war. And the warrior is the man who has passion for war. But what is the source of this passion? Simply put, the warrior’s passion for war stems from his desperate, wild hunger for prestige, honor, and glory. This fact helps us understand the existential dimensions of the act of warring. The warrior can only realize himself if society confers meaning upon him. Prestige is the content of this meaning. The community awards prestige to the warrior in exchange for accomplishing specific exploits, which as we have seen in turn increases the prestige and honor of the community as a whole. The calculus of prestige is determined by society and it may be that certain war-acts are considered imprudent and thus no prestige is granted. It is perhaps needless to say that heredity or lineage bears no prestige. In other words, nobility cannot be inherited; glory can only be attained by the hand of the man who seeks it, it is nontransferable.

So by what particular acts can the warrior accumulate prestige? In the first case, Clastres identifies the importance of spoils. Since war in primitive society is generally not waged in order to increase territory, gaining spoils is primary. Spoils contain both material and symbolic significance. On the one hand there are spoils such as weapons or metals, which can be used to make more weapons. On the other hand, among the chaquenos, horses occupy a peculiar position in the hierarchy of spoils. Because of the vast number of horses in the Chaco, they bear virtually no use or exchange value despite constituting a large portion of war spoils. Indeed, Clastres reports that certain individuals among the Abipone and Guaicuru possessed dozens if not hundreds of horses. Possessing too many horses was also a considerable drain on the resources of the family or community. Instead the stealing of horses contributes to the accumulation of prestige via pure glory or sport. This is, of course, not to say that tribes would not guard their horses vigilantly or that horse stealing did not involve bloodshed and death.

Prisoners are the most valuable spoils among the chaquenos. Sanchez Labrador wrote of the Guaicuru, “their desire for prisoners… is inexpressible and frenzied.” The experience of being a prisoner in primitive communities varies greatly from tribe to tribe. In certain cases prisoners do all the work, allowing men, women, and children to spend their time exclusively at leisure. In other communities the distinction between prisoner and non-prisoner is vague; prisoners live and fight alongside their captors. The high value of prisoners among the tribes of the Chaco can be attributed at least in part to low population growth. Labrador observed that many families had one child or just as often, none. Additionally in many communities women outnumbered men by 6 to 1. Naturally we can assume an extremely high incidence of mortality among young men but the extreme male to female ratios would have mitigated this fact via polygyny. Likewise we must also account for epidemics brought by the Conquistadors. The extremely hostility of the chaqeunos towards outsiders, however, dramatically lessened the impact of foreign microbes. Thus both cases seem to only partially explain the phenomenon. Clastres concludes that the women of the Chaco simply did not want to bear children.

This is the cosmically tragic element of the primitive society-for-war, the will to war brings with it the refusal to bear children: “young women agreed to be the wives of warriors, but not the mothers of their children.” This is why capturing prisoners, especially children and foreign women, was considered so important. Children could easily be integrated into society through the Law of violence and foreign women were less likely to maintain the chaquena distaste for breeding.

Of course there are further socioeconomic dimensions of war beyond the accumulation of spoils for prestige. The Abipone and Guaicuru abandoned agriculture because it was incompatible with permanent war. Raids provide symbolic gains and, as we have seen, a necessary stimulant to population growth but it also becomes an efficient means of acquiring consumer goods. Why invest the labor power required for agriculture when you are raiding for glory anyway? This dynamic is illustrated in Guaicuru linguistics, which designates the term warrior as “those thanks to whom we eat.” The warrior is therefore the community’s provider. The Apache, for example, having likewise abandoned agriculture, only authorized warfare if it was determined that the action would yield sufficient spoils.

But there are additional pathways for the warrior to gain prestige beyond spoils. In fact, as Clastres and others have observed, a warrior who returned to the village without the scalp of a dead enemy gained no glory regardless of how much horses, women, and steel he brought back. The practice of scalping, being as universal in South and North America, explicitly indicates a young man’s admission into a warrior society. Clastres brings attention here to a remarkable but subtle distinction. A man who kills an enemy but refuses to scalp him cannot be warrior. For one who has been consecrated to battle, it is insufficient to kill, he is compelled to take his trophy. Here can think of the earlier distinction between men who are dedicated to the pursuit of war and those who simply respond to the needs of the community when circumstances demand it.

The scalp, as a trophy of war, is an object of immense significance. For one thing, Clastres writes, “there is a hierarchy of scalps. Spanish heads of hair, though not disdained, were not, by far, as esteemed as those of Indians.” One might assume that the scalp of the Spaniard, the Conquistador, the genocider, would be highly desirable but it is a testament to the autonomy and pride of the chaquenos that they did not even think enough of the Spaniards to count killing one as a meaningful accomplishment for a warrior. For the Chulupi, for example, the scalp of a Toba tribesman was the most valuable prize, due to generations of shared animosity between the two groups. After a warrior’s death his family burns all of his accumulated scalps upon his tomb; his soul will rise to warrior heaven upon a path formed by the smoke. To the Chulupi, there is nothing better than ascending upon a path made from the smoke of Toba scalp.

We have said that scalping an enemy is a requisite for entrance into warrior society but it is only the beginning of his path. The warrior, like Hegel’s slave, is always in a state of becoming. Just as he inherits nothing from the glorious acts of his fathers, with each scalp he takes, he must begin again. It does not matter how many scalps a warrior has hanging on the walls of his hut. Once he stops taking scalps, his glory is at an end. The quest and hunger for prestige is a compulsion. Clastres, who correctly places the warrior in an existential context, writes, “the warrior is in essence condemned to forging ahead.” He never has enough scalps. His bloodlust is never quenched. The warrior is thus paradoxically, a quintessentially modern figure. He is always dissatisfied and restless. He is a neurotic. He is formed and conditioned by the conflicted forces of a soul that yearns for glory but is dependent on a society to recognize and reward it: “for each exploit accomplished, the warrior and society utter the same judgement: the warrior says, That’s good, but I can do more, I can increase my glory. Society says, That’s good, but you should do more, obtain our recognition of a superior prestige.” This paradox is all the more acutely felt as the exploits and the glory they confer are exclusively individual. The warrior does not embody a team mentality. It is every man for his own glory.

So just as it is insufficient for a warrior to have taken the step to scalp and foe and enter the ranks of those men who are living war, it is likewise insufficient for a warrior to continue repetitively venturing out, killing, an enemy, and returning with a scalp. This cycle can only confer so much prestige because at a certain point, a warrior can only risk so much by such exploits. For the pursuit of prestige, the warrior must distinguish himself from all other warriors as well. Thus he must continuously seek newer, riskier, bloodier exploits. Every act of war is a challenge to the warrior’s fellows: can you do better? This can be done in a number of ways. A warrior or war party might decide to go deeper and deeper into an enemy’s territory, thus cutting himself off from an easy avenue of escape. A warrior might go to war against an enemy that is especially known for courage, aggressiveness, or prowess. An especially brave warrior might go a-warring at night, which is typically considered imprudent due to the added threat of hostile spirits. Finally, a warrior might push his way to the front lines of the battle, deliberately putting his body in the way of the enemy’s arrows or rifles. The act that universally confers the highest degree of prestige is that of a single warrior who separates himself from his tribesmen to attack the enemy at his strongest position, in his own camp: “alone against all.” This is the only thing left for the warrior of great prestige.

Remarkably, this height of warlike vigor is shared among tribes throughout the Western Hemisphere. Champlain writes of an attempt to dissuade an Algonkin warrior from single-handedly attacking a Iroquois camp, “he responded that it would be impossible for him to live if he did not kill his enemies.” Similarly the French Jesuits among the Huron observed with horror that

sometimes an enemy, totally naked and with only a hatchet in hand, will even have the courage to enter the huts of a town at night, by himself, then, having murdered some of those he finds sleeping there, to take flight for all defense against a hundred and two hundred people who will follow him one and two entire days.

The stories of valor Clastres was told among the Chulupi echo this kind of suicidal bravery; one famous warrior, having surpassed all other feats of glory had no choice but to mount his horse and drive ever deeper into enemy territory. Alone, attacking one camp after another, he survived in this manner for days before he was finally cut down. The cult of bravery is such that the Chulupi even venerate the memory of a warrior of the Toba, their eternal enemies. This man was known to infiltrate Chulupi camps night after night and scalp several men before disappearing without a trace. Eventually he was tracked down by a Chulupi war party and died under torture without ever crying out.

It is precisely this disdain for danger, pain, and death that corresponds to greater glory. As Clastres points out, the Spaniards were always confused that when they captured a Tupi-Guarani warrior he would never try to escape. Bravely facing torture and death bring glory, escape does not. As a matter of fact, an escaped prisoner is rejected by his community if he returns: “he is a prisoner, his destiny must thus be fulfilled.” This destiny is invariably one of torture, death, followed by cannibalism. So the fate of the warrior is to continue to put himself in increasingly dangerous situations and eventually, no matter his past successes, he is fated to die alone, at the hands of his enemies. He is a nomad wanderer, always traversing the line between life and death: “the warrior is, in his being, a being-for-death.” The death instinct may not trump the instinct for glory and prestige but we must observe that the one becomes the other. Thinking back to the phenomenon of the Guaicuru women refusing to have children, we can perceive that the death instinct may be a more influential factor than we might like to admit.

In one of the last essays Clastres wrote before his death he recounts a meeting with two old Chulupi men. Both were around sixty five years old. They had both seen countless battles, were covered in scars, and had each killed dozens of men. Nevertheless, as Clastres was surprised to discover, neither of the men had taken scalps and entered the Kaanokle, or warrior society. When Clastres asks them why they did not want to join this most prestigious group, they both responded that they simply did not want to die. This is profoundly illustrative of the death instinct dynamic that we have described above: “to insist on the glory attached to the title of warrior amounts to accepting the more or less long term price: death.” To be a warrior, as we have seen, means to never stop pursuing glory and to never stop facing greater and greater danger. For many men it is better to renounce the endless pursuit of prestige and simply be forgotten by the community than becoming imprisoned within his own passion for killing. This is the sorrow of the warrior, renounce prestige, fame, and glory or live every day drenched in blood, driving always closer and closer to death.

Ultimately, Clastres’ significance is in ensuring that we understand how fundamental violence is to primitive societies. And further that we understand that primitive violence is not an unfortunate blemish in an otherwise idyllic existence, to be swept under the rug and ignored in order to promote a prescriptive vision for the future. Clastres demonstrated that what is desirable, substantive, and eminently deserving of emulation in primitive society is precisely due to and constituted by ever-present, permanent violence. We must refuse to shy away from the importance of violence in the creation of community. We must acknowledge, in fact, that violence alone, properly understood, is the only means to achieve the kind of society we desire.  

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