A story of slutty snakes and warfare

by John MacBeath Watkins

World War I graves: You're doing it wrong.

Every animal seems to have an instinct to not kill its own kind. Piranha do not bite each other, they fight with tail taps. Rattlesnakes don't bite, they wrestle.

One might think that a rattlesnake who bit would have an unfair advantage, but consider a society of four snakes, one of whom is a male with the gene that allowed them to bite other snakes. Two snakes are male, two are female.

The males both wish to mate with both the females, but they get in a fight over the slutty one, who engages in sexual displays on the sidelines while they compete for dominance. One of them bites the other. What happens next?

Well, it takes time to die of a rattlesnake bite, so the other snake, seeing that a line has been crossed, bites his opponent back (in fact, snakes that bite back will be selected for because their near-relatives will reproduce, while snakes that don't bite back leave the psycho snake alive to wipe out their whole line.) Both males die, and the remaining snakes are left to the comfort of a lesbian relationship and a sterile existence unless more sensible males can be found.

Now consider warfare. It asks soldiers to kill their fellow man, which most people will react to with an instinctive repugnance. This is hard to do; S.L.A. Marshall, who interviewed troops immediately after WW II battles to determine what each man was doing, found that only 15-20 percent were actively shooting at the enemy. Most found other things to do, many of them "essential," like tending the wounded or running messages.

The Army reacted with horror to this revelation, and sought to correct it. By the Korean War changes in training had up to 55 percent of soldiers shooting at the enemy, and by Viet Nam 90-95 percent were shooting at the enemy.

Okay, we won WW II. We tied the Korean War. We lost Viet Nam. I grant that there are many other factors involved, but is it just possible that it ain't how many you kill, it's who you kill?

A WW I officer told Marshall that his men would shoot over the heads of the enemy unless he went down the row making them shoot low. Another reported that the soldiers said "they thought if they didn't shoot at the Germans, the Germans wouldn't shoot at them."

That fits with the Parable of the Slutty Snake. If the males settle their differences without killing each other, the jock snake gets to mate with the slutty cheerleader snake, and the geeky snake gets to mate with the geek-girl snake, and the world is safe for snakekind. If one snake crosses the line, neither gets to reproduce.

Infantry soldiers are often more sensible than generals, and WW I was a prime example of this. I suspect the soldiers who gave this justification were right. People on the other side of the line could tell where the most deadly fire was coming from, and would concentrate their efforts on the source of it (the selective effect of this would be to weed out those most willing to kill other people, which would be an interesting version of the role of warfare in human evolution.) The rest of the firing was for show -- a threat display, if you like, or submission to the dominance of the officers who told them to shoot.

In effect, the officers thought they were organizing death to the enemy, but were organizing a threat display with deadly implements, in which the deaths were inevitable but incidental. My contention is that most warfare through human history has been like this, with the symbolism of death and a certain amount of real death, but it's about establishing dominance, not killing the enemy.

As we've industrialized the process of killing and established greater distance between combatants, the amount of death has increased, but this does not mean the goal of establishing dominance has been furthered. In the snake example, blood called out for blood. I once, as a journalist, covered some of the killings involved in a Hispanic blood feud, and no one could tell me where it started. Every attack had to be paid for with another attack, and punishment, which had to be paid for with...you get the idea.

The books never balance when they're kept in blood.

As a result, the more effective you are at getting your troops to kill, the more you have to pay for. The implication of this line of thought is that much of Western military thought since Clausewitz has been wrong. He contended that war was "the continuation of policy by other means," and on another occasion, defined war as "an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will." He never finished his master work, On War, and much of the material he had assembled on "peoples' wars" never made it into the book.

One of the primary concepts military planners took from Clausewitz was absoluter Krieg, total war, in which the entire nation is called into the war effort rather than just those glory hounds in uniform and the draftees compelled to do the actual killing. This involved wars of both maneuver and attrition, creating far more suffering than past wars of conquest while retaining the forms of battle that military men knew.

In WW I the war of maneuver was missing, and only the war of attrition remained. War planners who considered attriting the enemy to be the way to win attempted to come up with industrialized forms of killing, such as machine guns, enormous artillery pieces, and poison gas. All of these were far better at killing than infantry ever had been, in part because they did not ask the individual soldier to look another man in the eye and kill him. The war was not shortened by the large numbers of deaths, however, because as Clausewitz knew, war is not about killing as many of the other side as possible. It's about making them say "uncle," which the dead cannot do and their families are often not inclined to do.

Now consider the case of the laughing sickness, of cannibals and war.

Tribesmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands sometimes suffer from the laughing sickness, Kuru, a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy,  transmitted by cannibalism. One would think such a transgression of the instinct not to kill one's own species would indicate a culture that did not respect human life.

But the warfare of New Guinea involved the use of bow and arrow, a weapon with which tribesmen were capable of great accuracy. Before going to war, they removed the feathers from the arrows, so that they no longer flew true. Wars were fought with these ineffective missiles, because the war and what they did with the bodies were part of a symbolic structure that allowed the tribes to engage in the very human struggle over dominance without exterminating each other.

The development of atomic weapons was the ultimate in the industrialization of killing, metaphorically of biting the other snake, and made the struggle over the slutty snake a potential way of killing all humanity. At that point, the way of warfare had to go back to its earlier forms, and America found it was not as good at wrestling as we once were. We wracked up body counts in Viet Nam without without effectively directing our acts of force to compel the enemy to do our will. In our current conflicts, we're finding out how hard it is to learn how to wrestle.

Or when not to.