June 5, 2005


The Cradle of War: The birthplace of civilization is also the home of culture's nemesis. (Ira Meistrich, Spring 2005, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History)

In early spring 2003, believing that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction but was about to use them, American and British troops (with some few other allies) attacked Iraq. Their declared intention was to head off the possibility of an ultimately catastrophic sort of warfare never before experienced. Their leaders reasoned that the only viable defense against this formidable new threat was an early and vigorous offense. And so war came again to the region where it has longest been known.

Iraq is a major part of the vast swath of land arcing from the Nile north and east to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that has long been called the cradle of civilization. Evidence of the oldest settled civilization on earth has been found there. So far as we now know, it is where humans first learned to break ground with tools in order to cultivate plants and grow crops, where they first coaxed metals from the earth and learned to fashion them into more-sophisticated tools, where they first settled into communities organized for survival, and first used papyrus or clay to record their thoughts, transactions, and prayers.

But in this cradle was a changeling that bore darker gifts. The same ground furrowed by the earliest plows was churned as well by the heavy wheels of the earliest fighting vehicles. The metals that made the sickle also made the sickle sword. Communal organizations that built irrigation systems and pyramids also organized armies and built walls against enemies, and the written word with which they wrote sublime psalms praising gods praised warriors, too, and administered far-flung empires won by those warriors wielding weapons made from the new metals.

The changeling in the cradle was war.

It is fitting that the cradle of civilization is also war's cradle: War requires the kind of mass resources and organization that only civilization can provide, and so the fertile ground from which men harvested civilization's first fruits also nurtured the dragon-tooth seeds of warfare. Conflict between and among humans at an early era in this region should come as no surprise. After all, humanity's first murder -- Cain killing his brother, Abel -- comes early in Genesis.

It is likely that the simple bow was in use here by 10,000 b.c., and not likely that animals were its only targets. At Jebel Sahaba in present-day southern Egypt, archaeologists unearthed one of the world's oldest cemeteries. Among the burial plots is the infamous Site 117, where the skeletons of fifty-nine souls were found who came to an unquestionably violent end some time around 10,000. Who the victims were and exactly how they died is not known, but historian Arther Ferrill thinks these bones may provide "the first extensive skeletal evidence for warfare in prehistoric times."

Tel es-Sultan on the west bank of the Jordan River is the site of ancient Jericho, where excavations in the early 1950s by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon yielded another tantalizing glimpse of mankind's early experience of war. Often called the world's oldest city, the first Jericho was built by Neolithic people more than ten thousand years ago. Perhaps as early as 7000 b.c., an extensive fortification system defended the town, then home to about twenty-five hundred people. The world's oldest city was sheltered by the world's first fortress. A wall ten feet thick and thirteen feet high encircled the ten-acre town, and hewn from solid stone at its base was a moat thirty feet wide and ten feet deep. Within the wall stood a circular tower thirty feet high with an interior stone stairway. (The high wall and tower are elements of military architecture that would be used in the West until the widespread use of cannons led to the adoption of the low, thick-walled trace italienne during the Renaissance.)

These two intriguing glimpses reveal a Near East already familiar with organized, communal violence. Knowledge of conditions prevalent at the time may help flesh out the sparse archaeological evidence from sites like Tel es-Sultan and Jebel Sahaba. The cradle of civilization is also known as the Fertile Crescent, and that name provides an important clue. In that region first grew the wild einkorn and emmer, wheats that played a pivotal role in the Neolithic Revolution -- man's transition from hunter-gatherer to emergent agrarian. Stone agricultural tools found at Karim-Shehir in northern Iraq provide the first evidence of cultivation at about 7000 b.c. Those regions were generally grassy highlands bordered by arid plains, a frontier of drastically shifting conditions that turned it into the world's oldest battleground. For war begins over corn, not meat.

The frontier tension between the rapidly evolving agricultural societies springing up throughout the region and their wilderness-wandering counterparts, still dependent on hunting and gathering for their subsistence, may help provide the subtext for the ancient finds at Jebel Sahaba and Tel es-Sultan. We might consider those sites evidence of some of the earliest clashes of the "haves" and the "have-nots," always a fruitful source of contention, and one still fueling much of the region's deadly turbulence.

The pattern was established early: Nomads roving the marginal lands outside of the fertile areas would raid their more-settled neighbors. Initially, all the advantages were with the nomads. As John Keegan pointed out in his History of Warfare, these nomads had for centuries developed the skills that gave them mastery over the flocks on which they depended for life itself:

It was flock management, as much as slaughter and butchery, which made the pastoralists so cold-bloodedly adept at confronting the sedentary agriculturalists of the civilized lands in battle....[B]attle formations were likely to have been loose, discipline weak and battlefield behavior crowd- or herdlike. Working a herd however was the pastoralists' stock in trade. They knew how to break a flock up into manageable sections, how to cut off a line of retreat by circling to a flank, how to compress scattered beasts into a compact mass, how to isolate flock leaders, how to dominate superior numbers by threat and menace, how to kill the chosen few while leaving the mass inert and subject to control.

In addition to these skills, the ability of hunters to kill quickly and without any trace of sentiment contrasted with the agrarians' tendency to value domesticated animals as long-term investments and companions.

By the fourth millennium b.c., much that defines civilization's material culture existed in the Fertile Crescent. The cultivation of plants and domestication of animals were widespread. People smelted copper and tin, mixed them, and cast the resulting bronze into tools and weapons. Evidence of the earliest ox-drawn plows appeared in Sumer about 3000 b.c. The wheel quickly evolved from a potter's stationary tool to the device that allowed the ox cart to move easily. And although the role of writing in warfare was minimal before a.d. 1500, its invention was crucial to the administration of the large empires of the ancient world and the armies that ruled them. The earliest known pictographs are from Kish around 3500 b.c.

Behind these seemingly innocent, civilizing improvements also inexorably crept the advance of matters military.

Strange that folk have trouble understanding that Cain is the hero of the story.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2005 12:22 PM

Yep, that's how it works: economic power leads to advances in military technology, which is where the rubber meets the road in the competition among cultures. It still works that way. It always will.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 5, 2005 7:21 PM

Is oj endorsing Social Darwinism? Has he become a Neo-Realist?

Might does not necessarily equal ... much less trump ... right.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 5, 2005 9:25 PM

might pretty much trumps everything, just by definition.

Posted by: at June 5, 2005 9:31 PM

Even in the eyes of g-d?

Posted by: ghostcat at June 5, 2005 9:40 PM

Don't forget the Tower of Babel.

Or the fall of Babylon.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 5, 2005 11:01 PM



Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 12:45 AM


Where do you think Darwin got it?

Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 12:46 AM

Is there a lifetime achievement award for contrarians?

Posted by: ghostcat at June 6, 2005 1:01 AM

And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 1:09 AM

look to nature for god's design. the top of the food chain is not occupied by the meek. but it is a connected system, and the top is a part of things just the way the bottom is.

Posted by: cjm at June 6, 2005 1:35 AM

Cain is condemned to bear his guilt, a fate ironically assured by g_d's protection. Nothing heroic in that. Typical of the human condition, perhaps, but not heroic.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 6, 2005 2:31 AM

The human condition is heroic though.

Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 7:53 AM

Successfully managing the Cain and Abel in each of us ... not to mention the Eve and Adam in each of us ... is heroic. But acting out our Cain is simply heir-raising.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 6, 2005 6:30 PM

Simple barbarism is not what does it. The Hobbsian state of nature is not productive. Take a look at how the Nazis screwed up nuclear weapons. Contradiction, remember. What succeeds is the Imperium, which requires institutions which mitigate necessity and force. Nothing simple about the Manhattan project.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 6, 2005 7:07 PM


Christ despaired of God.

Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 7:59 PM

G_d as Cain? Jesus as Abel? Ah, the mystery.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 6, 2005 9:29 PM

My Lord, My Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?

It's the moment that God realizes He'd be just like us if He were mortal.

Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 11:54 PM

Precisely why g_d cannot possibly be anthropomorphic.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 7, 2005 1:16 AM

Yes, but we're fortunate He gave it a whirl.

Posted by: oj at June 7, 2005 7:46 AM

I was surprised to learn that the story had a hero. I thought it was all villains.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 7, 2005 2:41 PM


Of course you were.

Posted by: oj at June 7, 2005 3:03 PM