The failings of colonialism/capitalism/imperialism/republicanism are a perennially popular topic among young university students, and for good reason. Often I join right in and lament the tragedies of progress with the best of them, but at a certain point (often when the social scientists and arts majors start demonizing western civilization) I have to bow out. After all, I tell them, I’m a military history guy, and I’m not an expert on the social side of things. I fear this may be doublespeak, for what I mean is that I’m not going to talk on this subject because people may get upset. I study war, not politics, class, race, or gender, and war has an unpleasant way of taking bullshit and revealing it for what it is.
I was reminded of this lesson today by two things. The first was a class I’m taking on the history of Mayans and Aztecs, and the second was a book by Gwynne Dyer called simply WAR. Both debunked aspects of the myth that western civilization is somehow unique in the difficulties and challenges it has created for itself, as well as the atrocities it has helped to shape. Both took the conventional opinions I often hear spouted as ‘fact’ from the mouths of the overeager, and turned them on their head.
I’ll start with the class, since I’m a chronological kind of guy:
My professor was discussing the transition from the Mayan ‘Classic’ period to the ‘Post-Classic’ period, which is roughly dated as between 800 and 925 A.D. This transition is also known as the ‘Mayan Collapse’ since it is between these dates that most of the major Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula were abandoned and hundreds of thousands of inhabitants fled to other parts of (what is today known as) Mexico. The mysterious nature of this collapse puzzled the Spanish when they first encountered Mayan ruins, and has provided plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists and Indiana Jones script-writers ever since. After all, how could a civilization capable of building the most complex cities in the world in 800 A.D. (outside of China at least) fail so miserably without the outside help of aliens or dinosaurs or balrogs? What sinister and malignant force could have worked such destruction.
The answer, as Mayan archaeologists and linguists have known for decades, is that the Mayans were victims of their own success. They developed writing, astronomy, built cities capable of housing tens of thousands of people, created socio-political systems so complex we’re still figuring them out, and destroyed themselves in the process. By developing the technology for such accomplishments, including intensive farming and wetland agriculture practices, they were able to concentrate millions of people into the Yucatan lowlands, too many, unfortunately, for the ecosystem to support.
Disaster didn’t happen overnight, of course. Good crop years allowed continued growth, but at a certain point good crop years became required simply to maintain status quo. Consequently, bad crop years produced resource strain upon the lower levels of the Mayan hierarchy, creating social unrest and strain upon the authority structures. Military activity increased as city-states increased the number of prisoners being sacrificed to the gods, further depressing agricultural production and eventually destroying the more vulnerable states. The delicate balance needed to maintain tropical environment agriculture and avoid soil exhaustion was upset, and further ruptures caused the eventual breakdown of the entire socio-political system. Mayan civilization, having razed much of the Yucatan rainforest and degraded the environment past the point of sustainability, was literally forced to abandon itself to ruin.
Of course, by the time the Spanish arrived a thousand years later the rainforest had reclaimed most of the former Mayan settlements, and erased much of that civilizations impact. Because the Mayan degradation was localized and the Mayans lacked conventional or nuclear industry, a thousand years was sufficient for the ecological recovery of the area. Still, the story itself pokes some significant holes in the myth of western exceptionalism that I so often hear from arts majors at parties.
There was a time when the ideological romanticizing of non-white, non-classical western civilizations was referred to disparagingly as the myth of the ‘noble savage.’ The idea that western society was naturally destructive while other societies naturally lived at peace with each other and their environment is common and tarnished by age, and yet I still hear it espoused time and time again. The truth is, as Gwynne Dyer states, “Civilization, first and foremost, was the discovery of how to achieve power over both nature and people,” (11) and no people group, white, black, western, eastern, whatever, have managed to escape the consequences of that discovery.
Was North America a utopia after Europeans arrived? No. Was it a utopia before Europeans arrived? No. Following the discovery of sophisticated agriculture, and the introduction of ‘civlization,’ the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs also practiced ritual warfare for the purpose of capturing prisoners to be sacrificed to the gods. Even aside from warping their own ecosystems, the Mayans could be staggeringly cruel in their pursuit of power and religious prestige. All of this, of course, without any western influence. All of this grown from the untainted Petri dish of the Americas.
“One of the problems with humans,” said my professor in class, “and this is one of the few things you can say cross-culturally, is that we mess up, we foul our own nest. Get enough of us together and we destroy the very system that supports us.”
Granted, the hunter-gatherer societies of less fertile North American climates were more peaceful and don’t seem to have engaged in high-intensity conflict. While some people seem to find this profoundly miraculous, the reality is that no hunter-gatherer society in the world ever engaged in high-intensity conflict. Individuals in a hunter-gatherer society have few possessions, and produce barely more than they themselves need to subsist, ergo they have little incentive for raiding, killing, or procuring slaves. Since hunter-gatherer societies produce very few stores, they cannot substantially increase in size, and consequently are never forced into conflict by population pressure. While low-density warfare over petty squabbles, disagreements, etc. is constant, the society lacks the will and the resources to engage in anything more organized. Politically, socially, economically, it is not that such societies are comprised of angels, it is that THERE IS NO POINT TO WARFARE. If agriculture is synonymous with civilization, then civilization is synonymous with warfare, since it is only once societies possess the means to grow, adapt, and to control their environment, that war becomes a necessity in their eyes.
“The roots of human civilization lie in states so absolutist and so awesomely cruel that even the death camps of Nazi Germany would have been regarded as a moral commonplace,” writes Dyer, and anyone familiar with the doings of the Assyrians and Aztecs would be compelled to agree. The transition to ‘civilization’ for any hunter-gatherer society provided the possibility of previously incomprehensible organization and discipline. This raw power or force could be channeled in any direction, from pyramid-building to wars of extermination, and sometimes both were pursued at the same time.
Western civilization is not some sort of evil anomaly that, somewhere along the line, lost the ability to commune with the earth and play nice with others. We are simply the current victor in a deadly struggle that has been going on, with ever increasing stakes, for the past ten thousand or so years. Other civilizations came before us, and perhaps others will also come after, but, for the record, the current western incarnation of civilization is the nicest, most benevolent, least inherently vicious, (but still most powerful) form in the history of humanity.
Of course, looking at our history, that’s not saying much
P.S. For giggles, I give you the first two paragraphs of the introduction to Dyer’s book:
“To begin quite close to the end: we may inhabit the Indian summer of human history, with nothing to look forward to but the “nuclear winter” that closes the account. The war for which the great powers hold themselves in readiness every day may come, as hundreds of others have in the past. The megatons will fall, the dust will rise, the sun’s light will fail, and the race may perish.
Nothing is inevitable until it has actually happened, but the final war is undeniably a possibility, and there is one statistical certainty. Any event that has a definite probability, however small, that does not decrease with time will eventually occur–next year, next decade, next century, but it will come. Including nuclear war.”
For the record, this was written in ’85.