Home > World Events > Anti-militarism


July 4th, 2016

100 years after the Battle of the Somme, it’s hard to see that much has been learned from the catastrophe of the Great War and the decades of slaughter that followed it. Rather than get bogged down (yet again) in specifics that invariably decline into arguments about who know more of the historical detail, I’m going to try a different approach, looking at the militarist ideology that gave us the War, and trying to articulate an anti-militarist alternative. Wikipedia offers a definition of militarism which, with the deletion of a single weasel word, seems to be entirely satisfactory and also seems to describe the dominant view of the political class, and much of the population in nearly every country in the world.

Militarism is the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively[^1] to defend or promote national interests

Wikipedia isn’t as satisfactory (to me) on anti-militarism, so I’ll essentially reverse the definition above, and offer the following provisional definition

Anti-militarism is the belief or desire that a military expenditure should held to the minimum required to protect a country against armed attack and that, with the exception of self-defense, military power should not be used to promote national interests

I’d want to qualify this a bit, but it seems like a good starting point.

Looking first at militarism, the definition I’ve quoted would serve pretty well as a membership requirement for the US Foreign Policy Community. Within the FPC, there are lots of disagreements as to what constitutes the US National Interest. Some want to confine it to a fairly narrow notion of economic benefit – ensuring access to oil being the most prominent. Others see the US as having an interest in the promotion of human rights and democracy, support of friendly governments, or a stable world order (commonly conflated, these goals are often/usually in conflict with each other).

Still, AFAICT, there is no conflict in the FPC regarding the idea that the availability and regular use of military power to promote the national is essential. The equivalent groups in Western countries are more constrained in their means, and have fewer interests that could plausibly be promoted by unilateral use of force, but most still seem to accept the idea of militarism both as a national policy and as part of a Western alliance.

My case for anti-militarism has two main elements.

First, the consequentialist case against the discretionary use of military force is overwhelming. Wars cause huge damage and destruction and preparation for war is immensely costly. Yet it is just about impossible to find examples where a discretionary decision to go to war has produced a clear benefit for the country concerned, or even for its ruling class. Even in cases where war is initially defensive, attempts to secure war aims beyond the status quo ante have commonly led to disaster.

Second, war is (almost) inevitably criminal since it involves killing and maiming people who have done nothing personally to justify this; not only civilians, but soldiers (commonly including conscripts) obeying the lawful orders of their governments.

Having made the strong case, I’ll admit a couple of exceptions. First, although most of the above has been posed in terms of national military power, there’s nothing special in the argument that requires this. Collective self-defense by a group of nations is justified (or not) on the same grounds as national self-defense.

Second, there’s the case of “humanitarian intervention”. If the forces of a state, or a militia are engaged in murdering people on a large scale, the moral case for stopping them, if they can be stopped, is strong. The problem with this argument is that humanitarian interventions mostly fail, or lead to disasters even worse than those they were supposed to prevent. Many (not all) advocates of humanitarian intervention use dishonest arguments to avoid this, of which the epitome were the “Decent” arguments for the Iraq war to the effect that anyone who opposed a war must support Saddam.

What would an anti-militarist military policy look like? Most obviously, it would involve a drastic reduction in the capacity for “force projection”, and an acceptance that is, in general, neither possible nor desirable to dictate the outcomes of political struggles in other countries. It would also require an explicit weighing of the costs and benefits of overseas military action compared to civilian aid programs and the way in which the resources involved (including not just money, but political effort and the willingness of citizens to risk their lives in the service of their country) might be used at home.

The reversal of the burden of proof would also involve a steady reduction in military efforts justified by counterfactual hypotheticals (for example, idea that a vast naval effort is needed to ‘keep sea lanes open‘). Instead, for non-existential and currently hypothetical threats, the appropriate response is to “fix on failure”[^2], dealing with problems in the most cost-effective manner as they emerge.

After writing this, I found this excellent piece on the redemptive power of war (a huge factor in the enthusiasm with which so many entered the Great War) in the New York Times.

[^1]: The deleted word “aggressive” is doing a lot of work here. Almost no government ever admits to being aggressive. Territorial expansion is invariable represented as the restoration of historically justified borders while the overthrow of a rival government is the liberation of its oppressed people. So, no one ever has to admit to being a militarist.

[^2]: I advocated this approach, with no success, in the lead up to the Y2K fiasco.

Categories: World Events Tags:
  1. July 4th, 2016 at 18:17 | #1

    I think those of us who study comparative civilizations take the opposite approach, and that is, that one of the reasons that western civilization has advanced FASTER than the rest, in each epoch, is precisely BECAUSE of frequent conflicts between smaller states. And that the central issue that has faced us since the french revolution, is the attempt to create massive states on the chinese model (meaning America and the EU) rather than continuing our western evolutionary process of religioous, philosophical, commercial, legal, and military conflict. Competition in the production of goods and services, in the production of commons, in the production of high arts, and sciences, is arguably impoverished by consumptive stability.

    Lets look at the reasons for the great war: Napoleonic expansion of the fiat state, and the rest of europe’s reaction in defense of it. This caused the rise of germany out of the european heartland of three hundred princedom’s. The hansiatic germanic expansion in to estern europe had achieved on the continent what russia had achieved in the orient, and the atlantic nations in the new world.

    Three great pressures built: First was the failure of the slavs to create a core state from either Lithuania or poland so that the eastern European civilization could rise to an enlightenment of their own. Second was Russian messianic expansion after the fall of the ottoman empire, and their attempt to restore orthodox civilization. Third was the fear by the UK that further expansion of Russia (or Germany) would result in an imbalance to the existing balance of powers.

    Now, heterodox or not, because it conflicts with the self-congratulating western virtuous narrative, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that we were wrong to interfere with german attempts at expansion and in doing so we English speakers doomed western civilization because of our conversion from moral landholders to utilitarian mercantilists.

    And that is what I ‘hear’ when you’re making the above argument: that you have not yet learned the lessons of history. That the law of diminishing returns occurs very quickly, over 10M people.

    The eradication of the military elite from the government of the USA since the late fifties (for the first time in western history) largely at the will of the left, has in no doubt exacerbated the military industrial complex by removing the ability to alter policy to control it.

    War is not bad, or good. Any more than Violence is Bad or Good. Any more than the proxy for violence we all democracy is bad or good. Democracy, War and Violence can be put to immoral or moral use.

    The question is whether we put our efforts into moral or immoral uses.

    The destruction of the family and the hybridization of cultures is not a good no matter how much consumption it produces – and we know that from the data.

    But mainstream economists are very happy with their measures, and so they seek to expand their masures, without realizing this measure is a methodological selection bias.

    We are not happier than we were in 1960.

  2. Ikonoclast
    July 4th, 2016 at 19:05 | #2

    I basically agree with J.Q. on this and basically disagree with Curt Doolittle. People might be surprised by this position given my geostrategy and realpolitik rants of past posts. It’s not that I have changed my position at all. It’s that a keen understanding of geostrategy and realpolitik principles will lead us to understand the following. In a “filled” world, that is a world filled with recognisable nation states, relatively few failed or sabotaged states and no wide open lands ripe for the plucking, the status quo is preferable to military adventurism, expansionism and empire building. Power topographies have evened out considerably. There are not those wide disparities of arms and artillery versus spear throwing indigenes.

    Where the power topography hasn’t evened out, that is with nuclear weapons, these are largely unusable as any major exchange is the end… “of everything, my friend”.

  3. Tobias
    July 4th, 2016 at 19:26 | #3

    FYI the second definition starts with ‘militarism’ not ‘anti-militarism’

    Fixed now, I hope. Thanks

  4. Jim Rose
    July 4th, 2016 at 22:31 | #4

    Australia and New Zealand were filled with first and second generation migrants happy to rally to defend their mother country:

    1) 12 per cent of the population of New Zealand volunteered to fight; and
    2) 13 per cent of the male population of Australia volunteered to fight in World War 1.

    The people and governments of New Zealand and Australia of that time were British to their boot straps. The Union Jack was in their flags for a reason.

    The governments of Australian and New Zealand fell over themselves to declare war and pledge troops in 1914.

    World War 1 started in the middle of an Australian election campaign in 1914. In the September 1914 election, both opposition leader Andrew Fisher and Prime Minister Joseph Cook stressed Australia’s unflinching loyalty to Britain, and Australia’s readiness to take its place with the allied countries. Labor Party leader Fisher’s campaign pledge was to:

    stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.

    Labor defeated the incumbent government to win majorities in both houses. Billy Hughes and his nationalist party won the 1917 election in a landslide.

    New Zealanders had even a better chance to reflect on the war-making choices of their leaders in 1914. Their election was in December of 1914. The passions of the moment had some chance to calm, and the fighting has started for real.

    The will of the people was a 90 per cent vote for the war parties. New Zealanders could have voted for the Labour MPs, several of whom were later imprisoned for their anti-conscription activities or for refusing military service.

    Do you know of a superior mechanism to elections for measuring the will of the people? Are elections inadequate to the task of deciding if the people support a war and that support of the public is based on well-founded reasons?

    The reasons for New Zealand and Australia fighting are the just cause of fighting militarism and territorial conquest, empire solidarity, regional security interests such as the growing number of neighbouring German colonies, and long-term national security. A victorious Germany would have imposed a harsh peace.

    New Zealand and Australian national security is premised on having a great and powerful friend. That was initially Britain. When the USA arrived in 1941 as a better great and powerful friend, the British were dropped like a stone.

  5. Kevin O’Neill
    July 5th, 2016 at 05:31 | #5

    I don’t believe dwelling on the adjectives like ‘aggressive’ or ‘criminal’ is particularly useful or enlightening. What is useful is examination of the actual policies employed. Going back to the early Cold War period what we see are US foreign policies that are often unclear, incoherent, and inconsistent. These policies have, by and large, been largely bi-partisan. These policy faults, not the ability or willingness to use force, make those with a moral compass squirm.

  6. Ikonoclast
    July 5th, 2016 at 06:45 | #6

    “Those in favour of war have never seen one up close.”- Ikonoclast Snr. (Dec’d) – PNG Veteran.

  7. Paul D’Agostino
    July 5th, 2016 at 08:54 | #7

    I agree with most of what J.Q. says but there is devil in the detail. Continental defence and the remote locations and long distances involved requires sea and air logistics and the attendant support and protection for those capabilities. This means that there is an inherent force projection capability within any Australian force structure. That is not to say those capabilities could not also be used for disaster relief, aid and U.N. missions. The difference between militarism and anti-militarism is a cultural and political one from my point of view. For the US – overseas bases and the excessive defence expenditure are very much an expression of militarism and exceed the force levels necessary for self defence.

  8. GrueBleen
    July 5th, 2016 at 09:17 | #8

    ProfQ: “… military expenditure should held to the minimum required to protect a country against armed attack …”

    Hmmm. If a potential enemy – naming no names but pointing nor-nor-westerly – has nuclear armed ICBMs, does that mean that Australia should also develop nuclear armed ICBMs to defend itself via MAD ?

    Or should Australia just find a very powerful ally that already has nuclear armed ICBMs and align with that ally, paying for its protection by unquestioningly providing troops to support the ally in whatever adventures it undertakes.

    And would that constitute a case of “…collective self-defense by a group of nations “.

  9. Steve
    July 5th, 2016 at 09:23 | #9

    What about defense of others in addition to self defense?

    And if defense of others can be placed under self-defense (e.g. shared values), what about when there are multiple objectives both defense and otherwise (i.e. Iraq War I, defend Kuwait + promote national interest?)

    What about honest* pre-emptive self-defense? (* I mean where the pre-emptive attack has no ulterior motive other than self-defense, as unlikely as that sounds.)

    Once you get into the messy details, then the possibility for posturing, military PR and spin, hidden agendas and compromised ideals can’t be avoided very easily, and applying the label “militarism” or “anti” becomes challenging.

  10. July 5th, 2016 at 09:38 | #10

    Well, of course war is illegal: it is by definition, as Pratchett points out, conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.

  11. J-D
    July 5th, 2016 at 10:49 | #11

    @Curt Doolittle

    John Quiggin contends that war seldom or never produces benefits that outweigh the damage it causes.

    Nowhere in your comment do I see description of benefits produced by the First World War that outweigh the damage it caused.

  12. Moz of Yarramulla
    July 5th, 2016 at 13:37 | #12

    We’re Here Because We’re Here is possibly relevant to this discussion. Guardian has an article that supports that notion.

    It’s not enough to be right, you have to use the minimum amount of force that you can get away with. Which is the idea behind things like the nuclear strikes towards the end of WWII and drone strikes now, so perhaps not?

  13. wmmbb
    July 6th, 2016 at 01:29 | #13

    Suppose there was no defence spending, how healthy would the budget look? Maybe just conspiracy thinking on my part, but is it not the case that right wing brain is more susceptible to fear and thus disproportionaliy predisposed to increase defence spending and with the resulting budget emergency engage in cutting social programs. Of course there is a whole other orientation that cannot be mentioned – nonviolence (better expressed by the Sanskrit, ahimsa, which etymologically has the same formation as asymmetrical).

    (By the way, Curt and Jim, great posts. I would of course like to take issue with you Curt. You raise historical questions that off limits here. Nonetheless, a relevant question may be: When did the Middle Ages end? One suggestion is the Fall of Constantinople 1453 with canons and gunpowder (I like to imagine this history would intrigue Pauline Hanson), or perhaps 1492 and the subsequent flow of gold bullion into Western but not Eastern Europe which, as is suggested, prefigured different patterns of land management and social relations.)

  14. paul walter
    July 6th, 2016 at 04:53 | #14

    I sorta laughed at the first definition, as to the ease it could be translated to refer conservative politics as seen here and Britain as to class warfare of the sort that involves,say shutting down broad sheet current affairs at the ABC for the benefit of vested interests likely to promote the views of unbalanced people like Fred Nile or Cory Bernardi without alternatives being presented.

    But that’s digressive.

    The second definition could be applied to walking past a neighbour’s place with a dog in the front yard. You could pat some dogs, others your leave sleeping and the only moment you would even dream of shooting it would be if it was the Hound of the Baskervilles and that would be an accurate shot intended to minimise pain, especially if it had been foolishly provoked, as the West does with the people of West Asia.

    In a case like it, a prospective magistrate might even award damages to the dog’s owner if the later conditions involving provocation were found to be true even though I could protest that killing the dog was necessary if it was quiet when I shot it, because sometime down the track it might have turned nasty.

    Of course there is no planetary magistracy worthy of the name, so I wonder how the concepts of justice and inclusiveness rather than adversariality and gangsterism in the macro might apply as they do at the micro level of an advanced civil society.

  15. Ikonoclast
    July 6th, 2016 at 08:21 | #15

    I have to this point steered away from engaging with Curt Dolittle’s “war with benefits” thesis. C.D. has said;

    “I think those of us who study comparative civilizations take the opposite approach, and that is, that one of the reasons that western civilization has advanced FASTER than the rest, in each epoch, is precisely BECAUSE of frequent conflicts between smaller states.”

    I think those who genuinely study comparatively would reach no such conclusion.

    “western civilization has advanced FASTER than the rest, in each epoch”

    Each epoch? This claim has no caveats at all. Civilisation did not arise first in Europe. It arose first and independently in Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, Nile Valley, Central America and Ancient China. Jumping through a lot of history, China remained more advanced than Europe until about the industrial revolution in England. According to Joseph Needham, China before the industrial revolution was technologically more advanced than any of the European nations in all areas of technology from metal working, paper and printing, architecture and astronomy to agriculture and transport.

    Why Europe then jumped ahead is a complex question, too big and too OT for this thread. The thesis that war is the spur does not hold up on his own. China had plenty of wars in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. These involved border wars, territorial and subjugation wars, internal wars, insurrections and wars with other nations. It is impossible to maintain the “war spur” thesis by finely dicing it and pretending it only works when they are small “inter-nation” or “inter-principality” wars. Many of Europe’s wars of that era look like what we would now call “inter-nation” or “inter-principality” wars but many of them were also large religious wars and empire wars. China certainly had empire wars and inter-nation wars too.

    It seems more likely that state organisation and state spending (statism) is behind these advances. War can stimulate state spending and organisation and so can other policies so we see these effects after the statist measures. War is not the key factor, statism is. Even here, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition. China did not have an industrial revolution at that time. Many other factors must be involved also; for example systems of learning, science and technology and financial development.

    I think a big factor was having a rich “hinterland” only occupied by still backward and sparse indigenous peoples. In Europe’s case, the rich hinterland was in fact the Americas. China had no such hinterland and was already encircled by advanced (for the time) or tough civilizations like the Japanese, Koreans, Viets, the Tibetan Plateau and beyond it India and Persia and then the Mongols and (expanding) Russians.

  16. alex
    July 6th, 2016 at 13:36 | #16

    At what point does ‘war’ become ‘policing’? If we had a coherent UN council then all sanctioned wars would be a kind of policing of the world wouldn’t they?

  17. Martin W
    July 6th, 2016 at 23:04 | #17

    Good piece Prof Q. I would point out in my limited experience and its just my opinion; that war is an eternal reality, we are constantly at war, firstly with and within ourselves. As a human species we constantly seek advantage, advantage of knowledge, preparedness and suitability. We strive for an education, qualification and an expertise; an advantage over our peers, the competitive edge the win is all; someone said to me that as a high level and elite competitor, “losing is what we do on the way to winning” and so I/we compete for an advantage, we are at war.
    The war within ourselves is a whole other space, many of us lose that war; suicide in fact.

    “Australia-wide, suicide takes more lives than all violence, including domestic homicides and military deaths and the road toll combined. The suicide toll should be the nation’s most pressing issue, the issue of our time but alas it has not translated as national priority.”

  18. GrueBleen
    July 7th, 2016 at 14:47 | #18


    When you say that “civilisation didn’t arise first in Europe”, Ikono, I take it that you have some kind of documentary archeological proof of that contention – you can trace “civilisation” back to the last ice-age or before and you can assure us that, for instance, the population settlements discovered in, for example, the areas of the English Channel before it became flooded by the sea all had obviously prior Chinese, Mesopotamian etc civilisations.

    Or are you just basing your pronouncement on what you remember of the last 3000 years or so of more or less written history ? And you can place, for instance, Catal Huyuk in the chronology and ethnicity of civilisations – where it, and its people, came from and whence they went and what they knew.

    As for Joseph Needham, I’ve not read him, but I take it that he has set up a comparison table of European versus Chinese “technology” and can show in every case the superior status of the Chinese – who did have, I take it, microscopes and telescopes, for instance and their astronomical superiority was such that they knew about the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, for instance. And that the Chinese architectural superiority was such that the Chinese buildings were far more grand than just a Roman Pantheon or Colosseum or even grander than a Chartres or Rheims Cathedral.

    But of course the Chinese did have paper, printing, compasses and gunpowder before the Europeans, so that conferred a military impregnability on China at the time – after all, you had to be Mongolian or Manchurian to be able to conquer China back in those days.

    But I did find a very interesting passage in a Wikipedia article on “Science and technology in China” (qv) as follows:
    Unlike in Europe scientists did not attempt to reduce observations of nature to mathematical laws and they did not form a scholarly community with criticisms and progressive research. There was an increasing concentration on literature, arts, and public administration while science and technology were seen as trivial or restricted to limited practical applications. The causes of this Great Divergence continue to be debated. One factor is argued to be the imperial examination system which removed the incentives for Chinese intellectuals to learn mathematics or to conduct experimentation

    So there we are, it wasn’t some kind of war-born technological superiority that enabled us to surpass the Chinese, it was their own choice to give up on expanding their knowledge and technology and to focus on passing civil service examinations instead.

  19. Donald Oats
    July 7th, 2016 at 17:05 | #19

    If we spent even a fraction of the money we spend on the war machine on something like managing chronic illness (esp. chronic pain, and mental health conditions), we’d be doing ourselves a lot more good. Better diabetes aid, dialysis technology, etc. A few more decent hospitals where they are needed, or medical care where it can help the most in need. That would be better value.

    And on the issue of wars of choice, I see that John Howard is out again today, defending ourhis role in the Iraq war. Even if Saddam Hussein had WMD, they could not have been a direct threat to the UK, Australia, or the USA. Russia and China have WMD that could turn the UK into a dust bowl, should they wish it, and yet Bush, Blair, and Howard thought some dictator, who had no nuclear capability and limited rocket capability, was an existential threat to them? So, even if WMD had been found, it wouldn’t have altered the threat assessment as far as I can see. Of course, Hussein didn’t have WMD, but as we suspected at the time, it really didn’t matter insofar as the intentions of Bush, Blair, and Howard were concerned.

    Howard claims that there was no lie, just errors in intelligence: well, he sure got the second part correct. Recall Andrew Wilkie resigning from the ONA precisely because of how intel was being “massaged” to favour a particular interpretation? It was clear enough at the time that Hussein wasn’t a problem, and in any case, certainly wasn’t behind 9/11 (which was claimed on more than one occasion, by people who would have known that wasn’t the case). They deliberately muddied the waters, they deliberately put a nasty spin on the paucity of evidence as simply being evidence that Hussein was far sneakier in hiding the WMD than intel had previously suggested. Sometimes absence of evidence really is evidence of absence.

    I recall how anyone who marched in protest against going to war in Iraq was vilified and served a bucketload of abuse, how our PM of the day would mock and deride and sneeringly attack those people as though they weren’t real Australians. It is very difficult to remain civil in responding to John Howard’s claim that “it was justified at the time.” No, John, it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.

    War isn’t good for anyone.

  20. Ikonoclast
    July 7th, 2016 at 20:33 | #20


    It’s not all that contentious. Of course, one needs to understand what the term “civilisation” means in this context. It basically means non-nomadic, agrarian societies evincing urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and some control over the natural environment around the nascent cities. The works of Australian V. Gordon Childe are worth referring to in this regard.

    “Historically, the ancient city states of Mesopotamia in the fertile crescent are the cradle of civilization. The convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers produced rich fertile soil and a supply of water for irrigation. The civilizations that emerged around these rivers are among the earliest known non-nomadic agrarian societies. Because Ubaid, Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylon civilizations all emerged around the Tigris-Euphrates, the theory that Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization is widely accepted.” – Wikipedia.

  21. GrueBleen
    July 8th, 2016 at 08:57 | #21


    Ok, so you are basing your assertions on just what “experts” such as Vere Gordon Childe have said. And you – and he – have no knowledge of anything else. Fair enough, but you still haven’t explained Catal Huyuk which predates Mesopotamia by 3000 – 4000 years. And can you perhaps unconditionally certify that there were no other “Catal Huyuks” ever anywhere in the world ?

    Glad to see that you’ve dropped Joseph Needham’s obvious nonsense, though.

  22. David
    July 8th, 2016 at 09:15 | #22

    I feel as part of the discussion regard to the War Crimes case in our High Court should be had. That case concerned in part retrospective Commonwealth legislation enabling the prosecution of World War 2 defendants for war crimes which in the particular case there was murder in Europe. Without detailing the complete ratio of the decision, the majority there said the act of murder was always a crime enabling the prosecution in Australia of foreign acts prior to the legislation which was held constitutionally valid. If Howard can be proved to have knowingly falsified his version of the security information he was given [here an indemnified Andrew Wilkie, protected from Brandis, will be of great assistance I feel] and thereafter unilaterally or without proper debate ordered our forces to participate in or was otherwise a party to the unlawful entry and subsequent mass murder of Iraqi citizens by the US, UK and other members of the “Coalition of the Willing”.
    Clearly we should have our own enquiry. As an aside I can only think of the now relative farcical RCs into the Unions and the “Pink Batts when used as a comparison.

  23. Ikonoclast
    July 8th, 2016 at 10:18 | #23


    Knowledge advances as research continues. I am not an archeologist, nor do I follow the field closely. I see the site of Catal Huyuk (Çatalhöyük) in southern Anatolia was first excavated in the period 1958 to 1965. I was not aware of it at all. Due to problems (Europeans stealing artifacts?) the site lay idle until 1993. Anatolia is in Asia Minor as I understand it.

    The bottom layer of buildings signifies a data as early as 7500 BC while the top layer is of about 5600 B.C. It might or might not constitute a city-state civilization. There were no public buildings I understand, though depending of definitions these might or not be required to satisfy such a definition.

    Timeline of Ancient Mesopotamian civilization for comparison:

    circa. 5000-3500 BC: The first city-states gradually develop in southern Mesopotamia. This is the achievement of the Sumerian people.

    Were there smaller Catal Huyuk type towns in Mesopotamia or anywhere else before 5,000 BC? I do not know.

    Why are you getting so upset and angry about this? Why does a claim about where civilization started (to the best of my limited non-expert knowledge) bother you? Do you feel I have impugned Europeans? I am of European descent by the way (Anglo-saxon and Celt admixture plus who knows what, maybe some Spanish and even Moorish). As appears from recent genetic studies white Europeans like me have some Neanderthal genes. It doesn’t bother me. Would it bother you?

  24. GrueBleen
    July 8th, 2016 at 14:30 | #24


    Ikono, I just don’t understand this tendency of people – such as you are exhibiting with puzzling insistence – to think that others suffer from the same emotions as themselves.

    I am merely having a conversation with you about the so-called “cradle of civilization” yet you insist on interpreting this as somehow about “anger” and “upset”. Do you have difficulty recognizing emotions in other people ? Do you always attribute your own emotional state to others ?

    My interest is simple: I believe that there has been some blindsided, biased pronouncements about “civilization” and its “cradle”. For one thing, Mesopotamia cannot have THE “cradle” of civilization unless it can be shown that the Indus and East Asian “civilisations”, amongst others, arose from Mesopotamia. As far as I can tell, they arose on their own, so there were, in fact, many “cradles” of civilization. Maybe.

    Mesopotamia isn’t necessarily a “cradle” of civilization so much as perhaps the best known example of actually reaching a fairly advanced stage of civilization. We all revere Sargon and the very first multi-culture, multi-lingual empire in Akkad, don’t we, even if it didn’t last very long (but then neither did First Chinese Emperor Ch’in’s unified China – he did have an early ‘Wall of China” built though, and his son was subject to one of the world’s very first peasant uprisings).

    But here are some thoughts: many early art works (cave and wall paintings in particular) are found in Europe (Modern France and Germany) and in Australia and Indonesia for instance. And the earliest of them date from around 40,000 years ago. Back at that time Planet Terra was just beginning to get into the current interglacial and what is now referred to as Doggerland (ie what is now mainly called the Dogger Bank) was still tundra and had a resident population. As did the river basin that is now known as the English Channel.

    Now, what stage did those populations reach ? Were they just wandering hunter gatherers or was there the beginnings of civilization ? We knaow they had tools.

    Another thing: the grains farmed in Mesopotamia didn’t get that way on their own: they were bread over millennia by peripatetic tribes and groups returning to various places repeatedly and selectively gathering, consuming and then replanting various ‘crops’. Like everything else the human race does, agriculture took thousands of years to develop and the Mesopotamia region was a culmination and not a “cradle”.

    Is it any clearer to you now why I object to the arrogant simplicity of a V Gordon Childe, and why would you desire to trivialize me by casting my response in terms of “impugning Europeans” ? Who cares who Europeans are, we are a single species, don’t you agree ?

    But I’m glad to have introduced you to Catal Huyuk – and by the way, IIRC Jericho precedes Catal by maybe as much as a millennium or so. I wonder who the original Jerichoians were ?

    And by the way, Wikipedia gives the title of “the oldest building” to something called Barnenez in France from about 4850BCE. The description is given as:

    “Located in northern Finistère and partially restored. According to André Malraux it would have been better named ‘The Prehistoric Parthenon’. The structure is 72 m long, 25 m wide and over 8 m high.

    As of current, it is the oldest building by strict definition.”

    So who knows, Ikono, maybe Europe was the “cradle of civilization” after all.

  25. Ikonoclast
    July 9th, 2016 at 08:31 | #25


    The generally held theory in archeology is still that Mesopotamia was the so-called “cradle of civilization” for the Asia Minor area and regionally beyond. Nothing comparable has been found in Europe. It is also generally accepted that civilization arose separately in the Indus Valley, China and Mesoamerica at least.

    “Archaeological excavations starting in the 1840s CE have revealed human settlements dating to 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia that indicate that the fertile conditions of the land between two rivers allowed an ancient hunter-gatherer people to settle in the land, domesticate animals, and turn their attention to agriculture. Trade soon followed, and with prosperity came urbanization and the birth of the city. It is generally thought that writing was invented due to trade, out of the necessity for long-distance communication, and for keeping more careful track of accounts.” – Joshua Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia.

    This is a field where you have to careful of non-academic revisionism and “nationalist pre-history”. An example of the latter might well be “In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India” by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley (1995). The fact that it is published by Quest Books, a branch of the Theosophical Society, ought to sound warning bells on its own.

    I note that you say “I believe that there has been some blindsided, biased pronouncements about “civilization” and its “cradle”. The operative word in this sentence is “believe”. Without evidence to refute the academic consensus in the field of archeology, these are, as you correctly put it, your beliefs.

  26. GrueBleen
    July 9th, 2016 at 09:42 | #26


    Ok, so it seems we’ve gotten past my “anger” and “upset” and so on and so forth. But one of these days maybe you’ll explain just how you came to attribute those things to me from what I’d written. I confess that I just don’t see it.

    Nonetheless, what you say is indeed generally “believed” by various archaeologists all of whom exhibit, to greater or lesser degree, those fundamental human attributes of ‘ignorance’ and ‘fallibility’. As for “archaeological excavations started in the 1840s”, the well known “human settlement” of Jericho has evidence of human occupancy dating back 11,000 years (ie to about 9000BCE). Did you think I introduced Catal Huyuk and Jericho for no reason ? Jericho, I might point out, though geographically proximate, is not part of the Tigris-Euphrates conjunction.

    Besides, homo sapiens (ie you and me) have existed for approximately 200,000 years. Now granted that quite a bit of that time was spent slowly building up a survival sized population (mostly in Africa it is now “believed”) and a lot of it hanging on through a serious glacial epoch until the current inter-glacial began – the ‘glacial’ period finally ended, more or less, not counting Antarctica, Canada etc, about 11700 years ago, so we’re told. What have we been up to for all that time – at least since we learned how to paint cave walls about 40,000 years ago. Does that in any way qualify as part of the millennia long process of “cradling” civilization ?

    As to my use of “culmination” versus “cradle”, well I “believe” that’s open for contention, at least in my “belief”. The Tigris-Euphrates region did indeed function as a suitable place for settlements and breeding farmable grains, domesticating animals and building more or less permanent buildings, so in that sense it was a “cradle”. But then, as we’ve agreed, so was the Indus Valley and the Yellow River and so on and so forth. But they are not the only such places on Planet Terra.

    So, to Europe – and please remember that Europe is a modern name given to a geographical area, nothing more – well: do you, or Joshua Mark know what might or might not be found if/when we ever get to having a good look at the Doggerland (ie the area now underwater and known as the Dogger Bank) which once apparently had a significant human settlement. Did you even know of that possibility Ikono ? Is it mentioned anywhere in Joshua Mark’s learned tome ? Is there any “evidence” known about it or has it just been ignored based on the “belief” that Mesopotamia was the one and only “cradle”.

    In the meantime, I remain curious as to why the earliest building, as per the Wikipedia article I quoted to you, is found in what is now called France, even though a ‘walled village’ at Jericho is much older. So many interesting questions that will continue to test our “beliefs” for a long time to come, yes ?

  27. Ernestine Gross
    July 9th, 2016 at 19:58 | #27

    There are many erudite comments relating today to yesterday, years and centuries past.

    From my perspective of substantical ignorance about times past, I would suggest anti-militarism needs to start within the US police force of today. I lived long enough to reach this conclusion on the basis of my observations.

  28. Ikonoclast
    July 9th, 2016 at 20:57 | #28


    Those are good points. Especially about Jericho. Doggerland is a prospect but we cannot simply assume important discoveries will occur there, though they may.

    At issue is the definition of “civilization”. I confess I was using a fairly “traditional” archeological definition meaning or implying the rise of a city-state. Such was what I had in mind and it is also suggested by the word’s etymology.

    “Etymologically, the word civilization relates to the Latin term civitas, or ”city”, which is why it sometimes refers to urban state-level societies, setting aside the nomadic people who lack a permanent settlement and those who live in settlements that are not considered urban or do not have a state-level organization. Sometimes it can be used as a label for human societies which have attained a specific degree of complexity. In a wide sense, civilization often means nearly the same thing as culture or even regional traditions including one or more separate states. In this sense, we sometimes speak of the “Aegean civilization”, “Chinese civilization”, “Egyptian civilization”, or “Mesoamerican civilization”, but each of these may include several cities or regions, for example: “Mesoamerican civilization” includes groups such as the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Aztec, and others; “Aegean civilization” includes the Minoan, Mycenaean, and other societies of the Cycladic islands and western Anatolia.” – Civilization – Definition by Cristian Violatti.

    Thus my definition relates to city-states and then states. This is a structural and complexity definition. When certain structures are in place, both built structures and social structures, with the civitas or city a key compounded structure and node, this then is civilization or “city-isation” and all that comes with it, good or bad. I don’t consider this definition of civilization to be in any way a moral definition implying moral enlightenment or superiority over other cultures. It is simply a structural and complexity definition as I said above. In that context, a place like Mesopotamia was a beginning of civilization of city-isation creating a recognisable city and city-state.

    “Cradle” is an unfortunate metaphor. In retrospect I resile from using it. That metaphor belongs to an earlier era of what one might term “imperialist” archeology. Clearly many precursor developments had to occur before the city-state arose, as you point out.

    Structure and complexity are not ipso facto “good”. I tend to think that the way the Australian aboriginals lived in the non-desert areas had much that was good about it. I leave out the desert areas only from a bias on my part that life there must have been so tough it might scarcely qualify as good on a regular basis. But there were almost certainly areas of Australia where the bush and wildlife were managed to some considerable extent by “fire-stick farming”. The aboriginals there were in the main taller, stronger and healthier than early white settlers: that is until the impact of “guns, germs and steel”. They also mocked the white way of life and preferred their own way. With a few hours per day hunting and gathering they ate better than white settlers grubbing or hard scrabbling from dawn to dusk. Given that the aboriginals lived mostly sustainably (they might have wiped out some megafauna) for roughly 40,000 years and we’ve just about trashed the place in 250 years, this is not a great tick for “civilisation” or city-isation.

  29. Ikonoclast
    July 9th, 2016 at 21:09 | #29

    @Ernestine Gross

    I agree and I would go further. In the US, anti-militarism or perhaps de-militarisation needs to be applied to all levels of their society. The citizens have far too many guns. The police are too heavily weaponised. This is a knock-on effect as the police are armed right up so they can outgun civilians who have automatic weapons, sniper rifles, Kevlar vests, night vision, armor piercing rounds, “cop-killer rounds” (go through Kevlar vests) and so on. Then of course the US needs to reduce traditional military spending, overseas deployments and general military adventurism.

    The chances of the US doing any of this? I don’t know but I think I have more chance of winning money on a 1,000 to 1 long-shot at the Melbourne Cup.

  30. GrueBleen
    July 10th, 2016 at 01:29 | #30


    I think, Ikono, that we are now in serene (as opposed to ‘furious’) agreement. My reason for including Doggerland in the discussion is not that I expect we’ll find evidence of ‘proto-civilisation’ there but just that 1. it’s a recent discovery as such things go and 2. we can’t just ‘assume’ (ass out of u and me) that we won’t. Or, more to the point, that we have reliably discovered all such possible places on Planet Terra and no further ‘surprises’ await us.

    It really is just a bit like the discovery – over centuries – of dinosaur remains: over time, more and more remains in more and more places, including places (eg Antarctica) where we may have never expected to find them.

    I agree that “cradle” is vague, the sense in which I try to use it is with regard to places – and the Tigris-Euphrates region is most definitely one – where the necessary conditions existed for long enough for long-running settlements to arise and prosper and hence, eventually, become ‘civilisationns’ (and yes, I do know the origin of that word).

    In that sense I can think that Doggerland may have been another “cradle” without necessarily going on to be a place of “culmination” such as Mesopotamia, Indus, Yellow etc. It all depends on how much species-wide interaction humans have had and whether progress made in one place might get passed on, even if conditions changed (eg rivers dry up or change their course significantly – as happened in Mesoamerica and in India for instance) and the “cradle” dies out or is abandoned.

    The rapid, and wide – though not by any means universal – propagation of the adult age lactose tolerant genes is a case in point: the spread, for a genetic mutation, was very rapid throughout the Asia Minor/Middle east and Europe which indicates quite a significant degree of cross-peoples interaction on major levels.

    Lastly, it is, of course, somewhat difficult for such as myself to think that the human race, as a whole, might have been better off staying as hunter-gatherers – taking the Australian Aboriginals as an example. To surrender science, literature and symphonic music ? Never, I say. Incidentally, I have a memory of once reading that just prior to being screwed up by us invading whites, some aboriginal tribes in Victoria were kinda kicking off some ‘civilization cradling’ by beginning the farming of river eels and forming very permanent settlements – I’ll have to try to see if I can find a reference to that one of these days.

    And now it’s probably time to remember that all this started because of some assertion about war being just great for technological advancement such that places that engage in ongoing war develop advanced technology quickly. Which, to me, is one of those things that so very much needs qualification and variation that it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Nonetheless, a situation of rivalry driven competition based cooperation has worked well for us over time, and especially in post middle-ages Europe (including the north Americas as ‘cultural Europe’).

  31. GrueBleen
    July 10th, 2016 at 01:42 | #31

    @Ernestine Gross

    Ernestine, I mostly agree with Ikono (above) on this. What concerns me is that police forces in Australia are going through creeping militarization and that present emphasis on ‘anti-terrorism’ will exacerbate this tendency. We already have IMHO, too many instances of police shootings and we’ve seen how innocents may be harmed – eg the woman in the Lindt Café who was killed by ricochet, and the three women also wounded after police fire on a man outside the Hornsby shopping centre in Sydney.

    But how can we stop it ? I for one am a bit too old for demonstrating in the streets nowadays.

  32. Ikonoclast
    July 10th, 2016 at 06:18 | #32


    I can agree with all of that except perhaps in a couple of statements.

    “To surrender science, literature and symphonic music…” – I agree these can all be positives. Although science is a double-edged sword and we need to become a lot wiser about using it. As one writer put it, we need to put impact science (environmental science and even aspects of medicine) at least on a level with production science. The arts are something I feel strangely ambivalent about. They have become somewhat a field of cultural elitism and escapism sadly operating in service to our capitalist system. Automotive aesthetics and advertising are now too “arts” of a sort. They are pointless and even negative in our current situation (approach to limits to growth). It does no good IMO to consume the arts and entertainments (highbrow or lowbrow) and forget how to live authentically. What is the authentic life and can we even live one now? Or do we just live how the system tells us to? That troubles me.

    We have lost much too. The intricate and extensive knowledge that the aboriginals had of the environment and how to survive in it was astounding.

    The formulation “a situation of rivalry driven competition based cooperation has worked well for us over time” always calls into question who exactly is “us”?

    These are somewhat different concerns, not directly related to our discussion, and certainly I have gone off topic.

  33. GrueBleen
    July 10th, 2016 at 08:33 | #33


    The Yartz have been servants of the establishment ever since they succumbed to the pathology of meritocracy – not capitalism specifically. But then, I haven’t been to a Moomba Art Show in Melbourne (do they still hold one ?) for decades so I have no direct knowledge of the state of ‘people’s art’ these days. But ‘people’s music’ (aka rock’n’roll) is alive and very well.

    Who is “us” ? Well, all of “we, the people” is “us”. If you follow a sporting team, you’re one of the “us” benefitting from rivalry-driven competitive cooperation. And if you’re in science racing to publish before others can beat you to it, then you’re one of “us” that’s benefitting from rivalry driven competitive cooperation.

    “Us” is the multitude of invisible hands, and long may we all live in a blessed state of Pareto optimality fostered by the continuing successes of rivalry driven competitive cooperation. 🙂

  34. Ikonoclast
    July 10th, 2016 at 09:20 | #34


    I was alluding to John Howard’s infamous phrase “for all of us”. Noel Pearson correctly interpreted this dog whistle as “for all of us [emphasised], not you.”; pitting privileged against unprivileged and white against black.

    I am not not all implying that you are dog whistling. It’s just that my allusion was not made clear. It’s also a play on the more standard “us and them”. It’s not often that “us” is all-inclusive in political practice.

    “Rivalry driven competitive cooperation” would imply, socialistically speaking, that winners get some bragging rights but in practice share their largesse equally and where the need is. None of us could probably meet this ideal but we certainly ought to move our system more in that direction.

  35. Ikonoclast
    July 10th, 2016 at 09:23 | #35

    Oops, the double negative above in sentence 1, para 2 is a typo. The double negative is not intended. Clumsy fingers and clumsy brain problems here. The second “not” is supposed to be “at”.

  36. GrueBleen
    July 10th, 2016 at 16:18 | #36


    Well I kinda read past your 2*neg without even noticing. What was that you said about “dumsy brain problems” ?

    No, I didn’t cotton on to your subtleties and hidden references in respect to “us”, though it indeed does always need clear interpretation. I do just mean “we, the people” or indeed “hoi polloi” if you prefer.

    My meaning attached to “rivalry-driven competitive competition” is just a tad less gracious than yours. I was basically trying to get across a message that all of the decent and lasting achievements of the human race (and a fair few that are otherwise, too) come about through cooperation, not outright conflict of any kind, armed or not. But also that a bit of “rivalry-driven competition” helps to rev up the cooperation and magnify the outcomes.

    After all, when I think of a very clear case of great technological achievement in WWII – the two bombs of Barnes-Wallis – they still needed an enormous amount of cooperation to bring about the result: detailed engineering and construction, intelligence network to know where exactly to drop them, air force teams and aeroplanes to deliver them etc etc.

    [Barnes-Wallis’s two bombs, in case your memory needs refreshing, were the ‘bouncing bomb’ which destroyed German dams and the ‘earthquake bomb’ which destroyed Hittler’s “really big cannon” that was going to be used to shell London from the French coast.]

  37. Jim Birch
    July 11th, 2016 at 13:46 | #37

    I’d rather go with a consequentialist case against war than an ethical one. Is it just me? It’s not that wars are ethical but rather that it’s going to be more reliable. When people feel under threat or even slighted they believe it is their moral duty to neutralize their perceived enemy by whatever means. Rather than trying to argue against these basic instincts, it would be more useful to present a documented cost/benefit list (of failures) and ask “What are you planning to do differently this time?”

    It is relatively easy for the Iraq push politicians to continue present (moral) arguments for the Iraq invasion, ad infinitum. However, profligacy charge is a lot harder to answer. Ideally, I’d want a set of prewar outcome scenario estimates and their immediate and long term costs for the war instigators to sign off on.

    I might have said this before, but I’m not so much anti-war as anti-stupidity.

  38. Ikonoclast
    July 12th, 2016 at 10:02 | #38

    @Jim Birch

    Perhaps it’s a case of needing a two-pronged message. The moral message works for part of the electorate but not for another part. The part which puts money and unenlightened self-interest ahead of morality needs to be led into enlightened self-interest by the only message they will understand. This will be a cost-benefit analysis in economic terms. These people need to see the high costs and low returns of foreign wars laid out plainly.

    Perhaps even better would be a war tax surcharge (making the costs plain) and the requirement for a referendum, needing a 2/3rds majority to pass, to be held to approve any foreign war commitment. The Cabinet could still act immediately in the case of military bombing or invasion of home soil.

  39. Ivor
    July 12th, 2016 at 10:34 | #39

    @Jim Birch

    I’d rather go with a consequentialist case against war than an ethical one.

    This is pure bourgeois theory. If you do not value ethics, then those with power will work the system for best “consequences” for themselves.

    The best consequences for all is justice, liberty, and equity – these are ethics.

    In a just society – ethics determine consequences.

    In a boureois society – consequences corrupt ethics.

  40. GrueBleen
    July 12th, 2016 at 11:43 | #40


    Cost/benefit is a good start, Ikono, but not if it means – as is almost always the case – that the even more important aspect of risk/reward is ignored. Any rational analysis should always start with risk/reward and iff (ie if and only if) a decent reward with a reasonable chance of accomplishment is possible, then we can get into the mundanities of cost/benefit.

    However, I note that the direct and indirect death toll for WWII is considered to be of the order of 60 million (low estimate around 20 million, high estimate 80 million, median 60 million). I am intrigues as to how one would set about to frame, and then compute, a cost/benefit factor for 60 million deaths. Can you enlighten me, please.

  41. Jim Birch
    July 13th, 2016 at 16:32 | #41

    Ethics are mush. Everyone claims they are ethical and their opponents aren’t. Their opponents make exactly the same claim. Different cultures have different ethics. Different social groups have different ethics. Different personality types have different ethics. Ethics are not facts about the world, they are intuitive statements about yourself and your preferences. As far as I can see this is a big problem for your simple Manichean scheme.

    Instead of obsessing about Right and Wrong it seems to me a lot more propitious to concern ourselves with the small-G good and actually total up harms, benefits and risks. You may actually find that a course of action becomes obvious but even if it doesn’t you’ll have a much clear idea about what you are up to. I think we will be much more likely to make better choices than relying on moral intuitions.

Comments are closed.