Three decades have passed since an obscure government intellectual declared that the end of the Cold War brought with it “the end of history.” Who could not feel relief? The wars of that bloodiest of centuries had killed more than one hundred million people. Two years after the pronouncement, American pilots and tank commanders were killing tens of thousands of Iraqis in the Gulf War—and, with decidedly less fanfare, genocide was creeping back into Europe, as the first of more than a hundred thousand Muslims, Croats, and Serbs died at the hands of their neighbors in the Balkans. Three years later—by now the Bosnian genocide was blazing on under the eyes of an international television audience, complete with footage from inside concentration camps—thousands of Rwandan Hutus took up machetes and, in fewer than ninety days, murdered seven hundred thousand of their Tutsi neighbors. After the killing had mostly run its course in the Balkans, the United States, in belated support of the “new world order” its president had proclaimed in 1991, sent its bombers to help put an end to the conflict, killing thousands from the air, and sent them back again four years later to snuff out another war in Kosovo, killing thousands more. Three years after that, nineteen young men from the Middle East, armed with boxcutters, managed to hijack several airliners and drove them into buildings in New York and Washington, killing nearly three thousand people and leading the United States to launch its “global war on terror.” Young Americans were sent to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of troops and hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and out of these conflicts arose not only the phantasmagorically bloody Islamic State, but a series of “forever wars” that the United States is still fighting, sending unmanned drones and special operations commandos into a half dozen countries across the Middle East, South Asia, and the horn of Africa.
That’s a lot of history, and a lot of blood. Sometimes it seems—especially to this sometime war correspondent—the two are indistinguishable. Stalin saw cruelty as the cutting edge of history. I, admittedly with less experience than he had, am inclined to say it is blood. If it bleeds, it leads: so we say, and have ever said, in the news business. In our popular entertainment—movies, books, graphic novels, video games—bloody conflict leads as well. As a species we spill blood, and as a species we are transfixed by its spilling. Nothing more reliably fascinates us, nor does this fact, when acknowledged, cease to make us uncomfortable. After all, isn’t there something…disturbed about it? Morbid? Inhuman, at the least? Writing twenty-five centuries ago, Plato made the point vividly in The Republic:
Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus under the outside of the North Wall when he noticed corpses lying by the public executioner. He desired to look, but at the same time he was disgusted and made himself turn away; and for a while he struggled and covered his face. But finally, overpowered by the desire, he opened his eyes wide, ran toward the corpses and said: “Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”
Confronted with the dead, Leontius was “overpowered by the desire.” With this, I am familiar: to become a war correspondent is to turn Leontius’s shameful desire
into a livelihood. I was not yet thirty when I stood in a slum in Port-au-Prince, scribbling in my notebook as I watched a shouting crowd of Haitians dismember with machetes an intruder they thought threatened the neighborhood, and I followed them eagerly as they
promenaded with the bloody parts above their heads. I had notebook in hand as I watched Bosnian men heave mutilated corpses into the back of an old dump truck in a marketplace in Sarajevo where a mortar shell had eviscerated a crowd of shoppers, many of whom I had been interviewing moments before. As I moved to get a better look and count the arms and legs—sixty-eight people had been killed—I slipped and staggered forward into the truck bed: my boots had been treading through a lake of blood. Like Leontius, I found myself pushing my body forward toward the corpses, and like him my disgust had been far overwhelmed by my desire.
The fascination and the exultation of killing is one of the realities of human nature and, in its embodiment as war, perhaps the preeminent driver of human history. The question why is so large and all-encompassing that we rarely even see it posed as a question; it is simply the disquieting truth. Barbara Ehrenreich has not only dared to pose the question, but, with a boldness and clarity typical of her work, she has proposed a daring answer. It is a compelling and—again, typically—disturbing one. Blood Rites disturbed me when I first read it twenty years ago, and as I turned the final page a moment ago, I found myself
disturbed all over again. Her arguments are complex and imaginative, and she builds them painstakingly with the help of paleontologists, anthropologists, and other scholars harder to classify. Where evidence is scarce, she lets her instincts guide her. Watching this masterful creative inquiry unfold gives much pleasure and makes the book a vivid and gripping read. Ehrenreich digs and digs until she confronts something very deeply embedded in us, and proposes that this something has been lurking there since a great turning point in the lives of our most ancient ancestors. It was a grand triumph, perhaps the grandest in the human story, when we at last came to match in ferocity and cleverness those who were killing us—and began to kill them.
Our victory over the other animals was a brilliant achievement, but clearly it took its toll. The kindest thing one can conclude about the long record of human carnage is that it may have been only through the compulsive repetition of acts and spectacles of violence—the hunt, the sacrifice, the initiatory ordeal, and eventually the war—that our ancestors were able to reassure themselves that they were, in fact, no longer prey.
The killed had become the killers, and in order to ward off the ancient history of fear and anxiety that was the life of prey, they found themselves compelled to reenact that triumph: to kill and to keep killing. This of course is not even the barest of summaries: Ehrenreich’s argument is richly braided and provocative. It compels the reader to direct a penetrating look within and to consider what exactly it is—if anything—that makes us human. Blood Rites gains its force not only from its explanatory power but, for this reader at least, its unflinching confrontation with what is ugly in us. You feel upon you a most direct gaze,
as if the author knows something secret about you and is determined to reveal and explain it. This feeling of being targeted in your very humanness makes the book uniquely compelling.
Is she right? One must begin by saluting the quest. It is exhilarating to meet headlong such large facts of history and prehistory and demand they yield their secrets. The demands are supported by a skill and craftsmanship that is inspiring. As for Ehrenreich’s provocative answer, it is not and will never be the kind that can be proved and settled. But one gains from her book the uncanny sense of being somehow understood. The feeling is not at all a
comfortable one, like dreaming of finding oneself suddenly naked upon a stage. The hope is that we can learn from it and perhaps begin to confront the animal in us and the guilty pleasures that that animal feels compelled to enjoy. Such a confrontation, if it comes, will take a very long time. As I write, American drones are buzzing above Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen and Somalia, from time to time incinerating human beings—a gaggle of militants here, a party of wedding guests there—with their bolts from the sky. For us humans of the third millennium, war has become daily war, constant war, forever war. The blood rites are mechanized, institutionalized, bureaucratized. As long as they go on, the end of history will remain a kind of self-flattering collective delusion, letting us keep our eyes focused on lofty points ever distant from who we really are.
Grizzly Peak, Berkeley, California
Mark Danner has covered war and political conflict for three decades, writing about Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, and Iraq, among other stories. He is the author of The Massacre at El Mozote, Torture and Truth, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War, and, most recently, Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War.
A New York Times Notable Book
An ALA Notable Book
“Ehrenreich has outdone herself in breaking with conventional history, and the result is thrilling in that seeing-the-world-anew way.”
–Susan Faludi, The Nation
“Splendid . . . A fascinating perspective on our staunch devotion to mass, mutual slaughter. Blood Rites is that rare animal, a nonfiction page-turner.”
“One of today’s most original thinkers has tackled one of humankind’s most intractable subjects.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Illuminating . . . It is a large step from the all-male hunting band to the U.S. Marine Corps. Ehrenreich plots the path, nevertheless, both passionately and persuasively.”
—John Keegan, The Washington Post
“The array of fascinating historical and anthropological detail presented here would make for a worthy read even if there were no persuasive argument to offer. But Ehrenreich’s basic case is an enticing one.”– L.S. Klepp, Entertainment Weekly