We need to distinguish between active and passive war. Active war is a period of armed conflict, with acts of direct physical violence, ‘hot war’ as we might call it. Passive, or as we call it ‘cold’ war is the use of threat and counter-threat, with little actual fighting. This is a period of constant anxiety, fear, threat, something the world witnessed between 1945 and 1989 and which it has re-invented for itself with the ‘War against Terrorism’.
A second major distinction is between permanent and limited war. Another name for permanent war is ‘feud’. In feuds, every act of violence automatically generates the conditions for counter-violence, an ‘eye for an eye’ as the Bible puts it. It is like a see-saw. Every killing alters the balance, which has to be re-dressed, but when violence is answered with violence, the situation is again unbalanced. This kind of unceasing warfare or feud is the characteristic form in tribal societies. It is from one such society, the Highland Scots, that the word ‘feud’ or ‘deadly feud’ was taken.
Such feuding is to be found among the Bedouin, the tribes of Afghanistan and central Asia, or famously in Albania and the Balkans. Mountains, deserts, rough country where people keep animals and there is little central political control are the classic areas for feud.
The other form is that found among forest-dwelling tribesmen, whether the head-hunters of the Assam-Burma border, of the Philippines, of Amazonia or elsewhere. Here there is a pattern of constant raiding and inter-village war, often accompanied by head-hunting. ‘Blood for blood’ and the taking of human heads as powerful trophies are the signs of this perpetual warfare.
Why is there this ceaseless fighting? In trying to understand it, it is important to distinguish between the ‘functions’ of such warfare on the one hand, for example that it may keep the population density down to an appropriate level for the resources, and the reasons given for the warfare by the people themselves.
These reasons nearly always involve concepts of honour and shame, the lust for glory, manliness, the need to defend one’s own group and its status, the need to avenge insults. This is a world of constant, intermittent but irresolvable feuds because there is no mechanism for concluding the quarrels, no central authority accepted by all, just a shifting world of alliances and distrust.
People engaged in most of these feuds have limited aims. Usually they are not concerned to conquer territory or eliminate the enemy, but rather are content to burn down some houses, steal some food or heads or women or whatever is valuable. It is an elaborate, violent, game, often with its own intricate rules and forms of honour. Many see analogies with the kind of activity in places like Israel and Palestine today.