Customer Reviews: Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War
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on July 26, 2000
The original thinking that underlies this work should propel Barbara Ehrenreich to the fore of military and combat theorists of any era. Her thought provoking analysis in "Blood Rites" is a refreshing challenge to conventional wisdom about the nature of war and fighting in particular.
As a veteran of brutish infantry combat, I intuitively fell in line with Ehrenreich's reasoning that man (or woman) did not spring combat-capable from the woodlands and savannah of pre-historic times. Yet something happened in the dark recesses of our cultural antiquity to cause a fundamental change in the human psyche so that war and fighting became an accepted norm.
The "Beast" is Ehrenreich's universal term for the enemy--what we term the "threat" in today's military parlance. The Beast--be it sabre tooth tiger or man-eating shark--represented a deity. The Beast could kill early man at a whim; likewise, the carrion of kills left behind by the Beast were also sustenance for early human scavengers. Only a god can give and take life.
Imagine, then, the cultural shock a society must have felt when, finally, one of its members (or group led by one more able) managed to foil the Beast's depredations and kill it. Once the giver and taker of life had been slain by a human it must have seemed tantamount to killing god to others in the society. And, the initiator of this act of ultimate rebellion was very likely a woman.
Ehrenreich works through her ideas in great (and sometimes laborious) detail. But the weight of evidence is compelling, and her analysis is direct and forceful.
Although several years in print, Ehrenreich's literary coin is as fresh as yesterday's mint mark. "Blood Rites" should be read again for the first time by military thinkers everywhere.
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on November 9, 2005
I loved Nickel and Dimed but was disappointed in For Her Own Good. Barbara Ehrenreich is a prolific writer and, I guess, not everything can be a gem. Blood Rites is well researched and exciting reading. Ehrenreich attacks the nature and origins of War, a subject on which she is admittedly not an expert. She brings a fresh eye, excellent research skills and the ability to put her conclusions in clear and compelling language.

Her key conclusion is that war grew out of our early experiences as prey turned predators. I don't know if that is as revolutionary an idea as she claims, but she convinced me. War is a religious experience based on the blood sacrifices of early humans to propitiate predator gods. It evolved with human society and now serves the new religion of nationalism, known in the US as patriotism.

While it is a human creation, like Frankenstein's monster, it has taken on a life of it's own and has become the new Beast. It is so enmeshed in our consciousness and culture that we may not be able to stop it. We find ourselves throwing young men and women into its merciless maw at a rate that makes even the bloodiest ancient rites seem tame in comparison.

Ehrenreich draws us to that frightening conclusion and then, apparently in search of a happy ending, suggests that perhaps the modern anti-war movement will grow powerful enough to actually put a stop to it; the war against war serving as the new but benign secular "religion".
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on April 2, 2000
Being a Sociology major I found Barbara Ehrenreich's study of the Origins of war most interesting. For the first time, I have found a book that tries to answer the question why do we continue to have wars and what important part of our culture's development do they continue to play? The idea of prey and preditor still exists. The ideas of war being religious and part of the feeling of nationalism helped to make sense of something I could never understand. I have lent out my copy to many. Others I know have bought a copy on my recommendation. It leads to many interesting discussions of war. I have even lent it to a person who spent much of his time in the military. I think it provides food for thought whether you're a militant or pacifist.
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on October 31, 2001
Ehrenreich is her usual intelligent and sharp self. This book couldn't be more timely--especially the chapter on "War as Religion, " and the "Ecstacy of War." She describes perfectly the jingoism afoot today and the made fervor for war on all sides with psychological insight. This book is more timely than ever--a must read at this juncture in our U.S. history as Afghan civilians are bombed in order to capture and destroy terrorist criminals who will not be rounded up adequately by bombs. In a war that should be fought with diplomacy and intelligence and United Nations ground troops, the bombing is counterproductive and creates more enemies and terrorists. Living during a war which is greatly about military profiteering and oil reserves near the Caspian Sea, one finds all the answers for the madness of our time and the bloodbath of our history in Erenreich's insightful pages. BLOOD RITES is a brilliant book, and I've read tons of literature on this subject.
Daniela Gioseffi, author of WOMEN ON WAR: International Voices for the Nuclear Age, The Feminist Press, 2002, new edition of the 1988 American Book Award Winner from Touchstone/Simon and Schuster.
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on February 5, 2000
I read it from beginning to end without a break and was enthralled. Sure, this book has some weak spots, but what book doesn't? As a professional anthropologist, I usually find pop-anthropology embarrassing, but this book is different. Sometimes something can be right in front of your eyes all the time, but you never really notice it. Then someone directs your eyes to it, and suddenly not only do you see that thing, but you see everything else in a new light. Well, Ehrenreich's new book is like that. I for one have gained some valuable new insights from it.
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on May 3, 2000
I've long been familiar with Ehrenreich as one of our more sensible columnists, but BLOOD RITES bowled me over. Her argument, that war and the obsession with security from which it arises are part of a "race memory" and traditional holdover from a time when humans weren't quite at the top of the food chain, explains a lot. For example, there was a powerful drive in 1914 by European socialist leaders like France's Jean Jaures to unite the French and German workers in order to deprive their respective governments of their conscript and volunteer pools. Why didn't this happen? Workers placed patriotism (admittedly, workers in Germany got a better deal from the government at that point than just about anywhere else in the world) above their common interest. The power of patriotism, as opposed to idealism, is particularly sinister as it frequently blinds people to the flaws every country (most definitely including the United States) has. Ehrenreich goes a long way towards explaining how this emotion came to have such a powerful hold over the world.
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The author takes us on a trip through time to better understand the scourge known as warfare. Because she is not a social scientist by trade, but a trained biologist with writing background in the social sciences, she provides both a fresh and instructive perspective on the world's oldest killing phenomenon, which she describes as something close to a living disease.
Her interpretation is enlightening because she goes beyond many of the tired explanations that war is a mere problem of human principles, an equation of materialism, or a failing of the male species. Warfare is something far more complex with roots not only in civilizations and cultures, but also in our psyche and biology. As the evidence suggests, warfare is more than a politico-economic phenomenon or an instrument of the state which has undermined the peaceful progress of humanity. It is a plague of unprecedented proportion that defies culture, civilization, and time itself to prey on humans. It has been institutionalized and culturized in ways that defy all logic or modern material and gender theories.
The author is not so presumptuous as to solve the ancient riddle of warfare, but she makes one invaluable point that should be incorporated into any contemporary warfare study: humans were not always predators, but originally prey. Her point, based on the latest anthropological, historical, and biological writing is a direct, yet overdue criticism of the traditional belief that humans have always been the superior creature on earth. In fact, her arguments support the idea that humans learned how to be predators precisely in an effort to overcome being the food of beasts. This basic fact has had enormous ramifications since it has been imprinted within us for tens of thousands of years, inspiring and dictating our religions and philosophies ever since the dawn of civilization. Natural predators, such as the lion or bear, being secure in their natural predatory status, have never developed what we might identify as a form of warfare. However, humans are not natural predators, but made the huge evolutionary jump from prey to predator. Our mastery over beasts--the first human warfare campaigns--combined with our continued insecurity in our new role as predator, has led us to master each other through the same socio-cultural campaigns we used to conquer the animals.
On a critical note, Ehrenreich could have made a stronger case if she had included more concrete evidence in her analysis. The book does not hold together well in places, which leads to some weaknesses. However, the work is mostly intended as food for thought, and should not be judged too harshly for its potential lack of theoretical (or political) correctness.
To any reader interested in the evolution of the human species, civilization, culture, religion, or the ancient problem of war, Ehrenreich's book is an interesting read.
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on March 23, 1999
Barbara Ehrenreich's theory that war is a reenactment of man's transition from prey to predator is what she attempts to prove in her essay, Blood Rites: The Origins and History of the Passions of War. Ehrenreich is not only an excellent writer and researcher, she is also an original thinker. The Hunter theory she presents shows the idea that man was a powerful hunter since the beginning of his time on this world. Ehrenreich disproves this theory by showing how frail man must have really been compared to the vicious predator beasts that roamed the earth at that time. Another concept is that men are natural born killers which she proves to be untrue by giving examples of the way men must undergo transformations using drills, drugs or rituals before they consider themselves soldiers.The way she presents the proof to her theory, using an extensive compilation of previous theories and studies to compare and contrast against her own, really changed my views on war and its origin. I felt the most outstanding part of the book were chapters six and seven which show how human cultures general mentality toward women has completely reversed itself. There were once many ferocious female war deities that many men worshipped, today women have been "tamed" into nurturing, life-giving, or sensual creatures. This showed me that war is a cultural phenomenon but even so we could never control it because culture twists and transforms in a way that we cannot change.
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on May 29, 2006
In this deep and meticulously researched treatise on the origins of war Barbara Ehrenreich argues that 1.In our earliest history we were scavengers with no good defense mechanism, hardly the top of the food chain. 2.When humans developed the brain power to become an apex predator the wound inflicted by being a prey animal formed the basis of the first religious ceremonies as small bands of humans re-enacted the trauma of the predator prey relationship in sacrificial blood rites. 3.That about 12,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the agricultural revolution the large prey that consumed the attentions of the most violent segment of society had been all but hunted out. 4.Putting these men to work as warriors to replace their hunting niche was adaptative at the time. 5.War began as an organized human enterprise about 12,000 years ago as these new warriors captured people from other tribes to use in the blood rites and for slave labor.6.Finally, the fact that war was and is a social construct makes it no less real and no less dangerous as this formerly adaptative behavior has become inextricably intertwined with every aspect of our human lives over the last 12 millennia. In fact it has become the center of the human enterprise. Looking at the problem of war from the above perspective should alert those of us in the peace movement to the profound psychological transformation that must take place before we can make in headway at all. The fact that this close inspection of the earliest history is so timely today just proves Ehrenreich's central thesis as to the madness and intractability of war.
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on November 4, 1997
Blood Rites presents an extremely compelling and highly readable account for the origins and the continuation of war across history and societies. Ehrenriech proposes that early humans' experience as prey animals, not predators, shaped our subsequent biological and cultural evolution in ways that make war endemic to our species. Ehrenreich masterfully blends biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, history, and sociology to support her basis thesis. Ehrenreich may not necessarily be right about everything-- there is considerable speculations-- but all of her reasoning is logical and well-supported. This book changed the way I think about humans' relationship to the natural world and our violent relationships with each other.
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