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The Changeling In The Cradle Was War

In early spring 2003, believing that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction but was about to use them, American and British troops (with some few other allies) attacked Iraq. Their declared intention was to head off the possibility of an ultimately catastrophic sort of warfare never before experienced. Their leaders reasoned that the only viable defense against this formidable new threat was an early and vigorous offense. And so war came again to the region where it has longest been known.

Iraq is a major part of the vast swath of land arcing from the Nile north and east to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that has long been called the cradle of civilization. Evidence of the oldest settled civilization on earth has been found there. So far as we now know, it is where humans first learned to break ground with tools in order to cultivate plants and grow crops, where they first coaxed metals from the earth and learned to fashion them into more-sophisticated tools, where they first settled into communities organized for survival, and first used papyrus or clay to record their thoughts, transactions, and prayers.

But in this cradle was a changeling that bore darker gifts. The same ground furrowed by the earliest plows was churned as well by the heavy wheels of the earliest fighting vehicles. The metals that made the sickle also made the sickle sword. Communal organizations that built irrigation systems and pyramids also organized armies and built walls against enemies, and the written word with which they wrote sublime psalms praising gods praised warriors, too, and administered far-flung empires won by those warriors wielding weapons made from the new metals.

The changeling in the cradle was war. It is fitting that the cradle of civilization is also war’s cradle: War requires the kind of mass resources and organization that only civilization can provide, and so the fertile ground from which men harvested civilization’s first fruits also nurtured the dragon-tooth seeds of warfare. Conflict between and among humans at an early era in this region should come as no surprise. After all, humanity’s first murder — Cain killing his brother, Abel — comes early in Genesis.

It is likely that the simple bow was in use here by 10,000 B.C., and not likely that animals were its only targets. At Jebel Sahaba in present-day southern Egypt, archaeologists unearthed one of the world’s oldest cemeteries. Among the burial plots is the infamous Site 117, where the skeletons of fifty-nine souls were found who came to an unquestionably violent end some time around 10,000. Who the victims were and exactly how they died is not known, but historian Arther Ferrill thinks these bones may provide ‘the first extensive skeletal evidence for warfare in prehistoric times.’

Tel es-Sultan on the west bank of the Jordan River is the site of ancient Jericho, where excavations in the early 1950s by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon yielded another tantalizing glimpse of mankind’s early experience of war. Often called the world’s oldest city, the first Jericho was built by Neolithic people more than ten thousand years ago. Perhaps as early as 7000 B.C., an extensive fortification system defended the town, then home to about twenty-five hundred people. The world’s oldest city was sheltered by the world’s first fortress. A wall ten feet thick and thirteen feet high encircled the ten-acre town, and hewn from solid stone at its base was a moat thirty feet wide and ten feet deep. Within the wall stood a circular tower thirty feet high with an interior stone stairway. (The high wall and tower are elements of military architecture that would be used in the West until the widespread use of cannons led to the adoption of the low, thick-walled trace italienne during the Renaissance.)

These two intriguing glimpses reveal a Near East already familiar with organized, communal violence. Knowledge of conditions prevalent at the time may help flesh out the sparse archaeological evidence from sites like Tel es-Sultan and Jebel Sahaba. The cradle of civilization is also known as the Fertile Crescent, and that name provides an important clue. In that region first grew the wild einkorn and emmer, wheats that played a pivotal role in the Neolithic Revolution — man’s transition from hunter-gatherer to emergent agrarian. Stone agricultural tools found at Karim-Shehir in northern Iraq provide the first evidence of cultivation at about 7000 B.C. Those regions were generally grassy highlands bordered by arid plains, a frontier of drastically shifting conditions that turned it into the world’s oldest battleground. For war begins over corn, not meat.

The frontier tension between the rapidly evolving agricultural societies springing up throughout the region and their wilderness-wandering counterparts, still dependent on hunting and gathering for their subsistence, may help provide the subtext for the ancient finds at Jebel Sahaba and Tel es-Sultan. We might consider those sites evidence of some of the earliest clashes of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ always a fruitful source of contention, and one still fueling much of the region’s deadly turbulence.

The pattern was established early: Nomads roving the marginal lands outside of the fertile areas would raid their more-settled neighbors. Initially, all the advantages were with the nomads. As John Keegan pointed out in his History of Warfare, these nomads had for centuries developed the skills that gave them mastery over the flocks on which they depended for life itself: It was flock management, as much as slaughter and butchery, which made the pastoralists so cold-bloodedly adept at confronting the sedentary agriculturalists of the civilized lands in battle….[B]attle formations were likely to have been loose, discipline weak and battlefield behavior crowd- or herdlike. Working a herd however was the pastoralists’ stock in trade. They knew how to break a flock up into manageable sections, how to cut off a line of retreat by circling to a flank, how to compress scattered beasts into a compact mass, how to isolate flock leaders, how to dominate superior numbers by threat and menace, how to kill the chosen few while leaving the mass inert and subject to control. In addition to these skills, the ability of hunters to kill quickly and without any trace of sentiment contrasted with the agrarians’ tendency to value domesticated animals as long-term investments and companions.

By the fourth millennium B.C., much that defines civilization’s material culture existed in the Fertile Crescent. The cultivation of plants and domestication of animals were widespread. People smelted copper and tin, mixed them, and cast the resulting bronze into tools and weapons. Evidence of the earliest ox-drawn plows appeared in Sumer about 3000 B.C. The wheel quickly evolved from a potter’s stationary tool to the device that allowed the ox cart to move easily. And although the role of writing in warfare was minimal before A.D. 1500, its invention was crucial to the administration of the large empires of the ancient world and the armies that ruled them. The earliest known pictographs are from Kish around 3500 B.C.

Behind these seemingly innocent, civilizing improvements also inexorably crept the advance of matters military. During the two thousand years after the beginning of the fourth millennium B.C., war went from a relative rarity to an established part of the human experience. According to military historians Richard Gabriel and Karen Metz, ‘This period saw the emergence of the whole range of social, political, economic, psychological, and military technologies that made the conduct of war a relatively normal part of social existence.’ Increasingly, cohesive villages coalesced into city-states. Cities were well established in Mesopotamia by 3000 B.C., and it is this social revolution that lead to what Israeli general-cum-archaeologist Yigael Yadin called ‘a period of extraordinary military activity which brought in its wake innovations and developments in branches in the art of warfare.’

When the hitherto peaceful Sumerians took to organized warfare around 3100 B.C., they did so with enthusiasm. Although none of the thirteen Mesopotamian cities at the start of the third millennium B.C. was walled, that soon changed. Previously undefended cities sprouted walls, metal weapons and helmets appeared, and, most particularly, the word ‘battle’ was frequently inscribed on clay tablets. Regular combat between Mesopotamia and Elam (present-day western Iran) is known to have occurred around the dawn of Mesopotamian history.

The very first ruler of whom we have positive evidence is Enmebaragesi, King of Kish (circa 2700 B.C.). In the King List, an ancient record of the rulers of Sumer, he is noted as having ‘carried away as spoil the weapons of Elam.’ Around the time of Enmebaragesi’s campaign against Elam came the earliest account of a long-distance campaign. King Gilgamesh of Uruk needed cedar for construction of a temple, and set off for the mountains: ‘I will cut down the cedar. An everlasting name I will establish for myself! Orders…to the armorers will I give….’ And Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316 B.C.) provided history with the name of its first career conqueror. Cuneiform records suggest that in his fifty-plus-year reign he fought at least thirty-four wars.

In effect, the Sumerians introduced a period in history that took militarism several steps forward. And with the advance of militarism came a growing preoccupation with the three key components of successful warfare: mobility, firepower, and security. What ensued could reasonably be called mankind’s first arms race. According to Yigael Yadin: New tactics introduced by one side prompted new counter-tactics by the other. These in turn produced further tactical innovations by the first. Weapons development followed the same process. The appearance of the composite bow, for example, with its increased power of penetration, led to the invention of the coat of mail for defense. This in turn provided a further challenge for a weapon to defeat armor. And so the process continued, leading to advances in both offensive and defensive battle devices. Similarly, the various types of city fortifications can be understood only in the light of standard patterns of attack on cities prevalent during the different periods, and in particular the use of the battering ram.

There is strong archaeological support for Yadin’s theory. The so-called Royal Standard (circa 2700 B.C.), found in the royal cemetery of Ur, is one of the oldest military documents. Its three registers detail a Sumerian army of the third millennium B.C. The soldiers in the middle register are armed with spears and protected by the earliest known armor: metal-studded capes and metal helmets. We also see the mobile fighting platform, and with it the first known depiction of the wheel in war. Not yet a chariot, this was a heavy, four-wheeled battlewagon slung low to the ground and pulled by a team of four onagers, or wild asses. Each wagon was manned by a driver and a warrior armed with light javelins. Tellingly, depictions of battle carts appear almost simultaneously with those of the first ox carts.

For a glimpse of this force in action, we can look at the Stele of Vultures, erected to celebrate the victory of King Eanatum of Lagash over neighboring Umma, two Sumerian city-states, around 2450 B.C. It gives us our first indication of an organized army: a phalanx of heavy spearmen six files deep and eight across, wearing helmets and carrying heavy rectangular shields. The stele shows Eanatum himself aboard his battlewagon, brandishing sickle sword and spear, a brace of light javelins at his side.

He is leading a contingent of light troops armed with axes and long spears, and although they wear helmets, they carry no shields. Presumably the use of a shield would have forced them to forego one of their offensive weapons, either ax or spear. Although this phalanx resembles its more famous Greek namesake, it precedes it by two thousand years.

Apparently, it was a potent force, but it lacked any long-range offensive capability. The composite bow did not make its first-known appearance until the days of Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin of Akkad, on a rock carving of the mid-third millennium B.C. So dominant did this weapon become that it was still decisive on the battlefield thousands of years later.The sickle sword, probably Sumerian in origin, eventually became the standard close-in weapon of the ancient Israelite and Egyptian armies. The Sumerians also introduced the socketed ax to the battlefield, probably in response to the appearance of body armor. Placing the ax socket over a shaft and securing it with rivets made it a much more reliable weapon. This, in combination with its tapering blade, made it the first truly penetrating hand weapon — the logical reaction to armor. All told, Sumerian ingenuity accounted for at least six major innovations on early Near Eastern battlefields.

Skipping ahead nearly a millenium, at the outbreak of 1973’s Yom Kippur War in which Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israel, military scholars thoughtfully declared the debut of what they called the ‘electronic battlefield.’ After two wars against Iraq and various interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere, during which the technology of war took center stage, this new form of warfare has become increasingly familiar to us in the early twenty-first century.

There is that one biblical concept that remains as yet untried, one that we want desperately to avoid: apocalyptic war — war that destroys the world. The concept of a final Armageddon comes down to us as a distant echo of another of the region’s choke points. (The word ‘Armageddon’ is derived from the Hebrew name Khar [Mount] Megiddo.)

Its ominous implications commend yet another biblical precept on warfare, one that has had little currency to date. It is the famous response in 1 Kings 20:11 of King Ahab to Ben-Hadad of Aram’s arrogant threat to reduce Israel’s capital of Samaria to no more than a small pile of dust: ‘Tell him, ‘Let not the one who puts on his armor boast like the one who takes it off.”

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