Warfare in North America, 1500-1865: The normal grammar that defined the meaning of wartime violence sometimes didn’t work

A blurb at the Toronto Public website notes that Wayne E. Lee, in this book published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, has concluded that:

“In the end, the repeated experience of wars with barbarians or brothers created an American culture of war that demanded absolute solutions: enemies were either to be incorporated or rejected. And that determination played a major role in defining the violence used against them.”


Wayne E. Lee notes that both the English and the aboriginals who fought against each other saw the other as ‘barbarians.’

An online Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘barbarian’ refers to the origin of the word:

Origin: Middle English (as an adjective used in a derogatory way to denote a person with different speech and customs): from Old French barbarien, from barbare, or from Latin barbarus .

One can add that the term originally referred to “one who speaks incomprehensively.”

In that context, Kees van der Pijl (2007) speaks (p. 9) of the link, at the level of word origins, between ‘barbarians’ and ‘stutterers’:

“Many communities whose name for themselves is a variety of ‘the [real] humans,’ call neighbouring groups ‘the stammerers’ or ‘stutterers’; ‘barbarian’ is just the Greek version of this.”

He adds (p. 9):

“Clearly what is proper for and due to us as the civilized ‘humans,’ and for them as stammering slaves, must be radically different. There is a variable assignment of rights of place, different entitlements, including even the right to life — one is friend or foe before having spoken or acted. Inequality, both as domination/subordination and as exploitation, thus follows from the acceptance of ‘difference’ as natural, on a different plane of existence (Inayatullah and Blaney 2004: 7,9; Mann 1986: 43).”

Codes of military conduct

Wayne E. Lee’s book offers a valuable account of the differential application of the rules of war in North American warfare between 1500 and 1865.

The author notes that the rules of warfare that had become the norm in conflicts in Europe originated in the sixteenth century.

By 1644, a basic corpus of ‘military law’ had been established for the management of military violence.

These codes of conduct “reflected the increasingly common calculation by early European military leaders that the most desirable characteristic in a soldier was obedience to orders within a comprehensive system of collective discipline.”

As well, by that time military law had revealed “the extent to which an army’s leadership concerned itself (or did not) with the potential violence of the army against civilians, and how they codified aspects of the customary codes of war into specific punishable offences.”

If British or American soldiers were fighting each other, they tended to establish parameters — to follow codes of war — that would limit what Lee describes as the ‘frightfulness of war.’

George Washington, by way of example, relied on British army practices related to the ‘customs and usage’ of war, which allowed for a minimum respect for prisoners, included provisions for the paroling of captured officers, “set the norms for the negotiated surrender of a besieged town, and demanded respect for flags and messengers of truce.”

When British or American soldiers were fighting aboriginal warriors, such parameters tended to be dispensed with.

Lee notes that in North America, violence escalated quickly from the outset between English and aboriginals “because men at war with ‘barbarians’ (and both the English and the Indians saw each other as barbarians) began with certain negative assumptions about the other and quickly found that the normal grammar that defined the meaning of wartime violence did not work.”

That is, the author asserts, racism, land greed, disease, and economic shifts clearly played a role in such warfare, as others have noted.

“This story,” however, according to Lee (p. 166), “was about more than prejudice. It was about a confluence of greed unregulated by social authority across the wide Atlantic, strategic calculations of necessity, a mismatch of tactical styles, systems of restraints that proved escalatory rather than complementary, and a loosening of individual morality created by all these processes together.”

The grammar of war

The concept of the grammar of war is also useful in addressing contemporary warfare.

These topics are discussed further in the military history category at this website, including in blog posts addressing Soldaten (2011) and Climate wars (2012).


A March 6, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “René Girard’s theories still explain the violence all around us: French-born scholar spent his career trying to understand what what makes violence a chronic problem.”

Recent studies that provide an overview of the evolution of warfare in contemporary times include:

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015) and Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat (2017).


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