The Fifth World


In my mother’s time, we had a war with the family to the south. I hear different stories of how it started — who insulted who, who slept with who, it all seems to shift depending on who tells the story. We knew fear in those days. We worried when they would attack. They tell me they felt the same way. It went on for three years before we made peace. We lost four people in that time. They lost three. I have a hard time imagining so much bloodshed.

Everyone hates war. We know that fighting means risking our lives and our families, so everyone wants to avoid it more than anything.

Usually our scouts fight in secret, always trying to intimidate each other. They slip into a neighbor’s territory at night and leave a knife beside your sleeping head, or cut off your hair, or do something that leaves you unnerved by the knowledge that they could have killed you if they’d wanted to. Of course, actually killing someone marks you as a poor scout. You might kill when someone catches you, which means you didn’t have enough skill to remain unseen. Most of us know little of this game that goes back and forth between the scouts, and most of the time it remains just a game. When it stops, though, then things can get serious. Then we all know about it, because then war looms over us all.

War first appeared with the emergence of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers simply move away from an aggressor, but with fixed fields and settlements to defend, agriculturalists had to commit to warfare, which became one of the driving forces in the history of civilization.

Horticulturalists still have fixed gardens and villages to defend, and so find themselves drawn into conflict more often than hunter-gatherers, who can simply withdraw. With violence no longer handed over to a professional class of fighters, though, a personal aversion to killing or dying helps ensure that all sides seek to avoid war. The difficulty in invasion and the fact that with more sustainable cultivation techniques most horticulturalists don’t find themselves driven by the need to conquer neighbors or die makes wars even among them quite rare.

More often than territorial disputes, wars begin over personal disputes. The line between war and homicide can sometimes become blurred. A case of adultery, an insult, or some other offense can eventually lead to injury or murder, which can begin a cycle of revenge. Though wars occur rarely, most families nurse generations-old feuds with other families that they fought long ago, but still hold onto the memory of the old conflict.

When they do occur, wars still exact a terrible toll, at least relative to the standards of people in the Fifth World. They experience much more fear and apprehension than usual. A casualty rate of even a few people each year represents an incredible amount of bloodshed, since most families live in very small groups.