Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

by Michael Main

Coastal people they kill each other with sorcery. But Huli we use
guns. It’s the same thing.

Charles Haluya, Komo

Warfare, and violent conflict in general, do radical violence to the labels that we use to describe the ways in which human beings form social collectives. Culture, custom, tradition, society, ontology and philosophy are all rendered mute, stillborn, discardable indulgence. Violence and trauma, as E. Valentine Daniel has so brilliantly observed, comprise an uncharacterisable “excess” where “there is neither ontology nor epistemology, hermeneutics nor semiotic, materialism nor idealism, and most importantly, neither culture nor Culture.” 1 In September 2016 the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Komo with a film crew to make a documentary about tribal fighting in the PNG highlands. Although they interviewed several locals about the situation, the film director expressed a desire to include my point of view so that the film would include “analysis” in addition to the information that he was obtaining from PNG nationals, which tended to be brief and descriptive. My first comment to camera after being asked about the reasons for fighting in the area was to make the plain statement that inter-clan fighting, particularly over land, has been an almost constant presence in people’s lives for centuries. This caused a drop in the faces of the film makers. It was not what they wanted to hear. What they wanted to hear was a story about modernity, and more recently the PNG LNG project, intervening to disrupt a way of life that was in harmony with nature and a culture that provided lore and meaning via an internal consistency that had been disrupted and corrupted by western influence. What they were hearing from me sounded too much like the Hobbesian dystopia of nature’s state of “war against all” that was to be found prior to the civilising influence of the age of reason. Neither perception is correct and the situation is not helped by popular science writers such as Jared Diamond 2 and constructed notions of “traditional” versus “state” warfare. Both views depend on essentialized conceptions of culture that either can’t stomach the reality of violent conflict or cling to a teleological vision of history that has raised humanity from its violent nature. The experience of warfare supports neither of those views. Warfare forces us to radically rethink our conceptions of culture. We can extend Clausewitz’s famous insight, “Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln” 3 towards an understanding of warfare prior to its coming into the dominion of nation states. Warfare is about power and the expression of power always occurs within an historical and cultural context even as new histories and cultures are formed as a result of its application.

  1. E. Valentine Daniel, ““Crushed Glass or Is There a Counterpoint to Culture”,” (Transformations: comparative stud Paper 101, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1993). []
  2. Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (New York: Viking, 2012), 141. []
  3. Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (Berlin: Dümmlers Verlag, 1832), I, 1, 24. Although usually translated as “War is a mere continuation of policy (or politics) by other means”, this is erroneous and should be read as “War is a mere continuation of policy with other means.” The distinction is important as the intention is not to suggest a transition from a state of political order to the chaos of war, but to explain war as an instrument of the political order. See James R. Holmes, “Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong,” The Diplomat (2014), http://thediplomat.com/2014/11/everything-youknow-about-clausewitz-is-wrong/. []

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