War in the Tribal Zone is an important book because it makes three revolutionary claims concerning our knowledge about warfare among nonstate peoples. First, the editors assert that the existing historical accounts of indigenous warfare were created after indigenous societies were transformed by expanding states, and particularly European expansion. Therefore, the greater part of our ethnographic information about nonstate warfare cannot serve as a guide to the character of warfare among “pristine" tribal peoples.
Second, the editors maintain that contact with states has most often increased the intensity of warfare among tribal populations. Violence intensifies as groups on state peripheries take up arms to resist state expansion, to obtain the rewards offered by states to those who fight on the state’s behalf and to compete with other peripheral groups for access to state agents and the benefits they distribute.
Third, the editors insist that collective violence among nonstate peoples cannot be explained as a consequence of “tribal loyalties." Recorded warfare among nonstate peoples is a product of demographic, economic, and political variables. Given the existing record, “any idea that an innate sense of tribalism inclines people toward collective violence is sheer fantasy" (p. 28).
These claims are supported by nine case studies. The first four explore state-periphery relations in precapitalist states: Rome in North Africa (Mattingly), the south Indian states in Sri Lanka (Gunawardana), the Aztecs and Spaniards along the northern Mesoamerican frontier (Hassig), and Dahomey in the African interior (Law). The case studies document the nature of state interests and state interference in autonomous, but not isolated, populations beyond the state's borders. But because the documentary record for these cases is so limited, the effects of state interference on nonstate populations can be only dimly outlined.
Such effects are more fully documented in the remaining five studies, which deal with groups on the peripheries of more recent European colonies and states: the Caribs and Arawaks of South America (Whitehead), the Iroquois of North America (Abler), the Asháninka in eastern Peru (Brown and Fernández), the Yanomami of the upper Orinoco (Ferguson), and the Mount Hagen people of modern New Guinea (Strathern). These accounts are particularly valuable in documenting the diversity of interests and behavior in nonstate groups, showing tribal peoples as active shapers of their history rather than passive victims of ecological pressures (as in older anthropological accounts of tribal warfare) or of colonial domination (as in newer "postimperial” accounts).
The strength of this volume is its ability to define the changing demographic, economic, and political contexts that intensify warfare along state peripheries. A glaring weakness is its inattention (in all but Ferguson's study) to the importance of gender in the operation of these demographic, economic, and political systems. To explore the relationship between gender and warfare, readers will have to rely on the recent work of Cynthia Enloe and others.