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The New Aztecs: Ritual and Restraint in Contemporary Western Military Operations

The New Aztecs: Ritual and Restraint in Contemporary Western Military Operations - Cover

Authored by Dr. Zhivan Alach.

July 2011

81 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The Western way of war has come full circle. After centuries of evolution toward increased totality and brutality, it has turned back once again to the ritualistic and restrained methods of primitive warfare. Largely, this has been due to an interaction between the perceived lack of utility in contemporary warfare, developing humanitarian public opinion, and increasing professionalism among militaries. The significance of these evolutionary trends in the way that the West engages in modern warfare is that they are potentially dangerous, and they include the possibility that the West will be unprepared for a future foe whose defeat requires more unrestrained methods.


Centuries ago, the Aztecs of Central America fought their wars in a ritualized and restrained manner, not seeking total victory but rather the capture of live prisoners. It was a style of warfare that seems strange to us today, who have been brought up on Clausewitzian concepts of the meaning of war. We think of ourselves as scientific, instrumentalist practitioners of the art of war, seeking maximum military effectiveness.

The key argument of this monograph is that the Western way of war has actually come full circle and returned to its primitive roots. The monograph begins by identifying the primary factors that shape war. It then studies the evolution of warfare over time, beginning with what is known as primitive warfare. War began as glorified hunting, an extension of martial culture, heavily circumscribed by both ritual and restraint. The monograph then examines the major historical eras of warfare. While there was no steady evolution in a single direction, by and large, warfare became less and less subject to cultural restraint, and more and more total.

The monograph then briefly examines a range of recent Western operations that show a clear move away from total war and back toward ritual and restraint. Our most recent wars are driven far more by cultural beliefs and moral standards, including respect for international law, than they are by considerations of raw military effectiveness. A secondary argument, linked intimately to the first, is that we in the West, especially the media, do not seem to realize that we are limiting our arms to such an extent. We continue to see contemporary warfare as brutal and extremely deadly.

The monograph then posits a series of interlinked factors contributing to this reemergent ritual and restraint. The main factors are a decline in the perceived utility of war, sociocultural attitudes in the West, the impact of democracy, and the professionalism of contemporary soldiers. Finally, the monograph looks at the implications of this return to ritual and restraint. Are the “new Aztecs” in danger of appeasing the “sun god,” but ignoring the conquistadors at the gates?

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