‘Blood Rites: The Origins and History of the Passions of War’ by Barbara Ehrenreich
Published by Granta
Reviewed by Steve Earles
One of the most life-changing books I have ever read was Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Nickledand Dimed’, where Barbara went undercover in America to see how the paid misfortunes who work in, for instance, the cleaning trade or the fast food industry, are treated. When you’ve finished reading it, you realise the terrible extent of how humans exploit other humans. No other living creature on Earth behaves like this, yet we consider ourselves ‘advanced’.
Similarly, her book ‘Smile or Die’ explores the culture we have now in the West where people are expected to be relentlessly positive, no matter what. This is a ridiculous and unhealthy notion. For instance, if someone you love dies, it’s natural to mourn them. If you are seriously ill, or lose you job, it’s actually a survival instinct to be concerned. In America, the ‘Happiness Industry’ has grown to epidemic proportions, where people with terminal cancer are expected to be positive about it. Her book is very good, at time very funny, at others very worrying.
‘Blood Rites’ is a different project for Barbara from the books mentioned above, in that it isn’t drawn from personal experience and field research, rather it’s more academic and desk based, but no less relevant and engaging for that.
‘Blood Rites’ attempts to explain why humans are attracted to violence and war. Ehrenreich traces the history of warfare from our prehistoric ancestors fighting to stay alive to the mechanised industrial level slaughter of the 20th and 21st centuries.
It’s an eye-opening book. She is a writer of great clarity and she has written a book that will make the reader think long after they have put it down.
Barbara’s premise is that humanity’s passion for war and violence stems from a primal fear that goes back to our prehistoric ancestors and their understandable fear of ending up as dinner for a larger carnivore. Barbara explores her ideas and backs them up in great detail.
It’s a very important boo, highly readable, and sadly, as a glance at any news media will tell you, all too relevant.