Monday, June 9, 2014

Dance and Drill in Human History

Nicholas Wade writes,

“In the ancestral religion of hunter gatherers, people bound their communities together in emotionally compelling dramas of music, chant and dusk-to-dawn dances. The marathon rituals ended for some in exhaustion, for others in a state of trance that opened doors, for them and their community, between this world and that of the supernatural.

Little by little, the ancestral religion was suppressed in the settled societies that began to emerge 15,000 years ago and has survived only among the handful of hunter gatherer tribes that endured into the modern era. The new settled societies adopted a structured form of religious practice, one in which priests controlled the ritual and monopolized interaction with the supernatural. The communal dances ceased. The songs were silenced . The shamans were marginalized as witch doctors or sorcerers.

But the ancestral religion was woven too deeply into people’s behavior to disappear entirely. The vase was shattered, but its shards endured. It required an intuitive leap to recognize the pieces, see how they had once been assembled and figure out what the vessel’s purpose had been. That leap was made not by any anthropologist or archaeologist, but by a distinguished military and world historian, William McNeill.

McNeill’s epiphany came when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in September 1941 and set to marching about for hours on a patch of Texas plain. It was hot and dusty, and the exercise seemed worse than useless, given that marching in close formation on a modern battlefield within range of machine guns would have been suicidal. But all that aside, McNeill writes, marching about in step with the others somehow felt good. “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well -being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in a collective ritual.” 76

McNeill’s insight was that rhythmic muscular movement in unison had a strange and powerful effect on the emotions: it created both a sense of exhilaration and a feeling of solidarity with other participants. Group cohesion, though not well understood by many civilians, is a matter of the greatest concern to military commanders. A poorly trained group will dissolve and run when 10 percent of its men have been killed; a cohesive force will not break until just 10 percent of its members are left alive. This is a difference that decides battles. Wade, Nicholas, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1323-1342). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Comment: Wade sites for the above, “William H. McNeill, Keeping Together in Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), page 2. Perhaps I didn’t do as much marching as Wade describes McNeill having done, but I don’t recall any equivalent sense of exhilaration. I just now downloaded McNeill’s book to getter a fuller description. McNeill was drafted in September 1941. I enlisted in July 1952. In my case I went through 16 weeks of boot-camp, several months of combat training and finally sent to Korea in March of 1953. The most marching I recall doing was in boot camp but don’t recall the emotions McNeill says he felt. He does say that “Consequently, whenever our officers ran out of training films and other ways of using up time, we were set to marching about on a dusty, gravelled patch of the Texas plain under the command of an illiterate noncom. A more useless exercise would be hard to imagine. Given the facts of twentieth-century warfare, troop movement in the rear was a matter of trucks and railroads. Close-order marching within range of machine guns and rifles was a form of suicide. All concerned realized these simple facts, yet still we drilled, hour after hour, moving in unison and by the numbers in response to shouted commands, sweating in the hot sun, and, every so often, counting out the cadence as we marched: Hut! Hup! Hip! Four!”

“Treasured army tradition held that this sort of thing made raw recruits into soldiers. That was enough for our officers and the cadre of enlisted men who were in charge of our training. But why did young Americans not object to senseless sweating in the sun?”

[McNeill. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Kindle Locations 53-58). Kindle Edition.]

We complained 11 years later of not having good equipment but we did inherit the equipment that hadn’t been scrapped after the finish of WWII; so trained with it as well as march, and we didn’t just march, we ran “double-time” more often than the sort of marching McNeill describes, and we did “object to senseless sweating in the sun,” just not so our Drill Instructor could hear us.

Following Gadamer and Collingwood, I recognize my “constellation of predispositions” inclines me to believe what Wade writes on the subject of religion, but I am having a lot of trouble with him, for what he describes as universal doesn’t match my individual experience. In the above case it is something McNeill has written and not Wade, but Wade has quoted him with approval and is invoking McNeill’s conclusions as evidence for his own.

McNeill at location 79 in Kindle concludes “that rigorous selection in favor of groups that kept together in time had led to genetic transmission of this capability, which then was inadvertently tapped by Maurice of Orange and innumerable drill sergeants ever since.”

Hmm. I was truly in the Marine Corps, honest, but I just can’t relate to marching as being that important. Yes, by the time we finished boot Camp, Platoon 444 (if I recall the number correctly) was well bonded, but we attributed it at the time to the abuse suffered from the Drill Instructors and having survived all they put us through rather than the marching.

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