Hold the Line

NOTE: This post and all future posts are draft sections of my upcoming book titled “Tribal Teaching: Rewild Your Students and Yourself”. Any and all feedback (probing questions, need for additional explanations and cutting critiques) are welcomed! And, all illustrations are my own.

As upright mammals, all of our fighting implements – fists, feet, nails, and teeth – are to the fore.  Our back and sides, unarmored and unprotected, remain exposed and vulnerable during combat.  However, aligned side-by-side, friendly warriors, barring those on the line’s very ends, can protect each other’s flanks and rear.  When one warrior fights, holds her position in line, those around her can focus their effort on striking out at the opponent. Without having to fight any harder, by simply fighting together, every warrior is more effective.

The line is a feature of warfare in all its forms and epochs.  However, its length, shape, continuity, the distance between neighboring warriors, or the number echeloned are relatively un-important characteristics. These geometrical dimensions have varied across societies, through time, and even throughout the duration of a single engagement. The key characteristic of a line is its perceived permanence. Does a warrior believe the line will hold?

She should not.

Here’s why:

If everyone else in the war party is fleeing the line, what should she do? Flee.

If everyone else in the war party is holding the line to fight, what should she do? Flee.

Yes, flee.

Because of our anatomical configuration, every time she holds the line and fights she makes those around her feel secure and more willing to fight and therefore more productive. This is good. However, this interdependence also makes it difficult to identify her contribution from that of another. Indeed, in the heat of combat, her actions can go unnoticed. She can hang back, reduce her likelihood of getting maimed or murdered and still receive the rewards that attend victory.  Regardless of what everyone else decides to do, she should give into her instincts and flee. So, should everyone else. And, the line should not hold.

Yet, the line is a recorded feature of warfare.

So, how have societies gone about transforming a group of individuals with an instinct for self-preservation into a band of warriors who hold the line?

It takes at least two things: an agreed upon code of conduct and a mechanism that credibly commits an individual to abide by the code of conduct.

A code of conduct is a guidance system. It is a set of values. It is an articulated way of walking, taking and being together that is unique to the band of warriors. It is vital. But, alone, it is not enough. Some may agree to be bound by the code when a call to arms is being made. However, in the heat of battle, they may reconsider their agreement. Everyone is susceptible to this reconsideration. Everyone knows that everyone is susceptible to this reconsideration. A code of conduct is necessary but not sufficient to yield a line that holds.

Each prospective member of the war party must also commit to be bound by the code. This process may be as simple as each individual turning to the other and asking “Will you hold the line?”  The fundamental question is whether or not their respective replies “I will hold the line!” are believable. They are not. Talk is cheap. Saying these words is cheap. No one knows if these words are the words of a warrior. So, no one holds the line. Their commitments lack credibility.

The military organizations of modern nation-states use a hierarchical command and control structure that imposes sanctions and employs coercive tactics (among others) to lend credibility to those words. Yet, this is not the only way. Moreover, a fundamental tenet of Rewilding is the purposeful restructuring of the hierarchical student-teacher relationship. We need explore how pre-state communities accomplished this task in the absence of hierarchical coercive authority.

Pre-state communities, like all communities, are composed of two types of individuals: warriors who hold the line and fight and non-warriors who flee. While individual members of the community know whether or not they are a warrior or non-warrior, this is private information. It is the responsibility of the community to distinguish one from the other when fielding a war party. It can do this by using costly rituals to screen prospective members of the war party. Costly rituals include tattooing, scarification, piercing, circumcision, subincision, teeth pulling, body painting, and learning secret knowledge (Sosis).

Two things are required for a ritual to be an effective screen: (1) the two types must differ with respect to their tolerance of emotional and physical discomfort and (2) the two types’ relative willingness and ability to endure a ritual is credible evidence of their willingness and ability to hold the line and fight. Rituals must also be costly but not too costly. Warriors must find it worthwhile to endure the rituals. Non-warriors must find it worthwhile to raise their hand and declare “I am not a warrior”.

If the ritual is effective, non-warriors reveal themselves through a process of self-identification. And, the community can field a war party composed of only warriors. Now, when one member of the war party declares “I will hold the line!” it is considered a credible commitment. Other members believe that she will hold the line and fight. They believe that she will subsume her instinct for self-preservation and secure their flanks and rear. In turn, they will hold the line. The line holds.

A similar logic undergirds Rewilding.

Rewilding is designed to purposely animate our demons.

It does this by choosing a project that is so ambitious that it can only be accomplished through collective effort. I cannot do it alone. My students cannot do it alone. We can only deliver on the project by working together. And, delivering takes each and every one of us at our best – taking the initiative, taking risks, acting, doing, and producing. Delivering requires each of us getting our personal demons (self-doubt, self-sabotage and self-reproach) under control. This only happens when we choose to confront/fight our demons.

Now, it’s true that only you can fight your demons and only I can fight my demons. However, our battles are not independent of each other.

When one member of the Tribe executes in the absence of authority or builds something no one else has built before, she inspires similar actions in others. Others activate their agency. Others place their signature on the project. We reinforce each other. We build off each other. We exist in a world where one plus one equals three!

Our battles infect each other

This is good. However, this interdependence can also be downright destructive.

When one member of the Tribe is plugged into the machine, paralyzed by perfectionism, or rationalizing her lack of progress due to a lack of external direction, we all slow down. We lose our lean. And, we fall into a slumber of self-doubt. We live in a world where one plus one could possibly sum to zero.

For this reason, when a prospective member of our Tribe arrives at our door, we visualize her standing side-by-side with us in the arena and wonder:

“Is she a warrior?”

“Will she hold the line?”

“Will she take the fight to her demons?”

Only she knows the answer to these questions. So, we screen. And, we use costly rituals to do so.

We don’t pull teeth or paint our bodies. But, we do learn secret knowledge. And, we have talked about getting tattoos. Nonetheless, our costly rituals are designed to separate the warriors from the non-warriors. And, if she’s still standing at the end of our screening process then she gets an invitation to join our Tribe.

Now, when we arrive at that critical moment in the project’s life-cycle that demands her expertise, creativity and her one and only way of seeing things, we can look her in the eyes and ask “You got this?” She can answer “Yeah, I got this.” And, we can be rest comfortably knowing that those are the words of a warrior.

This allows the rest of us to turn back towards our own demons and get back to work.

Not everyone who shows up gets to join our Tribe. And, of those who are asked to join, not everyone will stay or be asked to come back. And, that is how it should be.


If you liked this post, you may also like the other posts in Rewilding Pedagogy.

Thanks. – shawn


Turney-High, Harry Holbert. Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts. 2nd ed. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.

Keith Otterbein “How War Began”

Sosis “Scars for War”