NOVEMBER 02, 2006











Home / Issue 10.19 / Cover Story

Warrior Society

Thinking about war, peace and ancient Hawai`i

By Anthony Pignataro

Art: “Ali'i Koa” by Solomon Robert Nui Enos


Ka`uiki Head is a 386-foot hill rising from the extreme eastern part of the Hana Coast. I visited it a few Sundays ago, and a light rain fell on me as I made my way over its crumbling red lava and dirt. Densely covered with trees, its sheer sides plunge straight into Hana Bay. Ka`uiki is a towering and fearsome hill, but it’s also an extremely quiet and peaceful place.

It wasn’t always that way, which is why I was hiking around that misty Sunday morning. Two hundred years ago, Ka`uiki Head was one of the most fought-over pieces of territory in the Hawaiian Islands. Action there was especially hard-fought in 1765 when Kalani`opu`u of Hawai`i invaded East Maui, occupying Hana and Kipahulu. In the subsequent Battle of Makaolehua, Maui warriors fighting for Kamehamehanui retook Hana, but only reoccupied Ka`uiki Head after a prolonged siege.

Unlike many American battlefields, there are no plaques or visitor centers at Ka`uiki Head marking the ground’s significance. There are no statues of brave warriors rousing young legions to a desperate battle. There are no etched markers filling tourist heads with regimental names or honor rolls of fallen heroes. It’s a battlefield in terms of history alone, forcing visitors who know something of its bloody past to stare up its sheer terrain and imagine what it was like for a Maui or Hawai`i warrior to scramble up the slope as enemies dug in along the summit rained spears down upon him.

Ancient Hawai`i was in every sense of the term a “warrior society.” Every island saw wars every few years as the many ruling chiefs (ali`i nui) jockeyed for power. A few information displays tell `Iao Valley visitors of the great battle that took place there but few probably know that other bloody engagements took place at Kaupo, Kamaole, Honokowai, Pu`unene, Ka`anpali, Huelo, Wailuku, Lahaina and, of course, Hana.

For battle Hawaiian warriors (koa) formed themselves into a kahului, a crescent-shaped formation where the horns pointed toward the enemy. The historian David Malo believed the term came from Kahului’s flat plains that would have allowed such a wide distribution of forces. Other than history books, there’s absolutely no indication anywhere on the island that when Kamehameha and his 20,000-35,000 warriors invaded Maui in 1790 to begin his War of Unification, during one of his landings his war canoes lined the shore from Pu`umana to Mala.

That there is so little physical acknowledgment of Hawai`i’s violent past is testament to the near-complete renunciation of war that followed Kamehameha’s conquering of the islands. While it’s true disease decimated his once proud army, reducing his forces in the early 1800’s to a mere fraction of what they had been barely a decade earlier (numbers that would remain small for decades and leave the archipelago vulnerable to American takeover in the 1890’s), once the islands had just one ruling chief (mo`i), Hawai`i fairly quickly transitioned into the “Aloha State” we all know today. Much of the reason was that they just didn’t have anyone to fight anymore.

Regardless of the fact that Nov. 11 is Veteran’s Day, we seem to be talking about war more often than at any time since the 1960’s. Discussion of the fighting in Iraq—its violence, lies and open-ended commitment—dominates the major newspapers, evening news as well as this year’s election. President George W. Bush recently said he’d stop telling the American people we had to “stay the course,” though his insistence that U.S. commanders are adapting to the enemy doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

In the early days Pentagon officials told us confidently that there were no more than 5,000 insurgents—they repeated that number long after they announced we’d killed or captured 5,000 insurgents. When insurgents took over Fallujah, we smashed the city, scattering the fighters to the hinterlands. When we chased after them, they disappeared into Baghdad.

The troops that originally invaded Iraq in 2003 were to be home by Christmas. Officials said the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2004 would deflate the insurgency. Then it was the 2005 democratic elections.

The killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earlier this year was “a turning point” in the war. Then officials said turning Baghdad over to Iraqi forces was a major step to rotating our boys and girls out of the fighting. Then the bloody sectarian killings began.

The war, it seems, is perfectly capable of continuing regardless of whatever tactical changes we make. There are still 140,000 American troops in Iraq, the same as during the 2003 invasion. No one knows how many Iraqis have died in the war—estimates range from 30,000 to 600,000—but we do know that 2,800 American soldiers have been killed and more than 44,000 wounded.

Most people don’t even think about the war in Afghanistan anymore—now in its fifth year—though momentum is backsliding towards a reconstituted Taliban. Altogether, 340 Americans have died there, with another 5,000 wounded.

Throughout it all, Bush has told Americans these wars are necessary to protect us at home.

“[I]n order to fully defend America, we must defeat the evildoers where they hide,” Bush said at an Oct. 11, 2001 press conference. “We must round them up, and we must bring them to justice. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in Afghanistan—the first battle in the war of the 21st century.”

“Today when people go to war, sometimes they go to war out of fear,” Neil Bernard Dukas, a historian and former Canadian Army officer who wrote the 2004 book A Military History of Sovereign Hawai`i, told me. “They reduce one’s enemy to evil. That is very Western.”

But the Hawaiians, who possessed the same religion, customs and ethnicity as their enemies, had a very different way of marching to war.

“Hawaiians had intimate knowledge of the enemy,” Dukas said. “They knew and understood their enemy. How could you call your enemy evil if they’re just like you?”

The war in Iraq has become the single most controversial issue in the U.S. It dominated this year’s elections. Polls show a constant majority of citizens now feel the war was mismanaged, bungled or just plain wrong to begin with.

Precise descriptions of what war was like in old Hawai`i—to say nothing of life in general—isn’t possible. Honest historians disagree about the interpretation and importance of various events and personalities. But one thing Dukas told me is that historians seem pretty certain that the anger and bitterness many Americans feel towards our current wars didn’t exist in old Hawai`i.

“War was absolutely, perfectly accepted as normal,” Dukas said. “I don’t get any idea that Hawaiians would have challenged this. They weren’t revolutionary thinkers as we would think of them. Their world was pretty straightforward.”

Then again, the old Hawaiians only fought for very specific reasons. These reasons may seem strange to us modern people, but they were deadly serious back then.

Before Kamehameha united the islands, many ali`i juggled shifting alliances in relentless bids for control. For them, power came through mana—the “life force” they believed showed itself as various physical or mental skills. “While success in battle might understandably enhance a chief’s mana, the opposite was equally true—defeat was an indication of the god’s displeasure and viewed as the evident withdrawal of mana,” Dukas wrote in his book.

And that meant battle after battle after battle. To keep things from getting too far out of hand, society constructed a series of rules governing combat. For instance, Dukas outlined in his book how there was to be no fighting during the rainy season ceremonies of Makahiki. The cutting down of an enemy’s coconut palm was a vicious declaration of war, while emissaries carrying a white stone to an enemy camp could defuse tensions. Wars began with the construction of elaborate heiau, which sent an unmistakable sign to the enemy that matters had gotten very serious.

Mana governed war fighting and set rigid rules, though much wider in certain circumstances than is currently allowable. For instance, oral history cited by Dukas indicates that carving the bones of fallen enemies into fishhooks was a perfectly acceptable practice.

Combat itself—in contrast to today’s push-button warfare of GPS missiles, laser-guided bombs and aerial drones—was ferocious. Spears—both the extremely long pololu and the shorter elau ihe—saw widespread employment as a kind of artillery, as were daggers (pahoa) and flattened clubs lined with shark teeth (leiomano).

`Ohele—the most proficient warriors in the order of battle—were skilled in lua, a form of martial arts sometimes called “the art of breaking bones.” Lua was thought to be lost for many years until the early 1970s, when five men tracked down Charles W. Kenn, then the only known living lua practitioner. From him they spent years training in lua and learning how ancient `ohele would pluck all the hair from their bodies and oil their skin, making them difficult to grab hold of during battle.

“Warriors were not brutes,” lua master Jerry Walker—one of Kenn’s students—told Hana Hou magazine in 2003. “They also composed poetry, danced, surfed and excelled in sports and games.”

And then there were more Western implements, used most famously at the Battle of Kepaniwai in the `Iao Valley.

“This battle for Maui is said to be one of the most bitter ever fought on Hawaiian soil,” reads a visitor display at the `Iao Valley. “As the warriors reached `Iao, their shouts of defiance echoed throughout the valley.”

What the displays don’t convey to visitors is the all-or-nothing zeal Kamehameha and his army carried into the valley. According to historian Stephen L. Desha, whose collection of 1920’s historical newspaper stories was published in 2000 as Kamehameha and his Warrior Kekuhaupio, upon landing his fleet at Kahului, Kamehameha ordered his warriors to remove the outrigger booms from their canoes.

At first mystified by the order, Desha tells us the koa soon realized its significance when their king stood on a piece of Wailuku high ground and addressed them. “Forward, my little brothers, and drink of the bitter waters,” Kamehameha said. “There is no retreat.”

Many historians say Kamehameha’s guns carried the day. “Had they fought face-to-face and hand-to-hand, as the custom was, they would have been equally matched,” historian Samuel M. Kamakau wrote in a Hawaiian language newspaper series, later published in 1961 in English as Ruling Chiefs of Hawai`i. “But the defensive was drawn up in a narrow pass in `Iao, and the offensive advanced from below and drew up cannon as far as Kawelowelo`ula and shot from there into `Iao and the hills about, and the men were routed.”

But Dukas disagrees, calling the assertion that Kamehameha derived his victory from Western guns “really unfair.” Partly it was because of the unreliability of the guns, but mostly because the Hawaiian method of combat was very effective in its own right.

“The cannon, it seems, were more often a prize to be fought over than an important tool toward achieving victory,” Dukas wrote in his book. “Their most famous deployments at `Iao Valley and Nu`uanu came late in those battles, as a final demoralizing blow to a cornered and exhausted enemy—a bloody and memorable use of firepower, no doubt, but far from being a decisive one.”

Many, many Hawaiian National Guard and Army Reserve troops have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some, like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Randy Iwase, even say the state has sent a “disproportionate” number of soldiers off to war. Hawaiian culture may have moved beyond war, but the United States of America certainly hasn’t.

Near the end of our interview, Dukas said he wanted to ask me something. In preparation for our interview he had gone to the Maui Time website and found my story “Now Playing Everywhere,” which I had written in 2005 about the Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace. He said part of what I had written had caught his eye.

“War degrades, desensitizes and demeans,” he read. “War is an indeterminate yet unmistakable smell of black powder, rot, sweat, garbage and decay.”

Agreeing with what I had written, Dukas then asked what I thought Hawaiian society would have been like if you took out the war.

“What kind of society would you have?” he asked. “Is it feasible?”

My immediate reaction was to think that yes, of course it would be feasible. But then I thought about how—horrible though it may be—wars bring societies together around a common goal and give them leaders. Then I thought about Hawaiian political activism in the last few decades, and the fragmented nature of the current Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

Must a people have leaders in war in order to get organized during times of peace? Does war provide society with a drive and purpose that can’t be captured any other way?

For someone who finds war wasteful and abhorrent, these are difficult and disturbing questions. Dukas himself did not know, and maybe it’s just not something that is knowable. But one thing that’s certain is that war in modern, advanced, Western society isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, leaving us all plenty of opportunity to study its importance. MTW