The Art of War (at Burning Man) — Part 3 — How to Be a Warbringer

This is part of a short series on war at Burning Man.

Burning Man is hard. The best things about Burning Man are fucking hard. War is no exception. And, like the other best things at Burning Man, if you don’t do it right, somebody is likely to get hurt.

I want to emphasize this, because it is really important: war at Burning Man is not only one of the most fun things I have ever done, but one of the most fun gifts I have ever been able to give whole camps. But, like Burning Man, it is not benign. Like Burning Man, I was playing with fire. Physical and emotional risks had to be managed.

You can only put “safety third” if you actually know what you’re doing. So it matters that you understand what the roles one plays in a war actually are, and how they work. War is Communal Effort more than it is anything else. Far from the skills of the lone warrior champion portrayed in movies and myth, it is the ability to play well with others that leads to glory and success in this kind of war.  Here are the things I have learned:

You Are Inspiring the War. You Are Not in Charge of Anybody

If the differences between a Burning Man theme camp and a military squad aren’t obvious to you already, stop. Right now. You have no business running anything at Burning Man, and will make people very unhappy. You’re still welcome here, obviously, but for your own sake and the sake of those around you: do not try to be in charge until these differences are obvious to you.

Military units are, quite literally, “command and control.” People are both sworn and paid to obey orders, and chain of command matters.

Burning Man? Not so much.

Burners are volunteers, and Burning Man’s 10 Principles are deeply connected to the idea of human agency. People do not come to Burning Man to be told what to do, they come to discover what they want to do. This doesn’t mean they can’t obey orders. People voluntarily offer up their agency to a cause they believe in all the time, it’s part of being human — but it means they never have to.

Wars, like most Burning Man projects, go badly when people feel like they are being shoehorned into something they’re not enthusiastic about. Wars, like most Burning Man projects, get increasingly amazing as people are excited to participate, and come up with their own ways to contribute. Things you never thought of.

I’ve inspired four wars at Burning Man — I wasn’t in charge of a single one of them. That’s why they worked. And the very best parts of every war — the funniest, most amazing, most inspiring, most memorable things that happened — were always someone else’s idea. Stuff I never would have come up with. Stuff that I often didn’t even hear about until after the fact.

If you are trying to get people to conform to your vision of the war, the best outcome is that it will fizzle and die as people get bored. Far more likely is that they will get angry and resentful. And maybe explode. And don’t kid yourself: that’s on you.

Your job is to inspire people to be amazing, not to tell them what to do next.

War is an Invitation, Not a Threat

The biggest temptation when fighting a war is to “beat” the other side. It’s very easy for this to turn into a form of bullying. To try to shove them down until they admit defeat.

But as with your own camp, so with your “enemy’s” — the goal is not to tell them what to do, it is to inspire them to do great things. This is very much a situation where you are judged by the greatness of your enemy, and you “win” by having an amazing enemy that inspires you to do more and more amazing things.  If you genuinely don’t like your “opponent,” it will go badly. If someone feels genuinely threatened by what you are doing, it is going badly. What you want them to feel is invited to play. War, when it’s working, is Radical Inclusion.

Is the way you’re “attacking your enemy” going to be seen as an invitation for them to play? Are you in fact open to whatever their counter-strike is? Are you prepared to be surprised and delighted as much as you are to surprise and delight?

If you are, this can go incredibly well. If, on the other hand, the only way you can see winning is if your boot is constantly in your enemy’s face, you need to grow the fuck up.

Victory is Measured in Incredulous Laughter

What does “winning” even mean, in this context? It’s not like you actually can claim territory, or control a population, or even seize resources in a serious way. As with so many aspects of the ordinary world, the temporary and decommodified nature of Burning Man spaces means that much of what extrinsically motivates us is taken away while we’re here. The idea of “winning Burning Man” is a joke for a reason.

So what does it mean to fight a war? What are you trying to achieve?

Like art, war is something ultimately done for its own sake. But unlike art — or perhaps like a specific kind of art rather than all “art” generally — it has a clear, desired outcome. You want it to push yourself and others in ways that they will remember well, that they will think were amazing. That they will look back on passionately and say “we really did that!”

For myself, I have found that the surest sign of success, the way I know that this is on track, is if I’m hearing incredulous laughter. I orient towards that: the things that make people do that are probably working, and are the stepping stones towards glory.

Accept Every Premise

Best practice in improv theater is actually really useful here. Don’t deny someone’s premise. That just gets you into a stupid argument that usually ends up in a “Yes I am!”/”No You’re not!” shouting match — which is poison to incredulous laughter. Instead, roll with it.

The most perfect examples of this I’ve ever heard came not from my wars, but from Thunderdome. And, to be clear, while these events really happened, I was not present for them, so I may not have some details right. Still, as stories they illustrate the point.

Thumperdome

In 2005, the Billion Bunny March invaded Thunderdome, had a party inside, and zip-tied dozens of stuffed bunnies to the structure.

Instead of kicking and screaming about it, instead of shouting, “No, you can’t!”, trying to stop them or, denying it ever happened, Death Guild waited until they were done, took the stuffed bunnies down, impaled them on rebar, and gave them away as prizes for the winners of Thunderdome fights.

They took the premise of the attack and ran with it. Instead of trying to hide it, they celebrated it in a way that made it even funnier. Admit it, that’s pretty amazing. That’s winning.

Hot Topic

In 2009, a group of pranksters scaled Thunderdome at night and put a banner saying “Hot Topic” over the Thunderdome sign.

Legend has it — I have no idea if this is true or not — that the head of Death Guild that year was woken up in the night by reports that this had happened, and notification that even now her crew was scaling the dome to figure out how to get it down.

And she called them off immediately, perhaps even shouting into a walkie-talky, “Leave it up!”

What’s a matter of record is that Death Guild did leave it up for days. And in that time they started playing along with it, even welcoming people who came to “Hot Topic” and encouraging them to look at the items on their shelves.

Eventually, people started complaining to Burning Man that the sign which had been forced upon Death Guild as an insult was an act of commodification, and demanded that Death Guild be forced to stop. At which point people went to Death Guild and insisted that they take the sign down. To which the response was ‘Oh, if we HAVE to, if you’re going to MAKE us …”

Admit it, that is way, way, funnier and more interesting than just taking the thing down right away would have been. That’s what winning looks like. And it involved not denying someone else’s joke, but enhancing it.

We Play With Fire Because It’s Fun

There’s more, of course, but most of it follows from what’s been said here: if you can do these things, you can make a war go right. Abandon your plans, and help others be great and glorious. But you also have to be vigilant, because as we said up top — you’re playing with fire. You’re dancing on the edge of real competition and aggression and combat and ego. You can’t lose sight of that in the fun. And that’s what we’ll talk about in the final installment of this series.


Top photo: Billion Bunny March 2015 (Photo by Peg Ortner)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

6 Comments on “The Art of War (at Burning Man) — Part 3 — How to Be a Warbringer

  • Susan Bunny says:

    Every word is like poetry. I never imagined words could be put together in such a way. You are amazing and godlike; a wordsmith and an artist. Reading this, I felt like I was in a dream or singing with the angles in Heaven with Jesus by my side and God looking down on all of us smiling. Birds and butterflies in the air and fresh fruit for the taking.

    I can’t wait for Part 4.

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  • starjack io says:

    War is something ultimately done for its own sake

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  • Wovoka says:

    Actually, impaling a stuffed bunny impresses me as a bit cruel for war on the Playa … but then again, I’m glad nobody thought to douse the insertion with catsup so I guess it’s okay. Up my way, every Kinetik Sculpture vehicle in the race must include a bunny but a decade ago, they were launched from a full-size catapult while kids raced like outfielders to catch them.
    Anyway, I just coincidentally received an advance copy of next week’s New Yorker with an interesting article called “How We Came to Live in ‘Cursed’ Times”. Guess I continue to live a sheltered life, having never heard of so-called “Cursed Energy”. Having read this excellent but appalling article, I thought of Burning Man and how some installations cast a meaningful but light-hearted reflection on this disturbing trend…

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    • Firebrand says:

      For bloody impaled stuffed animals, you gotta go to the Black Rock Gladiators. A moment of silence, please, for those who gave their lil’ stuffed lives so that we wouldn’t trip on the rebar.

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  • Trendar says:

    Caveat, you’re my new burning hero.

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  • Dusty Dan says:

    Man, you are way too impressed with yourself.

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