Analysis Culture

The eternal experience of war

“War. War never changes.” You may have heard the phrase throughout the Fallout games; you might even be able to hear Ron Pearlman’s voice in your head right now.

If you were to take a soldier from 200 years ago, sit him down in a time machine, and show him the warfare of today, it would look like some pretty incredible science fiction. If you were to do the same from a soldier who fought 2000 years ago, it would look more like indescribable fantasy and magic. And so on its surface, war changes quite a bit.

But technology is not what the Fallout series is referring to. There are certain aspects of the human condition that remain constant, despite our wild changes in civilization, medicine, technology, and weapons on the battlefield. Things like sex, intimacy, family, parenthood, and the admiration of nature are all things quintessential to the human experience. They are deeply rooted in the mind and spirit on every person in the planet, whether they were born in the year 2000 BC or 2000 AD.

And violence is one of them, warfare being the ultimate form of violence.

And what about war remains the same?

When I find myself asking questions like this, I often turn to literature. History is more important than I can describe here, but fiction has its function as well. Fiction can show you certain facets of humanity that transcend time.

So let’s take a look at war, from the perspective of fiction throughout history and various regions throughout the world. Let’s see how “war never changes.”

Suffering the loss of a brother

One can go as far back as Gilgamesh to find these transcendental ideas. Though Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu are on opposite sides of the spectrum (Gilgamesh is demi-god who is apparently super good looking; Enkidu is a beast-like character wrought from nature itself), both of them become close friends and go on several adventures together. Their bond is undeniable.

So when Enkidu falls ill and dies, Gilgamesh is overwhelmed with grief:

He touched [Enkidu’s] heart but it did not beat, nor did he lift his eyes again. When Gilgamesh touched his heart it did not beat. So Gilgamesh laid a veil, as one veils the bride, over his friend. He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced round the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.

In his grief, Gilgamesh strips himself of all of his worldly goods — things that all of a sudden seem disgusting to him now, in the wake of his lost brother.

Bitterly Gilgamesh wept for his friend Enkidu; he wandered over the wilderness as a hunter, he roamed over the plains; in his bitterness he cried, “How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.”

There were no drones or tanks in Gilgamesh’s day, but these are moments that make sense to a lot of today’s warriors. They come home and perhaps the cocktail parties or the gossip over mimosas on Sunday brunch seem a little sickening at times. The undying pursuit of a bigger house and a nicer car can seem, well, like “abominations” in a way. Especially after the loss of a brother or sister in arms.

Honor in conflict

Fast forwarding a bit, we have Celtic mythology from the Mabinogion (or the Mabinogi, which may be a bit more accurate). The four “branches” of the story loosely follow Pryderi as he is born, grows, and becomes a warrior throughout. Before I go forward, I think this line is pretty relevant to a lot of Rangers I served with: “At that time, Math the son of Mathonwy could not exist unless his feet were in the lap of a maiden, except only when he was prevented by the tumult of war.”

Anyway, moving forward.

After a series of brutal events involving otherworldly pigs, rape, and theft, Pryderi and Math and a whole host of similar sounding names are at odds with one another. Blood has been spilled on many accounts, as a great war has begun and things are getting desperate.

Pryderi sends messengers to Math, hoping that single, man-to-man combat will end the conflict once and for all.

Pryderi dispatched unto Math an embassy to pray him to forbid his people, and to leave it between him and Gwydion the son of Don, for that he had caused all this. And the messengers came to Math. “Of a truth,” said Math, “I call Heaven to witness, if it be pleasing unto Gwydion the son of Don, I will so leave it gladly. Never will I compel any to go to fight, but that we ourselves should do our utmost.”

“Verily,” said the messengers, “Pryderi saith that it were more fair that the man who did him this wrong should oppose his own body to his, and let his people remain unscathed.” “I declare to Heaven, I will not ask the men of Gwynedd to fight because of me. If I am allowed to fight Pryderi myself, gladly will I oppose my body to his.” And this answer they took back to Pryderi. “Truly,” said Pryderi, “I shall require no one to demand my rights but myself.”

Pryderi falls in the fight, killed in action, and he is buried at a place called Maen Tyriawc. But he sought to save the lives of others, to settle a dispute that was taking the lives of the involved, between the two offended parties. He sought an honorable end to a horrific war.

Surely there can be no honor in war, many might say. But that is usually coming from those who haven’t experienced it. Yes, war brings out the most terrible traits human beings posses, but it also brings out heroism, courage, sacrifice, and absolute dedication — these things are honorable acts, though they exist under terrible circumstances.

The actions of Pryderi here illustrate a sliver of honor in an otherwise destitute conflict.

Brotherhood

Most readers probably know the show Band of Brothers on HBO, or the book from which the show was born. You probably also know where that title comes from — William Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

There are many interpretations of the play, which can take Hal’s (Henry V’s) speeches in wildly different directions. However, for the most part he is portrayed as a once rambunctious boy turned into a warrior and a king. His actions at war are at times questionable, but unlike many kings before him he dives into the thick of battle alongside his men, also in contrast to some of the other characters in the play.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

Of course there is also the famous line: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” which has seem to come full circle, as “breach” is also a modern-day military term meaning the entry of a target compound or building — the place you enter when you’re looking for a fight.

Just as in the days of Henry V, warriors appreciate a leader who steps into the ring with them — who shares in their suffering and loss. It is better to suffer greatly among brothers than to be comfortable and alone.

These things can be seen today

These are just three examples in a long list of pieces of literature that reference war in a way modern soldiers probably relate to on a profound level.

And modern film has its place as well. Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Fury focus on the brotherhood among the most dire and terrible of circumstances. Black Hawk Down and 13 Hours focus on these things too, as well as putting them into the context of modern warfare. Dunkirk is more of a look at the sheer, biblical suspense-like feeling of war. These are new movies, but these ideas are not new. These films, like the ancient works of literature, serve to show facets of war that transcend a few hundred or even thousand years.

Whether it’s ancient literature or modern film, these works attempt to tackle some facet of war, an experience that is changed by technology, but in the end — it never really changes.

War Never Changes

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Soldier image on the right of featured from Adobe Stock.

6 comments on “The eternal experience of war

  1. The line that is fitting to the Ranger 😎 But this is so true . I feel the same “ brotherhood” in my line of work . And honour simply put “ better me than the innocents”
    I feel I get my need to serve from my Celtic ancients and this essay shows why

    • What is your line of work? If you don’t mind me asking.
      And yeah, it’s pretty amazing how different old stories are (personally I’m a sucker for Celtic mythology as well) and yet how similar they are in random parts.

      Okay, shameless plug: I wrote a short story based off of Celtic Mythology, in the middle of a major battle in the Mabinogi but from the perspective of a young soldier. On e-book right here:
      https://www.amazon.com/Eighth-short-story-Luke-Ryan-ebook/dp/B07CW7DK21

      • I will download that story and while I allude I don’t give species but that “ shady” guy knows and I told him to tell you if you are interested

  2. Excellent Luke,
    I really enjoyed the manner in which you compared the “warrior” over the century’s. This was a very interesting read.

    • Thanks for reading! I really love studying transcendental aspects of human nature through literature — it’s pretty interesting to me as well. And of course war is one of the most visceral of human experiences, so it stands to reason that it’s described all over the place. Pretty amazing how it’s described in the same sort of ways no matter where you go.

      • Don’t know why I didn’t see this earlier, Luke. I really enjoyed your comparisons. These are the kinds of articles I enjoy very much. I love when people delve into the deeper meanings of classic literature and bring the ideas forward into current times.

        I’m waiting for someone to do so with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. That was a hard book for me to read. I’m not sure I got out of it what my professor felt I should. I do know I looked, smelled, and felt my toasted bread in a whole new way. lol James Joyce was another author that didn’t allow me to share my professor’s enthusiasm. Sigh.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: