Analysis Culture

Man’s propensity for war

A man grips his sword tight, his knuckles white and his teeth gritting tighter. He is so intensely focused on slamming the sword forward that he does not hear it crash with a hollow metal pang on the shield in front of him. His opponent lurches forward, almost lifting the attacker off his feet and throwing his bare back into the mud. The second man moves his spear, little more than a crudely splintered stick with a pointed end, grinding it around his shield and into the fallen man’s chest. He feels a crunch, but he, too, hears nothing.

Both men like sitting inside on a rainy day; they like horses for their majesty and power; they like the smell of morning dew on a spring day. They had two children each and they loved them both the best ways they knew how, and they devoted themselves to providing for them.

Who are these men? Where did they come from? They could have been friends, had they met on another occasion. What would compel them to act with such malice? To scrape with every last ounce their bodies just to cut the other one to death?

This is one picture of many — one picture the world’s historical collage of war. War is an ancient thing; war is a modern thing. It’s as timeless and visceral to the human condition as sex, childbirth, envy, innovation, language, and parenthood.

War — the very essence of violence — is a place where people tap into their most vicious, animal nature. Anyone who’s seen a war up close and personal knows what human beings are capable of.

And just what are they capable of? Anything.

The lie of civilization is that we have somehow transcended our own human nature. That we’re better now. That we’ve finally made it past the petty violent ways of our past and we can now delve into the future carefree.

“But we’re in the most peaceful time in history,” you might say. “We have truly have begun to ascend.”

Well, never mind the fact that not so long ago, we orchestrated some of the most devastating events in human history and called them World Wars. One could argue that because of these devastating events, we were finally humbled, realizing our propensity for war, and then making efforts to avoid it.

If you read literature before WWI, you’ll find similar notions that you might hear today. The language is that of the “civilized” who enjoy material goods while being thankful they’re not the evil, disgusting brutes of the past. As if they were not capable of sitting behind a machine gun and pulling the trigger on a cluster of human beings. As if they were not capable of beating another man’s skull in with a rock.

While the casualties of WWII were much greater, if you read the literature around the time you don’t get as much of a change in tone. The WWII generation was familiar with the human race’s ability to flip a switch and ditch civilization entirely to bathe in the blood of others. The attitude was much more of a “let’s roll up our sleeves and get this over with” kind of thing, in comparison to the first World War.

Peace and civilization are things worth fighting for. In conjunction with freedom, they’re worth dying for, in my opinion. But once attained, the occupants of that civilization must not forget what they’re capable of. They must tell the stories of the past, realizing that it could be their future if they’re not careful.

We’re not above it — those two men described at the beginning of this article were most likely very regular people. Perhaps they even thought to themselves, “I could never stab another human being to death,” and yet look where they wound up.

Every person is capable of ripping another apart, just as they are capable of stitching each other back together.

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Mic-Mac
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Mic-Mac

Luke, I like how you challenge us to think. There is much in life worth fighting and dying for. As long as that is true there will be war, as there will always be someone wanting to take it away from us. That includes our dignity.

Yankee Papa
Member
Yankee Papa

Master Luke, One of the more famous predictions prior to WWI was the commentator who said that because the major nations of Europe were all so interconnected by trade… a major war was “impossible…” He also went on that the sides in any war would “shoot themselves out of ammunition in very little time…” World War I certainly had too much of “…lions commanded by donkeys…”, but while too many “miscalculations” made… the war was not “pointless” as has often been claimed. From a strategic point of view… Britain…going back to the time of Napoleon… decided that one of its… Read more »

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Awesome as always YP.

susanh
Member
susanh

YP, thank you for this outstanding comment.

Susan B
Member

You never fail to educate. Love it.

bio57
Member
bio57

Man’s capacity for altruistic self sacrifice seems only to be matched by his capacity to justify committing horrific harm to others. Stories coming out of any of the modern holocausts reflect both. I am inspired by stories of heroism. I am appalled by the atrocities. But what I find so profoundly inspiring as well as so profoundly disturbing is that by all reports both were committed by ordinary people. Just like me. What makes the difference? At one of the killing fields in Cambodia there grows an old tree now covered in colorful ribbons. It is called the Chankiri tree.… Read more »

Yankee Papa
Member
Yankee Papa

Mitch, The Khmer Rouge claimed to be Marxists but were way beyond that… nihilists. They marched almost all of the city dwellers into the countryside. Decided to execute the “intellectuals…” How to identify them? Everybody wearing glasses… Unlike some “ordinary person participating” scenarios… in Cambodia it was pretty clear cut. Maybe a working party of 200. Guards order captives to beat a prisoner to death with shovels. Any who refused or was clearly “pulling his punches” also executed. At that point one has to decide whether to “make a statement” or whether to survive. Most chose survival. Their version of… Read more »

georgehand
Member

YP,
I keep a life-sized poster of Saloth Sar one a wall in my TOC to remind me that I’m just a piece of shit.
geo sends

Yankee Papa
Member
Yankee Papa

George,

Pol Pot? Compared to him you’re Roland and Thomas Aquinas rolled into one…

“…To you, bold venturers, adventurers, and whoever has embarked
With cunning sails upon dreadful seas—

To you, who are intoxicated with riddles; who delight in twilight, and whose souls
Are drawn by flutes to every dizzying abyss;

For you do not want, with cowardly hand to grasp for a roe
And where you can guess, there you disdain to decipher…”

-Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’

-YP-

susanh
Member
susanh

Wow, YP. Deep.

susanh
Member
susanh

Thanks, YP. Some people seem to just flat out embrace evil – there seemed to be a lot of that going on in Cambodia in the 1970s.

georgehand
Member

A skillful write, Luke. I recognize a parallel in our musings on war, though I was never to the point that I could describe it in writing. Fine job.
geo sends

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