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.

16 comments on “Man’s propensity for war

  1. 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.

    • Thank you! And you’re right on all accounts here.
      I have found that there are generally two types of people who are active in their communities: those who want to work toward a sort of utopia, knowing that it’s not possible but seeing any progress to that end as minor successes.
      The other is the type that understand the essence of human nature, that knows we’ll always need cops and militaries.

      Unfortunately, if I had to pick a Sci Fi future for us (if you watch that kinda stuff!) it would be less Star Trek and more The Expanse. Always conflict. Always war. But where there are those things, there is goodness too. Of equal or greater brightness.

      • There will always be Cain and Abel until we are all delivered from it…finally. As you were writing, I was thinking of that Christmas during the war when the enemies put down their weapons long enough to share Christmas Day. Then picked them up again to continue the killing. Thank you for giving us mental meat to chew on, Luke.

        • I love the Christmas Truce story. Very profound and amazing that it actually happened.

  2. yankeepapausmc

    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 primary national interests was that no one power control Western Europe. But even this was not enough to push them into war. They had too many problems of their own… (including a possible civil war in England itself over Ireland… long story). But when the Germans boiled over into Belgium a tipping point was reached. Britain was one of the major powers who guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality. Not simply honor involved, but in their self-interest that they honor their treaties.

    The German minister who handled the British ultimatum was flabbergasted… “You’re going to go to war… over a mere scrap of paper…!?!”

    France too had more than “pride and arrogance” on the line. Even though they had promised Russia that they would fight if Russia attacked by Germany… as war loomed large the French quietly approached the Germans and indicated that they could “find a reason” not to honor their treaty… (as Italy was about to do to the Central Powers.)

    Rather than treat this as a God-Given chance to deal with Russia once and for all… the Germans got greedy. They told the French that they would agree… providing the French turned over all their frontier fortifications to Germany “for the duration…” France knew that with Russia defeated and Germans sitting in fortifications on French soil… they’d never get them out… would, in fact, be lucky not to simply be crushed in turn. So Germany got the war on two fronts that it so richly deserved.

    Our image of WWI influenced largely by British poets who served. Wilfred Owen’s writings certainly raised gloom and doom… but after being wounded well into the war, he did not have to return… but chose to… and was killed a week before the Armistice.

    More to the point… for all that he hated the war… he also loved it. In his papers he wrote about how he had to personally operate a machine gun and killed five Germans who were closing on him…and was proud that he was able to do so. But well after his death and long after the war when his papers published, a relative “sanitized” the papers to read that by taking charge of the machine gun he was able to force the surrender of five Germans who had been closing and was proud of that achievement.

    Humanity unlikely to know a true global peace any time in the next thousand years (unless aliens from Omicron Persei 8 take over to the point to where the slightest resistance is futile…) Otherwise, even if nations somehow decided not to fight each other (for a while at least…), dictatorships would breed resistance and conflict… (which might or might not spill across borders…)

    “Where man is unjust to man, there will be a need of valor…” -Plutarch-

    -Yankee Papa-

    • Awesome as always YP.

    • YP, thank you for this outstanding comment.

    • You never fail to educate. Love it.

    • Outstanding, YP. And I was not aware of that sanitization, very interesting. The WWI poets are some of my favorite war poets, making art out of all that chaos and fury.

      And I agree. I think we are eternally doomed to be mired in physical conflict forever. But where you’ve got guys doing evil, you’ve got guys doing good too. And that makes it all worth it, I think.

  3. 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. During the 70’s Khmer Rouge soldiers killed babies and small children whose parents were accused of crimes by dashing them against the tree. I remember one of the plaques at the memorial sight saying that those who committed these atrocities had previously been just ordinary people. Stanley Milgram Experiment in the 60’s chills me to the soul. What would I have done?

    • yankeepapausmc


      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 “only obeying orders” nothing like the Germans’…

      -Yankee Papa-

      • georgehand

        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

        • yankeepapausmc


          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’


      • 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.

  4. georgehand

    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

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: