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.