The mind, upon processing the guttural vocalization that it verbally identifies with the uniquely human concept of war in our innumerable societies and languages, surfaces many different images. For some of us, the internal visualization of war brings forth the idealized glory of heroism, honor, and valor on the battlefield. For others, it is a reminder of the human costs – the despair, the unforgettable stench of human bodies, mixed with fear and death, the destruction of sometimes centuries of hard sweat and labor in the few moments it takes a bomb to drift down, without mercy, from the sky. And for some, who have never fallen for the grandeur or lived through the fear, the word is merely some abstract concept, like death itself, perhaps – conceptualized by the brain as a placeholder for that which only exists on the periphery, in the realm of stories and images seen while idly surfing through the Internet, until it comes to find them.
Yet, there is much more to war than bombs and battles. If we refer to the dictionaries, for example, we learn that war is simply defined as “a situation in which people or groups compete or fight against one another.” Indeed, if we examine the lexicon of phrases through which the word “war” is currently used, we have the “war” on drugs, the “war” on poverty, the “war” on terror (distinguished, for some reason, from terrorism), the “war” between the classes, the “war” on the climate, and so on. Certainly, not the typical wars fought by opposing armies on the field.
However, there is an element of the glory and the blood in all of these, from the highest-level propaganda used to sell them to the masses from which the relative armies, such as they are, will be formed, to the basest-level that all wars, from the history of time, have in common – the sweat, the terror, the breaking of things, the lives left in ruin; born, almost always, on the backs of the poor. For if there is one thing about war that is universal, it is that it affects us all, from the most hawkish warmonger, to the most dovish of pacifists.
To study war, then, is to move beyond the surface story-telling and to delve deeper into the psychosis that causes those who would otherwise peacefully co-exist to throw down their plowshares and engage in that most costly of activities. For, as Hermann Göring once observed, “why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?” Is it really as simple, as he went on to say, as the fact that “it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship?” And, if this is true, then what are these mechanisms by which our leaders can so simply drag us along?
There is no doubt that the ability to stir the blood through the listing of atrocities and other such propaganda is a powerful such means. The science behind the way in which the masses can be brought mindlessly to one opinion or another is quite terrifying, to say the least. The common threads of nationalism and jingoism are powerful motivators, as well as the simple rally to survival by a country that is attacked by another. At the class level, it can be leveraged through the age-old animosity that exists between those who have wealth, and those who have little or none. In academia, by those who fiercely debate on one side of an issue or another. The true “righteousness” of a cause, particularly when in alignment with a country’s or group’s self-identified ethos, is undoubtedly a factor. And, of course, there’s the tired, yet effective, ancient memes of hatred and tribalism.
But, is war just some temporary madness that occasionally strikes the human condition, or is there something deeper, more psychological involved? Other species, after all, may have minor skirmishes here and there for food and whatnot, but we are the only one that has taken it to such destructive levels. In some cultures, it is worshiped as a veritable form of art, or at least thrilled in a way that only pornography can fulfill. Even if this is an affliction that consumes only a small percentage of the human race, how about the rest of us? Is our great brain so easily fooled that we would willingly place our lives, and everything we cherish, on the line to fulfill another’s fantasy?
For alas, one thing is for certain: as we strive for peace, we must come to terms with whatever it is about our nature that makes it such a difficult endeavor. The long road of human history has been one of unification, broken by fits of bloodshed as old norms were destroyed to make way for the new. And as we continue to struggle on that road, we will, all of us, be consumed by it in one way or another, whether fighting to preserve the old, or fighting to advance the new, but fighting, none the less, for what we or others believe.