I recently got embroiled with a friend over the eternal question of why nations go to war and whether the drive to fight is so embedded in our nature that we cannot avoid war. He shrugged off the question, since he felt it was kind of a silly issue. Of course, mankind will always be at one’s throat for one reason or another. Been that way since cave man days and will go on throughout the future. This response seemed so cavalier to me, a cynic’s view of everyday news where people are blown to smithereens daily with modern lethal weaponry or hacked to death with iron age machetes. My response was to ask what does it take to convince people that wars seldom settle differences and usually bring unexpected consequences that are as harmful to the victor as to the vanquished.
In our point/counterpoint, we searched for symbols to describe the verbiage that defined warfare as well as the reasons nations decide in the first place to start walloping each over the head with clubs. We see eagles and iron fists and lightning bolts used as uniform patches. We also know the language used to justify warfare: nationalism, tribalism, ideology, economics, politics, honor, insult, revenge, opportunism, profit, national sovereignty, border ambiguity, religious disputes, slavery, state’s rights, expansionism, and pure militarism, for a few. Of course, there’s usually that ambiguous god the combatants are always claiming is on their side. Symbols for all these reasons to go to war run the gamut from modern fighter planes, to dollar signs, to pictures of the Bible/Koran, to an enemy depicted in cartoonish manner to represent a ferocious beast ready to molest our women and stomp out the men.
One still hears how WWII was the “good” war in that the enemies were clearly identified as villains from Germany and Japan hell bent on destroying Western Civilization. It was an existential battle and our fathers marched off convinced they were being called upon to defeat the enemy and preserve our way of life. They were defenders, not aggressors, and would make the sacrifices needed to win. It’s difficult to argue against the war that eventually stopped Hitler and the Japanese militarists. The cost was astronomical, however.
In ancient times, we had the likes of Alexander the Great, who seemed to be overloaded with testosterone as he imposed his will over the Mediterranean basin and on into India and Egypt. A new Hellenic world resulted, but in reading about the various campaigns, so much seemed to be just for the greater glory of Alexander. A lot of people who were in the way died on the end of pikes, too.
As our discussion proceeded, I looked for an example that raised the question of the ambiguity of warfare, when defeat can be spun into victory even if it takes eons to happen. One battle in the ancient world that has always intrigued me occurred in the first century in modern day Israel when the Roman legionnaires were called upon to put down Jewish resistance. Years ago when I first visited Masada, the Jewish Zealot stronghold besieged by the Romans, I was taken aback by the starkness of the landscape in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. In a land sacred to three major religions, one had to wonder why the Jewish god would choose to reveal himself in such a place of desolation. With few reservations, I see little in this god other than a wild force ruled by whim and without predictability or compassion.
As we know from history, things didn’t turn out very well for the Zealots. With a total Roman victory, Masada became a ruined fortress where its defendants committed ritualistic suicide rather than surrender. Seems as though its wild-eyed god had chosen not to come to its aid and simply sat back and let it perish. Warfare seems to have been pretty one-sided at this point of the game: a trained and well- disciplined army with the most spears and swords was pretty hard to defeat.
But once again, to appreciate the total picture, we also have to deal with symbols as well as sharp knives and siege machines. Ironically, Masada rose from its own ashes to become today the powerful symbol of a people’s resistance. Despite a god that would not hear them, they would not be deterred in their belief and determination to be free in their own land. Hardly anything the Roman Tenth Legion would have predicted. I’m not exactly sure how this variation on a theme supported my case, but my friend conceded that the law of warfare’s unforeseen consequences can sometimes play out in mysterious ways.
In jumping ahead in time nearly two millennia, we see another great conflict in progress, this time pitting armies against one another in a fight without any of the great themes that motivated the Zealots at Masada. In WWI, we read of the senselessness of war, the miscalculations, the intricacies of alliances, the pomp of emperors and kaisers who would not back down, the miscalculations of general staffs that believed their own propaganda. If there is any symbol that might apply it’s the one of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman quipping, “What, me worry?” In contrast, at Masada the resistance itself was the symbol of the siege, one that eventually would be transformed into the kind of strength that overcomes seemingly unsurmountable obstacles for a righteous cause. It also symbolizes a belief in a cause and in determination, in the honor that some beliefs are indeed worth fighting and dying for.
In contrast, WWI has become a very different symbol. It has become one of stupidity, irrationality, cognitive dysfunction, obtuseness, disregard for human life, mindless tactics, and visionless obstinacy. The barren and ravaged landscape of the trenches in France and Belgium was denuded not just of all its beauty and cultural legacy. It was stripped of its soul. Like a richly grained piece of wood turned from a Maple burl, the land and the lives of the people who made it home offered an abundance of opportunity to just hold and marvel at the rich and colorful tapestry that is life. When the land was savaged, the combatants shattered, the bowl broken, the music stopped. There was simply no more sound other than plaintive screams whose echoes could be heard for years reverberating throughout Europe.
Such strong images of uncompromising beliefs, fanatical resistance, merciless warfare, and enduring symbols have been swirling in my head recently as I continue my reading of Paul Fussell’s The Great War And Modern Memory, a book about the British experience on the Western Front and the poets who lived through the devastation and demoralization of trench warfare. These were the ones who drank the patriotic fervor at first and fought, then wrote haunting and ironic poetry, and finally slowly realized what the world was becoming: “So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.” (Paul Fussell, Thank God For The Atomic Bomb And Other Essays)
Hopelessness took many shapes in the epic battles of WWI and evoked the grim reality that it was not just single soldiers or divisions or whole armies that disappeared in the carnage. What really happened was that entire ways of life vanished from the earth. Fussell redefines, especially through the poetry, how people lived and died during a time of great change, when entire civilizations were shaken loose and replaced with a sense of loss, waste, unrelenting sorrow and futility. There was simply no future worthy to imagine. It ended not with an armistice but with permanent reverberations for what could be expected, dreaded, and at best endured in any future life.
As one delves into some of the poetry of WWI and reads the reflections of the likes of Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sasson, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, May Herschel-Clark, and May Sinclair, amongst just a few, we are reminded that many of the famous poems to come out of the trenches were written in a darkly ironic mode. By ironic, Fussell means that “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.”
In continuing our discussion, my friend and I seemed to be at opposite ends of the question as to why warfare seems to be so endemic to the human psyche. There certainly is a long and sordid history of human activity littered with the detritus of warfare. I countered, though, and tried to retake the thunder he had been tossing about. In response to his military theories, I pled my case by saying that we cannot crash though the fog expecting to find some meaning beyond what has splattered us in its blood. Warfare is just that: the awful stuff that sticks to our bodies, minds and imaginations when people die at our hand. The darkness is not our friend, nor is the menace of the alley or the wrong side of the sandbag where the shrapnel has embedded in a helmet-less head. As the poets ask when they know they have been sacrificed, forgotten, shunned, how do we make our peace with the wild gods we follow and who are quick to feast on our bones in the absence of any holy men to hold our hands and bid us farewell? From my friend’s view, the only answer is to fight back and give more than we have received. I sighed.
I concluded my case by saying that warfare will ultimately devour those who champion its cause and carry its banner. It’s just a matter of time. I again fell back on the idea of symbols and how their meanings run through most of our lives and have a way of identifying us. In seeking to understand whatever meaning is hidden there, we have the opportunity to explore more and more that is at our core. Do we see the warrior as our benefactor or our nemesis? Is the serpent an ancient symbol of wisdom or a figure that represents our primordial fear? Is the bridge a passageway to the next battle or a vantage point, a transformative symbol, to hover on as we cross over troubled waters? Is the ocean a vast expanse to contemplate our small place in this life or a wind-swept expanse just waiting for the next hurricane or torpedo to blow us away? Is the field artillery piece a symbol of anything but death on steroids? When we see the mangled veteran, choking on mustard gas, or maimed by barbed wire, how can we do anything but renounce the gods of war who have led us to our own insanity and then abandoned us?
In the bleakness that followed the end of WWI as well as Masada, some people chose other directions, alternative ways to find meaning. These were the survivors, the ones who looked for a new symbol of strength to build upon. They sought an image of help, not destruction, a particle to savor, not plunder. Of the various quotes I have read about such symbols, my favorite comes from Charles Simic, the Pulitzer winning Serbian-American poet who wrote:
“Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships.”
I plead my case: Give me the rock on which the lighthouse stands rather than the sea that turns on its travelers and tosses their splinters against the shoals.