War (What is it Good For?)
Men have been infatuated with war since the beginning of time. Our history is written in the blood of battles; some were necessary, most meaningless. War, of course, is the mistress of suffering, and for this reason men cling to it; they claim that it is great because great men come from it. They are sadly mistaken. Though war heroes are beloved among men, they are not courageous because they were in a war; they are heroes simply because they triumphed over great adversity. Anyone can become a hero. War has nothing to do with it.
Soldiers are the prototypes for Western heroes because of our society’s long liaison with war. “History is a bath of blood”, wrote William James (46). “Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us” (47). “Greek history is a panorama of jingoism” and imperialism – war for war’s sake, all the citizens being warriors…The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed” (46). Greece was destroyed in a meaningless war (Spielvogel 74-77) and succeeded by Alexander the Great, a man so successful in conquest that he considered himself a god (95), and the Romans, the most famous conquerors in the history of the world (115). Europeans inherited the blood thirst of their ancestors and gave to the world the best example of the destructiveness of war: World War I (747-748).
One of the most powerful schools of thought in the beginning of the twentieth century was Social Darwinism, the idea that humans and societies constantly struggle with their environment and only the strongest survive (714-716). Many men used this philosophy to justify war. S. R. Steinmetz, in his Philosophy des Krieges (Philosophy of War), calls war an institution of God and an infallible measure of the greatness of a nation (James 50); “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht [‘The unfolding of history is the unfolding of right’]”. Bernhardi concurs:
War is a biological necessity of the first importance, a regulative element in the life of mankind which cannot be dispensed with, since without it an unhealthy development will follow, which excludes every advancement of the race, and therefore all real civilization. ‘War is the father of all things.’ The sages of antiquity long before Darwin recognized this. (Spielvogel 715)
These men, and the entire European population, welcomed World War I. Though it was fought for politics, rather than human rights (748-750), people still thought the war was just (752). They believed it would be short and exciting and, most importantly, would revive their nations and the values of self-sacrifice, heroism, and nobility (752-753).
All were mistaken. The war was long, ugly and brutal. Millions died in stalemates on the Western Front (754). Over 700,000 died over a few miles of terrain during a ten-month stretch at Verdun, France. Soldiers in the trenches faced weapons like poison gas, machine guns, artillery shells, and barbed wire as their compatriots were mutilated, disfigured, and killed all around them (756-759; Remarque 210-211). On the front they became human animals, fighting madly simply for the purpose of survival (Remarque 107-114).
World War I had lasting psychological effects on the “lost generation” (Hemingway 7) that fought it. “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Goodbye”), who rocked as hard as anyone in the Roaring Twenties but was genuinely unhappy and died believing himself a failure (“A Brief Life”). “The natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness,” said he, and man’s constant efforts to better himself only increased his dissatisfaction (Fitzgerald 151). Said Remarque, “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost” (123). Nor were the war’s effects limited to the generation that fought it; its destruction and turmoil planted the seeds of the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, and, finally, the fall of Europe from world dominance (Spielvogel 767-768, 774-778, 781-786, 789-790, 793-794, 816, 847-848). Remarque summed up the hopelessness of his times:
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow…And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world, see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing – it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us? (266-267)
Heroic men are produced in war nevertheless. “The war party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial values…are absolute and permanent human goods,” said William James (53). The Roman historian Livy spun war tales, both truth and myth, to teach moral values and virtues to Rome, including “tenacity, duty, courage, and especially discipline” (Spielvogel 121-122). Some of these men, like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Colin Powell, translate military victories into political success (“Dwight”, “Biography”). Others are simply ordinary men giving everything for their brothers. Hal Moore, the real-life hero of the Vietnam movie “We Were Soldiers”, said, “We weren’t fighting for the flag or President Johnson or Mom or apple pie or an idea. We were in the midst of hell, fighting for each other” (Stark).
Great are the virtues of soldiers and, fortunately, civilians can also have them. Athletes often display the courage of soldiers in their competitions, and some use their stage to benefit the people; the boxer Joe Louis gave hope to all Depression-era blacks and proof that they could perform as well as whites if both had the same rules (Barrow xv-xvii). Mother Teresa, a simple Albanian nun, devoted her life to serving the poorest of the poor and changed the world (“Mother Teresa”). Her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize was a pittance compared to the courage and love she gave to those she served. Awards and attention are meaningless when heroism is concerned. Sick children are among the greatest heroes of all (McCarty 171-172, Hansen 256-258). Heroism has only one prerequisite:
Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs. Peace has its victories; but it takes brave men to win them. (“Emerson”)
Heroes are people who triumph over adversity. Since war is filled with adversity, great men are often bred from it. Though heroism is good, war is not; it causes manifold damages to people and a nation. Heroes can be created without the military; as a result, war is necessary only in self-defense. War is not needed to make men heroes.
1. Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.
2. Barrow, Joe Louis, and Barbara Munder. Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
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5. Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954.
6. “Emerson.” Wisdom #38 1962: 57.
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10. United States Embassy in Uzbekistan. “Biography: Secretary of State: Colin L. Powell.” http://www.usembassy.uz/powelbio.htm
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13. Stark, Susan. “No ‘Tall Poppy,’ Mel Gibson Strives to Keep it Real.” Indianapolis Star 1 Mar. 2002: Weekend.
14. Keillor, Garrison. “Goodbye to Our Boy.” Time 08 Aug. 1999: http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/time/1999/07/26/jfk.goodbye.html
15. Nobel e-Museum. “Mother Teresa – Biography.” http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1979/teresa-bio.html