The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony — forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up — take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.
-Protagonist Paul Bäumer, in WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front
I hope everyone had a good and safe Memorial Day. Most importantly, I hope everyone was able to reflect, even mildly, on the purpose and history of this commemoration.
War is such a terrifying thing. That sounds like such an obvious statement, but we tend to expression such a sentiment in a perfunctory fashion, rarely giving it deeper thought or – more difficultly for most people – putting ourselves in the position of it’s combatants and victims.. The entire idea of war, especially in our largely peaceful society, is fortunately quite beyond us.
As a soldier you’ve effectively signed up to become a living weapon, an instrument to both political elites and the public. You’re relied upon to protect the people, as well as serve the interests of a narrow political and economic class. Minus a few exceptional cases, you’re forced to kill strangers who you otherwise wouldn’t have had to until you (and them) were commanded to do so.
In a world where comfort and self-interest is as exalted as ever, the soldier has volunteered to put all that aside in the name of a society that dares not put itself in his or her position.How many people in our generation would dare make such a sacrifice – and I mean seriously so, not just hypothetically – if it were asked of them? We don’t even realize that most of our generation is living in one of the most peaceful eras in our long and bloody history (despite what confirmation bias and the ubiquitous media may suggest, there is far less conflict out there than we imagine, especially in terms of length and prevalence). For most human, war and violence were an intractable part of reality. In the grand scheme of it all, we represent an abnormal and very lucky minority of people who see and experience far less violence than any of our ancestors.
Granted, horrific conflicts continue to persist, worsening in some areas than ever before. I have no intention of downplaying the considerable amount of suffering that wars, past and present, continue to wreak on a significant proportion of the population (around 1.5 billion people are said to be regularly affected by war and conflict, according to some reports). But, believe it or not, their scale and scope don’t come close to what was once rather average. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come so that even today’s ghastly conflicts pale in their scope and incidence compared to those in the past.
I think what’s most disturbing about war is that no one ever seems to want it, yet it continues occur anyway. Almost every side of every war claims to be against the idea, as if war was some third party that has manipulated us into fighting. Almost all countries maintain armies to protect themselves from one another, even though every nation claims only to seek it’s own defense (the threat of “irregular” military forces, such as terrorists and rebels, have changed up this formulation to give everyone some acceptable bogeyman as justification). Of course, we can never really trust anyone and everyone, and this is something even individuals can attest to. But I still find it to be a strange phenomenon.
Are we naturally warmongering? It is the same minority of psychopathic, self-interested, or just plain bad people that are ruining it for the rest of us peaceful folks? Is conflict a human imperative, an impulse that courses through each of us as naturally as living and breathing? Is war truly the result of misunderstanding and desperation or is it something that will continued to inexplicably burden us even as we “civilize” and develop? Humans are, after all, the only living things capable of war. In a cruel irony, some have made the argument that intelligence and higher brain functions actually breed and facilitate warring inclinations. Only intelligent beings could construct the sort ideological, philosophical, political, and religious elements that predicate all conflicts. Only intelligent beings could have the wants and the desires to drive them to conflict with one another in order satiate their existential needs. Is war truly a human disease then, a result of a perverse coupling of our primal heritage with a higher perception of self?
The answer would seem to be unfolding before us within our lifetimes: as the world becomes more globalized and unified than ever before, war has indeed declined, and the question of whether interconnectedness could reduce – maybe even eradicate – wide-scale conflict becomes deliberated. The usual tensions and divisions remain, as do the means to shed more blood than ever. But conflict has largely abated, and the majority people, even those living in destitution and social instability, remains untouched by mass conflict and violence.
As we become more interdependent, communicate better, exchange more ideas and cultural perspectives, and rely on one another’s societies for economic prosperity and indeed survival, could war become a thing of the past, as much out of inconvenience as out of mutual understanding? Did not two of the most horrific wars in modern times, World War I and II, occur after periods of protectionism and isolationism that bred hatred, distrust, and nationalism? But then again, that begs the question: as the economic crisis and the inequities of globalization threaten more rounds of insularism, protectionist sentiments, and nationalism, are we teetering once more to wider scale war?Whatever the guess might be, let us shift away from speculation of the unknown future and take what we know from the past.
Thousands of American soldiers died where few others would dare, joining the millions more around the world and throughout history. These people rendered themselves statistics and nameless figures so that we can live in the comfortable times that we do. We have the luxury of enjoying Memorial Day for BBQs and relaxation because of their ultimate sacrifice. I myself spent the weekend just hanging around like it was any other three-day break. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come when wars and their horrific toll could be so easily relegated to the past.
Imagine being one of the guys in front (or any of them for that matter). My stomach churns just thinking about it. War casualties are just numbers to most people, but everyone of those guys – and their enemies – were distinct human personalities. They disappeared in an instant.