It seems like a no-brainer to me today as I think about it carefully. In fact, it makes me feel like a real idiot that I haven’t been clearer about it in the past. But today I am taking a break from my work and just thinking. I read both newspapers in the morning and have been confronted by the latest news on the home page of my laptop. My head is filled with news from Syria, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, Iran and Iraq. There are even lead stories about crime in New York City, Chicago and other places around the country. My own hometown, Providence, is not spared.
But the primary articles that scramble my head are those from the Middle East. The downed aircraft from Malaysia is almost too much to deal with. It is bad enough that it crashed, and that it is probable that it has been shot out of the air, allegedly by pro-Russian Ukrainian militants. But they kidnapped the victims’ bodies and kept them in a refrigerated railroad car, not allowing their grieving families to take them home for burial. The inhumanity of it all is overwhelming.
There is clearly a war going on in Ukraine. It is early on in the conflict, but already a portion of Ukraine, Crimea, has been lost to Russia…without a great deal of resistance. Now the conflict has moved to the western eastern portions of Ukraine that border on Russia. We are told that many of the people in that region speak Russian as their first language and seem to prefer being a Russian possession rather than Ukrainian. This is not a bloodless conflict. Many deaths have already occurred. There is some certainty that the people of this region of Ukraine are being aided by Russia, both in terms of arms and personnel.
President Obama and President Putin are exchanging harsh words, and the question about the role of the United States in this Civil War is a volatile one. It has implications for Ukraine and Russia. It also has implications for the United States. The nation is tired of war and does not seem to have an appetite for another one. The President is caught in the middle of a “damned if you do…and damned if you don’t” situation.
It has me thinking about the very nature of war. That is where this revelation comes to me which is so simple, so obvious, and so elementary. Yet it was not in the forefront of my thinking until now.
War is about killing people.
Now I don’t blame you if you say “duh” or something like that. It is not a world-changing thought. Millions of people have recognized it long before I came along. But as I sit thinking about war it is clear to me that this point has escaped my thinking for a long, long time.
Oh, I’ve always been very negative about the killing of people in war. I’ve never served in the military and have never been invited to do so. Were I invited, I’d like to think that I would have refused the invitation. It’s not the fact that deaths occur in war that is missing from my awareness.
The point which is revelatory to me right now is that when I boil down the basic element of war it is all about killing people. That’s what we do when we participate in war. We kill people. That’s the goal. That’s the medium of success or failure. That’s the criterion upon which we base our progress in a war. How many people are being killed?
It’s not a new concept. From the beginning of time people disputed over all kinds of things. Property seems to be the most common. But I can identify such issues as humanitarian causes, oil, economic advantages, insults, ethnicity, and political differences. But when you come right down to it, the wars get sorted out over the act of killing people.
There were days when it was more personal. Hand held-swords and knives and clubs were the media of bringing about death. The one who beat and killed more of the enemy won. Bows and arrows, blowguns, boiling oil and other simple instruments of destruction were to follow.
In more recent history, however, the use of guns, cannons, missiles, and now even drones replace these personal weapons and the killing of people has become more impersonal. Death can be arranged from far away. Not just in the next village and county, but in neighboring countries and now even continents. Precision has been greatly enhanced, and death can rain down from seemingly invisible weaponry.
Obviously, in these examples of warring techniques not only the enemy is killed. Innocent citizens, including old people, women and little children become dead as a result of high-tech weaponry. The entire cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, were eliminated in seconds when the United States employed nuclear weaponry to bring a “humane closing of a disastrous war” about. As many as 240,000 innocent people died in those explosions as they did their laundry, cooked meals, played games, or read a book. Tens of thousands of others were left with life-scarring injuries, some of which led to death in later years.
The result was that the Allies “won” the war in the Pacific. More people from enemy countries were killed than from Allied countries. That was the score of the war game.
I do not belittle the deaths that occurred to Allied citizens, many of whom were innocents also. In every war that has occurred we mourn heavily the deaths of American citizens who served their country and gave the ultimate sacrifice, leaving families to grieve and communities to struggle to deal with their deaths. It is no small thing.
The deaths in the Civil War in the United States were massive. All were Americans who fought for principles that separated them from each other. But the medium of their disagreement was the death of those who disagreed. The deaths of Americans in Viet Nam eradicated or damaged an entire generation of young men. In the end, it was not clear what the purpose of that war was all about, making their deaths more problematic for the nation.
Death is a permanent state of being. We all know that we will die someday. Our goal is to live long and successful lives, as trouble-free as possible. The same is true for citizens of other nations. Americans are not the only ones who treasure life.
When we take another person’s life, whether it be in an act of selfishness and crime, or whether it be according to the principles of warfare, the result is the same. That person is dead. They are no longer a part of their family. Their ability to forge a new nation or a revision of the nation is lost.
Native Americans, American Indians, substituted a game, la crosse, for war in some circumstances. They fought out their differences on the field of play, and sometimes it was brutal. But the goal was not the death of their opponents. It was success in a game which was to demonstrate the victor over the loser. There is a metaphor there that is worth considering. The practice of American Indians was in a much simpler time, when geography was more limited and resolutions were more available without resorting to deaths. When the American soldiers began to be the enemy, the nature of dispute changed. Greed led newly-arrived Americans to seek death of their American Indian enemies if necessary to gain the land they sought to own. Death was now the medium of warfare. That’s a simplistic explanation of a period of history, but it is in keeping with the metaphor of the previous era.
Some would say that the deaths that occur in war are a way of winnowing down the population of the world. Others would point out that the economic benefits of periods of war are the means of overcoming economic woes. Widows and orphans of war see it differently. Death in war is destructive and brings about the deterioration of the family as it was envisioned. It is personal, not hypothetical.
As I am watching children mowed down by missiles in Gaza, women shot and killed on the streets of their hometowns in Ukraine, and huge ditches filled with dead bodies uncovered in Syria I cannot help but shudder, recognizing that these men, women and children are dead. They will never interact with their families again. The hatred of the survivors for the enemy will not evaporate like water in a desert. It will fume and grow rancid, leading to more war…perhaps not right way, but in some distant time. The wars in the Middle East did not start this year…they have been a part of the life of the people of these countries for many decades and centuries.
We are quick to defend our military expertise on the grounds of its being able to provide protection for the American way of life. President Eisenhower, a decorated war hero himself, warned us at the time of his retirement from the White House that we were seeing the emergence of a military-industrial complex. He warned,
“…This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. . . .Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
For the most part, we have ignored Eisenhower’s brave assertion. We have continued to wage war, even when there was no specific enemy. We do it in the name of defense. But the reality is that we are as guilty as other nations of reacting too quickly in our assertion of power and our willingness to participate in killing people who (rightly or wrongly) become our enemies. Our willingness to engage in wars, no matter how intense or how seemingly-righteous, is a willingness to bring death.
I am not convinced that there are never situations which require our military response. 9/11 was an incident that called for a response, although over time it became a diffused purpose which is hard to discern. Many deaths occurred in our response to that horrible incident. It is still implicit in the volatile behavior of the Middle East, 13 years later.
But I am personally affected by the realization of what war is about. It is more urgent than ever before that we as a nation…a world…step back and recognize what the result of war is for us…death of many people, numbers of whom are innocents. It is not simply a political or economic issue which we engage. It is human beings, fellow citizens of a tiny planet in a massive universe. There must be alternatives…not games, but diplomatic alternatives…which can lead to resolution without bombs, missiles, drones, cannons and rifles. I am convinced that this war as we practice it is not the answer to our differences. It will eventually lead to the death of our planet.