(Tom Ippen is a History graduate from the University of Victoria who is currently pursuing his Teacher’s Certification. He also runs By the Gods, a blog on comparative mythology, and is a true dork among dweebs for all things historical and fantastical.)
Carl von Clausewitz, perhaps the most esteemed military theorist in the history of western civilization, described war as “the continuation of policy by other means.” Clausewitz was a Prussian General and scholar writing in the middle of the 19th century; he was a firsthand witness of the Napoleonic campaigns that rocked Europe from Lisbon to Moscow, but had no difficulty reconciling the horrific acts of violence he’d seen with the practical rulebook of European politics. Philosophers, soldiers, leaders and historians have set out to define war—that inescapable human phenomenon both reviled and worshipped, feared and obsessed over—but no single definition has won universal acceptance.
When war is a continuation of policy, it is unremarkable; it becomes predictable, mundane, and (most dangerously) acceptable. The idea that war is in itself an understandable or tolerable means to achieve political ends asserts that the people—the foundation of our state’s executive leadership—have put our stamp of approval on large-scale murder. It’s a bit of a drag to think about, right? But is war an inevitable human act? Is it the only guarantee when humans trade in their hunting spears and nomadic ways for ploughs and static settlements? If so, maybe seeing war as a continuation of policy isn’t so tragic after all.
The “Anti-War Camp” has become crowded in the last century. Gone are the days of Emperors, Generals and the nouveau aristocracy seeking glory through conquest. Humanitarian and economic achievements have taken the stage as the new benchmarks of both local and international esteem. Our elected representatives must reject and be seen to abhor violence of any kind, or else risk condemnation. Vocal warmongers in the west receive little notice and less credit on the political stage, in no small part due to a decade of expensive conflict in the Middle-East. These engagements provided little booty to parade around and plenty of casualties to consider. The most pro-military candidates must insist that war is “a last resort” carried out for reasons of self-defense. The shrinking “Pro-War Camp” is the refuge of the fundamentalist, the extremist, and the lunatic. But when war is still an option, even the last option, we should probably take a minute to think about whether we’re really “Anti-War” or not.
If we define “human behavior” based on our history as a species, it’s difficult to deny that war is a core piece of who we are. Ever since we started rolling in groups, we’ve been killing each other. And since there’s nothing on Earth more lethal than a group of pissed off humans, it’s understandable that the lion’s share of our technological and social advancements have been made with killing in mind.
That sounds pretty cynical, I know.
It doesn’t really matter how passionately non-violent you are when your neighbor feels differently. If he kills you, your peaceful ideology doesn’t live on; but the person who killed you, took your resources, and used them to procreate does live on, passing his DNA and ideology forward, his actions vindicated by his very survival.
Fast-forward through the ages and you’ll find the world today is still comprised of individual states with individual armies but with one key difference: today’s nation-state is permeated by an ever-growing backlog of knowledge from antiquity and beyond all the way to now. We have more knowledge than ever and, slowly but surely, we’re deciding—as a species—that killing each other en masse isn’t a viable solution. This, at least, is the fervent hope of Humanists and ordinary people all across the Earth.
The problem is that we’re still divided by borders.
Borders are arbitrary lines that define what can only be described as large-scale, extended families. A thousand years ago, my ancestor told your ancestor “stay on that side of the river, or I’m going to kill you.” Your ancestor agreed and now we’ve got France and Germany; Iran and Iraq, Yemen and Oman, Georgia and Armenia. Yes I’m oversimplifying, but I’m building up to something here so give me a second.
We’ve already drilled little holes into these walls: our ancestors, to their credit, realized that they could accomplish amazing things if they maintained their own ethnic or national identities, but agreed to trade materials with their neighbors. Today, we trade not only metals, grains, and energy, but information—constantly. Have you seen the internet? They’ve got some cool stuff on that internet!
Fighting to defend your country, community, and family is understandable. It’s always been about protecting your genes. But in a world where every state is connected in a web so extremely fragile and complex, the act of large-scale murder and devastation is nothing but a net loss for humanity.
Despite the imaginary lines we have drawn in the sand, and regardless of the arbitrary distinctions we make between cultures and ethnic groups, globalization has made a single state of our nations and a single family of our species. Given our past and our tendencies, yes, war is understandable. But it is also pathetic in the most profound sense, a futile method of conflict resolution, and another item on the long list of threats to our prolonged survival here on earth.
If war is a continuation of policy by other means, our “policy” is one of contempt for the species as a whole, nothing more.