The Futility of War
In war, there may be victors and vanquished. Both ultimately lose, paying a heavy price, blood and treasure. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says that an army marching abroad empties the treasury at home. When there is peace, everyone wins. But history teaches us that peace does not always follow a war. At best, it is a truce until the next conflict. For whom are we fighting, and for what? This a question that is neither rhetorical nor meant to diminish the courage and sacrifice of those who serve. But it is a question we must confront, considering that we won’t be there a hundred years from today, and all humans alive at this moment will be replaced with people yet to be born.
We won’t be around to meet face-to-face, the generations in the future who may have an entirely different take on how they may want to conduct themselves and what kind of world they would like to inhabit. They may be more interested in enjoying peace rather than pursuing war. They may feel the pain and suffering of those who have lost their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, siblings, and friends in the name of war and realize the futility of allowing the loss of life for wealth, power, and conquest. We can never forget the fallen, but can we bring them back and restore joy in the lives of their loved ones from whose arms they were snatched by the deadly disease called war? We will genuinely honor them if all the leaders in power today decide enough is enough, and there will be no more wars. I write this with the risk of sounding like an idealist or advocating for an impractical solution, but I must try.
War is insanity. Winners may justify the cause as fighting aggression, and the losers may justify war as countering oppression. However, winners practice oppression in one way or the other, and the losers may have been the first aggressors. According to Fredrich Nietzsche, “in individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.”
Indeed, an average law-abiding individual does not wake up each morning wondering, who do I go to war against today? Their concerns are more mundane and focused on getting through the day and putting food on the family table. We all have verbal skirmishes and disagreements at work and home now and then. But we find a way to work things out peaceably. For individuals, a warring nature is rare, and happiness is the pursuit. But for nations, conflicts seem to be the norm.
In a letter to Sigmund Freud written in July 1932, Albert Einstein opens with, “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” He goes on to write, “I have specially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.”
In the last 4500 years, over 10,000 named wars have been fought. Peace has reigned for less than ten percent of recorded history. Twentieth-century wars have cost 108 million lives, and estimates of the number of people killed in all human history range from 150 million to a billion. Genocides such as Stalin’s purge, the Holocaust, and the more recent Rwandan one have claimed tens of millions of innocent civilians. Such immense sacrifices have not brought us peace. Instead, we are waging more wars. In 2022 alone, there were ten active conflicts in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The hawks have had their share of the history books, and it is time for the doves to claw back more time.
In today’s world, pacifists won’t likely prevail, and neither will the aggressors. It’s a never-ending stale mate while time is ticking away for our time under the sun. With the significant world powers armed to the teeth, it is time to dust off the covers of the word that is rarely mentioned — compromise. First, we must address fear. It is at the root of all conflict. The Vikings were reputed to be fearless warriors. The legendary Viking Chieftan Ragnar, who led the siege of Paris, said that the Vikings know fear but don’t encourage it as it leads to servitude, slavery, and obedience. Politicians encourage fear as it provides them cover for their rash decisions. Most news outlets follow the old media adage, “if it bleeds, it leads.” They tap into our primal fears by promoting war stories, disasters, and crimes. As for consumers of news stories, the demand for such negative reporting will always be there as there is an inherent ‘negativity bias’ — we tend to be more attentive to and remember negative experiences than positive ones.
Towards the end of his life, Einstein left an unfinished letter in which he wrote,
“. . . the conflict that exists today is no more than an old-style struggle for power. . . the difference is that, this time, the development of atomic power has imbued the struggle with a ghostly character. . . should quarrels deteriorate into actual war, mankind is doomed.
Not one statesman in a position of responsibility has dared to pursue the only course that holds out any promise of peace, the course of supranational security, since for a statesman to follow such a course would be tantamount to political suicide. Political passions, once they have been fanned into flame, exact their victims. . .” The letter abruptly ends mid-sentence.
The words ‘beautiful’ and ‘fragile’ are rarely mentioned in the context of the earth but are always mentioned by astronauts when they first view the earth from space. They encounter powerful cognitive shifts called the ‘overview effect,’ described as a transcendental experience. Weightless and suspended in timeless space gifted with a visual of the earth against the backdrop of the entire visible universe is an experience beyond words. Perhaps leaders of the major powers should convene on a spacecraft zipping around the planet with one eye glued to our blue marble. Maybe then the futility of war may dawn on them, and they will sunset their aggressive instincts. After missiles leave their silos, it is too late for a compromise. But when words leave our mouths, it begins the process that can end with a handshake. The fleeting nature of human life renders our roots on this earth fragile, but we can turn our limited existence into a beautiful experience. The rest of humanity waits for freedom from the prison of fear. With commercial space travel taking off, a ‘space convention of world leaders’ to douse their minds with the ‘overview effect’ does not seem far-fetched.