The Lessons Of War

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.

But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

– Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, from “The Gulag Archipelago”

Today, again, we stand on the brink of global war. Its spectre is never far from us; for all that our nations are inextricably intertwined by the bonds of commerce, natural resources never increase, and there will always be a country that wants what another has. There will always come a generation that doesn’t remember how terrible war can be, and that dreams of glory.

This is the most important purpose behind the study of history — not that we avoid the mistakes of the past, for sometimes those are inevitable; instead, we learn so that, if we do repeat the errors of our ancestors, we do so with eyes open. It is perhaps the single greatest failure of our educational system that the history of war is taught only with respect to names, dates, places, and if we’re lucky broad causes; moreover, that it’s kept remote, and not made relevant. Somehow, they always seem to leave out the memorable aroma of ruptured intestines.

War is a terrible thing, and it cannot always be avoided; as Éowyn said, “It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two, Master Warden, and those who have not swords can still die upon them.” From time to time, a people must rise up to gain their freedom, or be aided from outside. A friend, attacked, can call for help and we must answer. These are just causes, ones we’ve seen in the American Civil War and in the Second World War. But we must never forget that even just wars are terrible.

Even when the sides are clearly defined and the causes straightforward, it’s also important to remember that there are no “good guys” in a war zone. When you’re a soldier, the world is simple, divided into those who are shooting at you and those who aren’t. That’s plain enough — even when it’s your own artillery coming down on your head, the artillery isn’t the enemy. You might be that artillerist, and that doesn’t make you evil. Your ricochet may kill your friend; friendly fire ain’t, and accidents happen.

Then there are the things that soldiers do in the wake of battle, when they’re still half out of their minds from fear or drunk on adrenalin. We know the stories of Mỹ Lai and No Gun Ri, but we must remember they happen even in just wars and are perpetrated on both sides. These are evil acts, but are they done by evil men? If so, what does that say about the government responsible for Manzanar and Minidoka, and the soldiers that fought to support it? It’s easy to condemn the Nazis for the Holocaust, and well we should — but what of the German army, the Wehrmacht, who mostly weren’t even party members? What of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Don’t mistake me: Were I a general faced with the prospect of an invasion of Japan, I too might have dropped the atomic bombs as a way to save countless lives. This does not make it less evil, merely justifiable.

It’s easy to find reasons to paint the enemy as evil, but it’s important to remember that, even though a war’s cause be wrong and all war is terrible, most soldiers fight for more human reasons — patriotism, or because their fathers fought; because they were convinced by propaganda, or because they were drafted and have no choice. This can even be true of officers; often times, the difference is merely that of volunteering before the press gang arrives.

Some will choose only to view their own governments as evil — and for perfectly understandable reasons; these latter are the disenfranchised, the discontented, those who don’t fit within their own societies — and, since it’s the poor who most often march in the ranks, these are the ones who will fight and die. Whole generations will often rebel against wars they deem unjustified; are they then unpatriotic? Or is it in fact the patriotic thing to protest the slaughter of yet another generation?

These are complex questions, and there are no easy answers. As serious as these subjects are, there should never be easy answers. The best we can ever rely on is this: we must try to prevent war where we can, to fight it swiftly and effectively when we must, and to eagerly seek the day when it’s over.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

– Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address


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