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Absolutely nothing, just say it again War whoa Lord What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, listen to me War, it ain't nothin' but a heartbreaker War, friend only to the undertaker” War by Edwin Starr
I have never in my life been a proponent of war, nor do I ever believe that I could become one. As Edwin Starr sang; “war, what is it good for”? It is senseless. I am not alone in these feelings, as millions of others around the globe share these same sentiments, but it seems we are only a minority. While a majority of the population of the world accepts justification for war and has through research developed ethical theories to promote and justify their reasons for their actions. “The question whether war is ever justified, and if so under what circumstances, is one which has been forcing itself upon the attention of all thoughtful men… Opinions on such a subject as war are the outcome of feeling rather than of thought: given a man's emotional temperament, his convictions, both on war in general, and on any particular war which may occur during his lifetime, can be predicted with tolerable certainty. The arguments used will be mere reinforcements to convictions otherwise reached. The fundamental facts in this as in all ethical questions are feelings”. (Russell) Is Russell contending that the justification for war is tied to the ethical beliefs of the participants which are precipitated by their feelings
towards their enemies? The collective ethical beliefs of those in power often override the ethical beliefs of those who are the actual participants of warfare. This situation will eventually create dilemmas for those unwilling warriors in the battlefield and the family members having to deal with the absence of sons, husbands, and fathers. The call to war will try the souls of the common man. Writers and poets have used these themes to create great works as support or opposition to war, to symbolize the greater challenges created by man’s interactions with one another, or to reflect the issues and tribulations associated with man’s very existence.
The Basis for War
War has been a part of human nature since the beginning of civilization, maybe even pre-dating civilization. John Keegan writes in his History of Warfare that, “War is a universal phenomenon whose form and scope is defined by the society that wages it. The conduct of war extends along a continuum, from the almost universal tribal warfare that began well before recorded human history, to wars between city states, nations, or empires.”(Keegan) Mankind has, in my opinion, engaged itself in warfare for the primary purpose of control; either control of the state’s inhabitants, control of resources, control of political power, or the populations of another state. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
“War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities… War is a phenomenon which occurs only between political communities, defined as those entities which either are states or intend to become states…(or) between rival groups or communities, like the American Civil War. Certain political pressure groups, like terrorist organizations, might also be considered “political communities,” in that they are associations of people with a political purpose and, indeed, many of them aspire to statehood or to influence the development of statehood in certain lands.”(Stanford) To legitimize the need for control of the state’s inhabitants, friendly societies, and enemies, war has become a study in ethics and often a contrast between collective and individual values. For the benefit of this study and for the purpose of my writing, I will highlight three areas of war ethics; “pacifism, rationalism, and the just war theory.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). As a working interpretation of the three, I will use these ideas in the following manner; the Pacifist would never see a reason for war, Rationalist can seemingly create a reason for or against warfare at will, and the Just War theorist contends that warfare must follow a set of agreed upon standards for aggression to be virtuous.
The Arts in War
The creation of war and subsequently the rules and standards for warfare have also been influential in the realm of Literature and the
Arts. Authors Stephen Crane and Mark Twain both wrote on the conditions of war while never having experienced armed battle personally. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Twain’s The War Prayer both speak of the collective feelings and sometimes, in contrast, the feelings of those individuals caught up in the conflict. Evidence of castigation towards the unpatriotic is highlighted in these lines from The War Prayer by Twain, he writes, “…in the churches the pastors preached devotion to the flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast doubt upon its righteousness straightway got a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offered no more in that way.”(Twain) This passage is clear evidence of the mass appeal of the collective ethics associated with Just War theory overriding the Pacifist or Rationalist view of the individual or minorities’ feelings of imminent and permanent loss. Fear is swallowed, conscious thought is suppressed into the unconsciousness, and our youth are blindly carried away with the swelling tide of pride and patriotism without a minute’s thought to the inevitable consequences that warfare will undoubtedly bring. War is an unchanging beast that swells young men to feelings of immortality until faced with their equally courageous counterparts. War not only shreds men’s bodies but equally destroys their minds and souls. Bertrand Russell writes of this inevitable waste of life, limb, 4
mind, and spirit in The Ethics of War pointing to the history of war and the ethical justifications for such wars without giving credence to the irreversible and expected harm which has been recorded throughout history: “To begin with the most obvious evil: large numbers of young men, the most courageous and the most physically fit in their respective nations, are killed, bringing great sorrow to their friends, loss to the community, and gain only to themselves. Many others are maimed for life, some go mad, and others become nervous wrecks, mere useless and helpless derelicts. Of those who survive many will be brutalized and morally degraded by the fierce business of killing, which, however much it may be the soldier's duty, must shock and often destroy the more humane instincts. As every truthful record of war shows, fear and hate let loose the wild beast in a not inconsiderable proportion of combatants, leading to strange cruelties, which must be faced, but not dwelt upon if sanity is to be preserved.”(Russell) In the Red Badge of Courage, the main character, Henry, displays this mindset of being swept up in the fervor of combat without much forethought about the destructive nature he is embarking upon. “The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight…For a time he was obliged to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept without assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.” (Crane, Pg. 3) His confidence reigns supreme while embarked upon the journey toward this “great affair” played out upon the battlefield while being buoyed by the mentors that surround him. While he does not quite know what to expect he is inflated by the crowing of others in his company:
“We’ve got ‘em now…if the truth was known …They’ve licked us about every clip until now…At last by the eternal thunders, we’ll lick ‘em good.”(Crane, Pg. 17) From this exaltation, some confidence arises from within the youth as he takes on the collective mindset of his excited partner while the other proclaims, “(as) He arose and began to pace to and fro excitedly. The thrill of his enthusiasm made him walk with an elastic step. He was sprightly, vigorous, (and) fiery in his belief of success. He looked into the future with clear, proud eye, and he swore with the air of an old soldier.”(Crane, Pg. 17) The mindset of the collective had enveloped the youth in this story and was driving him, willingly, into the unknown, even as he was still unsure of his own inabilities and the ever present thoughts of fleeing. What ethical battles were playing upon the character as he marched ever closer to the showdown with his choices? How would Crane use these contrasts to entice the reader while demonstrating the battles he assumed that all men must eventually face? Had Twain used the same device by demonstrating the double-edged sword of the prayer? The ethical dilemmas of war, contrasting the desires of the group while negating the sacrifices of the individual, continually play themselves out in works of literature throughout written history.
The study of ethical philosophy began with Plato and Aristotle. The premise of the Ethics of Virtue lies in two concepts. “The Question of Action: How ought I to act? The Question of Character: What kind of person ought I to be?” (Hinman) The question of action pertains to the momentary reaction to any given situation, while the question of character is judged over the lifetime of the individual or of a particular situation. During stressful situations, such as war, the will of the individual may be influenced or negated by the group or collective ethical stance, thus creating the psychological dilemma mentioned by Bertrand Russell, and impairing the nature of the individual’s personal viewpoint of themselves as ethical beings. As the initial battle has begun for Crane’s main character, he realizes that such events are not within his realm of enjoyment, and he retreats but not without justification. “As he ran on he mingles with others. He dimly saw men on his right and on his left, and he heard footsteps behind him. He thought that the whole regiment was fleeing,…In his flight the sound of following footsteps gave him his one meager relief. He felt vaguely that death must first make a choice of the men who were nearest…so he displayed a zeal of an insane sprinter in his purpose of keeping them in the rear.” (Crane, Pg.40) Crane writes of self-preservation and with a “to hell with the collective, let them be shields for the swift” mindset. An extreme sense of superiority has begun to emerge within the mind of the youth as he 7
judges those who were keeping rank, even as he, now at a safe and distant vantage point, views their impending doom, “He scrambled upon a wee hill and watched it (relief troops) sweeping finely, keeping formation in difficult places…This sight also filled him with wonder. The brigade was hurrying briskly to be gulped into the infernal mouths of the war gods…” (Crane, Pg. 41) Just as quickly as these feelings had begun to find comfort within the psyche of the youth and his plan of retreat is his salvation, news of victory by his own regiment squash him. He is a coward and a deserter. The need of the individual to survive is quickly thwarted by the need to belong to the collective, and thus, identification of the self has created an internal struggle that is universal throughout humanity. “He had been overturned and crushed by their lack of sense in holding the position, when intelligent deliberation would have convinced them that it was impossible…He felt a great anger against his comrades. He knew it could be proved that they had been fools.” (Crane, Pg. 43) Crane’s writing displays the rationalization of survival and the justification for choices for individuals who face life and death situations. The intense situation, the thought of one’s own demise will make one question his own values, morals, and ethics, and Crane was able to describe that a few short paragraphs. Is the tossing and turning of the youth in the story believable when put in the context of war? If so, then what is man to do, whose will should be at the lead of any conflict, that of the individual or of the collective? Crane writes the
youth back into the story, disguises his shame with newfound bravery, and creates from chaos and internal personal turmoil the feelings of triumph. However, though the youth has saved face, the scar of weakness in the face of fear will not soon subside even if he is the only person who will ever have to know.
War as a theme of literature I’m sure predates written language. Stories of great battles have been looking glasses for civilization to view the past, process the feelings associated with this greatest struggle we simply deem life, and reflect upon all of its experiences. Stephen Crane used the backdrop of the American Civil War to give society a view of the battle within a battle, the struggle within the individual who has been swept along by the overriding feelings of the collective. The character in this story is able to find reason and valor for his actions while dehumanizing the defenses of the enemy. The same concept can be seen in Mark Twain’s poem, The War Prayer. Within this poem, there is a sudden and implicit contrast between the words spoken by the elderly stranger and those of the minister. These powerful words are casted out towards the congregation with the implication that spoken words and prayers of destruction will invariably come to fruition. The stranger speaks of the need for compassion of others and the consequences associated with misplaced aggression.
He implies that our thoughts, words, and actions will go from us and create that which they were intended for. If our prayers are calling for destruction then our prayers will surely be answered. If we truly detest the idea of war and devastation, and our intention is to create freedom, equality, peace throughout the world, then all of humanity will need to nurture and heed their words, deeds, and actions. The use of these ethical dilemmas in literature offers us an opportunity to see the results of our actions and the chance to change the collective beliefs that continue to create just exactly what they were meant to create. The elderly stranger ask, “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits." (Twain, The War Prayer) Be careful what you ask for, it may just come true!
Starr, Edwin War, Chicago: Motown Records, 1969
Russell, Bertrand The Ethics of War, International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 25 No. 2 (January, 1915).
Keegan, John A History of Warfare, New York, NY Random House, 1994
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy War, plato.stanford.edu, 2004
Crane, Stephen The Red Badge of Courage, New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1960
Twain, Mark The War Prayer, New York, NY: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1916
Hinman, Lawrence The Ethics of Character, Virtues vs.Vices, The Values Institute, University of San Diego, Ca. 2009
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