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I was searching for a mot approprié the other day, or possibly a month ago, and found myself at a loss for words. The subject was Western Civilization’s romance with that most unromantic sport of war. The source of this uncharacteristic aphasia was likely some tests I’d undertaken during the previous evening regarding the effects of botrytization on certain products of the Sauterne region of France. Such science is deeply involving and often leaves me fuddled the following day. Be that as it may (and with my luck, it probably will), I couldn’t come up with a fresh application of wit to save my life. War, shmar. So I reached up with languid fingers and plucked a musty volume or two from atop the trusty old Louis XVI ecritoire en acajou. Right away, I found that there was nothing I could come up with that hadn’t already been set in atrament by some greater penman than myself.
James Joyce had this to say on the subject of civilization and war:
Our civilization, bequeathed to us by fierce adventurers, eaters of meat and hunters, is so full of hurry and combat, so busy about many things which perhaps are of no importance, that it cannot but see something feeble in a civilization which smiles as it refuses to make the battlefield the test of excellence.
Some old coot named Gandhi, meanwhile, made this observation on the same topic:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?
Then again, never trust a guy that spins thread but doesn’t own a shirt. Erasmus, one of those Roman fellows and no stranger to pilum per sternum diplomacy, said:
Dulce bellum inexpertis. (This translates roughly as follows: war-lovers haven’t experienced war.)
Now this is an interesting idea, because of course many people that went through one war or another ended up starting a new war, maybe thinking they’d figured out how to do it properly, or similar. Nietzche may have put his finger, or possibly his fifteen-pound moustache, on the thing when he said:
War makes the victor stupid and the vanquished vengeful.
In this context, war makes sense. Otherwise, every civilization would have had one war, and then stopped by mutual consent. But they keep on doing it. Voltaire, whose works tend to question the point of going on, and without whose works there would be no point in going on, had quite a lot to say on the subject of war in the context of human nature. From Candide:
“Do you think that men have always massacred each other, as they do today? Have they always been liars, cheats, traitors, brigands, weak, flighty, cowardly, envious, gluttonous, drunken, grasping, and vicious, bloody, backbiting, debauched, fanatical, hypocritical, and silly?”
Obviously a rhetorical question. But one question remains, why war? Why, when man has achieved so much that is beneficial to the spirit and restorative to the world art, music, science, thought, love, and oenology is our defining endeavor still military destruction? Also, why do they make the anti-theft features on DVD packaging so pernicious? I can’t get the damn things open. The fact is, we as individual humans still value personal acclaim over the common good, and this might explain our attraction to war. Napoleon B. dangled the following carrot:
Every French soldier carries in his cartridge pouch the baton of a marshal of France.
Not literally, of course, and he said it in French. He just meant that the commonest man could rise to the highest ranks in the military (I assume a marshal is pretty high-ranking, otherwise he wouldn’t have a baton). Ed Gibbon, who was not an ape but a man of great erudition, remarked upon the same phenomenon:
As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.
But why on Earth would we do that? Applaud our destroyers, I mean? See Voltaire above. The words of one final sage must be set down here, because apparently his own people weren’t listening when he said them, or they wouldn’t be horsing around with such abandon now. Luckily I know they print my columns and magnet them to the break room fridge at the Pentagon, so here’s a refresher. From the lips of Ronald Reagan:
History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.
I can add only one word to that: Oops.
BEN TRIPP is an independent filmmaker and all-around swine.
His book, Square In The Nuts, may be purchased here, with other outlets to follow: http://www.lulu.com/Squareinthenuts . Swag is available as always from http://www.cafeshops/tarantulabros . And Mr. Tripp may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.