What Makes War?

War is mysterious behavior. This reflection comes as I read the third, massive volume on WWII in western Europe, The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson. What strikes me most is the sheer scale of that war. America and Britain mass literally millions of men, turning their entire economy over to producing weapons. Tanks are treated as though they are as disposable as Kleenex–any skirmish at all will go through 20 or 30 of them. For that matter, men are essentially disposable. Masses of them are thrown this way and that. In battle scenes of extraordinary confusion troops swarm like ants–and are killed and maimed like ants too.

On a smaller scale–say, Syria today–war is more-or-less understandable. People are fighting for their homes, or for their clan, or to create some kind of ideological space in their own town. There is some direct connect between what they are doing and their aims.

And maybe you could claim the same for many of the participants in WWII–especially the British and the Russians who defended their homes from invasion. But the Americans? Or for that matter the Canadians? It takes an extraordinary idealism to go to war for democracy–not in your own home, but in a country thousands of miles away, across an ocean. Those men who died like ants–what an extraordinary thing, that they would drop all pretense of personal autonomy or individual hope, and submit to be part of a slaughter-or-be-slaughtered mass. What an extraordinary thing for a country to turn its entire economy–its production of cars, socks, furniture, toys–to supporting the exercise.

I do believe it was right. When I read about Germany I thank God those in charge were violently stripped of their power. But when I try to conceive of it–when I imagine myself like my father, willingly converted into a nondescript unit–it’s very difficult. When I try to imagine America, now so fraught we can’t even agree to fix our roads, putting everything behind such a cause, it’s equally hard to conceive.

Yet! I know from all of history that war is the one cause that can inspire and unite a nation, and that gives individual men a sense of glory–whether or not it makes any sense. (Remember that the Germans were as motivated as the Americans, for reasons at least as abstracted from their lives.) Why? Somehow war reveals the perverse and dangerous greatness of humanity. It is not mere animal behavior at all. We know that animals prey on each other, but not en masse. The last time animals were observed in such behavior was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” And that, of course, was only a movie. “The Birds” were really standing in for us.

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One Response to “What Makes War?”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    Thanks for this, Tim. I felt so many things as I read Atkinson’s book, too. Gratitude, despair, deep sadness, admiration for leaders like Eisenhower and the lowly privates. So many lives lost, so, so many.

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