An Ancient Perspective On War

Why do human beings make war on each other?  It’s a question that has intrigued philosophers and scientists, poets and peasants for centuries.

A more interesting question, though, might be not why, but when — because figuring out when the mass killings began might help us to isolate why the human species fights wars in the first place.

prehistoric-skull-discovered-nataruk-kenya-reuters-640x480A recent archaeological dig indicates that war is, unfortunately, much more ancient than we might have suspected.  The find at Nataruk, Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, reveals a horrific battle between two tribes of hunter-gatherers that happened 10,000 years ago.  One band captured the other, tied them up, and ruthlessly slaughtered every man, woman and child, including a woman whose pregnancy was far advanced.  The 12 victims of the attack were shot with arrows, beaten, and suffered crushed skulls and broken necks.  Their bodies were then shoved into a lagoon, where they sank into sediment and were preserved, to be found and studied by modern-day scientists.

Modern wars have been blamed on religion, nationalism, ideology, and quests for political power and glory by ruthless leaders.  One school of thought — reflected in John Lennon’s Imagine — postulates that if those causes of conflict were somehow removed, people would live in peace.  But the find in Kenya undercuts that simple premise, because 10,000 years ago was before the development of towns and villages, much less nation states, before the development of agriculture that caused humans to settle and begin to accumulate wealth, before the development of any known organized religion, and before any of the other attributes of modern culture that are typically cited as the causes of war.

The slaughter on the banks of the lagoon long ago occurred between two roaming bands of hunter-gatherers on what must have been a fertile and sparsely populated plain, with plenty of food for everyone.  So, why the slaughter of an entire tribe, rather than the decision to reach an accord, share the land, and live in peace?  It may be that humans, as a species, are just predisposed to war — which is a sobering thought, indeed.

Word Games About War

The Obama Administration has an amazing, almost uncanny ability to stub its toe on the most ludicrous things imaginable.  The latest weird distraction involves whether our campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a “war.”

Secretary of State John Kerry took pains, in two separate interviews, to say that “war is not the right terminology” to describe the U.S. actions against ISIS, which instead will be a “major counterterrorism operation.”  National Security Advisor Susan Rice similarly resisted describing the operation as a “war.”  The next day, however, a Pentagon spokesman and the White House Press Secretary both described the ISIS campaign as a “war.”

I’m guessing that what happened is this:  some political operative issued “talking points” that strongly discouraged using the word “war” because they don’t want Americans to think they’re going to see a repeat of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.  But if you say you are going to destroy an an armed opponent, as President Obama said of ISIS in his speech this week, what you are talking about obviously is a war.  Quibbling about words makes the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor look like political flacks rather than the thoughtful, above-the-fray stewards of American foreign policy.

This is another instance, too, where the words can have real-world consequences.  America is trying to build a coalition of countries to fight ISIS.  If you are the leader of one of those countries that is considering joining the coalition, and you are trying to decide whether you can trust the United States, what message about long-term American commitment do you draw from the silly wrangling about whether the U.S. actions are a “war” or a “major counterterrorism operation”?  If you’re trying to decide whether to deploy your scarce military and economic resources, and potentially make your country a target of a brutal group of Islamic terrorists, do you want to rely on an ally that is inexplicably pussyfooting around about whether it is fighting a “war”?

Gettysburg, July 2, 1863

As the second day of the battle dawned, the Army of the Potomac held the high ground south of the little Pennsylvania town — but its hold was precarious, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee was determined to dislodge the Union forces and win another stunning victory over the beleaguered Northern army.

Lee decided to swing a mighty hook at the Union left flank.  The attack would be led by his dependable “War Horse,” Lieutenant General James Longstreet, while the rest of the rebel army would pin the Union center and launch diversionary attacks at the Union right to prevent reinforcements.  Lee hoped Longstreet would be able to turn the flank and roll up the Union forces, crushing them between his men and the remainder of the Confederate Army.  On the Union side, commanders were frantically moving into position, seeking to plug holes in the line to deal with the attack they knew was coming.  After two years of fighting, the Northerners knew that General Lee would be aggressive.

It was a brutally hot and humid July day.  The Confederate attack took time to develop, but by late afternoon it looked like Lee’s plan had, again, succeeded.  Longstreet had smashed into the Union left, sending soldiers scattering through a bloody wheat field, and Lee ordered a further attack on the Union left, hoping to deliver the coup de grace that would send the entire Army of the Potomac into another disorganized, embarrassing retreat.  The rebels attacked, shouting their eerie rebel yell, but the Union forces refused to buckle and sent fusillades of artillery into the attacking Confederates.  Attacks were launched and repelled at murderous cost, and the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers from both armies lay baking in the sun.

It was the day that would make Joshua Chamberlain immortal.  On the far point of the Union left, on Little Round Top, Chamberlain was a colonel in the 20th Maine.  The Men of Maine rebuffed several attacks by the 15th Alabama infantry until they ran low on ammunition.  At that point, Chamberlain ordered his men to attack with bayonets and the Mainers swept down the hillside, sending the Confederates fleeing and securing the Union flank.

As the day ended, both sides had suffered devastating casualties.  The Confederate attack had almost succeeded, but the Army of the Potomac had held for another day.  General Lee considered whether another assault the next day might win the battle, and Union commanders weighed how to prepare.  The common soldiers in both armies, on the other hand, found it difficult to sleep in the sweltering heat, as they listened to the screams of injured horses and wounded men and thought about the battle that lay ahead.

The Ethics Of Killer Robots

The United Nations Human Rights Council is considering the topic of killer robots — preprogrammed killing machines that operate autonomously on the battlefield.

Although no such devices have been deployed to date, they reportedly are in development.  The UN Council is expected to call for a moratorium on their development so that the ethics of their use can be debated.  (Good luck with that one!  If dictators or “rebels” fighting for control of a country could get their hands on such a weapon, does anyone think for a moment that a moratorium imposed by some powerless UN Council in Geneva would stop them?  But, I digress.)  The argument is that killer robots raise “serious moral questions about how we wage war” and blur the line in the “traditional approach” of a “warrior” and a “weapon.”

This kind of abstract, clinical analysis of where war-making technology has taken us makes me scratch my head.  Romantic notions of a “warrior” and a “weapon” locked in some kind of single-combat situation don’t seem to have a lot to do with modern warfare.  Technological advances not only have made fighting more lethal — David and his slingshot wouldn’t stand much of a chance against a guy with a flamethrower — but also have increasingly divorced the immediacy of death and its consequences from the decision-maker.  Whether it is missiles, or drones, or roadside bombs that kill indiscriminately, we’ve already moved far from the warrior/weapon model.

Killer robots are just the inevitable next step.  All we can hope for is that their developers and deployers have seen enough science fiction to worry about Skynet and giving birth to the Matrix, and know that they better be sure that the soulless robot killers they unleash aren’t capable of turning on their creators.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields was written by a Canadian battle surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D., during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.  It was one of the most terrible, bloody, senseless battles in a terrible, bloody, senseless war, as poison gas drifted across the trench lines and tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded during days of fighting.  The poem McCrae wrote captures the physical and emotional exhaustion he felt — yet still McCrae wanted others to fight to ensure that the dead did not die in vain.  McCrae ultimately died, of pneumonia, during the early days of 1918 as World War I dragged on with no apparent end in sight.

McCrae’s poem, and its duality, is worth remembering on this Memorial Day.  We cannot drop the torch, but we need to make sure that the torch is carried forward into battle only when our national security truly requires it.  We cannot afford to senselessly bury young men and women beneath Flanders Fields.

The Last Doughboy

Frank Buckles died on Sunday, at age 110.  Buckles was America’s last surviving World War I veteran.  He enlisted at age 16, after lying to a recruiting officer about his age, and served as a clerk and ambulance driver in England and France.  The Washington Post reports that, with Buckles’ death, only two of the 65 million people who served in World War I are still living.

There is something terribly final about the death of the last human being to personally experience a war.  With Buckles’ passing, we lose the last American who was there during the awful carnage of trench warfare, the horrors of poison gas attacks, and the deadly charges across no man’s land into the teeth of barbed wire, machine gun bullets, and fortified bunkers.  No more Americans will be personally tormented by nightmares of the deaths of their comrades during The Great War.

With the severing of the last human links to the fighting, World War I moves from the realm of personal experience to the exclusive province of historians.  They will argue about tactics, and great historical forces, and issues like how the war could have been avoided and whether the German side could have prevailed had it acted differently.  Eventually a war in which millions of people participated and millions died, a war which saw the development of new weapons like the airplane and the tank — a war that participants thought was surely The War To End All Wars — will become as abstract, dusty, and inexplicable as the Hundred Years’ War, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, or the War of Austrian Succession.  Frank Buckles’ passing takes us one step closer to that reality.