War is the peak human experience, and the zenith of human civilization


The media is making a very big deal about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and meetings with Putin. The general subtext is Russia is evil and Trump’s behaviour is tantamount to treason. So Congress voted just yesterday to apply more economic sanctions on Russia. What’s the next step, a dialling up a second Cold War? Or maybe a third hot one? Syria and the Ukraine make great venues. 

What got me thinking about war was an old letter sent to my dad in 1944. It was from his best friend, Emmet, who was stationed on the front in Europe. Emmet wrote about “tossing a pineapple [grenade] into a machine gun bunker” but the cunning “Jerry” tossed it right back out, followed by a live German grenade, which did not go off. After some back and forth the German gave up. The scene was described in a lively tone, everything in good fun. The letter goes on to ask my dad if he went to Miriam’s wedding, assuming that he did. Miriam, as it turned out, was Emmet’s girlfriend who married someone else while he was away. As with the grenade incident, Emmet shrugged it off. 

The playful, almost joyful, tone of the letter caught me a bit off-guard. War, according to Emmet, was fun with the unwritten subtext, “wish you were here.” I followed up on this online. I found an old Esquire magazine article published in 1984 (irony not intended) written by a William Broyles Jr. He quotes a friend in the second paragraph. “What people can’t understand is how much fun Vietnam was.” Broyles elaborates: “That’s why men in their sixties and seventies sit in their dens and recreation rooms around America and know that nothing in their life will equal the day they parachuted into St. Lo or charged the bunker on Okinawa. That’s why veterans’ reunions are invariably filled with boozy awkwardness, forced camaraderie ending in sadness and tears: you are together again, these are the men who were your brothers, but it’s not the same, can never be the same.”

That helps to explain the fascination we have for movies like Dunkirk, which was released last week. Amid the horror and the fear is great excitement and collective motivation that takes us out of the dull routine of our lives and infuses us with life energy. Nothing brings us to life more than facing death.

War is no small matter, but it is often triggered for the most trivial of reasons. A line is crossed, an incident occurs that provides the right excuse. Excuse for what? An excuse to use and test those military resources a country has accrued over time. Investing in standing militaries always become a ‘use it or lose it’ political proposition. The United States, which spends more on military than the next 10 nations combined, has been at war for most of its history, with only a few years off for good behaviour. Its official military budget is $600 billion annually. Unofficially, the cost is incalculable. Now Canada is being drawn into the American military vortex. Defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, announced that Canada will be increasing military spending by 73 percent over the next 10 years.

This was backed by statements from foreign minister Chrystia Freeland when speaking to our commitment to NATO and Canada’s desire to “strive for leadership” in a multilateral world. “Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power,” she went on to say.

All that’s to say, we’re making sure we’re ready for war; we’re going to have the weapons and machinery in hand, and we’re going to take a leadership role. Clearly Canada has moved from peacekeeper to world power, at least in aspiration.

War brings power, excitement and camaraderie together into a complete fun package. It’s not a new phenomenon. The 20th Century was defined by its “great wars” and all the other wars in between. The 21st promises to be no different. Young men—and now women—will march off to war. They will kill and they will die. 

In Broyles’ words, “War stops time, intensifies experience to the point of a terrible ecstasy. War offers endless exotic experiences, enough…to last a lifetime.” And more. “War is an escape from the everyday into a special world where the bonds that hold us to our duties in daily life—the bonds of family, community, work, disappear. In war, all bets are off. It’s the frontier beyond the last settlement, it’s Las Vegas.”

Not only is war a peak personal experience, the history books show that war is the defining feature of civilization. We define ourselves by our wars. The ability to wage war is the celebration of collective human activity, the zenith of civilization.

And the end of everything we know.

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