War's legacy and the human condition

War not only leaves deep traces on cities and landscapes, its rhetoric seeps into daily life


In 480 BC, a citizen militia from Athens broke through the center of the world's most invincible army, then raced 26 miles over land to defend their unguarded city from a retreating - but still dangerous - Persian fleet. The Athenian victory stunned the ancient world.

When 17,800 runners kicked off the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon last week, most weren't thinking about that Battle of Marathon, some 2.5 millennia ago. Nor are many who try on "trench" coats thinking about the 10 months of slaughter in the trenches of Verdun in World War I - or the Nazi night-bombing of London apartment blocks when they pick up a "blockbuster" novel or video.

These terms come straight from the sharp experience of war - and signal how deeply war has taken root in human consciousness and culture.

"War has had an enormous impact on our language without most people being aware of it," says linguist Anne Soukhanov, the US general editor for the Encarta World English Dictionary.

Try making your way through a "strategic thinking" seminar that doesn't cite either ancient China's warrior-sage Sun-Tzu ("It is best to win without fighting.") or the 18th-century Prussian military genius, Karl von Clausewitz ("War is a continuation of politics by other means.")

"Rarely does an important work of military history go out of print.... The reason for this is simple: The history of war represents fully half the tale of mankind's social interactions," writes Caleb Carr in his introduction to the Modern Library War Series.

If this assessment seems overblown, note how many times a reference to "doing battle" turns up in daily conversation. Try to find an action movie that does not develop the theme of "arming the hero" in the opening 20 minutes. Or a sports memoir that can get through a chapter without some allusion to war.

War also leaves deep traces on cities and landscapes. Fields of white crosses from Ypres to Verdun testify to the human devastation of World War I. Parts of the battlefield of Verdun are so wasted by molten metal that even weeds won't grow, more than four-score years after the last shell exploded in battle. That artillery pounding along the Western Front emptied the French countryside of a generation of peasants. Stands of oak that once helped produce 800 tons of truffles a year tangled over with brush, and harvests of the nation's most celebrated fungus plunged, never to recover. In Paris, you can still see signs on public transport that assign seating to those "mutilated" in war.

To count the cost of war, you need to notice what's no longer there. When centuries-old stone houses turn abruptly to blocks of concrete in the Spanish city of Guernica, it's because a civil war passed that way. The A-bomb dome in Hiroshima is a starker reminder that war can blot out a city in an instant.

But the blots of war on the consciousness may be the longest to endure. When NATO bombs fell over Baghdad in 1991, street protesters across the Arab world assailed it as another Crusade, referring to a conflict nearly 1,000 years old. (At the time of the Crusades, it took 50 years for Arabs to mount the first effective opposition to massacres in their cities - a point not lost on generations that followed.) Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic invoked a defeat by the Turks in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo to justify the mass displacement of people in that province. And the issue of whether a US state capitol should fly a Confederate flag still has the emotional power to turn out passionate crowds 135 years after it last flew in war.

At stake is more than just boundaries or GNP. Wars determine whether cultures survive, whether great works of art remain where they have been created, or whether languages - and the works written in them - live or die.

History is the movement of peoples, and where civilizations meet or clash, it's the warriors who often make first contact. The traders of the ancient Babylonian world traveled deep into India and Afghanistan for their gold and lapis. However, foreign delegations to the carved palaces of Assyrian warrior kings didn't need a translator to observe that the scenes on the wall were mainly of conquest or plunder - and those that suffered the most severe penalties in these carvings were those who refused tribute.

Track many of these treasures of antiquity through the world's great museums, and you'll see the instrument of war close at hand. Roman legions, French crusaders, and Arab conquerors facilitated vast movements of wealth around the Mediterranean. Napoleon's conquests helped fill the Louvre; French reparations after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war financed the move of the massive Ishtar gate from its ancient home along the Euphrates to a museum in Berlin.

"By looting French art collectors and dealers, the Nazis stole much more than mere assets. [They] were also stealing the soul, meaning, and cultural standards of these collectors," writes Hector Feliciano in "The Lost Museum" (BasicBooks, 1997), a book that opened a broad international debate on the issue of stolen art.

"Not only do conquerors try to physically obliterate their enemies, but they also try to take over the precious art objects they own and patiently collected. This plundering gives us a fair insight into the reason the power of all victors - even recent ones, as in the former Yugoslavia - rests in part on the looting and destruction of the cultural possessions of the enemy," he adds.

After decades of denial, governments and financial institutions are taking a close look at looting during the Nazi period. Last week, French authorities released a landmark report on some $1.3 billion in assets confiscated from Jews during World War II. These efforts to track down looted art could also establish broad principles for the protection of culture in future conflicts, experts say.

But the task of protecting civilians from the scourge of war could prove tougher. Historians say the last century has been the most violent ever. Two world wars focused the full force of science and technology on waging war among nations or targeting specific groups for extermination.

Nor was the killing restricted to high-tech weaponry. Tens of thousands of Rwandans were killed at the edge of a machete. Some 250,000 children under the age of 18 are involved in war in 30 countries, according to experts on the subject.

"In World War I, nine soldiers were killed for every civilian life lost. In today's wars, it is estimated that 10 civilians die for every soldier or fighter killed in battle," say war correspondent Roy Gutman and David Rieff in their book, "Crimes of War" (W.W. Norton, 1999).

The last decades of this millennium also saw broad-based efforts to formally limit the savagery of war. The Geneva Conventions in 1949 defined codes of conduct, including recognizing a distinction between a combatant and a noncombatant. The war-crimes trials held in Nuremburg after World War II established a principle that even combatants can be held accountable to the rule of law.

US court-martials after the 1968 My Lai massacre, where American troops killed some 500 Vietnamese civilians, signaled that winners, as well as losers, could be held accountable. And the establishment last year of an International Criminal Court in Rome reaffirms the point. Last year, 133 governments (not including the United States) signed a treaty to ban the use of land mines. And a new treaty to ban the practice of using children as soldiers is expected to win broad support in the United Nations next fall.

"The Rome tribunal, child soldiers, the test ban, these things might appear to be a little glacial, but things are moving in the right direction," says Col. Paul Maillet, director of defense ethics for the Canadian Armed Forces.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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