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War! What is it Good For?

My heart is troubled with recent matters of war and strife. The U.S. led Operation Iraqi Freedom stands now as the second Persian Gulf war in my lifetime. I am not from the generation of Americans that has a living memory of the great World Wars, instead my only experience with my country under the moniker of "war" comes from watching televised military events here and there. You could say mine is a passive exposure to this reality. It is certainly not one that I would want to live close up and in the real. It may be far away from my daily life, but it is NEVER completely out of my mind. Still, I know some soldiers who have been dispatched to serve their country. Memorial Day has just passed us, and I feel sad for those who are never coming home. Being removed from the dire immediacy of war has not lessened its impact on my psyche, not by any stretch.

Now I will show some of my true colors. I am a humanist at the core. In my greatest moments of confidence, I believe in human capacity; the ability and possibility of Mankind as a whole -- with the pursuit of reason and improvement of the conditions we live in here on Earth. You can imagine Gene Roddenberry felt the exact same way, as this humanist philosophy was the foundation of his Star Trek mythology. I find the very need for war questionable against this ideal. Invasions, cruel dictators, war machines, divisions of religious beliefs, racial strife, and battles for control of natural resources are not part of this humanist way of thinking. Ideally, the world could conceivably turn and Mankind prosper, socially and economically, without these things happening; without the need for war. My cynical critics could easily denounce me as seeing through rose-colored glasses, but I hold to the Philosophy of Possibility, nonetheless.

I will not argue here the pros and cons of the recent war in Iraq. I will let my elected officials debate the course of my country. That's their job. My job is to figure out my feelings and respond to the world with my own voice. So I put my pen to paper. Something more worthy of discussion will come out of this dark cloud.

Just look at our collective history, back through all the centuries, and the exigencies of war are ever-present. Throughout history.... both war and conflict continue to spring up like blistered flowers in a field of red. Great Walls have been built across the land, terrible inventions to wound and kill have been devised, and children have lost their parents without understanding why. All because of Man's hostility towards Man. This dreadful truism makes my heart very sick.

Yet through all the upheaval, something of our basic Humanity survives. We survive and move on, hoping for a different future than what was left behind. Beyond the framework of these petty wars a greater essence is drawn up; and we find solace in the Arts. This is an epiphany for me. Consider that the highest talents of writers, artists, thinkers and musicians have given us a rich and compelling ocean of work -- all inspired by the tides of war. Yes, this is quite a realization.

Here is a sign of Man's capacity for healing. It is a very profound sign that the spirit of man cannot succumb to violence and self-destruction. Our living arts tell me otherwise.

I have discovered some of the greatest stories ever written are indeed about war. Homer's Iliad, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays, to name but a few. Then of course there is The Lord of the Rings, which we all know is a story of war. It is the hobbits' account of their part in the War of the Ring at the end of the Third Age. As strongly as I stand philosophically against the notion of War, it is all the more remarkable to be so deeply drawn into Tolkien's mythology. It is a story more compelling to me than any other.

I spoke with my older brother about this. My thoughts were troubled; and I turned to him. He spent a number of years in the United States Navy. Though not a man of war, and thankfully spared any combat during his service, I thought he might share his unique insight. I asked him, "Why are these stories so profound to us? Is it possible that the greatest accomplishments of the written word are all sprung from the necessity of war? Or are we trying to express something else here?"

He replied, "No, it's not about necessity. But as human beings we are faced with many things in Life. We are confronted with growing up, and falling in love, and even confronted with parenthood. We struggle with business, careers, and all sorts of things. But the one thing that makes a good war story -- is the essence of confronting Death. When you write about Man standing side by side with his fellow Man, and looking Death in the face, perhaps surviving, perhaps not, then you have told the most compelling story of all. Standing united against Death is the one thing that unites us all in commonality. It's what makes us human."

It was many days before I could shake the lingering feelings of awe after this conversation.

Tolkien himself lived through the nightmare of World War I, while his closest friends died in quick succession. Years later his life was impacted by another World War, and even his son Christopher went off to fight with the Royal Air Force. After such lengthy exposure to conflict and loss over the course of his lifetime, Tolkien came to a very British, very reasonable, conclusion about the nature of War. On 3 June 1945, in a letter to Christopher, he wrote:

There is a stand-down parade of Civil Defence in the Parks in the afternoon, to which I shall probably have to drag myself. But I am afraid it all seems rather a mockery to me, for the War is not over (and the one that is, or the part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint!

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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