War is the father of all things, of all things the king; it shows forth both gods and men and it makes both slaves and free. We must know that war is of necessity common to all, that strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife. – Heraclitus
How might a Christian read these startling words? The current conflict in Syria comes to my mind, and it seems few generations in few places have had the privilege of living without war. If one generation has peace, the likely cause of their freedom is war fought by their ancestors. What modern nation came into being without war? The story of America in particular is one of strife and conflict – from our own Revolution and Civil War to wars with natives, with Spain, with Mexico. A map of the world will show a planet divided into political entities created by conflict and armed for aggression and defense. To say that “war is the father of all” is not mere poetic exaggeration.
I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’ biography Surprised by Joy in which he describes with sobering detail his experience in WWII. He mentions the horror and destruction and waste of war, but he also recounts that a profound and positive change occurred in him as a result of his service. War established in him courage, perspective, companionship, acknowledgement of death and a sense of his own finitude. After returning home, he observes a great gulf in personality between the men who fought and the men who stayed behind or were too young to fight. Those who didn’t pass through war were missing a depth and a certain, tangible shared experience.
I frequently hear of war being blamed on particular institutions. Forgetting that “all things come into being through strife,” we always look for someone or something at fault for war. But those who blame religion or government as agents of war must first willfully ignore the generally war-like nature of humanity and the obvious state of the natural world in continuous conflict with itself. For human beings, war is a given for both our internal and external reality. War does not come from elsewhere, from some non-human or extra-human locale and forced on us.
It may be that the most effective of our institutions – religious, political, etc. – are those which both acknowledge war as destructive and unavoidable and attempt to at least confine or reduce its destruction. Great religious teachers have acknowledged war while at the same time promoting peace. Jesus said both “my peace I give to you” and “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” The last of the Hindu cosmic cycles ends in war. Sufi teachers speak about “the greater Jihad,” the war for personal salvation. These teachers and traditions do not accept war because they are double-minded, but because they are realist. War does not disappear in genuine religion or philosophy; it becomes a continual metaphor for ascetic life and true piety. St. Anthony the Great said, “Expect conflict until your last breath.”
Closer to our everyday experience, war at the level of individual human relationships is so common as to be overlooked. A psychologist one remarked to me that relationships can only deepen through conflict and resolution. She said that the only proven way to maintain significant emotional bonds between people is shared strife – either a conflict between people which is faced and resolved or a conflict from outside the relationship which is faced and overcome together. In any case, war makes the relationship strong and lasting.
At the level of government, wars make money, stabilize economies, increase territory, spread ideology and establish independence. As mentioned above, few if any current governments came to power apart from war. The association of war with government is particularly disturbing. In the Republic, Socrates describes a tyrant who starts wars so he can remain in power. The idea of a “war to end all wars” seems ridiculous when history has shown that one war leads to another and that stability in one place tends to cause instability all around.
War has entered our language and our collective psyche. We have culture wars, Star Wars, wars on drugs, wars on terror. There are only two things in which all is fair (which makes those two things eerily similar). We have holy wars, just wars and good fights. We have cold wars and hot wars and civil wars and wars of religion. The political landscape today is a tangle of treaties, while wars are being fought on almost every continent.
If war is so deeply entrenched in us, and is in fact necessary to bring out of us both the best and worst of our nature, there is no reason why we should ever expect war to cease. There will be war as long as human beings are the same and human history remains uninterrupted. In one sense, peace is an unrealistic expectation.
I do not intend these thoughts to justify war. Rather, in reflecting on war I am preparing for it. The Church’s teaching about Lent, for instance, is filled with images of battle. I accept Christ’s words that He will “give peace not as the world gives,” but how can I be ready when He says “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”?