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The diversions of war

  • 11 June 2006

It is a minor paradox of war that in film clips, the politicians and generals who confer about present wars seem larger than life, whereas in the footage of past wars they look shrivelled—diminished by the destruction they have abetted. In the longer view, wars and their makers have little to commend them.

Yet war continues to insinuate itself into conversation about other human activities, and particularly those undertaken to overcome difficulties facing human living. We hear of the international war against terrorism, of national wars against crime and drugs, of tribal war for the world cup, of church wars against liberalism, and of personal wars against cancer and ageing. Introduced into these contexts, the metaphor of war and battle is almost always unhelpful. It betrays reality and it encourages self-delusion.

When we imagine war, we see defined enemies who are separate from ourselves; we see overwhelming force brought against those enemies; we see a population united around a common cause; we see a conflict with simple causes ending in a victory that will in-augurate a better peace.

If we envisage our conduct in the face of terrorism, drugs, football, permissiveness and cancer as a war, we are seduced into an oversimplified view of reality. The people associated with these things are not separate from us, but are aspects of our own body, church, society or world. So when we bring overwhelming force against them, whether through will-power, proscription, long prison terms or military strikes, we inevitably hurt ourselves. When we imagine a society united against terrorism, crime or liberalism, too, we forget that the causes of these phenomena lie within our own world, and that we need to understand their complexity in order to address them. Unquestioning loyalty is of little help. By encouraging us to think simplistically in terms of virtue and vice, us and them, ally and enemy, power and impotence, the metaphor of war misleads us into thinking that we can win a quick victory. We will believe that we shall need neither to see the humanity of the people we treat as enemies nor to attend to relationships that need to be healed.

The metaphor of war also discourages self-reflection. In a war, leaders become generals, strategists and battle commanders. The test of greatness is their decisiveness and readiness to accept casualties. When their cause becomes a war, it is invested with goodness and righteousness. Their critics become contemptible