The Absurdity of War

Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.
— Ernest Hemingway, 1946

Imagine you’re in an escape room with strangers. Each of you holds a key that can unlock several padlocks to the final door that lets you out. You’re so close to finishing, and you can’t wait to leave. Then something peculiar happens — you turn around and find these strangers rolling on the floor, aggressively attacking each other. Why? Because one left their coffee cup too close to the centre of a table.

This imaginary scenario is ludicrous and nonsensical, and we have no issues calling it such. Most of the humans on this planet have the basic knowledge of (roughly) how to work together, achieve a goal and communicate any issues that arise. Even amongst larger populations, we’ve seen disputes solved through organised meetings and popular assemblies. This is not to say violence or conflicts don’t arise amongst your average crowd, but they are often for concrete, immediate reasons that are not difficult to explain.

Yet when it comes to war, we seem to accept thinking of it as an unfortunate and necessary evil that is bound to happen through natural means. There’s a moralistic ethos about certain wars that bring about an urgency to be as knowledgeable about the issue as possible – pick a national side and support it, without actually questioning the institutions that brought it about in the first place. For some wars, we aren’t even meant to know or understand why it happened or is happening. We’re meant to read the news, trust the leader and hope our country wins, all whilst acknowledging that we aren’t experts in world affairs – thus it’s likely too complex to concern ourselves with.

Oftentimes, this blind support of war is spearheaded with the grim and very legitimate argument that people (average, everyday people) are dying as a consequence, thus it’s argued the quickest way to end a war is either for it to be fought to its conclusion or for a peace agreement to be achieved.

With countless amounts of people consistently perishing as a result of these horrific conflicts throughout history, why haven’t more people denounced the very institutions that bring these armed atrocities into existence?  As a society, most people are against war and violence, yet many take no issue at all to borders, militaries, prisons, leaders and poverty. Why are the deaths of those lost in war used as a muzzle to silence any critical examination of the factors that allowed those lives to be taken so easily?

The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge. There have been countless anti-war speeches, essays, songs, rallies, etc., that have all passionately and pointedly expressed a rejection of war, states, borders and an embracing of peace. The media and history books, however, have filtered out these thoughts and ideas, allowing mostly watered-down, vague anti-war messaging to reach the general public. And let’s make no mistake about it – to be anti-war is to be anti-state.

Throughout the First World War, many citizens in both Britain and the United States were convicted or deported, either for conscription or for “anti-war propagandising”. In the USA, the Sedition and Espionage Act of 1917 criminalised any form of written or verbal dissent to the war effort, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes asserting in 1919 that anti-war rhetoric was as dangerous as shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

These days, anti-war rhetoric certainly doesn’t result in the same consequences that it used to, so long as it remains one needle in a haystack of the many opinions shared over the internet. From copious TikTok takes all the way to online academic journals, there’s a consistent way in which war is talked about that is numbing, generic and similar to analysing a sporting match. The lives and opinions of those affected in battle are nearly all but disregarded outside of YouTube clips and live streams. Nuanced populations are reduced to flags, and the conflicting leaders assume their roles as the perceived “good guy” or “bad guy”. Such is the artistic razzle-dazzle of ‘statecraft‘– a term coined by British Academic Jim Bulpitt to make sense of Thatcher-era government in Britain.

We, societally, have never been given a choice whether or not to consent to war, policing, borders, monarchies or governments, and yet when these elite institutions squabble over arbitrary power, it’s rarely ever the tyrants that are themselves actually sent into battle. As Tolstoy wrote, “If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”

Before becoming too philosophical, let’s maintain that innocent lives are being lost in Ukraine at the hands of an imperialist tyrant. Examining these institutions with a critical lense does not excuse or defend the atrocious actions of Vladimir Putin. Since the invasion on the 24th of February 2022, over 1,800 Russian anti-war protesters have been arrested. Thousands continue to take to the streets, demanding an end to the war against Ukraine. Sadly, there are still an odd amount of people in leftist circles who seem to turn a blind eye to imperialism, or at times even excuse it, so long as it comes from an enemy of the USA.

This line of thinking not only costs lives, but once again lazily reduces entire populations to their geo-political governments.

One must remember that nation-states do not represent the people within them. They are not our avatars, nor are they our “home team”. Nation-states are cages. Borders are threats. Citizens of each nation are subject to whatever course of action elites decide to take.

A lot of care and attention goes into ensuring the general public aren’t focused on this.

Nationalist propaganda can be found in many parts of the world. Since moving to the UK, many people I’ve spoken to have been astonished that, as an American kid, I pledged my “allegiance” to not one, but two flags every morning at school, namely the American and Texas flags. Similarly, I struggle to comprehend all the pomp and circumstance that still enshrines a British monarchy in a modern world that has largely moved on from such traditions. For an even further dynamic, my own mother, being born in socialist Cuba, had to pledge in school to ‘be like Che’.

From an American perspective, war has always been a messy subject. Many of us remember the arguments ensuing for and against the invasion of Iraq. Whilst most of us look back at the era in agreement that it was an utter catastrophe, some tend to forget that there was a time when being against invading the Middle East would attract accusations of hating America and ”not caring about 9/11”.

Despite being treated and talked about as if they are mutually exclusive, war as a concept directly parallels government. Both concepts are seen as inevitable, and both are despised by some whilst heavily romanticised by others. Both the state and wars are supposedly meant to protect us, when, in fact, they actively harm all involved. Both war and the state call to young people who want to prove themselves either as politicians or soldiers and assure them they can ‘make a difference’, when actually, they’re used to uphold the status quo. War harms entire ecosystems and cultures, as does the state. Historically speaking, questioning the need for government can lead to backlash and condemnation, as does questioning the need for war.

We owe our solidarity not to either of these institutions (or any institution, for that matter), but to the everyday people who are affected by these battles. People who we have far more in common with than their power-hungry leaders. It’s well worth pushing back on this notion that being anti-war only consists of a surface-level plea to end armed conflicts. War and the state have so much in common because they are one in the same. War is statism at its catastrophic worst. It’s critically important to support its victims in any way possible whilst never losing sight of the factors that give tyrants the power to harm thousands of people at a time.

It’s an immense privilege to never have experienced war up close and personal. This privilege is too great to be quietly thankful for and mind one’s own affairs. We’re a connected global community, entrapped by bureaucratic institutions fixated on power, consumption and domination. Whether it’s Russia, China, the USA or Europe, we should no longer hold our anti-war resistance for when there is an armed conflict, nor should we placidly accept that war will always be a factor in society. Rather let’s continue to illuminate its systemic causes and concur that war is an absurdity, forced on us by nation-states, and that neither are acceptable as we strive for a future based on logic, reason and caring community.

AJB is a writer, musician, sailor, poet, and community organizer. Read other articles by Andrew.