Sunday, May 24, 2009

An essay on war and play

How I loved playing war on the circle as a child! Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, Americans and Germans ("No! It's the Russians now, Stupid, not the Germans!" ); booby traps, forts, ambushes, secret codes and well-laid plans, them against us. We played all over the neighborhood and in the woods. I imagined myself a marine crawling through the jungle thickets with a knife in my teeth. I loved being the lookout and spy on the enemy camp hidden behind a tree or bushes where they couldn't see me, bringing back to my side all the information. I loved bringing prisoners back to keep in jail too and was good at it. I would jump out from behind a tree or down from a limb or out from under a bridge and grab 'em and bring 'em in.

Some say war is necessary, that out of its great destruction always comes something good, something new, something symbolic, something delivered to men, like a gift after the fact, a better perspective on things. But are bolts of lightning necessary for making burning embers? There must be a better way to strike a match. I want to know from an ecological perspective what specific need large scale destruction of life serves.

Is war like some play we are putting on for ourselves which some of us just must attend or life wouldn't be worth living? An entrenched, intractable collective and subconscious belief in its innate and intrinsic worthwhilessness must be keeping it legal, for we do honor war as we honor nothing else in all our institutions. We call it sacrifice--sacred giving of life for a greater good. But what greater good would this be? Try to look at it scientifically.

It must be something more than burning embers which comes of war to make me believe it is needed and necessary for the world to proceed in a natural way, in the natural order of things. Somehow it has been included in the natural order of things, along with natural enemies pestilence and famine, and death. War is one of the four horses of the Apocalypse, which is itself a false paradigm: the fourth horseman, death, results from the other three and is not merely their fellow. Indeed death, which may be caused by spurious effect, and thereafter known as destiny or fate or providence, comes from the three horsemen of the Apocalypse and all the other horsemen too. Contrariwise, death may cause as well as be caused by the others. Cause and effect in nature are integral components of the same time space continuum--so much for destiny. Ask Frederick Turner about the time continuum's integrity (

I am not talking about how we get as a species to the point of obliterating war along with disease and hunger, though this might seem an honorable ambition for mankind; I only want to establish that war is not necessary to our well-being as a natural occurrence built into the moral fiber of any ecosystem our species would need in order to sustain itself.. If the good of war, for example, is in the removal of excess population (read Dickens on this), then let us find a better way to control our excess. We do not need hunger, disease and war to keep us in check, because tsunamis, earthquakes and forest fires provide us plenty of relief in that area. We could, if we wanted, manage all kinds of beneficent exterminations short of war's infinitely more brutal, providence-fraught umbrella. Why do we regard the holocaust with horror and call World War II the good war ? They are twins of the same mother. Why is force of coercion given such respectability, why such honor delivered to its members, dead, live and maimed ? It is always said they had to go to war, because "a job" had to be done, someone had to do it and these honored few answered the call. Heed it well, need is expressed. But what need, I want to know.

'O reason not the need!' King Lear says wearily to Regan when she asks him what need he has of even one of his old comrades of war, his fellow veterans, now drunken and disabled and dependent on him as he is on them for his veracity, his identity as warrior. They can tell him who he is. " ...Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, man's life is as cheap as beast's." And of course by man he meant woman too.

Perhaps I am being Regan and do not see what need this seemingly superfluous gathering of old men in the comradery of remembering of life defined by death and love actually serves. Do we war then for love? Could we not then, should we not, play at war instead somehow? The way I did when I was little in my neighborhood in the Fifties?

Somehow we must get excessive population under control (I say tie it to credit), make war illegal, and transform it into play. Surely play is necessary to our well-being, a natural occurrence built into the moral fiber of any cultural ecosystem our species would need in order to sustain itself naturally. Cannot play, work, love and creation become the new four horsemen of the apocalypse, forces to bring low the evil rulers of the old world? It is in the name of reasoned necessity I declare it so.

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