vignettes of war, in the classic sense

Earlier today, during a Congressional hearing on the Obama administration’s declared plan for (limited) military intervention in Syria, John Kerry defended the administration’s plan as not “war in the classic sense.” Thucydides, the great scribe of the Peloponnesian War, had this to say about war, in the most classic sense:

“They then put out to sea against the enemy, formed line, and went into action. The result of the engagement was a decisive victory for the Corcyraeans, who destroyed fifteen Corinthian ships. It happened that on the very same day the besiegers of Epidamnus had forced the city to surrender, the terms being that all foreign troops and settlers in the garrison should be sold as slaves and that Corinthian citizens should be held as prisoners pending further decision.

After the battle the Coryraeans put up a trophy on Leukimme, a headland of Corcyra. They then put all their prisoners to death, with the exception of the Corinthians, whom they still kept in custody.”

The Coryraeans’ mass violence occurred after the war, in the classic sense. But perhaps Kerry referred to a more recent war, in a more metaphorically classic sense. Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, spoke of the First World War’s devastating impact on Europe’s natural infrastructure, in the classic sense:

“Writing his sister in August, 1916, one soldier marvels at the fantastic holes and ditches which scar the whole landscape and wonders, ‘How ever they will get it smoothed out again is more than I can imagine.’ The work of smoothing it out continues to this day. At first, some thought restoration of the area impossible and advised that it simply be abandoned.”

The cliche, “the illogic of war,” does a great disservice to the admirable cause of peace advocacy. War has a sense–or, as political scientists describe, a logic; otherwise, it would not likely persist. This logic is human, and emerges from human organizations: it is, as studies of conflict have found, a consequence of our political nature, which boasts few better angels. This logic kills people, and often a great many. Many avoid the sense of war, reducing its basic suffering to an inelegant vocabulary of tactics, operations, and strategy. There are many instances where violence can be justified; where, according to a crude logic of political development, certain human outcomes merit human death. But it is plainly obvious that those–political officials, advocates, revolutionists–who seek these outcomes rarely grapple with their extraordinary, tragic costs.

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