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The Inhumanity of War

On the afternoon of March 22, 1943, a convoy of Nazi soldiers encircled the village of Khatyn in modern-day Belarus. The convoy had just survived an ambush by a group of Soviet partisans and wanted to exact revenge and use the little village as an example. The convoy entered the village and drove most of the inhabitants from their homes into a large shed, to which they set fire. The villagers made every effort to escape, even breaking down the shed door, only to be cut down by machine gun fire. In total, 147 people perished, including 75 children. The man in the photo, Yuzif Kaminsky, was the only adult survivor. After waking up from being knocked unconscious and burned, Mr. Kamisky began a desperate search for his son. He found him, but the boy was so severely burned he died in his father’s arm.

This was not an uncommon incident in what is widely accepted as the bloodiest conflict in human history, that between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II. Roughly 5300 Belarussian towns were destroyed, resulting in the deaths of some 2 million people, or roughly 25% of the population of Belarus. The total death toll of the Eastern Front was an inconceivable 30 million, if deaths from the Holocaust are included. The numbers are incredible, even mind-numbing. But this conceals the fact that these are 30 million individuals, people with families, friends, dreams, and personalities who would have lived full lives if not for man’s inhumanity to man.

War has been obstensibly fought for a variety of reasons. Early man had to struggle for limited natural resources and land. These types of conflicts gradually increased in scale with the scale of political units, from tribes, to villages, to kingdoms, and finally to nation-states. At each stage, the rationale for war has increased in complexity to bind together increasingly complex social groups. A tribe struggling for survival can justify war on the grounds of survival. But what about a nation-state where only a select few stand to materially benefit from a conflict?

War requires something to bind the social unit together against reason, to push members of the group to annihilate themselves for the good of the group. It also must produce a group identity strong enough to generate an “us vs. them” dynamic. Religion is very useful for this. Today political ideology fills this void. As far as the general public was concerned “Democracy vs Communism” was the driving force behind the Cold War. During World War II, it was “Democracy vs. Facsism” and “Facism vs. Communism” that formed the basis of group loyalties. Further back, nationalism and cultural differences appear to be the driving forces.

These ideologies are smokescreens for the driving forces behind the majority of these wars, which is simply power politics. The showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union can be explained in purely geopolitical terms, given these were the two global superpowers of the late 20th century and had bordering spheres of influence. The same can be said of both World Wars. In both cases, the greatest land power in Europe was Germany, a fairly new country trying to shove its way into global power against resistance by traditional powers, such as France and the United Kingdom.

But power politics does not operate in a vacuum and must be conducted by human beings, with all the baggage that entails. These people have a variety of forces pulling them: political self-preservation, potential monetary gain, desire for power, and, for some, genuine belief in their nations and the “cause” they fight for. But ultimately the decision to go to war is not made by those who pay the greatest price, their lives. In fact, the power to go to war implies the power to set the terms of engagement, which is used to keep the political class insulated from the costs of the war.

This is not to suggest that these decisions are made by sociopaths. Who wouldn’t attempt to protect themselves and those they care about from war if placed in this position? Who wouldn’t be tempted by the gains of having politically or personally profitable relationships with those who gain from the war?  And who ultimately would turn down the authority and power that war gives this class over the rest of society? There is not some nefarious conspiracy that drives these things: they are just the predictable results of putting one group of people in power over another.

The motivations of the political class are not anywhere near sufficient for those asked to possibly lay down their lives. The social glue of ideology, religion, or some other abstraction must be used to justify a sacrifice that the people making it get nothing for. And yet, at the moment of the sacrifice, do any of these motiviations make sense? Can you tell a father holding his dying child that what was done to him was a necessary sacrifice? Will nationalism, Christianity, or democracy make his child live again? Will the father have any consolation that it was worth it? Perhaps, but only after time and contemplation have allowed the mind to justify the unjustifiable and be at peace.

The sun was beginning to pierce the darkness, as the sky above took a light blue hue. Explosions had rocked the village since very early in the morning, and had prevented many villagers from sleeping. Men came down from the helicopters and barged into a home. They left in a chaos of explosions, blood, dirt, and smoke and many villagers dead or dying. The Yemeni village was silent, leaving damage to a school, a hospital, and a mosque as ominous monuments to the attack and the lives lost. They killed a terrorist, but not the terror of a mother, father, or other loved ones at the innocent friends they lost. Or the hatred in the hearts of the young men, who feel a martial spirit grow inside them. The war drums beat, just as they always have.

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