As we move from one crisis to another, here are some words from John Steinbeck that hit me in all the feels.
“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”
The world had its biggest and most dangerous crisis in the Coronavirus pandemic. It affected each and every person physically, mentally and emotionally. This brings me to one of the most popular tropes in fiction, the ‘Enemies to Friends’ trope.According to that trope, a group of people who do not get along for some reason end up seeing eye to eye after going through a whole series of mishaps and experiences cause their collective experience matters more than their enmity. Unfortunately, that trope tends to remain mainly fictional cause even though we humans went through a whole pandemic, something that should have united us, some of us remain hell bent to start more of a conflict and drag humanity into another crisis named war.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see a war ravage Ukraine. It’s unfortunate that the country has to face another major humanitarian crisis, right after (possibly) stepping out of the pandemic’s clutches.
In this post, Imma go into a world where there’s no conflict and only a harmonious fusion of ideas i.e the world of literature and bring to you some of the most powerful anti-war literature that highlights the various monstrosities of war in a measly bid to showcase why the world needs peace. And while I’m aware this does nothing to solve the crisis, it’s crucial for us humans to realise how conflict is never the solution to a problem.
Number one: The delusion of war.
War is often seen as a symbol of glory, notwithstanding the ghastly side effects. There’s talks of high military ranks, gallantry medals, glorified respect and all things fancy and such a trait is most common among people who are unaffected or faraway audiences to war.
A prime example of literature that showcases this delusion is the lyric ‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan.
It is a lyrical song featured in the album Bob Dylan’s album Unplugged and it’s the story of a young man named John Brown who enlists in the army. What’s intriguing about this lyrical piece is that though John Brown is the main character, a huge part of this poem is about his mother. She is one of those people who feels that she is sending her son off to be a part of a glorious project by sending him to war, as can be seen in these lines attributed to her….
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home.”
At many places, Dylan refers to the mother’s idea of war as ‘Good Old Fashioned War’ and the lyric goes on with her bragging to the neighbours about how her son’s a soldier and on a path of glory. The lyric then takes a severe turn when John Brown stops writing home for days that lead to months and finally a letter arrives for his mother, telling her that her son was coming home from the war. Excitement leads to horror as the following lines come into play.
“Oh, his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognise his face.”
The reality of war strikes her when her son tells her that while she sat home acting proud, she didn’t know what he went through. He recounts the horrors of the war as the mother hears it all in shock before her son walks away and then comes the last stanza which sums up the mother’s delusion in a bone chilling manner.
Seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.”
Number 2: Power and Propaganda.
‘Power’ is a strong word emanating a huge sense of importance but as the adage goes, it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice. War isn’t started by the common people. In fact, it isn’t even started by the military, they are merely puppets. The puppeteers of war are actually and ironically the very people who run the countries. The power-hungry frontrunners gamble away their country, it is the citizens, and the very ‘Homeland’ that they claim to fight for, who pay the price.
When I talk of the effect of power and propaganda on innocent citizens, the short story ‘Old Man at the Bridge’ by Ernest Hemingway comes to mind.
This short story is set at the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1938. A soldier encounters an old man sitting on a dusty bridge while trying to find out the enemy’s advancements and a chat between the two ensues. The soldier finds out that the man has fled from his home in San Carlos because of the artillery and claims to have left behind various animals as it was his job to care for them. The old man keeps worrying about how his animals would survive the artillery when he was told to leave because of it. The soldier, being trained in battle, asks the man about his political standing to which he replies,
“I am without politics,”
The story then proceeds with the man finding solace in the fact that his cat could take care of itself because of its independent nature while pouring out his worries about the other animals and when the soldier asks him to head to the rescue trucks, the old man simply thanks him and refuses to leave before saying his final dialogue….
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, “I was only taking care of animals.”
The story ends with a note of melancholy expressed by the narrator that the only good luck the old man had was the fact that the sky was too overcast for the Fascist planes to fly and the knowledge that his cat could take care of itself.
The line that holds the most power in the whole story is a simple dialogue by the old man stating, ‘I am without politics.’ which brings us to the idea of toxic propaganda. Most people living on the planet have no desire to fight and assert politics. Like the old man in the story was simply taking care of animals and he had nothing to do with any propaganda whatsoever, yet he was a victim in a war waged for imposing political propaganda and gaining power. Even if we look at the Ukraine War, literally no civilian on either side understands the logic behind invasion or even wants it but they’re all a part of brutal warfare for an unfulfilled thirst for power.
Number 3: The Plight of Soldiers.
Militaries and soldiers are the first things associated with war. War calls for full manpower from the battling parties and a lot of people are forced to take up arms to defend their land or invade another. The plight of each soldier fighting on the front can be summed up in a lyric from ‘John Brown’, a lyrical poem we used previously….
“Lord, I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
These are words said by the titular John Brown, recounting the horrors of war to his mother.
When we leave aside circumstance, politics, action and the whole lot, the soldiers are just armed civilians, fighting to fulfil another man’s fancy whims and avenging his insults and truly paying the price by enduring brutality.
War is a monstrosity where ending lives is considered a victory and failure to take a life is seen as shameful and a mentality like that really gets me frightened to be human cause the extents to which the human mind goes is pure evil.
Another sad aspect of war is that of the unnamed soldier. Thousands of people fight in battles and the very idea of a large number of them being unnamed and lost in action without identification is so heartbreaking. A poem that highlights the tragedy of the unnamed soldiers and pays tribute to them is one called ‘The Gift of India’ by Sarojini Naidu.
The poem is about the Indian soldiers who fought for the British army during the First World War and haven’t received tribute for their sacrifice and have been claimed as unnamed soldiers. The stanzas are written from the POV of India as a mother and the soldiers are portrayed as her sons whom the country has ‘gifted’ to the world to fight for peace. Here’s a stanza that touches me the most.
“Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.”
The term ‘alien graves’ is so powerful here. Given the circumstances when the poem was written, the Indian soldiers were taken away from their home and a lot of them died on foreign shores and the very idea of the distance is bone chilling.
However, it is comforting to see that nowadays, a lot of countries pay tribute to the unnamed soldier by building memorials and monuments.
Another old practice that comes to mind here is when soldiers were shot for cowardice during the world war and they weren’t recognised even though they fought in some battles. A lot of the soldiers drafted in the military are barely adults and it’s heartbreaking to see how war makes a monster out of people and being human is punished with a death sentence. An instance of a soldier being killed for cowardice is very touchingly portrayed in Downton Abbey where Lord Grantham actually makes a memorial for his cook, Mrs Patmore’s nephew who was shot for cowardice.
Honestly, no soldier who steps on the front is a coward. The true cowards are the people who’ve started the war and sit back while destruction rages but of course, there’s no punishment for that.
Number 4: Blind Optimism
This is an attribute mostly seen in children during the time of War. I feel they are the most affected in battle and what’s more heartbreaking is that most of the time, they don’t know what’s going on and they continue being in a pure, hopeful state of mind as their world collapses around them.
The most daunting example of this is the movie, ‘Life is Beautiful’.
Giosué, the child in the poster literally thinks that his stay in a concentration camp is a game and if he follows the rules, he gets a tank. The movie has a central theme of love and sacrifice but what’s actually sad is that the boy remains unaware of the circumstances till the very end. If one goes beyond what is shown in the film, the impact of what’s left unsaid is huge like the realisation once he gets older and the trauma that’s bound to follow.
Giosué represents a large number of children who go through times of war which brings us back to the needlessness of it and how it succeeds in destroying every innocent life, just to satisfy someone’s greed for power or thirst for revenge.
And that is a wrap,
Sending out lot of love and prayers to all those affected by the war.
Until next time,