When I was asked to write an essay discussing war, quite honestly I was not very sure where to begin. War, though increasingly prevalent in my own generation, still seemed like a foreign concept to me, for I could not easily define it. I had all of the typical assumptions about war, such as knowing that it was a “bad” thing, and that it was violent, and I knew for sure what it was not, such as peaceful or agreeable. However, despite how long I would spend thinking about it, I was not able to definitively say what war was. So I did what any student might have done, and resorted to my dictionary. I was enlightened to find that war was “A state of…conflict carried on between nations, states or parties, or a condition of active contention or antagonism.” If this is what war meant, however, it opened a whole new can of worms for me. This definition told me that any “contention” or “conflict” between any “parties” could be considered war. If this was the case, I suspected that my country had been at “war” far more frequently than I thought it had been. Upon research, it was revealed that I was not far from the truth.
Gore Vidal, in his book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, gives a detailed account of all United States military operations since World War II and preceding September 11th, 2001. In this list containing 249 total operations, I was surprised to find that I had been alive for 148 of them. It frightened me to realize that in my eighteen years, I had experienced a startling 59% of all of the military operations since World War II. Also, if one considers the college generation to be from freshmen to those in a second year of graduate studies, this generation has experienced nearly 65% of all operations. This statistic would imply that in the lifetime of my generation, we might very well experience more “conflict” and “contention” between ”parties” than any generation to date. Yet when called upon to discuss war, we can’t even clearly define it.
All things considered, war can’t really mean much to an eighteen-year-old girl from the suburbs. It never touched my family, never stole my father or brothers or cousins with its icy grip. I never had to face its grim reality, and beyond the television, I had little experience with it at all. However, slowly but surely, I can sense it creeping in on my little universe. On my college campus, I see many who, if needed, would be called to fight for the nation, to defend peace, or institute democracy. I am forced to wonder, what will war mean to me then? Will I understand it when my class’s alumni start being listed as martyrs for peace? When this football player, or that honors student gets to make it home alive, will I know then what war is? Is it worth learning at such a cost?
After having concluded that I didn’t know what “war” meant, I wondered if I knew why we are so often compelled to do it. Some would say that wars are necessary to have peace; that if I want my children, who one day might be sitting in the same classrooms as I am now, never to have to know what war is, that it must be fought today, to protect the future and ensure peace. We must squash the evildoer, and protect posterity. It inspires a sort of patriotism, a need to be the world’s defender. While noble, I don’t think this belief could be so easily held if one considered the great loss imbued on both sides of the conflict or contention. So often we run to war with patriot hearts, ready to serve God, flag, and country; praying for victory over evil. We hardly seem to consider the tragic result of our actions before we go through with them: starving, orphaned, homeless and dead innocents. Should we fight at such a cost? I want peace as much as anyone, perhaps even more so. But I question the manner in which we attempt to gain and preserve peace. I don’t quite understand how one needs to completely shatter a thing in order to get it or to preserve it. Also, it is not perhaps our own citizens that we ought to consider. We don’t want to humanize the enemy, merely categorize them as a nation or as a people, unable to separate them individually from the government or faction to which they belong. It is easier this way. There is no guilt, no regret, and no fear of having done the wrong thing. But I wonder, why would guilt, regret, or fear exist if all we were trying to do were institute peace, or freedom, or democracy?
If these are the reasons why we fight wars, then how will we ever experience enduring peace if at every threat there ensues conflict and contention in order to save peace? I don’t mean for the nation to simply roll over and play pacifist when some instigator tries to push its buttons. However, let’s call it what it is: America flexing its muscles and standing up for itself. I want the next generation to be able to say that although its parents knew conflict and contention all of their lives, that it does not know these things at all. Where war is almost an intimate friend to this generation, I would dearly love to see the next one know it only as a foreign stranger. If done the right way (and I will admit that I don’t know what the right way is, only that this one isn’t it) the generation to follow me will not only not be able to define war, they won’t be writing essays on it, and they won’t know it at all.