Kuwaiti oil fires, Gulf War, 1991, Public Domain Image by Jonas Jordan, US Army Corps of Engineers
He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why.
It was a warship, after all. It was built, designed to glory in destruction, when it was considered appropriate. It found, as it was rightly and properly supposed to, an awful beauty in both the weaponry of war and the violence and devastation which that weaponry was capable of inflicting, and yet it knew that attractiveness stemmed from a kind of insecurity, a sort of childishness. It could see that– by some criteria– a warship, just by the perfectly articulated purity of its purpose, was the most beautiful single artifact the Culture was capable of producing, and at the same time understand the paucity of moral vision such a judgment implied. To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy.
―Iain M. Banks, Excession
That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.
―Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“How come we play war and not peace?”
What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war. Petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict.
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind… War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.
Modern weaponry has changed what it means to be a warrior. Showy technical skills are little use against bullets and rocket propelled grenades. I think most of us remember this poor guy from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Video via Patrick Roe via YouTube.
There was a time, however, when there was room for performance before fighting. Exhibiting elegance or skill might garner respect from an opponent; exhibiting frenzy and strength might scare them out of wanting to fight you. This pageantry has been largely dismissed as battle tactic, although it still appears in ceremonial settings.
The Maori people of New Zealand have a tradition called haka peruperu, or dance of war. Each tribe has its own haka (dances) that have been passed down for centuries, serving as challenges and war cries in preparation for battle. The goal of battle was to kill all of the opposing force so that there were no survivors to exact revenge. Haka performance was designed to intimidate the opponent and give him a last chance to back out before slaughter ensued, all the while building teamwork, cohesion and focus among fighters. Unorganized and out of synch performances were bad omens. It was imperative that every single participant move with the group as anything else would shake the warriors confidence and set them up for failure. Practicing these forms was a bonding ritual which also helped decide who lived and who died.
The haka peruperu consists of a series of postures, vigorous movements and rhythmic shouting. It is performed mostly by men, although women may take part in a limited fashion in some instances. There are other forms of haka entirely for women, some for mixed groups, and some for children. In peruperu, the focus is on being as terrifying as possible. Eyes are opened wide and tongues flash rapidly in a movement which recalls that of a snake preparing to strike. Men leap and squat, beating their hands on their chests and thighs and stamping their feet, using their bodies as musical instruments. Chanting, grunting and screaming are all employed to amplify the effect.
Today, haka peruperu are performed by New Zealand sports teams before (and sometimes after) matches, by the armed forces of New Zealand in military ceremonies such as funerals, and by traditional groups performing in communities and for foreign dignitaries.