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Difficulties Starting a War

Those who are strangers to war remain blind to the makings of war all around them; the mental process by which an ordinary person may come to see as right the slaughter of a neighbor, a colleague, or even a political fellow-traveler lies beyond their understanding. This much can only be expected. What comes as a surprise, says Félix de Azúa, is that those who did know war – Spain’s Generación del ’36, who lived through the Spanish Civil War, and the generations who witnessed World War II in the 1940s, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and countless others – were just as naive. Once the fuse of the tragedy was lit, they couldn’t put it out. Their reasoning meandered down odd byways, such as the notion that armed conflict would be brief. Perhaps for the same reason, few are able to grasp that, whether you win or lose, war only breeds hate.

I forget the name of the historian who welcomed the circumstance that the generation of Spaniards born in the 1940s is the first not to have known civil war. One way or another, we have always managed to keep our knives sharp and our blunderbusses primed, not for self-defense but with the design of wiping our neighbor off the map. But, not having experienced war of any kind, mine is a generation that has no idea how these things start.

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We can draw on the many first-hand testimonies of those who lived through Spain’s last Civil War, the Second World War, or the very recent war in the Balkans, which in its makings and character was perhaps closest to our own. There has been no dearth of wars, then. Their retellings speak almost invariably of the immense unexpectedness of the butchery, of how people couldn’t believe it was even happening. Another view universally held was that the freshly lit war was destined to be short, over in but a few weeks.

That is how I remember my parents’ and grandparents’ recollections of July 1936: an especially hot month, they said. There is no way of telling if this fierce heat might not have been a retrospective stand-in for the fear and hysteria attending Franco’s attempted coup. Nobody was expecting it. You can read thousands of expressions of astonishment from those who witnessed the catastrophe. Almost everyone assumed the conflict would be settled by the end of the year. This strikes us as odd since we now know how weak the Spanish Republican government was. How could the better-informed not see it coming? In 1936, however, no one knew how the opposing forces truly measured up, because that’s precisely what war requires: a test of luck, a casting of the dice for life or death, a leap towards a primitive, archaic animality, a sacred fury that seeks the clash of bodies. No one knows who’s stronger until the weaker contender bites the dust.

Much the same happened when Germany touched off war in 1914. On reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s solidly researched August 1914, one marvel at the stupidity of the Czarist high command, the incompetence of the officer class, the euphoric faith in a victory to be offered up by the pitiful soldiery. In his Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann recounts how both World Wars began with an absolute conviction in the swiftness of German triumph, most of the population embracing the struggle in a fog of delirious enthusiasm.

Mann hints at the workings of something mysteriously evil in the onset of war, something that cannot sit easily with a conscience. The way a war plays itself out is another matter: but the declaration of war, the act of calling it into being, of leaping into the void, seems always to have been a child of madness in rulers and ruled alike. Few citizens stayed aloof from the drunkenness scented with the smell of human blood; fewer still were able to trace the true proportion of the act of madness, an abyss that beckoned to those who already believed themselves triumphant. A tragic chorus of women-stricken, perhaps resigned-did wail against war. Their presence seems to have been some form of biological counterweight to the malignant male zeal, but theirs was an atavistic lament, the plaint of ancestral mourners deploring the loss of what they could call their own, their sons and husbands, all other possessions being denied them.

The madness of the aggressor, believing himself the strongest (and he may really be the strongest), is invariably drenched in nationalistic hallucinations, ancient heroisms, fatherlands afflicted with death-wounds, long-nursed grievances: as if the world had conspired against that nation which is now to prove its power, so those who scorned it may repent, and come not only to admire it but-Mann adds-be forced both to fear and love it. Arrant madness: but, at the start of a war, it is always there. Once over, those who sparked the cataclysm, whether victors or vanquished, find they have succeeded only in breeding more hate. Then begins a hideous outbreak of apologetics, and the acolytes are vested in high office. It now falls to them to plunge the makers of the disaster into the last depths of moral indigence.

The latest European war-the war in the Balkans-began in the same way: euphoria and stupidity seasoned with a national grievance, the narcissistic wound. A first-hand witness, forced to flee despite his diplomatic status, and unable to prevent the border guards from murdering the friend he was trying to save before his own eyes, has several times told me the story-always with new and chilling details which, I imagine, gradually surface from the formless horror encrusted in his memory-of how a few days before war broke out his circle of academic acquaintances would gather together in blithe unawareness of whether one member was a Bosnian, another was a Croat, or a third was a Montenegrin. Whenever regional origin was, in fact, adverted to, it inspired the sort of gruff banter about a regional character that is designed only to render the newcomer more clubbable, to aid the mechanics of welcome. When I did military service, soldiers were known not by their own names but by their towns of origin. The etiquette was to yell “Vic [city in Catalonia, Spain], get your backside into the kitchen!,” or “Tortosa, let’s have a cigarette here!” Presumably, they had always carried on like this.

A few days on, when the group met as usual at the Belgrade faculty bar, my friend noticed that two or three of the regular faces were missing. His inquiry elicited a thick silence. Then, to his astonishment, someone irately explained that the absentees were Croats and Albanians; they were probably hiding their faces out of shame. In point of fact, they were dead, but this did not come to light until a few months later, when the mad ringleaders of the war, fed up of drinking human blood, drunkenly sang the anthems of national supremacy.

My friend tells of how, in a matter of days, students who had shared a hall of residence or lived as roommates in digs-warm, fun-loving people, perfect friends for partying and romance-were transformed. They called another murderers and psychopaths; worse still, they would mark one another with some ethnic, national, or religious label now held to be contemptible, inferior, unnatural. It was like dreaming someone else’s nightmare. Looking in from the outside, you could see the madness, the rage poisoning everyone with diabolical speed, like a plague. But, from the inside, people were unaccountably blind. They could no longer see others as human.

And that is the question: we no longer believe in evil, and reduce it to a purely technical problem by calling it “mental imbalance,” a condition lying in the preserve of expert supervisors, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts. We forget one of the most bloodthirsty executioners of the Balkan War was, in fact, a highly regarded psychiatrist. We deny there even exists such a thing as evil, a hatred that taints those who believe themselves better or stronger, but unrecognized. That hellish wound can be cured only by the destruction of those responsible for the grievance, a grievance which often consists in the mere physical presence of the other. We spring from Adam and Eve, but also from Cain and Abel. So maybe evil does exist, and we have it close at hand. If so, like a thief, it will steal into our homes while we sleep.

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Difficulties Starting a War. (2021, Mar 29). Retrieved April 23, 2021, from