I teach Latin texts and so have spent a lot of time reading ancient accounts of war. I’m continually astonished by how timeless it is, though it is difficult to pin down what I mean by this. On the one hand, any study of history is punctuated by those plus ça change moments where you can see the people of your own time doing exactly what has already been done many times, and in this sense all history suggests a single, timeless human nature of which any particular instance is just a copy. The timelessness of war is something in addition to this, but I’m not sure just what the addition is. Here are some ideas, in increasing order of strangeness:
1.) The addition that war makes is simply that it is striking. It is violent and so evening-newsworthy, proving itself particularly good at capturing attention. Its attraction is therefore the same sort of thing as celebrity news and criminal activity dealing in death and sex.
2.) The essence of war is so dominant that any accidental or circumstantial addition to it does not amount to much of a change. War involves specifying a location in space where groups of young men are required to kill each other. Any addition to this – like whether this killing might occur by wood, stone, metal, or atom-smashing, or whether the space you specify is on land or in the sky – doesn’t add much of anything to the basic fact. Thus, the peculiarities of history and technological advance change less about war than they change about, say, communicating, farming, marriage, travelling, etc. and so war gives one the sense of being more timeless than these things.
3.) More radically, war is simply discontinuous with peacetime consciousness. Here I’m thinking of Lee Sandin’s marvelous essay Losing the War, where he argues that war experience simply can’t be put into peacetime experience. I’m thinking also of my own experience of bloodlust after 9-11 – about how, for example, watching an episode of 24 was morally engaging and entertaining as opposed to being comically over-dramatic and morally grotesque (which is all it can be to me now).
4.) We cannot reduce a principle to the thing it is the principle of, and war is a principle of historical life. It determines the one who is to determine the rules by which the particular historical time will be structured. All new orders must begin in some act of violence that severs them from the status quo ante.