Heraclitus, an Ancient Greek philosopher, once said “War is the father of us all, king of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some it makes slaves, some free.” One may be persuaded to think that a statement from a time so different to our own no longer holds sway over society. That the world has advanced to a point where conflict can no longer create gods and kings. Times have changed and so, inevitably, the context of such words changes too. In the setting of the classical period of Greece this notion would make profound sense. After all, the words of Heraclitus were followed by the defeat of the Persians at Marathon, the coming of Alexander the Great and the birth of democracy in Athens. But, despite the passing of years, the words of Heraclitus can be found echoing over two millennia later in the American Civil War, with the emancipation proclamation and again as the allies freed Europe from Hitler’s rule. War is as integral a part of society as it has ever been. The changes in modern thinking and culture prove to be superficial in comparison to the driving force that war has provided and has remained throughout the centuries.
The modern aspects of war are numerous and have been demonstrated to play a pivotal role in the construction of contemporary society. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resulted in a culture of war that has affected not only the state and people residing within it, but those surrounding Israel as well as those who would call themselves her allies. The culture of war can be expanded to encompass the “threat of war” and its uses as a political and social factor in modern state affairs. This results in a society that is desensitized and prepared for a war, either at home or on a foreign front. The government, through media frenzy or through the slow implementation of policies, creates a state that is predisposed to war. In all cases of modern conflict a form of justification is advanced, regardless of how substantive this justification is. From the on-going conflict in Israel, the American involvement in Iraq to the recent intervention by the South African government in the Central African conflict, all of which have had some form of justification. The most recently publicized escalation, that of the volatile North Korean state, has been greeted by both mass hysteria (That of the press) and calm contempt (Those with the power to implement policy). While the media rattles off frantically about the threat of nuclear warfare and the danger to the West the defense secretary of the United States announces an extra $1 billion dollar increase to the budget in order to add to missile interceptors in Alaska. This hysteria and panic allows for the pentagon and defense institutes in the United States to justify the increase in expenditure in arms as well as increasing the size of the U.S military sphere around the world.
The conduct of warfare, through land, air and sea has undoubtedly led to great technological innovation. The fundamental question is to what extent has warfare and the culture of war created a technologically driven society? The notion that necessity drives innovation may be applied to this question. The more recent and commonly used examples of innovation driven by warfare include that of the space race, Manhattan Project and utilization and advancement of radar, but one could make reference to things as arbitrary as the toaster or sanitary napkin. Factory setups change, in order to meet the vast quantities of manufactured goods required during the war and, although the short term effects of war tend to be an economic boom, these results are unsustainable. This results in an economy that may rely, predominantly, on a war to succeed in its goals. War has resulted in advances not only within the technological field but within the social structures of society too. The emancipation proclamation, the women’s rights movements and the upheaval of the political and social structures in the Middle-East have all been influenced significantly by warfare. Indeed, the decolonization of Africa occurred, in many instances, due to the vying moral and ethical ideologies that became apparent at the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War. The pressure put on the colonial powers by the United States and Soviet Union resulted in empires of the West giving up their colonial accessories.
Politics and war have always been interlinked. This can be observed in the contrasting views of the Soviet Union and the United States to the motivations behind the involvement of foreign interests in Central Africa. Woodrow Wilson, re-elected not least because he kept the United States out of the first part of the Great War, said “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty”. The threat of a German Europe was enough of a reason to plunge the United States into the First World War and, ironically, lay the foundations for Hitler’s Germany. The notion of a “threat” has played a consistent role in world politics. From the threat of losing an ally to the threat of terrorism or the threat of losing national interests or resources. Woodrow Wilson, who did not want to bring the U.S into the Great War, found himself assenting with the war enthusiasts. This issue, the “threat” has been reoccurring throughout history. The French legislature was pressured by, firstly the conservatives, and then by both the liberal and conservative branches of state to welcome the war with Prussia in the 19th century. The Communist revolution and French revolution were both spurned by conflict and resulted in conflict. War can unite a state, even if the resulting actions and consequences are disastrous for the nations involved.
The relationship between war and man is inseparable and the conflict drives society onward, for better or worse. Although the reasons for going to war may be relatively different to those in the golden age of Greece (Democratic values, moral necessity etc.) mankind still finds himself embroiled in wars across the world, influenced socially and politically by the outcomes and decidedly ignorant to the lessons history has taught us. The original meaning and context of the words may have changed but the purpose that Heraclitus intended remains the same. No longer does a king need a crown, for power and wealth are all the signs required for us to know that not much has changed.
Written By: Mitchell Luthi