Reflections on War

by Derrick G. Jeter

“But none of these allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory” (Thucydides, “Funeral Oration of Pericles,” 2.42.4).


Today marks the fifth anniversary of the United States war in Iraq. These words from Thucydides’ pen seem a fitting celebration of the lives lost in this war.


I have been engaged the past few days in a writing project concerning the history and inevitability of war. The study of human history is the study of war. Looking into our own short history, let’s acknowledge that the tree of liberty was planted in a cemetery of heroes. From those first shots at Lexington and Concord Americans have fought in no less than twelve major wars.


The history of the world is written by the pen of war, dipped in the blood of young men and women. The twentieth-century alone was perhaps the bloodiest century in the long, sad history of humanity. Barely had the sun set on that century and a new century dawned when the United States, Great Britain, and their allies were violently awakened to a resurgent danger—Islamic terror.


Mankind has wrestled, almost from the beginning of time, with the question of how wars start and how to prevent them from starting. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech written for a Jefferson Day broadcast on April 13, 1945, but never delivered—he had died the day before—made the case clear: “We seek peace—enduring peace. More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars—yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman, and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments.” A few months later, as the fog of war cleared, revealing the full extent of the carnage of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wishfully declared,


“The Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world. History will honor you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final victory in Japan, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself. . . . For it is a declaration of great faith by the nations of the earth—faith that war is not inevitable, faith that peace can be maintained. If we had had this Charter a few years ago—and above all, the will to use it—millions now dead would be alive. If we should falter in the future in our will to use it, millions now living will surely die.”


Humanity may be well meaning, but it is also naïve. We have yet to learn the wisdom history teach us—wars are not fought because we lack the will; wars are fought because we lack the character to exercise the will. And as long as humans direct the affairs of nations, war, tragically, is inevitable.


Thucydides, “Funeral Oration of Pericles,” in The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Robert B. Strassler, 2.42.4 (New York: Touchstone, 1998), 115.