Cost of War


“Ginsberg” by Julia Vinograd

No blame. Anyone who wrote Howl and Kaddish
earned the right to make any possible mistake
for the rest of his life.
I just wish I hadn’t made this mistake with him.
It was during the Vietnam war
and he was giving a great protest reading
in Washington Square Park
and nobody wanted to leave.
So Ginsberg got the idea, “I’m going to shout
‘the war is over’ as loud as I can,” he said
“and all of you run over the city
in different directions
yelling the war is over, shout it in offices,
shops, everywhere and when enough people
believe the war is over
why, not even the politicians
will be able to keep it going.”
I thought it was a great idea at the time
a truly poetic idea.
So when Ginsberg yelled I ran down the street
and leaned in the doorway
of the sort of respectable down on its luck cafeteria
where librarians and minor clerks have lunch
and I yelled “the war is over.”
And a little old lady looked up
from her cottage cheese and fruit salad.
She was so ordinary she would have been invisible
except for the terrible light
filling her face as she whispered
“My son. My son is coming home.”
I got myself out of there and was sick in some bushes.
That was the first time I believed there was a war.

War is an extremely complex phenomenon involving the nation, society and the individual.  On one hand war provides the heroes and villains we all seem to need and on the other hand it shows us the seemingly endless brutality that human being are capable of. The idea of self sacrifice to defend fellow human being can be seen as one of the noblest of all sentiments and war provides us with many such heroes. At the same time, war provides us stories of unimaginable horror where torture, rape and almost every form of cruelty is practiced. Due to these extremes the general public’s reaction to war has always been ambiguous.

Earlier literature like Sangam literature celebrates war. In ‘Purananooru’ and ‘Pathitru Paththu’ poets praise kings for having killed other kings, for destroying the lakes in their kingdoms, for razing to ground their colonies and so on. From these you get a clear idea of how brutal wars were in those times. Defeat was not an option for any king and so it is not surprising that Kings would rather die on the battlefield than be held captive for that was worse than death.

The ability to face death and to kill an opponent is seen as a virtue even to this day. That is one reason why revolutionaries who propagated violence don’t die so easily. To this day I keep hearing people talk about how courageous a man Hitler was. These are not some right wing Nazi folks but common people who have absolutely no political affiliations.  It doesn’t matter that records show that Hitler was basically a coward (as William Shirer shows with documentary evidence in his book ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’). What matters is the image of a man taking on the World.

Bravery and Courage are virtues which every human being appreciates. These help us overcome our fears and death is the greatest fear of them all. If we are able to stand up and face death squarely in the eye without flinching we have proved to ourselves that we can overcome any fear. Such a person gets all the respect and war provides a platform for such acts. Added to this, as I stated earlier, the concept of sacrificing your life for fellow human beings adds to the aura.

For many nations war and resistance defines their history. Every history book talks about war and conquests and to many of the students the greatest heroes in history are those who waged war and won or those who resisted the war. Alexander, Napoleon the Great, Ghengis Khan, Chatrapathi Sivaji, Rana Pratap and so on. There is lot of national pride associated with war and resistance. For example, you will often read about the Napoleonic wars and the resistance at Stalingrad in 1942 in Russian literature.

Though nations may take pride in their conquests and the wars they won, the cost of war is always high, especially in terms of human lives. There was a mini-war between England and Argentina over Falklands. During that time there was a wonderful essay in ‘Time’ saying how initially British people were on a high about the war and how the reality of war struck them when one their ships was destroyed. I don’t need to tell you about the lives that were lost during the two World Wars.

The World Wars and the subsequent events in East Europe had a major impact on European thought. Some of this is directly expressed and a lot of it is indirectly expressed. Not surprisingly we see a quite a few works of literature which talk about the cost of wars. Erich Maria Remarque’s thin book, ‘All Quite on the Western Front’ is one such book. Readers may complain that it is a ‘dry book’ and that is exactly what the author wants to achieve. He strips war to its bare essentials. He talks about First World War and all that happens is soldiers sitting in the trench waiting for the next bomb to fall. There is no heroism here, only fear. There is pity for the soldiers and rumination about the absurdity of war. Earnest Hemingway had written two novels which have war as their backdrop. ‘Farewell to Arms’ has the First World War as its backdrop and “For Whom the Bells Toll” has the Spanish War as its arena. In both cases Hemingway is clearly against war.

Second World War is closely linked to the Holocaust and to the subsequent raise of Stalinism in Russia and the trampling of human freedom in East Europe. This has been reflected in literature through novelists and poets. Primo Levi has written some excellent works which deal with the Holocaust. William Styron’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is another novel which talks about impact of Holocaust on the individual. Here, the protagonist Sophie is asked to make a choice in a concentration camp which would haunt her throughout her life and lead to her eventual death. It was in this book I read the unforgettable exchange: To the question “Where was God in Auschwitz?” the reply was “Where was man in Auschwitz?”  Joseph Heller in his ‘Catch -22’ deals with the absurdity of war in an inimitable absurd fashion. He uses dark comedy to talk both about the absurdity of war and about the absurdity in the army.  Robert Graves ‘Goodbye to All That’ is supposed to another important ant war novel. Unfortunately I haven’t read it yet.

The echo of war has been present in poetry as well with many poets making clear their anti-war stance. The French poets like Paul Eluard and Louis Argon has participated in war and wrote resistance poetry. Wilfred Owen wrote some great anti-war poetry. The poetry of many Polish poets – Herbert, Syzmborska, Rosewicz, Milosz – is informed by war and the subsequent suppression of Poland by Russia. Paul Celan is another poet whose wrote about the impact of the war. In recent times you will find that Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet, has written a lot of resistance and anti-war poetry.

Most sane people would prefer to avoid war for the cost of war is enormous and not only the participants but the future generations pay for it as well. While this is true in some cases war becomes unavoidable and also a better option. As William Shirer shows in his book if only Britain had taken steps to go for a war against Germany, Hitler would not have annexed Austria and invaded Poland. After the experience of First World War no one wanted another war and Britain did everything possible to avoid a war and that made Hitler more adventurous and ironically World War II happened. Closer home we know that the 1971 Bangladesh war was probably not avoidable.

It is Mothers who probably bear the brunt of the war more than anyone else. In his book ‘Sanga Chithirangal’ Jeyamohan writes about a poem of Avvai, wherein a mother laments that the decision taken by the King to wage a war has lead to her son now being dead. This is a very surprising poem because Sangam poetry celebrates its soldiers, especially those who die in the battlefield and mother’s are portrayed as women who feel proud that their children are giving up their lives in battle. This ‘veera maranam’ (courageous death) is spoken about often in Sangam literature so this lament of a mother comes as a surprise. For it seems to tear away all the conventions and show the raw wound in the mother’s heart. This poem of Julia Vinograd also shows us such a mother – one who is anxiously awaiting her son’s return. This image of an old woman in a café and her eye lighting up when she hears about the end of the war tells the cost mothers have to pay and the brutality of war.

If you want to know the human cost only in number of deaths that occurred, here is a Wikipedia link:

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