The Glory Illusion of War

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“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

— from the song War by Edwin Starr

There is a slightly frightening tendency to glorify war and battle. It’s a big part of fantasy and science fiction; we’re always waiting for the big battle between good and evil at the end. But what happens when we carry this thinking over into the real world? This us-versus-them mentality, the idea that we are the brave warriors fighting the good fight, is especially attractive if we perceive ourselves as the little Rebellion fighting against the giant evil Empire, or as Peeta and Katniss resisting the malicious Games of the Capital, or as the Alliance of Men and Elves standing against the destructive might of Sauron. Everyone loves the underdog.

That’s fine in fiction. I have nothing against battles in stories and frankly I enjoy them. Halo would be pretty boring without the Flood or the Covenant to fight. It’s when this mentality leaks into real life interactions that it concerns me. If you look at the language being passed around the internet these days, especially when it comes to politics, you’ll find buzzwords like “war,” “soldier,” “fight,” and “rebellion.” Even as the world becomes a safer place overall, the language has become far more violent and polarized. You’re either with us or against us; there is no in between.

This is disturbing because in a story where there are clear boundaries between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” you can take that stance and be okay. But the real world is far more complex and that kind of black-and-white thinking can lead to real problems. That’s why I appreciate tales like Rogue One, which show the harsh reality of trying to maintain the moral high ground while still committing questionable acts in order to survive.

I can’t help but wonder if the narrative of the righteous underdog has contributed to this surge of violent language, and, in some cases, even violent behavior. After all, as they said in Fight Club, this generation has no great war, no great struggle. All of that energy and aggression has to go somewhere, and with no external outlet, it turns inward and starts tearing itself apart. Now, I’m not saying that I support having external wars and battles just to keep people in check; that’s a little too 1984 for my taste, not to mention a horrendous waste of human life and potential. But it feels like we don’t know how to channel our energies into something more constructive and productive. So many of our stories tell us to be warriors, but, by definition, warriors need war in order to exist.

So my question is, what other channels and occupations can our fictional narratives turn us towards? Conflict drives a story, but that needn’t always manifest in armed battle. What can be glorified and lauded besides war? This might seem a little difficult, especially in science fiction and fantasy where a battle of some kind seems inevitable. But imaginative storytelling is designed for this kind of challenge. Let’s see what we can come up with.

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“Polar Opposites” (Click image for source)

2 thoughts on “The Glory Illusion of War

  1. Perhaps this is why medical dramas are so successful, and why disaster movies have some appeal. Maybe people like to watch other people struggle against something that’s not other people. Ultimately, it’s still about battle (of a sort), but I guess the key difference is whether your hero is attempting to overcome something or destroy it. Even a conventional battle could fall into the former category if the hero is not abjectly trying to destroy the villain.

    1. You know, I never thought of it that way! That’s an interesting take on medical dramas and disaster movies, which I wasn’t even thinking about while writing this entry. Thanks!

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