The philosopher George Santayana once began an essay on war with these words: “To fight is instinct; if men have nothing else to fight over they will fight over words, fancies, or women, or they will fight because they dislike each other’s looks, or because they have met walking in opposite directions.”
In other words, humans seem to have an inborn need to fight about something, and if there isn’t anything important to fight about, they will make up something. Wars have been fought since prehistoric times and, as we are all aware, continue even as you read this column.
This essay, however, is not about the actual armed conflicts humanity engages itself in; rather, it’s about our tendency to turn every issue into a “war.” It seems that we can’t deal with any issue without declaring war on it. That’s a problem, because the word war has violent connotations, increasing the possibility that violence will be used.
Consider some of the “wars” we’ve seen in recent years. We’ve been fighting a War on Cancer and a War on Drugs for decades now, and maybe it’s OK to hang that three-letter word on them. But while I’m fine with a policy of seeking ways to treat cancer, I think dealing with it is more of a cooperative effort to find solutions. War just doesn’t seem to fit the effort.
As for the drug thing, even though attempting to stop drug trafficking can, and often does, become violent, the problem won’t go away until all those people who abuse drugs quit using them. Using the word war when referring to drug usage may actually lead such individuals to avoid seeking treatment.
My main complaint about calling everything a war, though, is that it turns all of our political and social differences into angry, if not violent, confrontations over questions that should be resolved in peaceful and rational discussion. A war requires that we demonize those on the other side, rather than recognizing that there is another side to the issue that must be taken into account.
Consider, for example, all the “wars” that have been declared in recent years. We have had the War on Women, the War on Coal. We’re fighting the War on the West, the War on Traditional Values, and the War on Christmas. The Affordable Care Act was said at various times to be the beginning of a War on Grandma, a War on Jobs, and a War on Business and then, of course, there’s the War on the Second Amendment.
The problem with all this war talk is that it creates an “us vs. them” atmosphere, and encourages the notion that the “them” must be destroyed. As with any war, each side invents disrespectful names that dehumanize the other side, and it allows politicians to tell “us” that we are totally in the right, and that we deserve to have things our way, no matter what “our way” does to “them” or even to the nation as a whole.
The thing about wars is that, even though one side appears to come out on top, one could also argue that nobody won, either. Wars do extreme damage to both sides, and such damage may well bring about the next war in which the two sides may go to war again, or end up joining each other to fight a new foe.
I started this column after President Trump announced big tariffs on imported steel and aluminum in an effort to protect American steel and aluminum manufacturers. Many, if not most, experts on trade say the tariffs will be counter-productive, meaning that they are likely to hurt American industry rather than help it. They believe the taxes will lead to a trade war and history supports that belief — as do statements from other nations warning they will retaliate against the U.S.
Sadly, the president has said he will welcome a trade war. He believes such wars are “easy to win,” and the U.S. will win any new one.
I hope that someday humanity will recognize that wars, both the real ones and the phony ones, are not the way to resolve conflict. Americans must come to understand that the Constitution gives us the right to participate in governing the U.S., but it doesn’t guarantee that we will have everything our way.
If we want this nation to continue as a free society and as a positive member of the world community, we need to approach each issue, not with a war or “us vs. them,” but by cooperating to find a solution that we all can live with.
Then someone could write a column saying Santayana was wrong.