Category Archives: The Observed World

Total War OR Total Peace


The concept of total war has been especially widespread in execution in the twentieth century. It means just what it says, that is, the decision by one or both sides in a conflict to use all and every means in order to prevail. War crimes become unavoidable and are a matter of course under these scenarios. Moral and legal concerns are completely set aside. Intended to prevent or, at best, minimize carnage directed towards the innocent, the rules of war are effective only so long as one side enjoys vastly superior capacities and thus the luxury of choosing how to conduct itself in an engagement. Recent comments by Vladimir Putin as to his country’s continued possession of a nuclear arsenal illustrate what recourse a threatened nation feels justified to employ. Today, the United States is able to act militarily within the rules of war. Should the day come that a figure such as the present Russian leader were to carry out his veiled threat, it is not conceivable that the United States would not respond in kind.

The Isis fighters presently operating in the Middle East are employing tactics of total war that would be familiar to any student of military history. It is pointless to be self-righteous in one’s condemnation as long as one possesses the means and is willing in certain circumstances to employ the exact same strategy. When the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki, the rules of war were set aside, the innocents sacrificed. Similar events have occurred throughout history although by different means. The Germans employed these tactics as did the British who fire-bombed Dresden. Cities and their populations have been razed. In the distant past, Hannibal levelled Carthage, annihilated its entire populace and returned it to desert. Today he enjoys the status of a heroic figure crossing the wintry Alps with his elephants. Al-Asaad’s father, the former Syrian dictator, put down a rebellion and subsequently massacred all the families of the rebels. He had them buried beneath a parking lot. For his people, he too is a hero. The Soviets and the Chinese are infamous for what they unleashed upon their own citizens. What has been inflicted upon native peoples everywhere is a shame of international proportions. All sides feel justified in what they do no matter how “evil” when they see the opposing side having done the same. Today’s torture debate where the United States’ traditional means of responding to an enemy appeared insufficient fits exactly into these scenarios.

Humanity has produced a climate of violence that extends throughout history and in this climate lightning and thunder penetrate deep into anyone who feels wronged or threatened. At the street level, individuals avail themselves of as much weaponry as possible and embark on killing sprees. Paranoia sets in. Police officers and citizens are the tragic victims. The powers that be conduct themselves no differently and set the example. They continue to threaten the entire planet with annihilation as long as they insist upon a nuclear option for their perceived or postulated “interests”.

The logical conclusion of man’s history of armed conflict is that the weak will turn to whatever means they have at hand and the strong will resort to them if they must. No power can expect a lesser opponent to abide by the so-called rules of war. Warring parties have the most lethal instruments possible at their disposal and all sides whatever the conflict are willing to use them should the excuse be there.

Every single action of armed conflict is a denial of another’s right to exist or an assertion of one’s right to supremacy. The question arises and has, in fact, always been there as to what is humanity’s purpose. If it is solely to gain ascendancy over others or solely to gain its own ends in disregard of everything else, then it is little wonder that today it finds itself and the planet under constant threat. It may be that respect not only for our fellow man but also for the world itself with all of its life forms is required in order to avert a complete and total tragedy. Does not a true greatness of soul extend beyond the works of man – his art, his scientific discoveries – to a connection with the whole of life?

The biblical story of Genesis begins with an injunction for man to “subdue” the earth and to have “dominion” over it. The further admonition is to “replenish” the earth. It seems we’ve gotten the subduing and dominion half of it down pat, but tragically, we’ve neglected the replenishing part both of the earth and of ourselves. Man being the creature of infinite possibilities that he is, such a transcendent undertaking should eventually find partners and give pause to those who continue to be inflamed. Mankind has always entertained an Edenic vision. It is a vision of total peace.

Tolstoy, in his great novel War and Peace, postulates that history results from an accumulation of individual decisions. Ordinary citizens determined of their own accord to leave their day to day lives and join Napoleon’s armies. Without them, there would not have been the Napoleon of history. Tolstoy entertained this view of individual responsibility in czarist Russia. How much more obvious must it be today in our democracies? Each one of us decides the life that we want and the world in which to live. Wars come to an end when individuals say no. The American people ended the Vietnam war not their government.

When Voltaire’s eponymous hero Candide returns home disillusioned with the world of man, he determines that the best he can do in the wicked world that he finds himself is to take care of his own little garden. At least here he can make and be the difference and realize the good in himself. A multitude of Candides – disillusioned with wars and counter-wars and respectful of more than their own human-centric interests – may be what is needed in order to replenish the world in which we all have a part.



I don’t usually stop for these people unless they approach me. As I say, I’ve learned my lesson. You can go up to someone who is in obvious need, he’s rummaging through a waste bin or checking out all the pay phones and he’s in rags. You can proffer a couple of bucks and for your efforts receive a dismissive sneer that’s not interested in your charity. Fine. I’ve had enough of having my charity rebuffed, and so I leave them alone if they leave me alone. If they make no effort in my direction I’ll leave them alone even if they have a paper cup sitting in front of them or an empty hat. Ask me is all I ask. If they don’t, sometimes I’ll drop something in but sometimes I won’t.

This time I’m passing a sheltered alcove between two coffee shops – a Second Cup and a Starbucks – and some fellow standing there calls out a hello and I answer the same but continue on my way. I continue for a few steps until I decide that he has made an approach and the weather is cold and why not go back and against my established principle offer some change to someone who hasn’t asked for it. I’m sure in this case not to receive a rebuff.

He’s in his 60’s dressed against the cold with a bushy beard and lips that protrude. I say something about his being in a protected spot and he thanks me for stopping and gladly takes the two buck coin I extend while we exchange pleasantries that are entirely forgettable. In the process of this back and forth conversation, he tells me a bit of his story that is hard luck as all these stories are but, in his case, touches a chord since he had been a musician who had once lived in a fine home and had had a stroke and his very aged mother was demented and he could hardly walk a few steps. Someone had given him five dollars only the day before and someone else had stolen it. Well, I had some cash on me and it wouldn’t hurt to restore him completely to his former self of the day before with extra, and so I peeled off a twenty that he gladly accepted. In this spirit of bonhomie he asked if I would have breakfast with him and since it was a Sunday morning and to turn him down with some excuse or other would be the equivalent of a lie, I agreed and together we entered the Starbucks, him shuffling beside me.

As I was out on my morning walk and wished to make this occasion as brief as possible, I ordered no more than a black coffee for myself while he asked for the same along with a bagel and cream cheese that he asked me to spread for him – such an establishment is Starbuck’s that their food comes in little plastic containers. Naturally I had paid and that was all right. We exchanged more conversation as we breakfasted and had some jokes. He told me that he would have to wait until the eighteenth of the month when the Mission’s doors opened for the coming winter in order for those like himself to sleep inside. When he asked me for my phone number, I borrowed a pen from the Starbuck’s lady and wrote it down for him on a card that he had. I couldn’t say no. Outside the café, we went our separate ways and in order not to show that I wanted to get away scot-free as I felt I was giving the appearance, I called out for him to call me should he ever really need to. That evening my phone rang.