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War...or Peace

David Cowles

Jun 27, 2023

“Now at last, we’re in a position to fix all of God’s mistakes!”

You’ve heard of the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War; these cute historical nicknames make it seem as though war is an exception to the rule, the rule of peace. On what planet?

The first recorded war was about 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. It is likely that there were wars before then, but our records only go back so far. Since the first recorded arrow was shot into the air, it is barely an exaggeration to say that the genus homo has been in a perpetual state of warfare. War against whom? We have met the enemy and he is us. - Pogo

Just in my few short years (75 to be exact) my homeland has been involved in wars in Korea (3 years), Vietnam (15 years), Iraq and Afghanistan (30 years combined). But this litany creates the false impression that these 48 years of warfare were punctuated by 27 years of peace. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lest we forget, there’s Guatemala, Lebanon, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, Ukraine, etc. Not to mention the Cold War!  And we’re only talking about my homeland, one nation. There are over a hundred other nations we need to survey. All in all, I think it’s fair to say that I have lived my entire lifetime in a world at war. 

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Looking back, my parents and grandparents didn’t have it much better. So we fight? So what? All animals do, so do plants and other life forms. It’s the biosphere itself that’s bellicose, right?

Wrong! Emphatically wrong! Animals kill animals of other species for food. They may fight with members of their own species over conjugal rights, etc. but those conflicts are rarely group affairs, and they rarely result in any deaths.

Generally speaking, plants and fungi have a symbiotic relationship. They can’t live without one another. But sometimes a particular fungus will harm (and even kill) a particular colony of plants. Animals feed off plants (and, rarely, vice versa), but animals and plants are engaged in a planet wide symbiotic pageant as they recycle each other’s carbon and oxygen.

So why is homo the odd genus out? Natural selection, of course, survival of the fittest; where else do you think all these cool Bond-like adaptations came from?

Nope, sorry, not from natural selection! Gene mutations still occur, but civilization has so broadened the spectrum of ‘reproductive fitness’ that physical evolution may have slowed to a crawl. Taking its place: cultural evolution. Humans adapt the environment to their needs to a much greater extent than they are adapted (genetically) to the needs of their environment.

We are the only species on Earth ever capable of making large-scale adjustments to our environment. At the same time, we are the only species who, to some degree at least, can consciously direct its evolutionary course. 

We find ourselves in a uniquely advantageous situation. Our species’ evolved ability to transform its environment, combined with our recently discovered ability to alter our genetic code, has created a truly unimaginable opportunity. Given any ‘problem’ we can choose whether to alter the environment or the genotype or both: Adaptation goes Exponential!

Now at last, we’re in a position to fix all of God’s mistakes! (Perhaps that’s the whole point of the last 14 billion years, the age of the universe, or at least the last 4 billion years, the period of life on Earth.)

When we were kids, we literally scheduled times to fight, between homework and Little League. Rival gangs of 8-year-olds (can a group of 8-year-olds be called a ‘gang’?) would agree to meet at such and such a place at such and such a time, and bring your wooden ‘swords’ and ‘spears’. 

There was no animosity between the rival gangs (we were all friends, separated into gangs by accidents of geography, school choice, etc.). There was no intent to injure anyone, and it was exceedingly rare for someone even to get hurt. Still, it was crazy fun!

I feel as though I’ve grown into an adult world that mimics my old neighborhood – minus the lack of animosity. Bigger boys, bigger toys! Wars feel more and more like the scheduled events of my childhood. World War II was scheduled at Versailles (1919). Vietnam was scheduled at Dien Bien Phu (1954). Afghanistan was scheduled when Russia withdrew (1989). Iraq II was scheduled the day Iraq I ended (1991). I could go on!

So-called ‘peace’ seems to be the equivalent of Mom calling you in for dinner. It’s just an opportunity to regroup…and rearm. Now, the stakes are incalculable, the risks overwhelming, and the prospects of success, infinitesimal. Yet, there is just one ray of hope. Prior to the end of WWII, all war was all out war: no holds barred! Poison gas, atomic bombs, everything goes. 

Korea was perhaps the first consciously self-limited war. Since then, for all its horror and brutality, every war has been fought according to Marquis of Queensbury rules. Perhaps this is a first flicker of recognition that war has lost its usefulness as an instrument of social change. For the sake of the human experiment, we can only hope. 

Image: Pablo Picasso. 1937. Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain


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