“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” – General Robert E. Lee
“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be.” – Cormac McCarthy from Blood Meridian
One of the things I like to do as I read or even anytime I hear something interesting is to write it down so I can track it and come back to it later on. I am a big proponent in note-taking while I read, so I always read with a pen and post-its nearby so I can underline and put a post-it by anything I find particularly interesting or evocative. This is the major reason why I have to buy all my books rather than get them from the library, because inevitably they all end up with underlines all over them. Last summer I actually started a separate journal so I can copy all of my favorite quotes down in one place. Long story short, this new blog series will include my explanations of my favorite quotes and why I enjoy them or, in this case, a comparison of two quotes which might offer different viewpoints on a variety of societal topics.
Recently I stumbled upon the top quote shown above, originally stated by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Admittedly my knowledge of Lee’s life is fairly limited (besides the obvious of course) but I found his quote to be quite intriguing and still relevant today, more than 150 years after he first said it. At the same time, as soon as I saw the quote I was immediately reminded of a quote from one of my all time favorite books, Blood Meridian (on a side note, Cormac McCarthy is an incredible author so go check him out!). While Lee’s quote states what seems obvious (that war is terrible and should be avoided) it is perhaps more remarkable that it was Lee who said it. McCarthy’s quote is fascinating simply because it purports that man and war were essentially meant for each other, that waging war is in our blood.
What struck me was how initially these two quotes seemed to offer opposite viewpoints on how man and war interact with each other. Based on Lee’s quote we can ascertain that he likely felt war was something separate and alien from the human race. That war was something which should be avoided at all costs due to the cost it inflicts on society. As I mentioned earlier, what makes this quote particularly interesting is that Lee was the one who said it, considering he led the rebel army during one of the darkest and bloodiest times in American history. On the surface it would seem that war was his life, and while that’s wholly untrue it was war that ultimately defined him as we view him from 150 years in the future. Perhaps Lee was just using common sense when he said this, or perhaps it was precisely because of how close he was to war that he understood just how ruthless its impact can be. And he likely thought that man could simply not afford to wage war with any sort of consistency and still hope for societal advancements.
Unfortunately, as McCarthy would write and insinuate over 100 years later, not everyone shares the same sentiment. Now to understand McCarthy’s quote a little further I will provide some context. In the novel, the quote is said by an almost mythical character simply called, “Judge,” a member/leader of a group of fighters patrolling the Mexican countryside during a time of great unrest. To be honest, that’s putting it quite lightly as the novel is an epic in violence and disregard for human life. For many of the characters in the book, a life of violence on the frontier is all they’ve ever known, they’ve had to fight for everything they have and live each day on the precipice of terror with nothing but a rifle and the clothes on their back. For the Judge, and for many of the other characters, they’ve felt drawn to the life they are leading and see no other way to move forward. They seem to understand that the world is an inherently violent place, and that survival of the fittest truly is the law of the land. From their point of view, wars have occurred forever, and man was meant to wage war in order to forcefully expand the reaches of civilized society.
In my opinion, I believe that any argument to be had here is unnecessary because neither Lee or McCarthy is wrong. While they provide different opinions on where man and war intersect, the course of human history combined with the realities of war show that both sentiments can be correct. Lee’s quote shows how the horrors of war are something the human race should avoid at all costs. But the mere statement itself indicates he likely saw an opposite end to the spectrum. That he possibly found war to be at the same time terrible and exhilarating. Man is always in search of competition and power, so to only focus on the negative in Lee’s quote would be to ignore the fact that he devoted the majority of his life to military operations. This is where McCarthy’s quote comes in. It is impossible to look back at the course of human history and deny what the Judge ascertains when he claims that man is war’s ultimate practitioner, claiming that man and war are essentially one in the same. In history class we often study a sequence of events, which is essentially all major wars and the bridges in between. We learn names, dates, and facts so that we can understand a chain of events (and hopefully pass a test at the end). But what we don’t learn is the high level considerations behind the events, the names, and the dates. We don’t learn that the advancement of human history has been marked by violence at almost every turn. Major innovations in technology, architecture, and even agriculture have been forged through war.
In a perfect world we could take Lee’s quote at face value, stating the obvious and avoiding the horrors of war. But those who forget history are doomed to repeat. So ignoring the fact that McCarthy’s quote holds the facts of human history in its palm is an egregious mistake. If human history has taught us anything it’s that man truly is war’s greatest practitioner. And unfortunately, it also teaches us that against Lee’s best intentions with his own quote, it would appear that we have also become much too fond of it. And now that we live in a society where major advancements are not dependent on military action, where technology and societal improvements are advancing at incredible rates, hopefully we can heed the warnings that these quotes offer.