What Lessons Can We Learn from Wars?


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by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about five important lessons we can learn from wars and how they affect our lives at personal and psychological levels.

The numerous wars the earth witnessed so far and the destruction and suffering they caused is a grim reminder that we have not yet made enough progress on the path of peace and harmony and we have not yet mastered our baser instincts. Each war is a collective failure of the humanity to resolve its differences in civilized ways and treat others with compassion and understanding or without aggression and hostility. We know the consequences of wars and the suffering they unleash. Yet, nations and organized groups often resort to wars to settle their differences or settle scores with those they disagree.

Violence and aggression are inherent in our existence. They are our natural responses to silence any opposition or deal with threats and hostility. Nature promotes aggression to establish the dominance of species and improve their ability to survive and compete for resources. From Nature’s perspective, violence and aggression are neither moral nor immoral. They are but strategies or choices in our struggle for survival and continuity. Beings who are endowed with strength, knowledge and intelligence prevail over the weaker ones and control the flow of resources. Physical strength becomes necessary when reason and emotion fail to resolve differences.

A war is more than a violent clash or a skirmish. It is an armed and organized conflict between two or more groups or nations, which may be waged overtly or covertly, proximately or remotely, with extreme violence, aggression, cruelty and destruction until one side is defeated or both sides reach a truce. Certain animal groups also engage in battles to establish their dominance or secure food. However, humans have perfected the art of warfare. The weapons which nations possess today can unleash massive destruction or lead to the mass extinction of all life.

Whatever may be the scope and purpose of a war, it is certainly not a pleasant experience for anyone. We may honor brave soldiers and victorious armies with medals and citations and applaud their services, but we cannot ignore the damage wars cause to people and nations both individually and collectively. History shows that we can learn a lot from wars and use the knowledge to avoid future wars. Unfortunately, we seem to be too far from that ideal. The possibility of a war is still a strong deterrent to keep many nations within their bounds.

Wars cause not only death and destruction but also permanent physical and mental hurt, which will continue to haunt those who are affected by them until the end. Life upon earth is precious and unique. Logically, we are at such a stage in the progress of our civilization that we should know the implications of wars and not let them happen at all. In the following discussion we focus upon a few important lessons we can learn from wars. This awareness is necessary in all wakes of life across all sections of people, so that the humanity at large will not think of war as an option to settle political, economic, ideological or territorial disputes.

1. Wars increase government control and authority.

From the earliest times war have been waged by ruling classes and those in power for personal, political, selfish or egoistic reasons to consolidate their power or extend their sway. They used their subjects to create large armies and pay the costs of the war, often claiming divine authority, and with their help went to wars against their enemies. In the process they created a value system, which rewarded valor and chivalry and castigated those who showed any physical or mental weakness or fear or reluctance to fight. Even today, all governments are constitutionally empowered by their peoples to make important decisions about wars.

In war times, government power massively increases to deal with the emergency conditions, while people lose their freedom and many of their rights, in addition to facing economic hardship, scarcity, inflation, higher taxation, increased surveillance and so on. Certain businesses profit from wars such as the arms and vehicle manufacturers and suppliers of food, equipment and raw materials. Those who oppose the war or question the government decision may face charges of treason or face social and public ridicule. It is a powerful value system we developed over time, and no one can dare challenge it without risking their lives or reputation.

2. Common people are drawn into wars against their interests

Wars disrupt peace and lead to many social, economic and political consequences for the people who are made to participate in it rather vicariously or emotionally as a part of their conditioning. Our current value system is such that in a war your nation becomes more important than your own life. Without your knowing, you accept it as an inviolable duty or obligation. That obligation or duty becomes even more sacred and imposing if you are a soldier or a civil servant. It does not matter if the government has failed in all respects to ensure a decent life for you or your family, or protect your constitutional rights and freedom.

Government’s power to wage wars for any reason flows from people only. To engage in any war it requires the consent of its people, which is usually taken for granted or assumed. Although people are conditioned to believe that a war is a necessary evil to protect the sovereignty and integrity of a nation, most are not readily inclined to participate in any war or a war like situation due to its socioeconomic impact and destructive nature. The economic burden of a war ultimately falls upon people only, and they know its social, political and economic implications and how it may disrupt their lives. Many countries impose mandatory military service as a part of a citizen's duty, which means people must willingly enlist in the army in times of war if they are called upon by the government to fight for the country, setting aside their own personal or family interests.

Governments are aware that if wars are prolonged  and result in more causalities, people will grow anxious and begin to protest or refuse to cooperate with the government or the leadership. Hence, leaders of a nation use various tactics to persuade them or keep them under control, with propaganda and misinformation if necessary. Appealing to their patriotic instinct or religious fervor, or using cultural and historical references they try to convince them that the war is meant for a just and noble cause to secure their welfare or the welfare of the nation, and their suffering is a small sacrifice in their effort to protect the nation or the world itself. For example, in 2002 the US Government used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction to declare a war on Iraq. The Pentagon Papers showed how successive administrations hid vital information from the American public to initiate and continue the Vietnam war. Ultimately, as the protests grew, the government withdrew the troops.

3. Wars leave deep psychological wounds.

Wars personally affect people in various ways and make them vulnerable to uncertainty, death and destruction. Victims of wars suffer from trauma and problems such as depression, anxiety neurosis, amnesia, sleeplessness, aggression, alienation and antipathy. They devastate the lives of many innocent people whose only fault is to live in a war-torn country, or in adjoining territories. The severity of their suffering increases in proportion to their proximity to the war zones.

The very brutal nature of wars creates in them feelings of negativity, hostility, anger, fear, guilt, distrust, bias, etc. Civil wars as well as wars between nations separate people from their families, drive them out of their homes and expose them to grievous hurt, economic hardship, loss of livelihood, destruction of property, mass migration, and social unrest. If the fighting continues for a long time, their suffering increases even more as people are forced to live in degraded conditions against their will and in fear. 

Many victims of wars may end up as prisoners of war or refugees, facing inhuman conditions and ill-treatment. The soldiers who return from the battlefront mostly end up with many physical and psychological wounds and resign themselves to an uncertain future. Their lives will never be the same as they struggle to regain their old selves or return to their normal lives. Many face broken homes, broken relationships and failed marriages. Some may turn to spirituality and therapy, hoping to find peace and solace or personal healing, while some turn to drugs, alcohol, crime, violence and other self-destructive methods.

4. Wars test our moral and ethical values

Because of their complex nature, in today's world the line between a just and an unjust war is rather thin. Many consider a war a necessary evil, but no one can be sure how far it is necessary and whether it could have been avoided. It is difficult to decide when and whether a war becomes necessary at all, and whether any justification is just an excuse or rationalization. Considering that wars cause so much destruction and loss of human life, it is difficult to justify any war, however noble the cause may be. At the same time, we cannot argue that people and nations do not have the right to defend themselves against their enemies or those who intend to do them harm or undermine their sovereignty.

No one appreciates if a country is invaded by its enemies, and its rulers do not respond in equal measure or resist the aggression. All cultures and value systems recognize self-defense as a moral imperative and a noble virtue. Wars become unavoidable when a country has to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity from an aggression or when its very survival is threatened. Since the conditions that lead to a war take time and many causes lead to it, when it eventually breaks out, it is difficult to say which side is more justified. In today’s world, it is even more difficult since warring nations strategically engage in misinformation and propaganda to justify their actions or cover up their aggression.

Wars are often necessary to prevent wicked people from succeeding in their effort to create chaos or fulfill their aims. Hence, we cannot summarily conclude that all wars are evil. History proves that wars played a constructive role in the progress of our civilization. For example, many wars were fought in the past to free people from the tyranny and oppression of wicked rulers and dictatorship and establish just governments that abided in democracy and rule of law. Wars also led to exploration and the discovery of new lands, and progress in science and technology, resulting in many new inventions and cures for diseases. Thus, however unpleasant they may be, we cannot ignore that wars are often necessary to protect ourselves from tyranny and oppression or injustice. As someone said, in the battle for supremacy, when wicked people join hands, it becomes the duty of the good and the righteous to come together and oppose them.

5. Wars bring out both the best and the worst in humanity

Wars bring out raw human passions and emotions with positive as well as negative consequences. Most people do not want to be part of any war or fight any war. They do not want to put their lives and those of their loved ones in the harm’s way. If at all they participate in a war, it is against their will or due to the conditioned belief that it is patriotic or noble duty. Yet, no war is free from death and destruction, and no one who participates in it comes out without a shaken belief in the good of the humanity.

In wars, we come to witness the worst of human aggression and the darkest of human nature. It effects the judgment and the perception of those who directly engage in it and are forced to take a stand. If you have ever participated in a war or witnessed it from the ground up, you are never free from its disturbing images or the prejudice and hostility it brings out. Memories of it and the sounds and images associated with it stay with you forever and follow you even in your dreams, forever influencing the way you think and look at yourself, others and the world.

The two world wars showed the extent to which evil can manifest in human nature and motivate people to commit worst of the crimes against the humanity. As the wars progressed, millions of people across the six continents were captured, tortured and left to die of hunger, cold and malnutrition. Children were separated from their parents and sent to gas chambers or used as slave labor. Women were held in captive, raped or used as sex workers. The horrors of the wars created a crisis of faith, as it made many skeptical about our value system, the importance of virtue and morality and the existence of God.

At the same time, we cannot totally write off wars as evil, since they also bring out the good in humans and create opportunities for people to rise above themselves and their selfish interests. When a war breaks out, many people raise their voices against its negative consequences and clamor for peace. If the war is against a weaker nation, they express concern over the use of excessive force or violence and the loss of innocent lives. If the war is prolonged, they demand an immediate end to the hostilities or expose the horrors and the brutality of the war through the media to put pressure on the government. Some people volunteer to help victims of the war, refugees or injured soldiers to rebuild their lives and return to civilized life.


In the ultimate analysis, each war is a calamity that we bring upon ourselves in which no one is a clear winner. Everyone suffers. Every war leaves a permanent scar in our collective consciousness, proving how vulnerable we are to our own violent nature and reminding us of our collective failure to value life or appreciate our uniqueness as the only intelligent species in the known and explored a part of the universe.

It is paradoxical that human beings are intelligent enough to step into the shoes of the Creator and yet foolish enough to indulge in acts of senseless self-destruction. When we envision the universe with its billions of galaxies and vast interstellar distances that are mind-boggling even to a trained mathematician, waging wars on earth and causing destruction of life and natural resources seem petty, foolish and insensitive.

Life is so precious, precarious and unique that consigning it to the flames of war is probably the most hideous thing we can conceive. Wars teach us many lessons. They may eventually help us to find other effective ways to resolve conflicts and avoid wars. We have already made some progress in this regard. Many countries have made it a policy or signed treaties not to invade other countries or use war as an option to settle differences. As a result, wars are now confined to a few rogue groups and nations. Even they are subjected to a lot of international pressure to shun their ways or face isolation and economic sanctions.

Common sense suggests that the world may never be free from the prospect or possibility of wars because we are far from being perfect and we cannot simply ignore the reality of our lives in the interests of our idealism or our highest values. We have to deal with many threats and vulnerabilities, and we have a right and an obligation to defend ourselves from them. If all nations agree not to attack or invade any nation or become an aggressor, many wars and armed conflicts can be avoided.

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