Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base. All men are afraid in battle. The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty. Duty is the essence of manhood.
-George S. Patton
Which would you say was the first technology of humans? Fire? The hammer or axe? The wheel? Modern and ancient history has demonstrated that conflict, war, drives technological development. Daily conveniences such as microwave and laser technology, radio broadcasting and the internet were begun as military projects. The first men on the moon were launched atop what were essentially ballistic missiles. Conflict or warfare has defined humanity for so long that the definition of humanity is incorrect.
Humanity : compassionate, sympathetic, or generous behavior or disposition : the quality or state of being humane.
From Webster’s dictionary
Following the 20th century they should have redefined this inaccurate definition of our species. This was a century that saw more conflict and suffering than almost all of those preceding it combined, including the only two globally engaged wars of history and the development and implementation of the most lethal device of warfare: the atomic bomb. This is just in reference to the widely acknowledged conflicts between countries, states and nations. It does not account for the conflicts that occurred within nations themselves; civil wars and genocides. Those took place as well and often did not draw the attention that disagreements on the larger political stages demanded. However, war is war and casualties from whatever cause are violations of moral definitions of “humanity” and compassion. The very definition that supposedly civilized homo sapiens would like to hold themselves to has been defied and violated millions of times over the course of its existence. Humanity is in fact an intricate lie to our species itself. It serves as an elaborate obfuscation of the truth that history and behavior can provide dissent against. Humans are not sophisticated, compassionate beings. They are more often barbarous savages who have resorted to the easiest path to prosperity through force and suffering than through mutual respect and trust.
There are observations that humanity has actually grown more “humane” throughout its development. The most common examples are laid out in terms of the forms of punishment and entertainment that our predecessors took part in. Events such as executions were public spectacles attended by entire towns and communities where macabre souvenirs were awarded or claimed and a poor criminal or victim met their fate, witnessed by hundreds or thousands of eager spectators. If this were true, then perhaps these practices would have ended in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries. But occurrences such as lynchings were taking place in civilized America as recently as the mid-twentieth century and conventional warfare facilitated practices such as carpet-bombing and burning of civilian communites as recently as the Vietnam War. It should be noted that instances such as these lead to public outcry and political opposition which eventually de-escalated the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia, but this is hardly comforting to the tens of thousands who died as a result of the American campaign against Communism. The use of chemicals in warfare has resulted in not only immediate hideous, inhumane and lethal results but also long-term suffering for survivors. For this reason there are a number of conventions and treaties that expressly state that the use of said chemical weapons is prohibited in conventional warfare. This did not put a halt to the containment and use of chemical weapons however and there are numerous instances of use of these types of weapons late into the 20th century that demonstrate the will to exercise this sort of torment on opponents. As mentioned, the United States used napalm as recently as the 1970’s and of course the Gulf War in the Middle East showed that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used nerve agents on Kurds in their civil conflicts. The United States is currently still in the process of destroying their stockpiles of toxic weapons including a variety of nerve agents and gasses accumulated during the course of the Cold War. Proof that they had considered this truly horrific approach to war, one can only imagine what other countries have stored in their war bunkers and hope that many are following suit in their disposal.
Life in the 21st century might be a time in human history that was supposed to hearken a golden age complete with replication technology, flying cars and world peace. Instead we got a global pandemic and conflict in Europe that could set off thermonuclear war. Surprise. More fun facts: climate change is at our door, global hunger is increasing and leadership still lacks the integrity to lead. All of these factors are a recipe for more conflict. Resource scarcity is a legitimate threat to the stability of systems and this is likely to increase as time marches forward and seas rise. It will allow powerful nations to overcome weaker ones and displace thousands of ‘climate refugees’ leaving them to their own means for survival. Most developed countries such as the United States and its partners in Europe don’t have designs on global domination, at least not in the empire-building fashion of the last few centuries. Countries run by less democratic systems wish for only that kind of expansion. As demonstrated by Russia’s recent power grab, they will resort to violent ends to restore themselves to either former or newfound glory. The continual narrative of the human race is that it moves ahead through ‘progress’ gleaned from conflict. The dichotomy of this is that this progress has brought us the ability to annihilate ourselves. Technological developments aside, it should not be worth the blood spilled to gain the luxuries that primarily developed nations benefit from. On a planet of 8 billion human residents, our technical advancements do not benefit all involved and one could even make the argument that it causes undue suffering to millions of humans living at the margins of society. We need to acknowledge that progress must be gained without barbarism. This is a fact that will become increasingly more important as our civilizations face greater challenges not only from themselves but from the world they have turned against them.
Progress at What Cost?
Many would argue that the survival and success of the human race has been worth the sacrifices. That the culmination of centuries of development and social and political advancement has reached its pinnacle and will only improve with time. However I pose the counter-argument as to whether the sacrifice made in blood is worth the advances of technical achievement? They seem to have mattered little when it comes to the emotional and moral advancement of the human species. New technologies placed in ancient hands; bigger sticks with which to oppress those without the power to resist. The greatest shortcoming of possessing and wielding better tools is the temperance to use them with responsibility. The instance of ongoing war throughout the course of history is evidence that the temptation to wield power against the powerless is irresistible to many. This is not only reinforced by the continuing stratification of society but also by the organization of religious and political systems and insistent adherence to archaic standards or traditions which often are nothing less than oppression in disguise. Everything is a “pyramid scheme”. The individuals at the top always withhold the weapons of authority and knowledge from those below them, knowing that their egos will not tolerate stooping to the level of equal should the followers share the same secrets as the leaders. This question is far more complex than simply the moral responsibility of using technology or the eagerness to turn to conflict over alternative solutions. It points to the very core of our human nature itself and asks why we are what we are? Why are we more likely to seek answers through violence than peace? Are we capable of evolving from this behavior?
How long is considered long enough to know better? Homo sapiens have scarcely been around long enough to consider us a developed species, in fact science would consider us as not. We may flatter ourselves with our achievements since from our narrow perspective this would seem enduring and noteworthy. From the perspective of hypothesized time and existence itself we do not register; it is flattery to simply consider us as being recognized at all. Another 100K years and if humans were to vanish, it would still not be recognized as anything. Humans knew little of the predecessors of the planet until they had dug into the dirt enough to begin to understand that the oversized bones they found were not their own. By then these specimens had become too numerous to explain away and it was becoming increasingly evident that they belonged to a race of titans who once inhabited the planet long before we did. The discovery or rather acknowledgement of the existence of sauropods changed our very perceptions of the evolution of the planet itself and tucked humans into the furthest corner of “history”.
Humbling as this was, it had a profound effect on the way that we observed the world around us and measured change. It changed the way sciences approached research and looked at the potential lifespan of the planet that we inhabit. Once again, not unlike the revelation that the Earth revolved around something else, humans were not the beginning and the end. Perhaps we constituted just another phase of a much larger timeframe. There may be yet those who do not believe that organisms such as the dinosaurs could have existed without our knowing, let alone survived for millennia longer that we have. Surely a species with the ability to develop tools and ponder its own existence cannot be bested by one that cannot? The fossil and geological record seem to show that indeed we can, and have. In fact we may not even be the first of our kind to have risen as the dominant inhabitants of Earth. There may be yet civilizations of homo sapiens who met their fate more quickly than even we are now racing towards it. All conjectures of cosmic disaster aside, we should acknowledge that just as all other living things we will die and this is a fact we will never escape. War or global genocide, only hastens the inevitable. Humanity considers itself “successful” but this cannot be measured by the short history that illustrates more inhumanity than growth. We are now set on a path that not only sees us continue to repeat the same mistakes but one that has set the source of our very livelihood against us. With nature as our adversary joining our own flawed tendencies, we grow closer to joining the deceased specimens that we study than we care to admit.
True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.