War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War
by Simona Tobia and Gianluca Cinelli
Ancient Romans used to say “si vis pacem, para bellum”, which one could rephrase as “if you want peace, prepare for war”. War has always been much more than mere fighting. It affects society as a whole even in peacetime, for example in terms of training, preparation and strategy. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the “continuation of politics by other means”, meaning that war implies some transformation of mentality and the awareness that sometimes dialogue and compromise are not enough to compose litigation between two countries o two communities. However, war is no necessity. The Latin motto cited above must be read ironically, especially because it sounds very useful for any imperialistic ideology aiming to preserve its power and privileges by threatening other countries by stockpiling weapons and training big armies. War is not desirable, and as the French WWI veteran Jean Giono said, war does not uphold peace. All the opposite: war produces war, while peace is just another path. But one could say that it takes a long way to understand this, or better, it takes experience.
War is a brutal affair, but it has been and continues to be a key aspect of human history and social change. The Humanities and the Social Sciences can help us make sense of that, because they talk about who we are and they help us define our experience. They can also help us make sense of the disturbing aspects of the human character which become so evident in war. The violent nature of wars and conflicts and their effects on societies around the world and throughout history raise complex moral and ethical questions the answer to which is generally very controversial. For example is war always wrong? How can we explain our behaviour in war? Why do we wage war?
We believe that the best way to address these complex questions (again, ambitious project!) is to look at the cultural aspects of war and conflict, really focusing on the human experience of those who were (or are) there. We want to talk about ‘what it is like’ to be there, and for us the best way to do it is with the help of the Humanities. ‘Cultural aspects’ means that any kind of narrative about war and conflict is interesting for us, as well as any kind of representation, from literary, journalistic and artistic portrayals to exhibits and museums.
Combatants are not the only witnesses of war. Civilians, journalists, NGOs-operators, and other groups can equally tell stories about war insofar as they have seen it. The strength of such stories rests on their ability to convince others that war is, or is not, a worthwhile experience. They have come across war and gone through it, for better or worse. All those who have seen war have experienced violence and its corruption. Story-telling, together with other things (such as monuments, museums, celebrations, and others) embodies atonement, purification and return to civil society. Witnesses can share their opinions about war, can use words as a new and not lethal weapons to support the cause of fighting or that of peace. Story-telling is a particular encounter with war for those who have no clear idea of what war is. A narrated conflict is a cultural object. It is made of images and words; its very fabric is the rhetoric of story-telling, and later on of history. From facts to stories, war transforms itself into an experience of suffering and violence which can be made without the risk of getting overwhelmed and harmed.
All representation is interpretation. It has its own reality but it also contributes to create new reality. Representation-interpretation transfigures war into an indirect experience, an intellectual one. One could say that a discourse on war is true because it has been produced by an eye-witness or by an objectively detached and well-informed historian. But how can one tell the difference? Where is the limit between war as reality and war as a vision? The Humanities and the Social Sciences set the tools, critical and intellectual, to face this methodological and epistemological questions. What’s more, they also help understand those questions ethically.
War as an encounter with the unknown, the unexpected, the undesirable implies an understanding of what encountering ‘the enemy’, ‘the other’, or merely ‘the different’ means. Disciplines such as history, philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology and others can help us discern and comprehend. So let us begin our discussion with two articles on the very actual issue of violence in captivity.