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War as the Opposite of Civilization

For my brother’s commissioning ceremony, I half-seriously begged him to quote a passage from Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. He gave a good speech, but this is what he didn’t say:

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer...hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that is it is the opposite of primitiveness. ... Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both.

                            -- The Left Hand of Darkness
                                Ursula K. LeGuin

If I could define war, this would be it.



Certain quotes can strike you so deeply and purely, it is hard to look at the world the same again. We’ve all, at some time or another, heard a truism that once learned can’t be forgotten, that shakes or forms your entire world view there after. We should always question our values and the things we take for granted, but nothing has shaken this understanding for me.
    
This quote is true, too true. In my writing on this website and in my fiction, this concept, war as civilization’s opposite, informs every word I write. War is killing. War is destruction. War, especially total war, disregards tradition, custom and social order; people kill people and destroy things. War has degrees, too, and some wars destroy the social order more than others, but all war is a march away from civilization.
    
This leads to many possible conclusions and problems. Why should/would someone participate in this thing? Can war, civilization’s opposite, be used to save civilization? Can it possibly be redemptive?
    
I don’t have all/many/some/any of the answers, but this feels like a good starting point.

One comment

I agree completely. I think it poignant that a common defense of violence/war is that it is part of our primitive nature. That it is in some way natural or legitimate because it is linked through evolution to our primitive ancestors as a necessity for survival (the strongest passes his genes). However, the lone fact that violence and war are primitive urges does not justify them because we have civilization and rational thought.