The word “War” conjures up an image of violence and death, a destructive force that ravages both the physical and psychological well-being of its victims. It is also a dangerous concept, as it tends to trap people in a mental prison of its own creation. The key is to understand how and why this happens, and to break free of what William Blake called our “mind-forg’d manacles.” One way to do so is to deconstruct the concept of war. To do so requires an examination of its roots and its present meaning, as well as a look at some of the ways in which people have attempted to fight it.
In the past, a military conflict has been defined as a clash of arms between states or other armed entities. Today, the definition of war has broadened, encompassing any military operations that have been authorized by a sovereign body and that are characterized by a state of mutual tension or threat of violence between groups of people. This broader definition has brought with it new rules and regulations for warfare, including prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons, the need to distinguish civilian from military targets, the right to provide relief for victims of war, and the requirement that a declaration of war be made by a government authority. These rules and regulations have been codified in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.
Contemporary theories of war and its causes divide into two major schools. One school, rooted in ethology and psychoanalysis, attributes war to certain innate biological and psychological drives or factors in humans. This school includes optimists about the preventability of war as well as pessimists.
Another school of thought, influenced by Heraclitean and Hegelian philosophy, views war as an inevitable part of the human condition. This view of war is often paired with the belief that all change—physical, social, political, and economic—comes about only through violent conflict.
As the world becomes more interconnected, it is increasingly difficult to contain war within its boundaries. Refugees flee across borders, infectious diseases spread unchecked between countries, and terrorists capitalize on instability to carry out attacks abroad. It is also harder to control the impact of war on its victims, whose mental health is harmed by repeated exposure to fear and grief.
A consequence of all this is that civilians now make up the majority of war casualties. They are at risk from the weapons of modern warfare and from the tactics used to target them, which include inflicting rape and sexual violence, psychological trauma, physical injuries, and the loss of their home or family. As a result, they are also at greater risk of suicide, and many have developed PTSD. Those who suffer from these consequences find it hard to see the point of living. In addition, they find it difficult to form healthy relationships and a meaningful sense of belonging to society. They can also experience a reduction in their life expectancy, which is linked to the number of years they have lived through war.