War Is Not Nice

April 20, 2007

by Alice

In the Devil’s Dictionary—a book I stole from one of my parent’s many bookshelves years ago, and never returned—Ambrose Bierce defines War as “God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” No definition has resonated so deeply as Bierce’s definition of war did in 2002 and since. It must be the accuracy of the definition and what that definition says about me that keeps these words alive.

When I first started writing this blog I thought; “I am against war in every sense, be I Mormon, atheist (by the way, I find it rather annoying that this word is not a capitalized word—we deserve some capital respect too, gosh darnit!), Hindu, Shiite, Sikh, you name it. I am against war!” but as I continued writing I started to wonder what that really meant by “against war.” It was a conversation I remember having during my March book club that made me begin to wonder just how against war I am.

Our last book club selection was a book that can be purchased at your local Starbucks, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. (In my mind, a Starbucks book receives the same amount of respect as a book with “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker in the corner—None! When I discover that I enjoy these books I’m forced to recognize just how un-elite I really am, an area of my life in which I prefer ignorance to rule. And of course, just my luck, I enjoyed A Long Way Gone).

Let me quickly summarize A Long Way Gone without giving too much away. Who knows, you might run out to the local Starbucks on Every Corner USA and buy your own copy. The book is Ishmael Beah’s chronicle of his life in war-torn Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Ishmael begins the book with scenes of his peaceful childhood, which are quickly replaced by scenes of the civil war raging through the nation’s countryside, hitting his village. As a result, 13-year-old Ishmael and his brother are separated from their family. Ishmael and his brother travel with a group of boys, looking for their families and seeking refuge. Unfortunately, most villages fear the boys, forcing them to live as savages. Eventually, during an attack on a village where they’ve spent the night, Ishmael and his brother also become separated. At one point, Ishmael comes close to finding his family. However, as he is on his way into the village where his family is living, the village is attacked and his family is burned alive. Soon after, Ishmael is given a choice by the commander in a village to become a child soldier, or to leave, alone and unprotected. At this point in the war, Ishmael explains, it really wasn’t a choice at all. The rest of the memoir covers Ishmael’s life as a child soldier, his rehabilitation by UNICEF in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, his adoption by his uncle, and his ultimate escape to America after the war hits Freetown.

My book club has no trouble keeping our conversation to the topic of the book. However, we still rely on the reading guide questions to draw on topics we might not naturally bring up, points the author makes that we either haven’t noticed, or have failed to provide a personal connection with. After about an hour’s discussion of the book, Wendy Lynn, our March host, read the following questions, “What steps has [Ishmael] inspired you to take to help end the use of child soldiers? How can each of us join Ishmael’s cause?”

Up to that point I’d really been enjoying our discussion, but all of a sudden I no longer had anything to contribute. I think we all struggled with the questions and struggled with providing an answer that we felt okay with, an answer that didn’t sound trite or like an excuse as to why we can’t do anything.

This week’s topic, war, Bierce’s definition of war, and the questions from book club, make me wonder, “How I can be against war when I don’t do anything about the wars that go on?” It seems to me that to be against war one must actively be doing something to reduce war or make war obsolete. Hell, I don’t even know where countries are until their war is in a movie, or in a book, or in the news, so am I against war? I know I’m not for war, but all I can safely say without feeling huge amounts of guilt is that war is not nice. I’ll leave the stronger statements, such as “I am against war” to advocates who are doing something about wars.

Even then, I’ll feel a little guilt.


  1. I think you can rest easy (a phrase I use lightly) knowing that no matter whatever you do, wars will break out. Wars have broken out before you were made aware of them in kindergarten.

    Wars have existed since the first tribes of humans wanted the same bushel of berries or the same watering hole and fought over it.

    Wars are just a normal part of the species and no amount of intellectual power or good will in this world will ever make them go away. Just observe kids in the playground. See how they play… and fight. Even at that young age of innocense they have the instinct for rivalry, for competition, and even ruthlessness.

    Anyways, wars are not your fault, you know? Don’t blame yourself. =P

  2. Thank you Tacitus, however, I don’t blame myself for war as much as I feel that if I am against something, such as war, I should be doing something more than I am currently doing, which is nothing.

  3. But then there is the wonder of “what CAN I do?” I could stand on the corners of intersections, joining those who hold hand written poster boards that call for bring out troops home? Is that the answer? The problem is that I don’t want to stand holding poster boards because, for me, it doesn’t make me feel any better or feel like I’m helping.

    So…should I just love “my neighbor” and call it good? Probably not…but I’m left with more questions on the subject than answers…

    Thought provoking post, Becca…great job.

  4. You voted, didn’t you? That’s a start.

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