On War and Literature

June 8, 2022 | 15 books mentioned 18 min read


While it is not the most wicked injustice of war, it is still a barbarity that so much of our attention is on the murderers and not the murdered. An argument can be made—good, valid, and true—that the names of those who start wars must stay on our lips as a curse, but let others do that, because I don’t want to do it now. To focus only on the monsters it is to reduce the innocent dead to corpses. Piles of rubble, of shoes and books and toys, of twisted bodies. We imperil our own conscience if we forget such evidence of life. Which is why I will not tell you the names of the two officers in the Japanese Imperial Army who, according to the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun engaged in a contest to see who could first kill a hundred Chinese civilians during the invasion of Nanjing. According to the paper, one man had killed 106 innocent humans and the other 105, with both lieutenants “going into extra innings.” I will not tell you the name of those two officers because I do not know the names of the 211 women, children, and men whom they murdered. I will not tell you the names of these lieutenants because I don’t know the names of the 150 additional people they killed the following day. Such atrocities “did not penetrate the world consciousness,” writes historian Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, “because the victims themselves had remained silent,” and so I will not say the perpetrators names, for they had their own opportunity to speak at their trials.

During the six weeks of invasion that started in December of 1937, and 200,000 Chinese civilians were murdered, with at least 20,000 incidences of rape (both numbers are likely lower than what really happened). Robert O. Wilson, an American physician in Nanjing, recorded in his diary that the “slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases of rape and brutality almost beyond belief,” and he does. The doctor would testify at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after the war’s end; in 1948 that same commission executed the two who were involved in that horrific contest. Whether or not it’s good and righteous and just to execute those who commit such crimes, I do not know. As to if it’s true or not that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, I have no real opinion. To take any human life makes me uneasy, but I will tell you that deep in my heart, I do not mourn for those two officers on the gallows, nor does the thought of them in Hell bother me, and whatever that says about me is something that I probably should have more concern about. I know that atrocities are committed by normal people, that those two may have grown up in loving families, that they may have delighted in their wives and children. I know that these soldiers were not demons, but that they were humans, and that that is all the more terrifying.

“Almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances,” Chang writes. Also, important to remember that if everybody is capable of atrocity, only a small percentage of humans actually do so, lest we obscure evil in the gauzy miasma of moral universalism. Yet the question of what drives men to such wickedness is forever unanswerable. Why are some Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele and by contrast others are Mahatma Gandhi or Oscar Romero? Chang’s research involved discovering the involvement of German businessman John Rabe who established the Nanking Safety Zone, where through diplomatic immunity he was able to protect civilians and saved 200,000 people. Rabe was also a dedicated member of the Nazi Party. The only thing more mysterious than human beings is grace, whatever the origin of that grace might be. Separate from historical scholarship, intelligence reports, and national security briefings, war literature exists to comprehend the arbitrary nature of grace and damnation. If war literature is written to impart meaning, then all war literature is failure. Nothing is so incomprehensible as war; not logistics, or strategy, battles for land, glory, riches, or liberation, all of which can be perfectly logical, but the actual act of war, of waking up knowing that your life could be taken or that you must take a life. We’re told this is our animal nature, but the organized barbarity at Andersonville, or Dachau, or Nanjing has no corollary in the natural world. War literature exists not to impart meaning, but the appearance of it, so to gesture at something beyond this veil of shadows. Something unutterable, and ineffable, and silent, and strange. War literature, at its best, exists not as scripture but as liturgy, not to explain but to remember. Chang writes that “to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice,” and such writing ensures that we don’t become complicit.

Literature replaces the aridness of numbers with the texture of humanity, while somehow grappling with the full scope of an atrocity. When Joseph Stalin was Commissar of Munitions during the enforced famine known as the Holodomor, which killed almost four million Ukrainians in the mid-30s, he told a group of his colleagues that “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” What is grotesque is that this ruthless theorist of the human abyss was correct. When death tolls mount from the hundreds, to the thousands, to the millions, the brain is only capable of processing so much. But the person that is forgotten is Myshko Cherkasy, who when he died and was to be buried his mother discovered that his grave was already occupied by another child; Michael Kovrak who starved to death in front of his young brother; Olya Sturko forced to give birth upon the wheat fields at a collective farm, who died from after a small amount of food eaten after weeks of starving. Journalist Petro Shovkovytsia wrote in 1933 how for the Soviets, “These were not people, but rather shadows of people. Cut them with the dullest of knives, and you will not get blood to flow from them: beaten, tortured, exhausted.” The task of war literature is to transform shadows into pictures, to put flesh upon the bones of mere statistics. To square individual tragedy with the horror of mass atrocity, to mathematically transform the number one into an infinity. Ethically, the writer and their reader must attempt to comprehend that each singular murder is but one of four million. With one or two or three deaths in mind we must try and imagine all of the deaths. Holding to particularity, we must mourn for the multiplicity. That this is by definition impossible does not occlude our responsibility; if anything, it’s all the more imperative. What is asked of us is something theological, to grasp towards the enormity of all that which we are incapable of understanding.

Every human is a universe; each individual in victory and defeat, love and hatred, desire and revulsion, is more complicated than all great literature, more beautiful than every painting, more true than all of the axioms of philosophy. The human soul is inviolate, and in its own flawed way, a species of perfection. Which is why murder is a sin, and to take millions of lives is a crime against humanity. Arguing that every human is valuable, that we’re all equal, that all deserve dignity, security, safety, happiness, love. Rank schmaltz, right? Sentimental affectation, correct? Cliché. Ah, but here’s the thing with genuine war literature—the ethical imperative is to understand that cliché is not the antithesis of truth. Another cliché—it might be hackneyed to say that it’s impossible to explain war to a child, but that’s only because it’s impossible to explain war. “The violence of war is random,” writes journalist Chris Hedges in War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. “It does not make sense. And many of those who struggle with loss also struggle with the knowledge that the loss was futile and unnecessary.”

coverWar literature which does something as sacrilegious as to make sense scarcely deserves to be called literature. Reduced to its basest formulation, war is the practice of resolving disagreements, or acquiring land, or erasing humans whom you hate by organizing men with weapons who then kill people until everyone is tired of all the killing, or everyone’s dead. That is irrational, stupid, inexplicable, there is no making sense of that and so any honest war literature doesn’t concern itself with such theodicies. “When meaning is drawn from killing,” notes historian Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, “the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning.”

coverA risk in reducing gun and wound to axiom and postulate, bullet to arid argument. You can’t summarize a null point of meaning with anything as quotidian as a syllogism. That shining and polished black-jack-booted Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz claimed in On War that war is “a continuation of politics by other means.” Perhaps, though often the opposite is just as true. I wouldn’t deign to impugn von Clausewitz’s instilling of bravery, loyalty, and respect within his troops, of inspecting ammunition, and armories, of evaluating the Cannae model of troop formation in imitation of Hannibal’s victory during the Second Punic War, but give me rather that grizzled frontiersman General William Tecumseh Sherman’s opinion as he marched all the way to Savannah that “War is hell.” Those three words seem at least truthful. War isn’t just hell, of course. War is also strategy, war is distraction, war is horror, war is entertainment, war is propaganda, war is spontaneous, war is planned, war is boring, war is exciting, war is oppressive, war is liberatory, war is wasteful, war is necessary, but most of all war is meaningless. At least the actual pulling of the trigger is. Being able to kill a man, the unawareness of if you’ll return, the knowledge you may never see your family again, the reality that somebody else might never see theirs again because of you—all of that can’t quite be circumscribed by logic or poetry. All war literature must be failed literature because it gestures to where words themselves fail. Such writing tries to express the inexpressible, for the moment that a human takes the life of another language has already broken down. I’m not saying that historians shouldn’t investigate the causes of wars, of course not, for the better to prevent them. But the actual act of taking a rifle and from a distance shooting a stranger in the head—that is madness. If logic comes out of war, then war itself is built upon a million illogical acts.

All honest war literature is fundamentally anti-war. That’s not the same as saying that all war literature must be pacifistic. Kurt Vonnegut‘s autofiction/science fiction account of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, Norman Mailer‘s indulgent but trenchant The Naked and the Dead, Joseph Heller‘s hilarious and terrifying Catch-22, Dalton Trumbo‘s disturbing account of being caged within one’s own destroyed body in Johnny Got His Gun, the German writer Erich Maria Remarque‘s exquisite account of World War I trench fighting in All Quiet on the Western Front, each and everyone exemplars, each and every one anti-war, each and every one pacifistic, and tellingly each and every one by a veteran. Remarque explained that his book was to be “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.” But great war literature need not be pacifistic, only anti-war, which is to say that it comprehends barbarity. Two of the most poignant, brutal, and under heralded war novels of mid-century are Martin Booth‘s horrific Hiroshima Joe and John Horne Burns’s The Gallery. Both books concern the ostensible “Good War” against the Axis Powers, with Booth focusing on the war against Japan, and Burns’s writing about the occupation of Naples by the Americans. And both, while not arguing against the reasons for the war, focus on brutality enacted against “enemy” civilians, how innocence is never a quality of those who fight, regardless of their side’s righteousness.

coverThe titular character of Hiroshima Joe is Captain John Sandingham, a British POW captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and witness to the unspeakable horror of the atom bomb. Sandingham observes the incineration of whole city blocks, women and men turned to ash, shadows burnt into sidewalks, and children with skin hanging from their bodies. He sees “what no man should be made to see; he died fearing what we all must fear,” a world where there is no distinction between soldier and civilian, where peace itself is conquered. The Gallery also disavows Manichean platitudes in fictionalized vignettes based on the American occupation of his beloved Naples, where the ostensible good guys were involved in extortion, racketeering, rape, murder. Burns’s novel is a warning at the dawn of the true American century, that “unless we made some attempt to realize that everyone in the world isn’t American, and that not everything American is good, we’ll all perish together.” It is ironic that  some of the greatest anti-war literature comes from the Second World War, arguably the most morally unassailable battle in human history. A generation after the Great War, and the “combatants were unillusioned from the start,” writes editor Sebastian Faulks in the introduction to The Vintage Book of War Fiction. “They knew how gruesome war would be, they knew that they had been dropped into it by inept politicians, but in place of innocent patriotism of their fathers they had a proper moral cause to fight for.” If war is necessary, there’s still nothing glorious about it. Between country or what’s right, at the very least there’s something to be said for fighting on behalf of the latter. As for myself, having never been anywhere near a frontline, a trench, or an active battlefield, I’m not a pacifist—merely a coward. There’s a difference there as well.

covercoverIn a war of defense or liberation there can be many things—loyalty and courage, honor and fraternity. Glory, however, is invented by poets. War is blood congealing on the dead grass at Flanders Field and brains sprayed across Omaha Beach, it’s a gangrenous foot being sawed off at Manassas and bits of flesh dotting Hill 488. “I sing of arms,” as Virgil begins The Aeneid, a topic of utmost seriousness since a man first struck another man, our story of creation not in Eden but when Cain slew Abel. Triumph of kings and victory of the nation, glory of soldiers and the shame of the vanquished. Virgil’s epic is great poetry, but it’s also propaganda, albeit with its own anti-war moments studded like land mines within. The most antique of war literature, even when written to valorize, still has within it the seeds of truth. The Iliad of Homer, whether or not he had experienced war himself, is the great martial epic of valor, and yet within its opening lines there is the honesty which compels him to describe war as “Black and murderous… Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls… bodies to rot as feasts/For dogs and birds.” Achilles and Jason, Aeneas and Pallas, may fight with shields and spears, swords and helmets, while today soldiers wear Flak Jacket and brandish M4s, but the same absurd goal is at play—kill the other guy before you get killed. Despite the social Darwinian fallacy that understands people as living in a barely contained state of nature, just three days’ worth of good meals away from total anarchy, and to kill a man is a supremely unnatural thing, especially a stranger, particularly one who’s done nothing to you.

coverWhen humanists extol the canon’s universalism, they reduce and flatten our differences with the past, and the reality is that we neither love, pray, live, or work like our ancestors in Rome, or Greece, or Babylon, but the score of being made to kill a man—and the resulting wounds —remains similar. That’s the principle behind artistic director Bryan Doerries‘s Theater of War Productions, which stages readings of Greek tragedies like Sophocles‘s Ajax and Philoctetes for audiences of veterans as a way of coping with trauma. According to Doerries in The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, he has discovered that “people who have come into contact with death, who have faced the darkest aspects of our humanity, who have loved and lost, and who know the meaning of sacrifice, seem to have little trouble relating to these ancient plays. These tragedies are their stories.”

covercovercoverEnglish professor Elizabeth D. Samet has explored something similar in her teaching U.S. Army cadets among the bucolic red, orange, and brown trees of autumnal West Point. Reading Homer and Virgil, not to mention Ernest Hemingway‘s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried, in a graduate seminar is one thing; teaching it to young women and men who are destined to one day experience such violence requires a different perspective. In her memoir Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Samet writes that “We surrendered rather easily to yet another romantic notion: that meaning is to be found only in misery.” Surprisingly neither Doerries nor Samet read or teach war literature as involving spangled glory; the former emphasizes that playwrights such as Sophocles were not authors of morale-boosting propaganda, while the former’s contention makes the radical claim that suffering isn’t about meaning, that to the contrary it can often be about nothing. And yet suffering must still be endured, and so literature acts not to explain the inexplicable but rather to soothe, to say “You are not alone, this has happened before, this will happen again, not everybody survives but some people do.” 

“‘Forward, the Light Brigade! /Charge for the guns!’ he said: /Into the valley of Death /Rode the six hundred,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1854, mere days after the routing of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and 8th and 11th Hussars during the Crimean War. Few poets seem stuffier than Tennyson; patriotic, formal, traditional, and conservative, his verse ponderously Victorian while across the Atlantic Walt Whitman was breaking meter and Emily Dickinson was reinventing metaphor. All of those exclamation points, that equestrian rhythm, that sickly celebration of valor. Yet even Tennyson drew a distinction between the incompetent men who sent boys to their death, and the boys themselves who “Storm’d at with shot and shell, /Boldly they rode and well, /Into the jaws of Death, /Into the mouth of Hell.” This, it could be observed, is still mythological language, Tennyson describing the campaign in the language of harrowing. He chose the wrong genre, for war literature isn’t myth, it’s horror. What’s lacking in Tennyson is the physical experience of war; he describes “Cannon to right of them, /Cannon to left of them, /Cannon behind them… While horse and hero fell, /They that had fought so well.” This is basically a boy’s fantasy of war. Tennyson might as well be describing soccer. The Poet Laureate wasn’t a veteran, and it shows; it’s what allows him to ask “When can their glory fade? /O the wild charge they made! /All the world wonder’d. /Honor the charge they made! /Honor the Light Brigade!” Now all that’s remembered is a poem more pablum than Parnassus, each of those dead soldiers now forgotten other than for some cenotaphs and memorials in England. What’s missing is blood—gouged eyes—protruding bones—first-degree burns—festering bullet wounds—severed hands and crushed bodies. What’s missing is the sense that death isn’t metaphor or simile or allegory, but that death is just death, a violent one all the more so.

coverCompare Tennyson’s verse to Whitman’s “The Wound-dresser” from his collection of Civil War lyrics Drum-Taps. Of Quaker pacifist stock, though a vociferous supporter of the Union, Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington DC after hearing of his brother’s wounding at Antietam, deciding to stay in the capital where he worked as a nurse in war hospitals. The good, grey poet would tenderly minister to the beautiful boys of American death, wrapping their burns and cuts, setting their broken legs, distributing sweets and occasionally reading his verse to men who undoubtedly had no idea that he was the greatest of American poets. “Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, /Straight and swift to my wounded I go, /Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, /Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground.” Whitman is an abolitionist who comprehends that the Confederacy is defeated at Gettysburg and Antietam and nowhere else, but he is not delusional about the cost. Tennyson’s Dragoons, Lancets, and Hussars are heroes, whereas Whitman asks in a parenthetical “(was one side so brave? the other was equally brave).” The British poem lacks blood, it lacks corpses, it lacks bodies, replacing them with abstractions. In “The Wound-dresser,” Whitman describes “stump of the arm, the amputated hand… the clotted lint… the matter and blood.” Whether or not a war is just, or justified, or righteous, or right, Whitman understands that it results in men like the soldier whose “eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, /And has not yet look’d on it.” The difference between the poems is that Tennyson described war in terms of glory, and Whitman knows that it’s about “clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.” One poem works because it tells the truth and the other one doesn’t work because it lies. As Remarque writes in the following century, “A hospital alone shows what war is.”

coverBesides, meter, rhythm, and rhyme can be useful, for what war lyrics are more successful than that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose accounts of trench warfare written in the midst of the Great War itself? Owen was a working-class Shropshire lad tutored on Keats, Shelley, and Yeats; Sassoon was from a wealthy Baghdadi Jewish family and was educated at Cambridge. The two read and admired each other, and served at the same time along the crooked, burning gash of the Western Front. As inheritors of a classical English education, both men wrote in a cadence that owes more to the measured traditionalism of Tennyson than the barbaric yawp of Whitman, and yet when war’s madness can be barely constrained by formalism, its horrors are all the more pronounced. “Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,” wrote Sassoon in Counter-Attack and Other Poems, “Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.” Almost oracular, but the eloquence of Sassoon’s rhetoric belies the horror it describes. From Owen’s most famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” written in the trenches themselves, he describes watching the burning, disintegrating, acrid death that results when a soldier is hit with mustard gas, for “someone still was yelling out and stumbling, /And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…/Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, /As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”

coverThe Great War surprised the great powers, doddering men who’d amassed massive armies and let their technology outstrip their empathy. A war fought between the first cousins who ruled Britain, Germany, and Russia, offering up as sacrifice millions of young men cooked in mustard and shot at by gatling gun on the barbed wire of broken Europe. Critic Paul Fussell, himself a veteran of World War II, notes in The Great War and Modern Memory that “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,” and the impact of Sassoon and especially Owen’s verse is that it exists between the grandiosity of Victorian youth trained on myths of the Light Brigade when compared to the reality of Verdun, Somme, and Gallipoli. When Owen describes the dying man’s “every jolt, the blood… gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud /Of vile, incurable soles on innocent tongues,” he writes in an idiom where at the literal level of sounds is beautiful. Go ahead, read that bit out loud to yourself, listen to the cadence, the relationship of syllables to each other, the meter, the unforced rhyming, and admit that Owen has used beautiful language to describe an atrocity. And in that ironic gap, valor is erased by degradation. Owen expresses more about battle than propagandists ever could. He would die in 1918 while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. His mother received the telegram on Armistice Day, when bells were ringing in celebration throughout Shrewsbury. “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est/Pro Patria mori.” Who knows what poems have been interrupted by a bullet, what novels disrupted by mortar attack?

covercoverSome of the surviving lyrics are assembled in Lorrie Goldensohn‘s remarkable American War Poetry, the first collection of its kind, including verse from colonial wars through Afghanistan, with sections dedicated to overlooked conflicts including the Spanish American War, the Indian Wars, and even the Spanish Civil War. Goldensohn writes that poetry is a way of conveying “battlefield advance and retreat, the daring and courage of leaders and men, as well as the despoliation of territory, the experience of prison camp and the making of refugees, the annihilation and wounding of human flesh, the grieving aftermath.” Every emotion is expressed in such verse, from cruel jingoism to fear, from patriotic loyalty to absurdity. Sarah Teasdale considers not the artillery of the Great War, but the silence which follows, for “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground… And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, /Would scarcely know that we were gone.” James Dickey, American Poet Laureate and a veteran of World War II, meditates in incendiary and gasoline, writing of how “All families lie together, though some are burned alive.” Rolando Hinojosa recalls American atrocities during the Korean War, how “I don’t want to look at the Chinese dead. /There are hundreds of them out there. They died in the city, /They died in the fields and in the hillsides. /They died everywhere.” Yusef Komunyakaa presents the haunting experience of searching for the names of dead friends on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where “My black face fades, /hiding inside the black granite.”  For sheer, methodical, scientific accuracy, however, and Iraq War veteran Brian Turner‘s masterpiece from Here, Bullet provides both autopsy report and psychological evaluation. “If a body is what you want, /then here is bone and gristle and flesh.” That is what war poetry must be about, “where the world ends, every time.”

If war requires any genre, it’s not drama, or novel, or poetry, but journalism, the bearing witness as to what actually happens when troops cross a border or bullet pierces flesh. Studs Terkel‘s interviews in The Good War, Philip Gourevitch‘s harrowing We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families about Rwanda, Aleksander Hemon‘s evocation of a Sarajevo youth before the wars in The Book of My Lives. Anthony Swofford expresses dark truths in Jarhead, his account of the Marine Corp during the Persian Gulf Invasion, and the fact that “as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.” Waiting for the invasion to begin, and the bored Marines sit in the Kuwaiti desert and watch movies about an earlier confrontation. Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone‘s Platoon, Stanley Kubrick‘s Full Metal Jacket. Swofford is blunt—all of those movies might ostensibly be anti-war, but for the grunts trying to psyche themselves up listening to Wagner‘s Ride of the Valkyries as U.S. helicopters drop napalm doesn’t engender pacifism so much as adrenaline. Which is the corollary to all war literature being anti-war, and that’s that war literature can’t help but be prurient, exploitative, exhibitionistic, pornographic. The moment editing and revision happen, then you’ve made literature, a polite way of saying something with an agenda, and anything with an agenda is incapable of examining the unvarnished totality of something, especially a black hole like war. A true literature of war has never been written. It might not even be possible.

coverThere’s been some elision between violence and war in this essay. A sloppiness in that, because all war might be murder, but not all murder is war. Cain killed Abel, by himself. No general directed him. Violence might be natural (though so is cholera), but war is strange. “If wars were fought only by the men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly,” notes Swofford. “Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don’t want to die so simply for so little.” Often war is presented as a bestial return to a state of nature, but it’s the exact opposite. With few exceptions, animals don’t engage in war, though they kill each other all the time. War is not the daughter of nature, but rather the son of civilization. War is fought by men, but it’s demanded by chiefs and priests, Caesars and kings, czars and dictators, generals and presidents. Like many of you, the last few months have had me thinking about W.H. Auden, but not the poem which you’re thinking of, but a lesser known verse. Only six short lines constitute “Epitaph from a Tyrant” published in 1940, a year after the invasion of Poland, appearing in Auden’s Another Time

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

No human has ever been so physically powerful as to exert the authority which even the smallest war demands, so that the history of war is the history of tyrants somehow compelling men to violence. The Hitlers and Stalins, the Napoleons and Khans. Pharaoh Thutmose III. The earliest written record of war, when the Egyptians crushed the Canaanites 1,457 years before the Common Era. Recorded on a stele are the details of this supposed “campaign of victory which his majesty made to extend the frontiers of Egypt, in valor, in victory, in power, and in justification.” We are given laborious, self-satisfied, and grandiose detailing about Thutmose’s forces, so that “everything which his majesty did to this town and to that wretched enemy and his wretched army is set down by the individual day and by the individual expedition and by the individual troop commanders.” Over eight thousand Canaanites killed, half that many enslaved in the first recorded war. When shall be the last, and under what circumstances? Shall swords be beaten into plowshares or melted into radioactive dust? By a coincidence, Thutmose’s army laid siege to the Canaanite garrison at Megiddo, which for separate reasons is today far more known by its Greek name: Armageddon.

is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions. A contributor at dozens of sites and the author of several books, this fall his contribution to Ig Publishing's Bookmarked series will be released, Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost.