Monday, 21 May 2007


A good edition of BBC Radio 4's Start the Week this morning; argumentative and heavyweight, which is as it should be. I was interested most of all to hear that James Kent has made, in conjunction with five musicians in various "war zones" around the world, a War Oratorio of five pieces of music which are going to tell us, basically, all about how terrible war is.

I find it odd that people are still making things like this, when it seems that everything that can possibly be said on the subject of "the horror of war" has been said: We get it already, war is a bad thing, and despite his apparently novel means - telling us war is bad through music - I don't really see what Kent is adding to the contributions of Wilfred Owen, Joseph Heller, or, more pertinently maybe, Edwin Starr. In fact, the more that anti-war "art" is created, the more I feel that it becomes less about genuine pacifism and more about being hand-wringingly sensitive and compassionate and, dare I say it, holier-than-thou. There's little more satisfying than showing just how morally superior a person you are than pointing out how much you like to see wrongs righted and pain eased - and look, I've even written a piece of music to prove it!

Moreover, it has to be said that the apparent purpose of such art - making people think (really think) on some new, deeper level about how terrible the whole thing is, and thereby bringing about peace - is self-evidently false. We are awash with anti-war sentiment - barely a day goes by without some form of sanctimonious demonstration against Tony Blair or George Bush, or a new film/play/book/oratorio coming out and reinforcing our understanding of how War Is Hell - and yet wars go on being fought with depressing regularity, just as they have since time immemorial. In fact, one of the most, if not the most, important themes of world history is the very obvious truth that human beings really do rather relish the opportunity of killing each other in organized ways. This is not only evident from a cursory glance at a history book, but also from the studies of anthropologists, who have estimated that at any given time 68% of hunter-gatherer groups are actually at war, 20% have been at war between five and twenty five years in the past, and all others have been at war at some time before that (Divale, W. T., 1972); and that "conflict, rape, revenge, jealousy, dominance, and male coalitional violence are human universals" (Keeley, L. H., 1996).

The question, to my mind, should not then be "how can we reinforce how terrible war is?" but rather "why is it that we seem to enjoy warfare so much?" That is the one that needs to be answered if we are serious about eradicating warfare; and yet it is one that artists seem keen to avoid.

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