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“War” is not “law” spelled backwards

LIFE magazine, May 22, 1944: Natalie Nickerson writes a thank you note to her boyfriend for his gift of a Japanese soldier's skull.

My editor, John Metcalf, recently sent me a piece by Denis Johnson on the war in Liberia, a subject my novel touches on only briefly.

The electricity went off in Monrovia. The water stopped running. The food ran out. The civil war turned nauseatingly murderous. An atmosphere of happy horror dominated the hours as Taylor’s men, dressed in looted wedding gowns and shower caps, battled with the army for the mansion. The shower caps were for the rain. The wedding dresses were without explanation. Meanwhile, Johnson’s troops, wearing red berets and women’s hairpieces liberated from the wigmakers, raced through the streets in hot-wired Mercedes Benzes, spraying bullets.

What is it that gives some wars, such as those in Sierra Leone and Liberia, this sense of “happy horror?” What makes them so utterly bug-eyed insane?

An evolutionary psychologist might propose that elaborate displays of frightening behaviour—running around in wedding dresses and shower caps, like lunatics—are a human equivalent to the Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) puffing out its gill covers and erecting its fins: a means by which we hope to intimidate our opponents and therefore avoid combat.

So then running around in wedding dresses and shower caps while firing AK-47s in the air would be natural human behaviour, in contrast to the “civilized” practices of Western warfare, with its laws and rules and its Geneva Conventions, its double standards for the treatment of officers and men—a form of warfare that ultimately comes down to launching cruise missiles from beyond the horizon while deriding the cowardice of an enemy who quite sensibly hides in his bunkers rather than coming out to be converted to hamburger.

It’s an attractive idea, but not a very good one, because humans are not naturally equipped with assault rifles, the better to perforate their neighbours at ranges up to 300 metres. Go to the downtown streets to observe humans in their natural habitat, equipped only with their natural weapons—hands and feet—and you will see much posturing and intimidation, much puffing out of chests, and the occasional fight, but you will never see wedding dresses, shower caps, strings of human teeth worn as necklaces, or limbs hacked off with machetes purely pour encourager les autres.

Besides, another evolutionary psychologist might chide the first that murder is observed in higher primates, and that war, including killings, is seen between troops of chimpanzees. We do not always avoid conflict.

Perhaps wedding dresses, war paint, or, indeed, body armour and ballistic eyewear function as disguises, masks that allow us to step outside the boundaries of normal, civilized behaviour to commit unthinkable acts.

Or perhaps technologically advanced warfare is just bug-eyed crazy. Perhaps it’s simply that once you uncork the bottle and let the devil out, it’s hard to wedge him back in there.

The laws of war, then, start to seem like nothing more than an attempt to put a leash on the devil. Yet, as LIFE magazine’s 1944 photo above shows, the devil proves difficult to control. And we have to ask, then, if the laws of war aren’t themselves a ridiculous fiction we’ve invented to fool ourselves into thinking that the whole exercise can be civilized—if we might not be better off admitting that it can’t.

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