Today is not only Memorial Day, a time set aside to remember our fallen, but for the next four years, including today, we’ll be observing the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War. That’s still not very far away in time, if you think about it. Theoretically, some dude born in April 1865, at about the time Grant and Lee met at the Appomattox courthouse, could live 75 years, which according to my math skills would take us to 1940, and people born on or before 1940 are certainly still around. So we’re just two people away in history, as it were. Heck, Civil War veterans in their eighties and nineties were still living when my dad was a baby. The History Channel is presenting a new documentary on Gettysburg tonight, so perhaps I’ll go to the gym and watch it while on the elliptical machine, as we don’t have cable TV at home. I’m not a huge Civil War buff, but I love history and certainly know a thing or two about this period. Besides, if Ridley Scott had something to do with the production, as the YouTube promo video indicates, it’s gotta be good! Of course Memorial Day is about more than just the Civil War.
Some historians and pundits, perhaps more with an axe to grind or exaggerated desire as Americans to appear objective, have portrayed the United States as a warmongering nation. To be sure, we’ve had our fair share of conflicts going back to the 1620s before we were even a nation. Yet how we stack up against, say, Britain, Germany, France and China, with respect to the virulence and frequency of warfare, is an open question in my mind that merits further study (and not off the cuff anecdotal “evidence”). I don’t mean to dodge this question about America’s putative love affair with war, but I am more interested in the human species and a world-wide perspective than in the specific military history of the United States. So the bigger question for me is whether the Homo sapiens will someday sheathe his weapons. The answer is decidedly NO. I tell you, my liberal friends give me grief on this issue, as they seem to think I’m some kind of jingoistic patriot justifying conquest and beating the war drum. But I look at these queries about the human condition as a social scientist and amateur biologist. As Jesus said, we’ll always have the poor among us, or more broadly, tension between the Haves and Have-Nots. We’ll always have epidemics, for microbes do not give a rat’s ass about humanity’s moral progress. Lastly, we’ll always have wars, though according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker their frequency—Gott sei dank!—has lessened in the modern era.
Someone might say that such a prognostication of our species opens us up for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of getting out of the circulus vitiosus of war and genocide that has plagued humans since the Paleolithic era involves a bold new vision for our future, one that depicts a world awash in peace and harmony. Should disagreements emerge, diplomacy and negotiation would hold sway and put us back on the road toward love and mutual respect. I would like a world like this. In fact, I long for it. We should indeed hope for an irenic future in our societal evolution, but a world without conflict and war, even genocide, is nothing but a fantasy so long as Homo sapiens populate it. I have no pathological distaste for humanity, no psychological bent toward doom and gloom pessimism, and certainly not a fatalistic attitude toward civilization. I’m not stating what I want to be the case, but what is the unfortunate situation regarding our evolutionary heritage. Thus, seeing in the future more wars and genocides, as terrible as those things are, does not create them ex nihilo. The reverse is likewise true. Dreaming about a future utopian bliss will not bring it into being. After all, the call for peace has existed just as long as the call to arms. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah foresaw nearly three thousand years ago an era in which armies would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” One in which “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” In what millennium was all of that supposed to happen?