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The Culture of War

Martin van Creveld, Hans Achterhuis

In theory, war is simply a means to an end, a rational, if very brutal, activity intended to serve the interests of one group of people by killing, wounding, or otherwise incapacitating those who oppose it.

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. War exercises a powerful fascination in its own right. From Homer to Moshe Dayan, for every person who has ever expressed his aversion for war there has been another who expressed his joy in it. From the Roman games to the present mass media, the ability of war to excite interest has been unrivalled.

Out of this joy and this fascination there has grown an entire culture that surrounds war and in which, in fact, it is immersed. Like any other culture, this one consists largely of ‘useless’ play, decoration, and affectations of every sort; such as highly decorated weapons and armor, elaborate uniforms, colorful flags, and every sort of ceremony and parade. On occasion, so much do men love their parades, ceremonies, flags, uniforms, armor and weapons that they carry them to counterproductive lengths. So it has always been, and so, presumably, it will always be.

In truth, moreover, the culture of war is not useless at all. Given that war is at bottom an irrational activity – no rational consideration can make men to lay down their lives – it is absolutely crucial to men's conduct; this remains as true in the present post-heroic age as it has always been. Take the culture of war away, and all one is left with is a society that looses its ability to defend itself if necessary.

Martin van Creveld (1946) was born in The Netherlands but moved to Israel at the age of 4. In Israel, he became a famous and headstrong historian of war, who was never afraid for controversy in his research to the origins of war and violence.

The Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis (1942) will comment on Van Creveld in a counter-lecture. Hans Achterhuis was professor of philosophy at Enschede University and published his study Met alle geweld last year. It is one of his many accessible books.

Organised in co-operation with Groninger Forum

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