“Pharaoh Tuthmose III in 1479 B.C. marched his Egyptian army north to the city of Megiddo, also known as Armageddon and left us the first detailed account of a battle. There must have been several thousand battles like Megiddo over the millennia before 1479 B.C., and there certainly have been many thousands like it since. For those who were there each battle was a matter of life and death, with the whole future seeming to hang in the balance. And they were not entirely wrong in their perception, if the future is defined as simply the rest of their lives. From the point of view of history, however, empire rise and fall, whole people appear and disappear, and borders fluctuate like droplets of rain running down the windowpane as the centuries flicker past.
Military power had become not just a symbol but also the real basis of political power across the whole civilized world, and war was the most important task a rule had, and war is still our rulers most important task. It is little wonder that most of history that has come down to us is military history.
Yet, all the effort and sacrifice entailed in fighting wars—each of which seems so important at the time—doesn’t actually lead anywhere. It is virtually cancelled out. The one thing that makes the battle of Megiddo important to us is the fact we know about it. But it is hard to feel any sense of regret about the men who lost the rest of their lives on that day, because they would have been dead over 3400 years now anyway. It is impossible to care much who won the battle, because both sides lived long ago and far away, and most of what they care for—their family and friends, their language, their religion, their personal and political hopes and fears—has vanished utterly. This is not at all the way we feel about the Normandy invasion of 1944, but if history goes on long enough, the day will come when Megiddo and Normandy will seem on a par: equally futile and equally meaningless.
Naturally, we resist and resent that conclusion with all our strength. That war of over 4300 years ago was obviously a mere power struggle with no moral justification, whereas any war our own nation becomes involved in today will be necessary and just. The soldiers who were killed on the battlefield of Megiddo died in vain. But if today’s generation of young men have to die on some central front it will decide the moral fate of mankind. The man in the ranks of Tuthmose III’s army at Armageddon was deluded about the importance of his death, but the man in a Chieftain tank or T-62 today is not? And I am the Queen of Sheba.
It is easier if you catch men for the military when they are young, before they are twenty if possible. There are reasons for this of course, like physical fitness, lack of dependents, and the economic dispensability of teenagers, that make armies prefer them. But the most important qualities that the young bring to basic training are enthusiasm and naiveté.”
Excerpted from Gwynne Dyer’s masterful nine part television documentary series and book, WAR.
How long, O Lord, how long?