Conflict is a part of the primordial nature of human beings. Early human beings were in constant conflict with nature and other aggressors in their attempt to survive and maintain positions of dominance. War, as a result, seems to be inherent to every society since the dawn of man. As technology has advanced, so has warfare. What started out as bones and rocks are now machine guns and nuclear arsenals. Many cultures have had conflict within their societies as well as with their neighbors, and conflict, particularly war, in turn has influenced culture. References to conflict in particular can be seen as far back as the Bible.
In Genesis, G-d tells Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and that if they do, it will bring them certain death. Other than that, the Garden of Eden was perfect. It had everything the two would ever need and more to live happy lives. Unfortunately, a serpent convinces Eve to eat fruit from the tree, which she shares with Adam. The serpent says, “G-d knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad” (Genesis). This is a prime example of culture influencing conflict and vice versa. The serpent, the enemy of Adam and Eve, manipulates them so that he will have the satisfaction of watching G-d’s most perfect creation go against His will. In turn, the conflict results in what we now know as human beings: creatures filled with emotions, morals, values, ethics, etc.
This is the simplest, watered-down, fairytale-esque example of conflict, but it was this first encounter that has ingrained the idea of conflict into every human being: good vs. evil. Even though some don’t choose to take the Bible as the literal word of G-d, this example can still be seen in our most current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan: America (good) vs. Terrorists/Dictators (Evil). The only difference is that the technology has escalated modern warfare to a point that Adam and Even would never have imagined.
As society progressed agriculturally, intellectually, and became more civilized in general, cultures started to think of war as a sign of superiority. War was always a factor when it came to dominance, but it soon determined how much pride a society collectively had. In Herodotus’ Solon and Croesus, the Athenian, Solon, goes abroad to “see something of the world” (Herodotus). During his trek, he visits “the court of Croesus at Sardis” (Herodotus). While he is there, upon the order of Croesus, he is “hospitably entertained” and servants escort him “around the royal treasuries to display the magnificence of Croesus’ wealth” (Herodotus). Afterwards, Croesus is compelled to ask Solon “who is the happiest man you have ever seen?” (Herodotus). To Croesus’ surprise, Solon goes on to tell him of Tellus the Athenian and the Argos’, Cleobis and Biton.
Tellus was “living at a time when his native city was flourishing”, had children and grandchildren, and eventually died nobly in battle (Herodotus). The Argos’ honored their mother and country, and statues were later erected of them. The dominance of Athenian and Greek culture had instilled in its inhabitants a certain sense of pride. This can be seen in the code that the Greeks lived by: arête (virtue), time’ (honor), and kleos (glory). Their victories on the battlefield influenced how they lived and how they thought of themselves. On the other hand, this code also influenced how they fought, which was intelligently: both their techniques and their technology. War may have been what helped make Greece great, but it was also this obsession with power that would aid in their eventual downfall.
After Greece fell, Rome took its place as the cultural capital of the world and became even more obsessed with superiority in the art of warfare. This seemed to go hand in hand with cultural expression and progression. While Rome was waging wars, Dante was writing his famous La Commedia about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. What’s also interesting to note is that he wrote it in a new language: Italian. For writers, even up until the later stages of the Enlightenment, it was customary to write in Latin, and those who didn’t weren’t taken seriously. As Rome slowly turned into the Holy Roman Empire, we also got the Renaissance. As war progressed, so did culture.
Other great written works, like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, go hand in had with culture and war. In fact, the influences of war and culture are themes in Romeo & Juliet. Two “star-cross’d” lovers cannot be together because of warring families (Shakespeare). Even though this is a literary war, it was brought about because of what was going on with the British culture in the late 16th century when it was written. As seen in the film, Shakespeare in Love, audiences had come to expect comedies. However, the influence that British culture had on Shakespeare led him to write the greatest tragedy known to mankind. This in turn, changed the way we view plays, and how they were written there after. I believe this says something of the power of words and also war, even if it’s fictional.
Another Englishman, William Wordsworth, wrote the poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, in 1798, nine years after the French Revolution. As the Enlightenment movement was gaining speed, Napoleon was building his powerbase, and the Industrial Revolution was progressing, William Wordsworth, the Romantic, sat on the river Wye and contemplated his discontent for what he saw happening around him. It was through the French Revolution and Enlightenment Movement that Napoleon was able to ravage Europe, while the Industrial Revolution turned the microscope onto society as a whole and devalued the individual. These events then influenced Wordsworth and brought about the Romantic Era, which praised the individual and nature. The cultural movement of the Enlightenment Era and the Industrial Revolution Napoleonic Wars Romantic Era. It’s all interconnected. Unfortunately, the Romantics and Enlightenment figures came to a head once WWI broke loose, and the Romantics didn’t fare too well.
WWI was an especially devastating war because of the technology brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Previously, wars involved at least some hand-to-hand combat and quite possibly even looking your enemy square in the eye while going toe-to-toe with him. There was a sense of honor involved, as well as pride. In WWI, men squatted in trenches, exchanged sporadic gunfire, and lobbed bombs at each other. There was also a new kind of warfare: chemical. This made war extremely impersonal, which demoralized men who felt like they were just another expendable tool in their militaries arsenal, instead of an honored soldier fighting for his country on the battlefield.
One of the contributing factors to WWI was the civil unrest in some of the volks, which thought that they should be their own nation. This cultural revolution was a key factor in what would later result in WWI. On the flip side, WWI resulted in a whole new generation of men: the front generation. This front generation was composed of the few young men that survived WWI. Wilfred Owen captured the horrors of war that the front generation experienced in Dulce et Decorum est. In the poem he states, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori” (Owen). The latter part roughly translates to sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. Owen was clearly referencing the fact that the honor of war was lost due to the technological advances in warfare, and thus, the front generation was born.
Throughout all of these texts, it is easy to see how culture has influenced war as well as the other way around. It’s also interesting to see how cultures have changed as war has become more and more impersonal: the Athenians looked at war with virtue, honor, and glory, while WWI resulted in the front generation. While many will still look upon war as a political tool, I think it is fair to say that it only becomes one when there is a cultural need for one. This can even be seen in our most recent wars: a scared post 9/11 generation wanted retribution for the deaths of their innocent countrymen, but now look upon the resulting wars with regret. At the same time, cultural ideals in the middle-east led to 9/11. So it seems, that not only does culture influence war and vise versa, but that they are also stuck in a never ending cycle of back and forth that does not seem to have any end in sight. This is because one culture will always differ from another; that’s what makes them a culture.
“Genesis.” Course Packet. Comp. Baker, Davenport, and Zinn. Philadelphia, 2009.
Herodotus. “ON THE WAR FOR GREEK FREEDOM.” Trans. Samuel Shirley. Ed. James Romm. Histories. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Company, Inc.
Owen, Wilfred. Dulce et Decorum est. The British Library.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Jill L. Levenson. Oxford, N.Y.: Oxford UP, 2000.
Wordsworth, William. “LINES COMPOSED A FEW MILES ABOVE TINTERN ABBEY, ON REVISITING THE BANKS OF THE WYE DURING A TOUR.” English Romantic Poetry. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996. 25-29.
Zinn, Pamela. “Painting of Dante with illustration of his Commedia.” The Late Middle Ages Lecture. The University of the Arts, Philadelphia.