“Daddy, what was war?”

My eldest son, who just turned five, loves to ask me questions on the way to school every morning.  “Excuse me Daddy, what types of storms are there?”  “Daddy, what is the difference between asphalt and concrete?”  “Why does it look like the moon is following us, Daddy?”  The questions come daily, and I am thrilled to help provide answers that no doubt are providing a context for his understanding of the world that my generation will be handing over to his a few short decades from now.

This morning the question was not one that could be met with a quick reply, either from the repository in my brain or from a quick Google search on my iPhone while at a stop light.  He looked pensively out of the back window from his car seat and asked “Daddy, why do we have wars?”

My first reaction was one of embarrassment that we human beings, in our lofty and evolved state, must still resort to war to settle differences.  How do you explain to a child that grown-ups more often than not act like children?  I wished at that moment and still wish that I can hand his generation the keys to a world free of conflict, turmoil and suffering.

I began by asking if he knew what war was, and his reply made it clear that he had a basic idea.  He was curious, though, as to why people would hurt or even kill one another.  He wanted to understand the motivation and how to prevent war.  We spoke for a moment about a spat between he and his 3 year old brother over a toy that escalated to blows the previous day.  It was a small-scale skirmish, but it was easy to point out his options in the situation.  He could have resolved it peacefully on his own or with the help of an arbiter.  He could have allowed his little brother to have the toy and moved on.  He could have found an acceptable substitution and they both would have been happy.  The opportunities for peaceful resolution were endless.

I wonder at what point brinksmanship first gave way to warfare.  The first time in human history.  It must have been quite an event.  I wonder what it was over?  Something important like oil?  Religious beliefs?  Land?  Or maybe it was over a petty and meaningless difference of opinion.  Likely there were emotional drivers, such as greed or fear.  Those two ingredients were present in every war I’ve examined.

Think for a moment about your life.  Do you remember the first time a conflict ended in by force, aggression, or some non-peaceful means?  Perhaps it was on a playground, at home or in school?  Maybe it was a peer or maybe it was an adult.  No doubt it was unsettling, no matter whether you won or lost.

I am of the conviction that the natural state is one of peace and not conflict.  The world we’ve grown accustomed to, the normal state, is one that is fraught with turmoil.  I believe that human beings have the capacity to works matters out peaceably, no matter how high the stakes.  What would it take to obviate the necessity for war on our planet?

Ronald Reagan shared an interesting thought in 1985 when he said: “I couldn’t help but say to [Mr. Gorbachev], just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from another planet.  [We’d] find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together.”  Oh, how human beings love to push things to the extremes in an effort I suppose to avoid the obvious.

No matter how you cut it, it is safe to say that humanity is peculiar.  Mark Twain wrote: “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War.  He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind.  He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out… and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel…. And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for ‘the universal brotherhood of man’ – with his mouth.”

No matter where you were born, what language you speak or how long you’ve been here, we are in this world together.  It is sad that we’ve let things get so far out of balance, but we’ve got what we’ve got at this point.  The question is, what can you do – here and now – to reduce the amount of fuel you add to the fire in your personal affairs?

We do not live in a simple world, and it only seems to be growing more complicated as time goes on.  The world we live in is the accumulation of the small worlds centered by every man, woman and child on earth.  Change the course of one man’s life and you change the course of the world.  You have the most control over you, so why not start there?

The last comment my son made on war as we were pulling into the school parking lot was quite sweet and compelling.  He said “Daddy, I hope that we don’t have war when I am a big person.  Can you fix that?”  It is my great hope that, in the words of Victor Hugo, “A day will come when a cannon will be exhibited in museums, just as instruments of torture are now, and the people will be astonished that such a thing could have been.”

Let’s just hope that we can work it out in this generation, so that we don’t have to leave it for the next.  In fact, I hope that my son’s children ask him at some point when they are curious: “Daddy, what was war?”


9 thoughts on ““Daddy, what was war?”

  1. Diane

    Interesting. I had this same conversation with my 7 year old a few weeks ago. War is the exact opposite response of what we teach our children when dealing with conflict. It was difficult for him to understand. He said “they have forgotten why they are here mommy. If you know you are here to help people, you would know that war isn’t right!”


  2. Reina

    Isn’t it amazing what we can learn from a child? The simplicity of “choice” is ours, to take responsibility as human beings for the future of this world. We need to look within and identify where we can start to make those changes in our lives. Where in our hearts do we justify anger, resentment or all out attempts to destroy another person? If these feelings reside in our hearts then it becomes the legacy we leave for our children, is this acceptable? I heard a young Pakistani musician on BBC this morning making a plea for peace. He said that there were many Muslim youth who were making it their mission to take the word “Jihaad” back. It’s original meaning according to this young brave young man was,” Enlightenment, bringing life to a new level”, and many of the younger men and women were willing to take a stand for the true meaning and peacefully live in it’s essence as an example to others. I say we should all choose to live this example. I too ask the question,” why?” when it comes to war. Thanks for sharing your sweet very personal story!


  3. Selena

    I appreciate you pointing out the ‘change the course of one man’s life and you change the course of the world’. There is a saying with health practitioners that you are only as healthy as one cell, the microcosm of our bodies. How healthy is the microcosm where we are in the sphere of this world? Sometimes there are wars going on at the micro level that can’t be seen by the visual eye. Which reminds me of a weather report I saw years ago of a hurricane viewed from space and then the cameras panned down to the raging storm of nature on the beach with monstrous waves and gale force winds. How beautiful the storm looked from such a high perspective with the spiral of the hurricane. When we look at the beautiful world we live in, with limitless opportunities for peace, if we could take a moment to pause and clear our personal ‘storms’ and battles we can be be the one healthy cell of peace to truly change the world.


  4. Colin

    I think that you are correct when you say that peace is the natural state of the world, but you definitely wouldn’t know it by looking at how humanity acts today. Hopefully we can eliminate war and violence as an option when we have differences to resolve.


  5. Mitch Webb

    “The question is, what can you do – here and now – to reduce the amount of fuel you add to the fire in your personal affairs?” If anyone is looking for a place to start you just pointed out the elephant in the room!


  6. Mark

    It cuts right to the quick when a child asks these questions, and the onus is on us when they ask, “can you fix that?”. I wonder how many adults, when asked such questions by a child, are futile in their own hearts about a solution and brush over the subject. Not exactly the way to open doors to a purposeful existence during one’s time on earth. Your post is compelling that there a solution. It can only start with me right now, no matter how much history has piled up to result otherwise.


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