Voices from the Past

A Stone age battle sceneA Stone age battle sceneThe Origins of War. History, anthropology, and evolutionary biology offer clear evidence that humans have a strong inclination toward aggression, fueling an extensive history of war. Our ancestors were hunted for countless generations by large predators, until they banded together in organized ways in the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural communities. At around that time, war—organized violence—became an ongoing and distinctive characteristic of our species. Researchers recently discovered what is believed to be the oldest evidence of mass violence to date remains of a massacre that occurred 10,000 years ago on the shores of Lake Turkana in present day Kenya. Clearly, organized violence among humans has a very long history.


War in Art and Culture. Given that long history, it’s not surprising that war is expressed in artwork, written narratives and myths across cultures. War narratives can be complex, carrying multiple meanings: from celebrations of individual and tribal victories to the power and prestige of victorious rulers, from war as the proving ground for manhood to its terrible costs.

Illustrating the best and worst of human conduct, depictions of war occurred in some of the earliest Stone Age artwork. Ten thousand years ago Neolithic artists rendered battle scenes between opposing groups of archers. Sixth century BC Greek artisans depicted Greek foot soldiers and epic battles on painted amphorae, reflecting the importance of war, as well as the status and wealth of warriors in Greek society. The heroic themes that played out on Greek pottery coincided with a growing representation of  war and heroic adventures in literature, such as the Homeric epics.

Greek Warriors on a VaseGreek Warriors on a VaseMetropolitan Museum of Art

War as a Universal Story. Stories of war appear across all cultures and reflect common themes over time. “The great Norse sagas, the epic poetry of the Greeks and Romans, all talked of war,” author Karl Marlantes observes. “War poetry and songs were recited and sung in the eating places. Tales were told around campfires and in the wigwams and desert tents…”

Combat veterans today can identify with the chaos of war as presented in ancient texts like The Iliad.  Most can relate to the call to battle and brotherhood at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and recognize the impact of battlefield carnage as evoked in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Changing Visions of War. Prior to the 19th century war was most often elevated as a glorious enterprise, but later artists offer a darker vision.  Landmarks such as Goya’s horrific series of prints, Disasters of War (1810), and Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica (1937), illustrate how artists began to adopt a more honest and unsparing view of combat.

Writers followed a similar path in the 20th century. Literature that emerged during World War I became less heroic and increasingly direct, personal, and unvarnished. In 1918 the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote “This book is not about heroes….nor anything about glory, honour, might… My subject is War, and the pity of War.” On the heels of the Second Battle at Ypres during World War I, John McCrae evoked the dead warrior’s voice in the classic poem In Flanders Fields. And oral histories of frontline combatants provided another kind of voice, like that of Klavdia Grigoryevna Krolkhina, one of many women snipers in the Soviet Army during WWII.

Today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have served as a literary catharsis for a new generation of voices to join those of the past, through the lyrical fiction of Kevin Powers, the subtle irony of Phillip Klay’s short stories, the uncompromising memoirs of Kayla Williams, and the personal testimonies of countless veterans.

Suggested war-themed reading

Anonymous, Hymn to the Fallen. 4th Century BC, Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley. Oxford Book of War Poetry, 1984, reissue 2008, p. 10

Hymn to the Fallen reflects the ubiquity of war as a central theme in world literature and captures the sorrowful close of battle:

Homer, The Iliad, Book XVIII, Samuel Butler translation.  Penguin Classics; Revised, Updated edition (November 24, 2015)

Soldiers have grappled with the death of their comrades-in-arms in combat from the beginning of organized warfare. In the 8th century BC Greek epic, the fabled warrior, Achilles, is consumed with grief at the death of Patroclus on the plains of Troy.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day speech. Folger Shakespeare Series. Washington Square Press (July 1, 2004)

Henry V inspires badly outnumbered English troops before the Battle of Agincourt. He appeals to the bonds of brotherhood among his troops, as well as the mark they will make in history from this date forward.

Sassoon, Sigfried. “Counter Attack.” Counter Attack and Other Poems.  Sagwan Press (August 20, 2015)

World War One inspired a generation of warrior poets who unflinchingly confronted the horrors of mechanized warfare. Sassoon rendered both the terror and banality of life in the trenches and the exhaustion of troops in a seemingly never-ending war.

Klavdia Grigoryevna Krolkhina (WWII female Soviet sniper). Oral history. Alexievich, Svetlana, The Unwomanly Face of War, Random House, 2017.

In World War Two, more than a million Soviet women served as pilots, machine-gunners, snipers, tank drivers and medical staff. Some were young girls who matured on the front lines. Krolkhina was one such girl:

Powers, Kevin. Field Manual. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. 2014. Little, Brown and Company.

Today, a new generation of writers describe their war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds) weighs the fragility of human beings against the horrors of war.

Further reading:

Sledge, Eugene. With the Old Breed in Peleliu and Okinawa. 2007 Presidio Press

Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian. 2013. The Great Books Foundation

Junger, Sebastian. War. 2010. Hachette Book Group.

Marlantes, Karl. What It Is Like To Go To War. 2012. Grove Press.

Williams, Kayla. Plenty of Time When We Get Home. 2014. W. W. Norton & Company

Turner, Brian. Here, Bullet. 2005. Alice James Books.

Photo credits:

Stone Age Battle Scene: Shutterstock

Greek Vase: Metropolitan Museum of Art


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