They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. -Isaiah 2:4
The War to End All Wars began 100 years ago today. 100 years later we are still waiting for the promised end.
Many historians would say that the world as I know it began July 28, 1914. The beginning of the Great War is one of the markers of the beginning of the Modern Age. I guess the number one identifier of the Modern Age is that more things got blown up after 1914 than before. This means that the world as I know it is defined just as much by mass death as by technology.
The Great War may have birthed The World As I Know It, but for me, it has always marked the final edge of The World I Don’t Know. All the WWI vets were dying of old age when I was a little kid, and so I never met anyone with first-hand memories of hiding in a trench at Verdun or watching the bi-planes dogfight in the sky above. Our collective memory of the Great War is gone.
The oldest man I know today wasn’t born until five years after the armistice. My grandparents (at least the ones I have known) weren’t born until the middle of the Great Depression. And so the Great War remains tantalizingly close, yet simultaneously ancient and forgotten.
The Great War is a no-man’s land where past meets present, horses meet hand grenades, and bayonets meet bombs and barbed wire.
I’ve never really even understood why it happened. It has no Hitler. It’s a no-brainer for people today to know why we fought WWII. But I read a book about what caused WWI earlier this year, and I’m still a little confused. Something about Europe pouring a bunch of dumb decisions and weak leaders and racial hatred and nationalism into one bomb, and then Franz Ferdinand lit the fuse. Or something like that.
WWI may have been a confusing mess, but it proved to be an incredible laboratory. Flamethrowers, mustard gas, tanks, airplanes, submarines…Most of these had never been used before to kill humans. If they had, their use was perfected in the trenches of the Great War.
The Great War wasn’t The War to End All Wars, because in the Great War all we learned to do was kill better. This is what humanity has been up to ever since Cain killed Abel. I don’t know how Cain did it, but it must have been pretty unsophisticated. Maybe a blow to the head with a large stone. And ever since then we have been improving on that blow.
Have you ever noticed that each epoch of human history is birthed when we figure out a more efficient way to kill each other? The Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, because bronze swords sliced flesh much better than flint spears. The Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age for much the same reason.
The Hittites got chariots, and then the Assyrians perfected siege and psychological warfare. The Greeks figured out how to kill as a unit, and the Romans perfected it. The Dark Ages may have only been dark because plague took more lives than war for a change. That doesn’t mean we weren’t trying our best. Vikings, Mongols, and Crusaders to the rescue.
The Enlightenment birthed a consciousness of the equality of humanity, but it also birthed a guillotine that specialized in enforcing that equality on princes and paupers alike. Guns entered the picture somewhere. Eventually we learned that it was easier to survive if you hid behind trees rather than standing in lines in an open field and taking turns getting shot. War is not for the polite.
Today all we hear about on the news are the tunnels that Hamas built in Gaza to house their rockets, and how Israel seems really skilled at killing civilians. We hear about how ISIS is sweeping across Iraq and putting Christians to the sword. There are rebels in Ukraine who can shoot down passenger jets. There is violence in the streets of Chicago.
100 years later, and no end in sight.
In fact, it strikes me that, more than anything else, the story of human civilization is a story of learning war, of studying the enemy, discovering their weakness, and figuring out new ways to turn them to dust.
We will never have a War To End All Wars, because each war just makes our swords sharper. We do, however, have a God To End All Wars. “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.” (Psalm 46:9)
“Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt. ‘I will remove the battle chariots from Israel and the warhorses from Jerusalem. I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,’ and your king will bring peace to the nations. His realm will stretch from sea to sea and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech 9:9-10)
The God To End All Wars has ridden into Jerusalem on that donkey’s colt. The Prince of Peace has killed the hostility; he has spoken peace to the nations, and he has invited us into his Kingdom.
The world will do what it wants. It will war where it wants. And it will learn new ways to kill in new laboratories of war. But oughtn’t we do what our King wants? If we are citizens of his Kingdom, isn’t it time we beat our swords into plowshares and stopped studying war?