Going to war
This semester, I’m taking one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken at Columbia: War, Peace, and Strategy, a political science SIPA class taught by Professor Richard Betts. The class focuses on the causes of war and peace, when they occur, and why. It’s a realistic, terrifying look into decision-making from both political and military vantage points throughout world history, from the Melian Dialogue through the Napoleonic Wars to the World Wars and the Iraq Wars.
Betts is fond of the phrase “War and peace are different sides of the same coin.” Peace cannot exist without war, and conflict cannot exist without tranquility.
I often wonder where in my own life I strategize between war and peace: when I choose to enter into conflict, as unpleasant as it may be, and when I prefer to keep the peace, however tense. I may not be considering strategic aerial bombing, but I am choosing when to fire.
When you have a sibling, or multiple siblings, you know the conditions of war and peace as well as you know the contours of that sibling’s fist. You know that war is manipulative and mean, and you know which parent you can pout to and which parent will take the enemy’s side. You know that peace is only a matter of time, you know that your enemy is capable of turning at any moment.
I have an older brother, two and a half years my senior. He’s 6’5″ and over 280 pounds. One second you’re waiting for a slice of birthday cake and the next he has taken it from your hands. War between siblings is mutually assured destruction in which you’re both stubborn enough to keep wrestling until your knees are bleeding, you’re hoarse from screaming, and a parent forces you to kiss and make up. (My dad used to put us in chairs facing each other, arms crossed, until both of us said “I love you,” and meant it.) War is bickering about whose college has more Nobel Laureates; peace is waiting to bring it up again.
In college, war and peace have been a much more nuanced affair. War is a competition that varies by individual perception; you’re only on offense because you think you are. Perspective is so essential to understanding war (see: The War Of Northern Aggression). One person’s war is another’s peace, whether you’re competing with classmates for grades or you think someone is competing with you for social dominance, you haven’t won just because you think you have. War is convincing a professor to delay a deadline, and peace is the extra two days you have to write that paper. War is a club executive board meeting; peace is knowing that you believe in your club’s mission.
Peace is letting the dishes in the sink pile up; war is when a suitemate finally cleans them all. With friends, professors, romantic entanglements, parents, and even haters, the choice between war and peace is the choice between changing the status quo and maintaining it.
We should not be afraid to engage in war, but we should always consider the reasons we want to. Remember the Pastry War of 1838? War is not always a bad thing and peace is not always a good thing.
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