John Steinbeck, in his Once There Was a War, wrote: “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” This perfectly expresses the nature of war as ultimately defying, time and again, how humanity chooses to think of itself. We insist that we are superior, and yet we behave in ways proving our inferiority. Steinbeck’s words resonate with me on more than one level, but there are two ideas within them that I especially think of as meaningful.
I appreciate, first of all, that Steinbeck deliberately describes our race as “animal.” He holds that we think, but the definition still supports the reality that we are not as evolved as we like to believe. As animals, then, our most basic and animalistic instincts dominate; fear, aggression, and self-preservation trigger argument, discontent, and war itself. We reason and use our minds, but we surrender to the base instincts, and this keeps us firmly in the realm of the animal. We fail at embracing change and only sometimes are willing to compromise, and this translates to the primitive urges within us overpowering the reason we so value.
Secondly, I believe the quote brings to light a failure that is inescapably shameful for creatures with an evolved consciousness; that is, we engage in war to take human life, when there is no lower behavior possible. To kill is an act excusable only when there is absolutely no other alternative, and this is as true of individual circumstances as it is of nation. War exists, however, because all alternatives are seen as unacceptable. It is difficult to conceive of a more significant failure on the part of creatures gifted with the abilities to reason and communicate.
This, for me, is Steinbeck’s core message, because in conducting war we disgrace the potentials of being what we have the power to be. We abandon thinking, reason, and true human feeling at its best, and surrender to a state of being beneath us. We continue to assert that we are evolved, and we turn to the savage behaviors proving, in war after war, that this is a delusion. All of this is within Steinbeck’s plain statement, and it touches me profoundly because its truth is so simple and harsh.