The View From Here: The ignoble savage

Volodymyr Kish.

Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the DDay landings in Normandy, an event that became known, at least in the western world, as the beginning of the end of the Nazi dreams of conquering Europe. Further east, the same fate was befalling Japan’s imperialistic plans for Asian domination. A little more than a year later, the Second World War came to an end, leaving upwards of some 70 to 80 million dead, and unimaginable destruction spread over three continents.

To most of the younger generations of Canadians, the horrors of that war are just something abstract that they learn in history at school. For me though, there is a much more personal connection. My own existence is the result of a series of events directly tied to the war. My father served in the Canadian army and saw action in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in the wake of the DDay landings. My mother was taken into slave labour in Germany as an “Osterbaiter” after the German invasion of Ukraine. She survived the war, spent several years as a refugee in the Displaced Persons camps in post-war Germany, and finally managed to come to Canada as part of the Third Wave of Ukrainian immigration to this country. Here she met my father, a respected war veteran, and I am the product of their histories coming together.

My extended family in Ukraine faced the ravages of war in a more direct and brutal way. I remember well how on my first visit to my father’s ancestral village, I was given a tour of the local cemetery, and was overwhelmed by how many gravestones bore dates from the war years. Many were those of my cousins, aunts, uncles and various other relatives. I remember the harrowing stories of one of my cousins who had fought in the Ukrainian partisan underground against both the Nazis and the Communists. He survived not only the war but also some fifteen years in the Siberian gulag after he was captured by the Russian Red Army.

One of my mother’s younger sisters was only nineteen when the front moved through her village. She found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and paid for it with her life. War is arbitrary. War is cruel and savage. War’s appetite for death and destruction knows no limits.

Yet despite the best efforts of the most idealistically minded of us humans on this earth, war continues to plague us and ridicule all our vain pretensions about being civilized beings.

Back several centuries ago, a slew of famous writers and thinkers such as John Dryden, Charles Dickens and Jean Jacques Rousseau popularized the notion of the “noble savage”, the somewhat romantic idea of primitive man uncorrupted by civilization and all the negative traits that flow from it. The truth of course is far more damning. Primitive man lived at a time when it was kill or be killed. Violence was a way of life, and that life was, as the noted British philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, “nasty, brutish and short”. Early man should more properly be characterized as the “ignoble savage.”

I would like to posit that, despite all of the trappings of modern society with its advanced technology and education, modern man has not shed this “ignoble” character. When push comes to shove, we continue to indulge in war as a primary means of dispute settlement between nation states and supranational societies and movements. Whether it be of the conventional variety like the Iraq War, the hybrid wars of conquest perfected by the Russians, or the fanatical and merciless jihads of Islamic terrorists, war and its consequential death and destruction is as rife and prevalent on this planet as ever.

I am not the first nor likely the last person to ask why this is so. Why do we continue to find it acceptable to kill other human beings for whatever reason, justifiable or not? Why have tens of thousands of years of societal evolution failed to eliminate the most basic moral and ethical sin against the sanctity of human life? Why do we continue to believe in political, religious and societal leaders who continue to insist that it is justifiable under certain circumstances to kill another person?

The sad fact of the matter is that, despite all our pretensions about being civilized, about being good Christians, or Muslims, or whatever, we are all still “ignoble savages.” We continue to glorify violence and macho behavior. We invest more on the technology of death and destruction than on technology for bettering human life and the human condition. We perpetuate economic and political systems that encourage scandalous levels of wealth inequality. We have all the tools and means to eliminate poverty and hunger now, but consider that a low priority compared to the preservation of the rights of elite individuals and corporations to accumulate wealth to obscene levels. A few human beings, particularly those in the upper strata of the powerful elite, do this consciously, while the majority of us have been so conditioned by the media and through our upbringing to accept this as the natural order of things, that we acquiesce to this warped reality without question. Until we face up to this existential issue and develop a new social contract, we will continue to bear the ravages of war or destroy ourselves in the process.