I mostly draw a complete blank in trying to understand war. I think it’s because modern war is such a sanitized thing that it’s hard to understand why we rile ourselves up and press buttons to kill people thousands of miles away. I don’t get it.
But The History Channel’s scripted show The Vikings helped me kind of wrap my head around it.
First, a public service announcement for the ladies in the crowd: even if you don’t care one bit about the origins of war or about Vikings, you might want to check out this show. Because dayum, girls, let me just tell you, if you like tall, strapping Viking-like men as much as I do, this is the show for you. The main character could be the most beautiful specimen of manhood I’ve seen in a really long time, scrubby beard and all (and I don’t even like facial hair). He can pillage this village any time he wants…
…But I digress. Let me get back to the war thing.
So the show begins with a simple farmer dude (simple except for the fact that he is the most gorgeous man on the planet, did I mention?). But he’s not so simple after all. He’s got #Goals. One of his goals is to sail westward. The show paints this as a Columbus-style revelation, this idea that riches might be found on the coast of England, as if Vikings didn’t know what England was in the 700s, which is not exactly historically accurate. But okay. He wants to sail west. He’s somehow gotten his hands on a floating sun dial that is going to help him keep his course true.
Greedy chieftain objects. Conflict. Blah blah. Finally, our farmer cutie commissions the building of some ships and he goes. He gets to some place he and his crew have never seen before. It’s all foreign. They happen to find their way to a church in Lindisfarne (the scene is based on an attack that actually happened in history). Except they don’t know it’s a church, since their own form of worship is vastly different from the English. The English have been converted to Christianity, but the Norsemen are still worshipping Thor and Odin and talking about Valhalla (I love the thought that nearly 800 years after Christ’s birth, Christianity hadn’t yet reached Scandinavia and wouldn’t for some time yet). At the English church, they see valuable golden objects just left around, unguarded. They help themselves. They can’t believe their luck.
They go back home with tales. They plan a second raid. But by the time they go back, word has spread about the raid from the “heathens” that came from nowhere. The town is better guarded. They meet more resistance. But the Vikings still want more stuff, so they fight for it. The English are understandably horrified by this turn of events. They do some crappy stuff too, like say they’re negotiating a peace in good faith, but then reneging on the deal. Hatred builds up on both sides.
And, you know. War.
This was the first time that something like the origin of war was explained in a way that didn’t seem absolutely foreign to me. Someone wants stuff. They take it. The people from whom it was taken get angry, plot revenge. I feel this way every morning behind the wheel of my car. Eventually it becomes hard to know who started it and who is right and who is wrong.
This still bears little resemblance to me to the corporatized, mechanized thing we call war in modern times. It feels so removed from the base human instincts that drive it, the desire to grab stuff, the visceral need to defend oneself through force. But I understand now, how we not only evolve in our greed, but in our war-making. This war we see today is the natural descendant of the raid in the same way that New York City, a city of 8 million, is the natural descendant of the trading village that was once called New Amsterdam, population 270 in 1625.
Seen from this perspective, war is like a bad habit which has evolved into a pathology.