War (What Is It Good For)

Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit “War” has become an anti-war mantra, remade in the ‘80s by both Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and in 2016 by the rock band Black Stone Cherry. Asserting that war is good for “absolutely nothing” because “it means destruction of innocent lives” and “it’s an enemy to all mankind,” in 2001, after September 11, the song wound up on a suggested no-play memorandum from Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) for its questionable lyrics. But the song poses one of the most difficult questions—one that humankind has sought to answer since before the Common Era. Seeing war as a necessary evil of the human condition, the Ancient Greeks were regularly engaged in warfare both abroad and at home. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus posited, “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.” India’s Bhagavad Gita supplies us with appropriately difficult explanations for the difficult questions of war: what is a just war? What is victory worth if—even in the name of wealth or truth or life—it destroys what we love?  As our methods of war change, these questions remain.