Can war be a good thing?

Death vs. freedom: how war affects human lives

We think of wars as things that happen between countries. They’re basically distant, large-scale arguments about money, land, religion, or politics and they crop up in our news so often we’ve almost stopped noticing. But what impacts do they have? 


Although wars are often fought between countries, they're fought BY people, and their effect is intensely personal. Ultimately war is direct, personal aggression - one person killing another. They might do it by swinging a sword, by shooting a gun, by pushing a button, or by giving an order. But there’s still a human at both ends.

And every war will change people’s lives - it might give them freedom, keep them safe, hurt them or their family and friends, give them more money, give them less money, bring them power, take away their power. 

The question is: can the good changes make the bad worthwhile?

War: a hope for freedom

Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator, led a rebellion against the Roman Republic in 73BC in an attempt to regain his freedom and that of his men. Initially, a Roman auxiliary soldier, Spartacus was later forced to become a gladiator and to kill other slaves for the amusement of the Roman people. His army consisted largely of slaves but also free people from the lower rungs of Roman society who felt aggrieved. Whilst his rebellion ultimately failed, the slaves who fought with him died for the possibility of freedom. 

Can the good changes make the bad worthwhile?

The French revolution (1789-1799) was another war fought to free people from oppression. It removed both the monarchy and aristocracy who’d previously neglected the people of France and enforced heavy taxes. Starvation pushed the people to rebel; ultimately the revolution resulted in a level of chaos which gave rise to Napoleon, who became Emperor of France in 1814. Amidst this chaos, war broke out in Haiti between slaves who believed the revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (which declared all men free and equal) gave them their freedom and citizenship and white slave-owners who refused to comply. Haiti would gain its independence, but in the process thousands of French and French Creoles were massacred in 1804.

The Cuban revolution of the 1950s saw the government overthrown in a coup designed to bring about a fairer society. Certainly, the idea of Communism brought hope that people could be treated equally. Sadly, the war just brought chaos, which allowed dictator Fidel Castro to seize power - but it all began in the pursuit of freedom.

War: a bid for safety

If someone tried to move into your house without your permission, you'd probably be angry. If the same person kicked your door down, attacked you and threw your family out of your house, you'd probably fight back. In a lot of ways, war is just a large-scale version of these personal emotions and reactions.

In 480BC the place we now call Greece wasn’t a country. It was a large number of city-states, which often fought against each other. These included Athens, Sparta, Delphi and many more. It was a complicated environment, very different to our idea of how a country works. Citizens of Sparta thought of themselves as both Spartans and Greeks. Citizens of Athens thought of Spartans as both brothers and enemies. When the Persian Empire (which was keen to expand and saw the Greeks as an easy target) attempted to invade Greece, the Greek city-states banded together, resisted, fought and won - defeating the Persians in many battles and eventually driving off the invaders. 

WWII is another example - the background to the war is highly complex, but in part it was self-defence against the aggressive Nazi movement in Germany. Germany's actions before and during the war put its own interests ahead of those of any other country or group of people, and these actions were not only a direct threat to many but also a moral threat to us all. By going to war, the world was removing a threat to its own social existence.

War: a change-maker

War seems to be a catalyst - it makes us think harder, move faster and accept more change than anything else. It could be argued that the World Wars paved the way for gender equality and women's rights. As more and more men were sent off to fight, women were required to leave the home and work in the jobs that men had left behind, including in factories and on farms. After the war, many women were reluctant to return to their old lives and campaigned for greater rights and freedoms. Women gained the right to vote in the UK, Russia, Germany, Austria and Hungary (among many others) at the end of WWI while French, Belgian and Italian women (again, among many others) voted for the first time after WWII.

It can certainly be said that WWII sped up the development of antibiotics, gave us air travel, introduced Radar (a technology which eventually led to Satnav) and kick-started computing (and where would you be without your phone?).

Wars have also reduced the amount of suffering in the world - by acting against Nazi Germany and its Axis allies in WWII, the Allies prevented more and more oppression of Jewish people, travellers, gay people, the mentally ill and anyone else the Nazi movement considered sub-human.

War: always a killer

At least 108 million people have been killed in wars in the last 100 years - probably more.

No matter what they’re fighting for - land, freedom, safety, politics - no matter what colour their skin, no matter whose side they’re on or whether they’re wrong or right, war doesn’t discriminate. It takes lives from all sides. And war doesn’t only kill people - it mutilates, disfigures, and leaves mental scars. It can displace millions and leave children without their parents, wives without their husbands, brothers without their sisters.

Take a look at the Syrian conflict that’s still going on right now. There are suicide bombers, creating mass graves of innocent victims; fighting between the Syrian Government, Sunni Arab rebel groups and ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) ending in mutilated children dying in makeshift hospital beds; international efforts to keep the peace resulting in the deaths of innocent men and women. And who can forget that iconic picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdî‎, dead and washed up on a beach in Turkey, a symbol of the stream of countless millions of desperate refugees risking their lives to flee the conflict.

The resounding truth of war is, quite simply, that people always suffer and lives will always be lost. 

At the end of the day there’s no question that wars can bring both good and bad things, but does either one outweigh the other? You decide.

Can you match wars with their consequences?

The shortest war on record took place in 1896, when Zanzibar surrendered to Britain after just 38 minutes.

The shortest war on record took place in 1896, when Zanzibar surrendered to Britain after just 38 minutes.

5 useful things we wouldn’t have without war

  1. Plastic surgery
    1. WWI left many soldiers with significant facial injuries. But New Zealand doctor Harold Gillies was the man who worked to combat that. His team of surgeons, nurses and artists opened a specially-designed hospital in Kent and pushed the medical world toward better and more innovative plastic surgery and facial reconstruction methods. Before Gillies and his team, plastic surgery had been a practice viewed with suspicion, but soon it became an important medical avenue for reversing the consequences of war. Walter Yoe was the first man to undergo facial reconstruction - he was injured in the Battle of Jutland where he lost both eyelids and half of his face. Now, this type of surgery is common and has also given rise to purely cosmetic surgery - an industry worth an incredible £9 billion.
  2. Sanitary towels 
    1. Sanitary towels have been used since at least the days of Ancient Egypt, with disposable examples documented from at least 1895. However, events during WWI would massively increase their effectiveness and accessibility. During WWI, an ultra-absorbent material called Cellucotton was used as wadding for surgical dressing. When the war was over, the company that had been supplying the material experienced a huge drop in sales - no war, no large-scale injury, no need for wadding. Until the company discovered that during the war Red Cross nurses on the battlefield had realised its benefits for their own personal, hygienic use. So they re-purchased all the surplus material from the military and created a whole new product, launching their sanitary towel in 1920. This is now a multimillion-pound industry, helping women around the world. In addition, a thinner and softer version of those sanitary towels would be adapted into the first Kleenex tissue paper in 1924.
  3. Ultrasound 
    1. You benefitted from this technology before you were even born, as your parents used it to check your health when you were just a little foetus. It’s how doctors see under the skin, using high-frequency sounds to bounce off objects (like parts of your body) to create an image. But ultrasound wasn’t actually a medical innovation - it started as a tool for war. By sending high-frequency sound waves underwater, the Allies could find out the location of enemy U-boats and either avoid them or destroy them. It was only after the war ended that big thinkers saw the uses this technology could have in other fields, like medicine.
  4. Blood banks 
    1. If you lose more than two litres of blood, you’ll die. The body is simply unable to function without a certain volume of blood. Luckily, we have blood banks to fill you back up again if you run short. But this wasn’t always the case. Although blood transfusions had been carried out since 1665 these were done directly from donor to recipient, as there was no way of storing blood - it hardens and clots when it leaves the body and can’t be reused. But during WWI soldiers were injured and losing blood miles from a hospital and from healthy donors. So the Rockefeller Institute in New York began looking for ways of preserving fresh blood and found that a mixture of salt solution, sodium citrate and dextrose would do the job. The stored blood was used in battlefield surgery and was credited with saving many lives, and we still use this technique today.
  5. Fake rubber 
    1. Every car, bus and plane uses synthetic rubber for their tyres. After fossil fuels, it’s the most-used product in the world of transport. But this might not have been the case if it wasn’t for war. Synthetic rubber was first properly developed during WWI when a blockade cut off Germany's supply of natural rubber from Southeast Asia. But it wasn’t the best quality stuff, and when it came to WWII there were just too many misshapen tyres causing horribly bumpy rides for soldiers or even halting their travel altogether by bursting when they were shot. Therefore, much work was done on developing stronger and cheaper types of synthetic rubber, which helped hugely in the later stages of the war and kick-started an industry that now supplies the bulk of the world's rubber needs.

Make or break: the dramatic effects war can have on a country’s economy

University of Oxford expert Patricia Clavin takes us on a whirlwind tour of the piggybanks of countries like Germany, Japan, Britain, Austria and the US, looking at how they were affected financially – for better and for worse – by their involvement in a war.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways countries make decisions about going to war…

Let’s take a look at some of the ways countries make decisions about going to war…

The morality of going to war: is it ever right to fight?

We all seem to agree that violence is a bad thing in everyday life – so how can it ever be ok to go to war when war is such a violent thing? Oxford Professor Jeff McMahan tries to answer this question.

Representations of war in different media - what stories do they tell?

War raises provocative questions about civilization, politics, and humanity. Its portrayal in literature, films, and video games can help us explore these themes further. Let’s consider some thought-provoking examples…

  1. The Iliad (750-650 BC)
    1. ‘The Iliad’ is an epic poem about the story of the ten-year Trojan War, written by the ancient Greek writer, Homer. Homer builds The Iliad as an anti-war poem, as he does not try to glorify war but instead consciously depicts its ugliness. You can read the text for free here. Broadly speaking, in Greek mythology, the Trojan War resulted from the Judgement of Paris, in which Paris (Prince of Troy) chooses Aphrodite in a contest to pick the fairest of three goddesses. Aphrodite promises Paris the hand of Helen of Sparta; the Trojan War was fought to retrieve Helen from Troy. However, ‘The Iliad’ focuses on the battle between the Greek warriors, Achilles and Hector, and portrays war as being a choice made by the gods — leaving out any discussion of the personal responsibility of the people involved. You might wonder why we still read the classics after all those years. Yet, such works tell us a lot about human nature. Three thousand years have passed but violence, war and our enjoyment of reading stories about it continue. Is destruction our destiny?
  2. The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank (1952)
    1. The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank’ is a collection of real-life diary entries by teenage girl, Anne Frank. These begin in June 1942 and end abruptly in August 1944. Frank describes her family’s life, who lived in Germany but had to flee Nazi persecution of Jewish people during the Second World War. The family fled to Holland and hid in an attic during this time. Frank reveals her most intimate thoughts and describes her struggle to fit in. This is because she felt disconnected from her family and at the same time isolated from the rest of the world, due to the war. Sadly, Frank died before the end of the war in a concentration camp. However, her accounts have lived on. They shed light on the destruction and devastation that the Second World War brought to humanity, and discuss the futility (pointlessness) of conflict. To find out more about Anne Frank and her life, click here.
  3. Life is beautiful (1997)
    1. Roberto Benigni’s award-winning film, ‘Life is beautiful’ revolves around the war crimes that took place in the Holocaust concentration camps. The plotline was inspired by the book ‘In the End, I Beat Hitler’ by Rubino Romeo Salmonì, and the experiences of Benigni’s father who was in a German camp for two years during the Second World War. Guido Orefice, the film’s main character, is a Jewish-Italian bookshop owner, who employs different tricks in order to protect his son, Giosue from the horrors they experience in a Nazi concentration camp. The conditions they face are cruel and their life is in constant danger. Guido tries to convince his son that their time in the camp is part of a complicated game in which the last person that will be found is going to be the winner. As part of this, certain activities such as keeping quiet and hiding from the guards gain points, and others such as crying or complaining of hunger will lose points. The film raises moral and ethical questions such as ‘to what extent should you protect a child from the truth of a dangerous situation?’ It also explores the fragile line between reality and fiction.
  4. Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation (2007) 
    1. The Ace Combat video games are a franchise of flight simulators, in which players take on the role of a fighter pilot participating in various wars across a fictionalized version of Earth. Although the games’ setting is fictional, the series is known for its detailed representation of real-world aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor and Sukhoi Su-33, which are currently in service in modern warfare. While gameplay revolves around dogfighting in aerial battles, the series as a whole has a strong anti-war message. The narrative of Ace Combat 6, told through cut scenes interspersed between levels, follows the lives of pilots, civilians, and refugees caught up in the war, as they struggle to comprehend the devastation and disruption caused by a full-scale military invasion. Can a game that simulates shooting down other planes effectively deliver an anti-war moral, or does the gameplay undermine the message?
  5. Atonement (2007)
    1. ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan depicts the powerful way that one person’s lie changes the lives of others forever. This occurs when the wealthy Briony falsely accuses the groundskeeper’s son, Robbie, of rape. Robbie is sent to prison and is later released on the condition that he joins the army to fight in the Second World War. Meanwhile, Cecilia (Briony’s sister) becomes a war nurse. She remains estranged from her family due to the part they played in sending Robbie, whom she loved and trusted, to prison for a crime he never committed. Briony’s efforts to make amends fail. The novel highlights the injustices of any kind of war, whether physical or psychological. Each of the characters struggle immensely during the war from Robbie fighting in the front line to Cecilia and Briony nursing injured soldiers. The impossibility of restoring the wrongdoings that Briony has committed against Robbie and Cecilia parallels the impossibility of restoring the losses that the Second World War caused to individuals. Ultimately, the question is: can a person who has committed serious wrongdoing ever fully be at peace with themself?
  6. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (2011)
    1. ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana’ is a New York Times bestseller and true story of entrepreneur Kamila Sidiqi. The story takes place during 1996-2001 when Kabul was under the Islamist rule of the Taliban. The author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon based her novel on interviews of Afghani women during a trip of hers to Afghanistan in 2005. Sidiqi started her own dressmaking business because she needed to support her sisters, as her father and brother fled the city due to the war. Her sisters learnt how to sew and other women in her community became involved in the business of dressmaking. Siddiqi’s actions were important because she found a way to support the women of her community who lived amongst strict regulations. Under Taliban rule, women were prevented from accessing education, going out of the house without the accompaniment of male relatives or working outside their home. After her dressmaking business, Sidiqi started her own fruit business and launched a taxi company. A leading women’s rights activist, Sidiqi worked in the Afghanistan government as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Afghan President and Deputy Minister for Trade Affairs. During the 2021 Taliban Offensive, Sidiqi was evacuated from Kabul with the assistance of Lemmon (source).
  7. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013)
    1. ‘I Am Malala’ is the memoir of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who risked her life for the right to go to school during the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) insurgency. The book details her personal story, her early life, the rise and fall of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Swat Valley, and the assassination attempt made against her. Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Prize laureate and has been praised for her courage and dedication in her fighting for equal (educational) rights and opportunities for girls. However, her activism has also caused some backlash. For example, she was the subject of a documentary, ‘I Am Not Malala’, aimed at preventing the propagation of her ideas. Despite such opposition, Yousafzai has continued to campaign for female education, human rights, and peace worldwide. In June 2020, she graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
  8. Battlefield 1 (2016)
    1. The Battlefield game series is well-known for producing first-person shooters set in conflicts both historical and fictional. Battlefield 1, in actuality the tenth installment in the series, focused on the First World War, allowing players to play as Allied soldiers in historical battles such as Gallipoli, Cambrai, and the Somme. In order to highlight the heavy death toll of the First World War, the first mission of the game included a striking gameplay mechanic. Whenever the player character is killed, a randomly-generated name and dates of birth and death are displayed, before the game gives the player control of a new character. At the same time, voiceover narration discusses the futility of conflict and the human cost of war. The game developers also chose to use historical figures – such as T. E. Lawrence and the Harlem Hellfighters – in fictional stories about the war.
  9. Dunkirk (2017)
    1. In the film ‘Dunkirk’, director Christopher Nolan interweaves three different storylines and timelines during the Second World War. These are the Mole, the Sea, and the Air which last one week, one day, and an hour respectively. The common theme which links these stories is the risk involved in the Dunkirk evacuation whereby in 1940 nearly 400,000 British and French troops were surrounded by the enemy on a beach in France. The English Channel was their only escape route. Several myths emerged surrounding the Dunkirk evacuations and this partially stemmed from a difference in the way British and French commanders viewed the Dunkirk Salient. In France, the Dunkirk evacuation was not seen as a victory, since many of the evacuated troops returned to France after just a week however it was reported in a much more positive light in the British press (source). And so a question that arises when watching the film is: How far does Dunkirk present a particularly British interpretation of the events of Operation Dynamo? More generally, the film explores the lengths people will go in order to survive when faced with the extreme. Is there any hope under such grim circumstances? To find out more about the history and legacy of Dunkirk, read the ‘Miracles and Myths’ series by the National Archives.

What do you think the role of historical fiction in depicting conflict should be? To entertain, to inform, or a mixture of the two? Does the human cost of conflict mean that we should treat the topic of war differently to other kinds of historical fiction?

Can war be a good thing?

  • A bid for freedom

    Some wars are fought in the pursuit of freedom. The French revolution (1789-1799) started as an attempt to free people from oppression. It removed both the monarchy and aristocracy who’d previously neglected the people of France and enforced heavy taxes. More recently, The Cuban revolution of the 1950s saw the government overthrown in a coup designed to bring about a fairer society.

  • Always a killer

    At least 108 million people have been killed in wars in the last 100 years - probably more. No matter what they’re fighting for - land, freedom, safety, politics - no matter what colour their skin, no matter whose side they’re on or whether they’re right or wrong, war doesn’t discriminate. It takes lives from all sides. And war doesn’t only kill people - it mutilates, disfigures, and leaves mental scars. It can displace millions and leave children without their parents, wives without their husbands, brothers without their sisters.

  • Medical marvels

    The First World War disfigured a generation. But New Zealand doctor, Harold Gillies and his team opened a special hospital to develop better and more innovative plastic surgery methods. Previously, plastic surgery had been viewed with suspicion, but soon it became an important process for reversing the consequences of war. Another medical technology, ultrasound, wasn’t originally a medical innovation - it started as a tool for war. By sending high-frequency sound waves underwater, the Allies could find enemy U-boats. It was only after the war ended that big thinkers saw the uses this technology could have in other fields, like medicine.

  • Lasting effects

    War can have devastating long-term impacts on both countries and individuals. The nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War led to huge numbers of people in Japan experiencing radiation sickness and caused birth defects in thousands of new-born babies. In the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi forces purposely dumped oil into the Persian Gulf to stop the US Marines from landing. The oil slick spread 101 miles by 42 miles and was five inches thick in some areas, resulting in severe long-term damage to the environment.

  • Boosting the economy

    If you're a country that's not in the middle of the fighting, but you are supplying the countries that are fighting, it can help your economy. The United States didn’t enter the Second World War until December 1941, but the war started in September 1939. During those two years, the United States supplied the British Empire with weapons to aid its efforts to defeat Nazi Germany. The war generated lots of employment for American citizens, and American factories changed for war production, meaning things like cars, fridges and Hoovers also became cheaper.

  • Breaking the economy

    The First World War used up a lot of money for countries across Europe. The economic damage hit the heaviest in Austria. Their money was worth less and less (you might have seen the famous pictures of people wheeling wheelbarrows of money through the streets). People were hungry and poor and didn’t have much trust in their government. This meant that when Adolf Hitler occupied Austria, many Austrians were keen for a change. This ‘Great Depression’ in the economy that followed WWI is attributed as one of the leading causes of the events that started the Second World War.