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. After all, right now only 11 countries in the world can claim they're not involved in any sort of conflict. 


But even though 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. 

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 First World War paved the way for gender equality and women's rights. 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 Germany 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 disfigured a generation. 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. 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 the sanitary towel in 1920. This is now a multimillion-pound industry, helping women around the world. 
  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 invention 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.

8 celebrities who had a brush with war

  1. Roald Dahl
    1. The author of The BFG and James and the Giant Peach was both a man of imagination and a man of the skies. He fought in WWII as a fighter pilot and later served as an intelligence officer in Washington DC. His writing career started when novelist C.S. Forester asked Dahl to submit an anecdote of his war experiences - Forester was so impressed by the account that he published it unchanged. This opened the gates for a literary legacy that has survived generations.
  2. James Blunt 
    1. This guitar-wielding crooner may well have prevented World War Three. James Blunt was an officer in the British Army and was deployed to Kosovo, where he strapped a guitar to the outside of his tank to play for locals. It was here that his troop led a large NATO peacekeeping force from the Macedonian border to Pristina International Airport. They arrived to find that Russian forces had taken control of the airport, but when ordered to take the airport by force, Blunt refused. And who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t - we might now be locked in a deadly conflict with Russia. 
  3. Eleanor Roosevelt
    1. A future First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, staffed the Red Cross canteen after America entered WWI. She served soldiers departing from Washington's Union Station and did some admin work for the canteen’s accounts. She also coordinated the distribution of wool to 40 knitters and collected the finished goods for the troops.
  4. James Doohan
    1. You may know him as ‘Scotty’ in Star Trek, but Doohan is also a war hero with a miracle survival story! His first experience of combat was towards the end of WWII when he landed on Juno Beach in France. After shooting down two enemy snipers, Doohan led his men through a field of tank mines before he was shot. He survived six 7.62 mm close-range bullet wounds from a nervous Canadian sentry with a Bren Gun - four in his leg, one in his chest and one in his right hand that actually took off his middle finger! A final bullet was stopped from hitting his heart by a silver cigarette case that his brother gave to him just before his Juno Beach landing.
  5. Audrey Hepburn
    1. Iconic film actress Audrey Hepburn was rated the third greatest female screen actress by the American Film Institute, and her career started in WWII when she was just a teenager living in the Netherlands. She used to dance in secret productions to raise money for the Dutch resistance movement, using the name Edda van Heemstra to conceal her English identity from the German occupiers. 
  6. Morgan Freeman
    1. Morgan Freeman was so keen to join the US Air Force he turned down a drama scholarship from Jackson State University so he could enlist. He initially served as an Automatic Tracking Radar Repairman, but he was in love with the idea of flying and wanted to be a fighter pilot. But when his chance finally came and he first sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet he had a dramatic change of heart: "I had the distinct feeling I was sitting in the nose of a bomb. I had this very clear epiphany - ‘You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this’." And he promptly left the military before ever making it to war.
  7. Jimi Hendrix
    1. Guitar legend, Jimi Hendrix was given the choice to either join the army or go to prison after being caught driving stolen cars. He chose to join the army. There, he spent most of his time playing the guitar and neglecting his duties, which didn’t go down well with the other soldiers. He was often found napping on duty and rarely followed orders. Eventually, he was discharged from the army and soon after became one of the world's most famous guitarists. His disobedience saved him from the Vietnam War and gave us the chance to fall in love with Purple Haze and Hey Joe!
  8. Elvis Presley 
    1. Even the ‘King of Rock n’ Roll’ had to join the army. He was conscripted as a private in 1958, despite being recognised as the biggest cultural icon of the twentieth century. He was offered the chance to enlist in the special services as an entertainer for the troops, but he chose instead to serve as a regular private. It was whilst serving in the army that Elvis was introduced to amphetamines - a drug that would later destroy him.