Winston Churchill famously said that it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. Sadly, we human beings take the message all too literally and Samson-like, pick up the aforementioned jaw to slaughter anyone who disagrees.

War is old—and despite what ladies of the night may tell you—it is by far the oldest profession known to human kind. It’s oddly ironic that peace is our highest ambition, our greatest dream, and yet something that in our entire history has never existed in more than one small locality at any one time. One local chief may have stopped making drinking tankards from the skulls of his now former neighbours who happened to insult his prized begonias.

The fact that this slight will never be forgiven, and Yemen-like, the neighbours sink into millennia-old feuds, seems to escape the involved parties. These ancient fools had no more foresight it seems than the current US administration just about to charge off on a new round of the War on Reality by pissing off several million Arab tribesmen who like nothing more than a good old-fashioned thousand year vendetta.

Evidently, we like war, and with diplomacy as the gentle aperitif, mass murder as main course, and with a side dish of unspeakable atrocity, we gorge ourselves until we can feed no more. Then, shamed at our gluttony, we fast for a while until the inevitable hunger returns. Malthusians amongst us may sagely nod their heads (before, perhaps, someone just as sagely removes them) and suggest that all this works to our benefit as a species and we should look at the bigger picture. One can imagine Butterball has the same counselling service available at Thanksgiving and Christmas for its turkey population.

When it comes down to it, we’re rather bipolar about war. Even the most timid, peaceful soul, man or woman has a secret frisson when the blood flows on the television. And yet, at the very same time, the moral switch is activated leaving us with a very Catholic-strength guilt complex.

This is the ultimate dichotomy at work in us: we civilized barbarians, we vegetarian carnivores, we wound-patching killers. Cavafy was right – we need the barbarians. If they don’t come along, where would be the best that we have in art and letters? Like Asterix’s Goths who do not know the meaning of fear, how can we overcome our bestiality until we experience it? For great art we need disparity in wealth:

As Cake put it in their song ‘Commissioning a Symphony in C’:

With money you squeeze from the peasants,
To your nephew you can give it as a present;
This magnificent symphony in C.
You’ll be commissioning a symphony in C.

For peace we need to understand our depravity and overcome it. That in these new times of superstition, we are running back to the gods to blame them for what we have wrought, it hardly seems very likely soon that we have anything to look forward to but more-more war-war.

Editors’ Picks

Rose Kelleher

The ABCs of loss, by Peter Schwartz. This poem moves me, and I love how it risks everything to do that. This poet either doesn’t hear, or doesn’t heed, the jaded literary voice that says, “Don’t write ‘confessional’ poetry! Don’t write long poems! And for God’s sake, don’t write about child abuse!” It even breaks the rules of the alphabet. And I love the imaginative turns of phrase, any one of which a whole poem might have turned on, but here are tossed out as casually as table scraps.

Angela France

My choice is Charles Musser’s ‘Lullaby’ for its sinister counterpointing of lullaby rhythm and form to unsettling content.

Nigel Holt

Quincy Lehr’s ‘Fragment from an American Folk Song’ has power in its short length, a power that revels in its own perverse anger: a power that the poet deliberately eschews and simultaneously makes his own.

Riot Act