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Uncivil wars: Those terrible but mystic chords of memory

Uncivil wars: Those terrible but mystic chords of memory
Women brandish a doll with red paint depicting killed children as people protest in support of Palestinians in front of the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 11 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Martial Trezzini)

The notion of ‘brother against brother’ helps fuel some of the most violent conflicts of our age, even if it is a saga as old as history.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” – Matthew 10:21-22

Nearly 60 years ago, the original Star Trek science fiction television series aired one of its most memorable episodes: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”

uncivil wars

Loki and Bele in the science fiction television show ‘Star Trek’ titled ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield‘. (Photo: Supplied)

In that episode, Captain Kirk and the crew of their spaceship Enterprise encounter two human-shaped aliens — Bele and Lokai — as they are engaged in a literal life-and-death struggle, one against the other, even as they are the last two survivors from their devastated planet, following a planetary war. 

Both were deploying enormously powerful weapons against each other — and then, against the Enterprise itself. Astoundingly, the only distinction between the two aliens is that the black and white pigmentation on their respective faces is reversed. But that is enough to keep the two locked in combat as they see each other as an implacable enemy to be fought — literally — to the last man.

As the episode wraps, the two continue their titanic, now planet-destroying struggle — it is unending and they are unyielding. First aired in 1966, it could be viewed as just one more science fiction television thriller, but it could also be seen as a metaphor for a deeply divided America; a nation coping with the tensions of the Cold War, the ongoing civil rights revolution, and the increasingly painful impact of an expanding Vietnam conflict.

But, crucially, it might also be read as a prophetic statement about the dangerous world we now inhabit.

As nearly the whole world knows, there is a terrible conflict consuming the life and treasure of two neighbouring Eastern European nations — Ukraine and Russia. While perspectives about the ultimate origins of this war can vary in their telling, without doubt, the actual start of the fighting came about via the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. 

Vladimir Putin and his cronies had expected a quick victory that would have achieved a forcible reunification of the two nations, thereby reconstituting a major part of what was the old Soviet Union. 

Crucially, in Putin’s explanation for his invasion, Ukraine has never actually been a different nation, polity, or society, but it was simply a wayward part, misled by neo-Nazis and others of that ilk. But the reality has been an invasion that has enhanced Ukraine’s sense of identity, has virtually destroyed entire Ukrainian cities, generated millions of refugees, and ultimately drawn in many Western nations in supporting roles, supplying funds and much advanced military materiel for 21st-century warfare. 

Ukrainians now see their nation as one struggling to become a part of Western Europe, throwing off the dead hand of old-style Soviet apparatchiks, and, instead, heading towards the institutions that bring together more than two dozen nations into the 21st-century world, such as the EU — and eventually, perhaps, Nato as well.

Moreover, while Ukraine and Russia do share much common heritage, Ukrainians now see their country as one that has been distinct from Russia for centuries, even if it was eventually part of the same Czarist empire.

The irony in this is that as part of their respective national founding myths, both nations trace their origins back to the Kyivan/Kievan Rus state (founded by the invading Varangians, or Vikings) more than a thousand years ago. Further, they also draw upon an overlapping history of warding off numerous invaders from both the East and West over the centuries and significantly share cultural and literary traditions — and even a few icons within it.

But here we are dealing with those powerful foundational myths of origin, rather than any specifics of literary, cultural, societal and political evolution over the centuries. And that, in turn, contributes to the sense of a struggle between brothers — metaphorically — even if the cruelty being meted out by the Russian invaders is creating a deeper estrangement and angry resentments that will likely live on for years to come. Metaphorically speaking, brother against brother.

Casting our gaze to the Middle East, between Israelis/Jews and Arabs/Muslims, a bitter contest is now being waged in Gaza that was — most recently — kicked off by an extraordinary spree of brutality and killing on 7 October against civilian music festivalgoers and families living in southern Israel, and conducted by Hamas militias. 

In response, the Israeli armed forces have engaged in retaliation against Hamas, hammering the people of Gaza, regardless of whether they were Hamas militants or children.

Here, too, a bitter, contemporary conflict is overlaid atop an ancient founders’ myth of the common origin of two Semitic peoples, arising out of a half-siblings’ rivalry and inheritance as recounted in the earliest book of the Bible, Genesis 16:3. That is the story of Isaac and Ishmael and their common father Abraham, but different mothers, Sarah and Hagar. Brother against brother, and thus so much more intense.

In a similar storyline, the American Civil War, although its ultimate cause — the continued existence of chattel slavery — was very different than the ownership of flocks, in popular discussion and the history books on that period, that war has frequently been called a war of brother against brother. 

In fact, that is precisely what did happen in some towns and cities in the border battleground states. Families were often divided and the fighting was so much more bitter as a result. And one might also make some comparisons to the wars fought in the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia. There, combatants effectively spoke the same language, yet they were deeply divided through different histories and beliefs.

Further afield, the civil conflicts in Myanmar among ethnic Burmese pits a repressive military government against a pro-democracy movement. But the situation also arrays the military regime against what the Burmese call “the hill tribes” — a confrontation that remains unresolved. 

We might also consider the devastating conflicts in Sudan between two warring groups contending for control in Khartoum and, simultaneously, yet again fighting against a beleaguered Darfur. 

And then there are conflicts across the remainder of the Sahel, including northern Nigeria where a deadly split fractures along religious lines. In these, it is brother against brother, or, at the very least, brother against step-brother.

New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen’s recent essay speaks to the horrors of the ongoing deaths of children everywhere, especially amid those struggles that metaphorically pit brother against brother. (Polgreen had spent years as her paper’s correspondent in South Africa before returning to the US.)

As Polgreen wrote after ruminating over photographs of child victims of conflict: “And so I ask you to look at these children. They are not asleep. They are dead. They will not be part of the future. But know this: The children in the morgue photo could be any children. They could be Sudanese children caught in the crossfire between two feuding generals in Khartoum. They could be Syrian children crushed under Bashar al-Assad’s bombs. They could be Turkish children who died in their beds when a shoddily constructed apartment block collapsed upon them in an earthquake. They could be Ukrainian children slain by Russian shells. They could be Israeli children slaughtered in a kibbutz by Hamas. They could be American schoolchildren gunned down in a mass shooting. These children are ours.”

The challenge, of course, is that these struggles, down through the centuries and passed on to the next generation, have not been resolved, save through force of arms. And that will remain one of the central problems of our age. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Have you ever seen tiny babies like this being held up at their hips upright like dolls. Please use more realistic photographs. A newborn baby will be a bundle. It makes a mockery of the good article. Denise Smit

    • Izzy Trees says:

      This is a prop used for protest purposes. You should be more concerned about the 4,600+ actual children in Gaza killed by Israeli forces in the last month. Add to that 40+ journalists, 198+ medical staff, 102+ UN staff and 130+ teachers. The overall death toll is more than 11,100 civilians with more than 28,000 injured, and 3,250+ reported missing under rubble.

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    Thank you Brooks for bringing attention to the cruel absurdity of so many, indeed most conflicts. It is always discouraging to me that so there is so much attention to difference and not enough to our common humanity.

  • Thaabit Semaar says:

    Also add to your reflection in the article; this could be Palestinian children mercilessly murdered by the barbaric Zionists in Israel.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Thank you, Brooks Spector , for this timely, thoughtful and thought-provoking article. The historical and globally spread perspectives you bring, ought to concern us all.

    They speak powerfully of the adage, “he who controls the narratives, will win the future”. Yet in all the conflicts you talk about, there was clarity as to which side could reasonably claim, moral superiority, even though, arguably in all instances this moral certainty and clarity could only be clearly discerned once the swirling mists of the then present times, had cleared and truths, lies and propaganda laid bare.

    Most disturbingly we are now seeing the growing possibility of a replay of the American civil war as Trump seeks to save himself from jail by rallying his troops who believe that over-moralising, Washington – i.e. northern – political elites are attacking the rights of good-old Southern boys, to lead the life they want, keep out those they dislike and re-create the good old days, “Gone with the Wind” Southern States, way of life. This again will be fuelled more by myth and legend, led by a demagogue, very similar in his simple, home-spun, very selective narrative, to our own Julius Malema, who, like Trump, really deserves more than anything else, something that Zuma always talked about, but fought tooth and nail to avoid, “his day in court”.

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