THINKING OF WAR WHILE VACATING: a book review series 

The Drum

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round:
To thoughtless youth it pleasure yields,
And lures from cities and from fields,
To sell their liberty for charms
Of tawdry lace, and glittering arms;
And when Ambition’s voice commands,
To March, and fight, and fall, in foreign lands.

 I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round:
To me it talks of ravaged plains,
And burning towns, and ruined swains,
And mangled limbs, and dying groans,
And widows’ tears, and orphans’ moans;
And all the Misery’s hand bestows,
To fill the catalogue of human woes.

John Scott of Amwell (1730-1793)

Four years ago this month, when we were heading to the beaches or mountains, or just chilling at home, as is the norm during August in Europe, I wrote a post Vacationing Without Vacating: an imperative for reflecting on the Blood Telegram. My point was to remind us that even while vacationing, we should be mindful of the plight of others less fortunate. Back then the events against the Rohingya in the Rakhine State of Myanmar were headline news, but so were the events in Syria and elsewhere.

We look forward (and deservedly so) to a bit of respite from thinking of such events as we try to recharge our batteries with some of our favorite pastimes – be it visiting places, exploring new hobbies, or simply indulging in reading a good book, preferably one that entertains – and to a vacation that affords the mind a leave of absence from the grind at work, from the daily chores, and from the pressures that come with being responsible adults. Who wants to think about killings, rapes, forcible transfers, deportations, ethnic cleansing, and all the human misery that wars, conflicts, and acts of terror bring? We are not asking for much – just to vacate while vacationing.

Yet war, conflict, terror, and human atrocities don’t take a holiday.

No, I’m not suggesting that neither should we. But as members of our community, citizens of our states, inhabitants of our planet, we could go on vacation without totally vacating. But how?

Well, this year I thought I would try something different. I decided to add to my summer reading list a series of books with a particular theme. The objective was to examine a topic from various angles, much like a photographer or filmmaker uses the camera to expose the viewer to different angles and compositions, revealing different perspectives of the subject. I selected war.

Leónidas en las Termópilas, por Jacques-Louis David.jpg
Leónidas en las Termópilas, Jacques-Louis David, 1814

Granted, not the most pleasant of topics to be reading about while on vacation. But, like the erosion of our environment, it is ever-present, deserving our awareness and concerted efforts to do something constructive, however insignificant it may seem. Just thinking about war – even if it is not possible to do much within our limited capacity (though demonstrating, engaging in public discussions, and voting are but few examples of the power of one) – is better than throwing up our hands claiming powerlessness or pushing it out of our minds and pretending its non-existence.

War has many faces. It comes in many different forms. And whether we like it or not, in our cyber age – which, let’s be frank, is still in its infancy – the manner in which it will be conducted is beyond what our planet and our species have thus far experienced. Thinking of this, I am reminded of the opening lines by General Rupert Smith in his excellent book THE UTILITY OF FORCE – The Art of War in the Modern World:

War no longer exists. Confrontation, conflict and combat undoubtedly exist all around the world – most noticeably, but not only, in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Palestinian Territories – and states still have armed forces which they use as a symbol of power. Nonetheless, war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in the field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs, such war no longer exists.

But, at the risk of impertinence – never having served in the armed forces and lacking the experience and wisdom of General Smith – in my inexpert opinion, his assertion seems incongruous with what we have been witnessing in the near two decades since he penned these words. It also does not square with the current geopolitical/economic landscape and what likely (though not inevitably) may be in store for us in the not-so-distant future, especially if there is merit (I think yes) to the Thucydides trap theory (discussed in one of the upcoming reviews).

Since it is much more inviting for me to read my favorite genres while vacating (murder mysteries and spy novels), to discipline myself and keep from slacking off on reading the books I selected on war, I decided to review them. Perhaps others may be interested in reading them, or at least be exposed to them – albeit through my lens.

Starting this week and over the rest of this holiday-making month, I will post a series of reviews on books that are relatively recent, each covering a different aspect of the topic of war. I will try to keep the reviews short, informative, and non-taxing. So, while you deservedly vacate during your summer vacation, promising neither illumination nor edification, I hope to unobtrusively stimulate your thinking about war beyond focusing on the usual black letter law.

Not wanting to spoil your anticipation (which I do pray I have piqued) by revealing the books I will be reviewing, I leave you with a quote from Albert Camus’ Chroniques Algériennes, which aptly reflects one of my sentiments for examining the multidimensional aspects of war from different disciplines and perspectives in my search for greater understanding:

While it is true that in history at least, values – whether of the nation or of humanity – do not survive unless we fight for them, neither combat nor force suffices to justify them. The fight itself must be justified and enlightened by those values. To fight for truth and to take care not to kill it with the very weapons we use in its defence; this is the double price to be paid for restoring the power of words.

Enjoy your summer vacation.

Read the first in this Book Review Series.


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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

One thought on “THINKING OF WAR WHILE VACATING: a book review series ”

  1. Dear Mr. karnavas:
    I couldn´t agree more with your comments. I think that General Rupert Smith forgot or ignores the famous Roman dictum : “si vis pacem para bellum”. The excerpt you transcripted seems to be written by a pacifist. The mere fact that there is not yet a world war between the Western Powers and non democratics Powers is the direct consequence of the existing balance of power between them.

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