Month: December 2011

Dad, what is war?

There’s this little girl on the hotel’s lobby. She seems very smart, but at odds with one of the popular magazines she’s reading. It looks like one of those low-quality magazines that people publish for children, assuming they’re dumb and can’t take a bit of logic. This one seems to be about history, mostly relating facts to simple conclusions and trying to get started the child’s imagination on what would be like hundreds of years ago.

I’m only waiting for them to get my room ready, so anything to pass the time is game, and watching the puzzled face of that little girl looking at a picture of what looks like a war scene is, at least, entertaining. Her dad is busy with some details of his bill, so she refrains from interrupting him, but enough is enough, I can see that she must ask what that is. And so she does.

“Dad, what is war?”. A bit puzzled with the numbers still floating in his mind and having to cope with such an unexpected question, he stops for a moment. “I, uh… war is… er, like… why do you ask?”. The little girl flips the magazine without letting it go, so her dad can read, and look at him with those big reflecting eyes, demanding a fair answer.

After switching his mind quickly yo cope with the upside-down writings and the glare from the sun outside on the screen, her dad finally tries to answer. “Well, honey. War is when people get angry and fight.” That was really amazing, because you could clearly see how fast her mind was pattern-matching in all her reactions. The involuntary contraction of her neck, the slight tilt of her head and the eyes going back and forth looking at nothing in particular. About a second later, she concluded. “Oh, I see, like you and mum?”

At this time the father wasn’t listening any more, and just issued the standard “uh-huh”. It was clear as filtered air that, in the next seconds, lots of memories of her family would be unequivocally associated with war, and at a later stage (if she ever became a historian), she would have to deal with that. It seems silly for me to interfere, but learning is an emergent behaviour, and she could have other unpredictable side-effects that would ruin her life for a number of reasons.

I looked around and there was no sign of the hotel staff bringing me my key, so I put my reservation aside and dived in. “Hello, little girl. How is your magazine?”. She looked at me in a slight panic, but my smiling face is anything but threatening. She looked at her dad, than at me. Her dad didn’t seem particularly worried, so she relaxed and continued the conversation.

“This is a magazine about the dark ages. I’ve learned dark ages at school and that people used to fight a lot, but I’ve never seen pictures of a real war before.” I said, “Well, these pictures are very old and bi-dimensional, it’s hard to see anything in them. Besides, they were usually taken by one or the other side, so you never knew how bad things really were other than what people told in the news or left in the pictures.”

She still seemd a bit confused, and not because of the quality of the pictures, I have to say. “I imagine how angry these people had to be to come to this…”. There was my cue. “You see, this has nothing to do with being angry… Your mum and dad will never go to war for disagreeing, because war is not about anyone’s feelings, really”.

Nevertheless, she seemed very resolute in her fantasy of mum and dad waging wars. “When they got separated, my mum said she was going to kill dad if he ever showed up again…”. But I was not going to give up, “That doesn’t mean it’s war. She was just angry and I’m sure she won’t kill anyone.”

By that time, my keys had arrived and I was ready to leave, but the little girls’ eyes weren’t stable enough for me to leave. Not just yet. “I don’t get it. If people were not mad, why did they fight?”. I could not hold my urge to elaborate… so I did.

“You see, back in the 21st century, people used to be a lot less rational than today. They used to call the early days as ‘dark ages’, only that those days were a lot less dark than – what we call today – the dark ages. People had a very blurry view of what science is or can do, and religion was still a strong player in worlds business.”

“Not only that, but people also had a very limited point of view. They thought only about their own profit and even then, only their short term profit – think about a month or so, no more – so they were always taking rapid-firing short-sighted decisions. For instance, they would wage wars in the – then, called middle east – area to control the oil production, even decades after realising fossil fuels weren’t good at all. Even mother China would wage wars with our neighbours because of their political agenda…” “Not mother China! We’d never do that!” I was taken aback a bit for her reaction, but continued nevertheless… “Hundreds of years ago, dear, everyone did that, even mother China.”

She was puzzled. Maybe I was making it worse, which was another reason to continue…

“Let’s go back a bit. When science was still at its early stages, there were some fundamental questions that people couldn’t answer, like ‘where do we come from’ and ‘why are we here'” “But that’s non-sense!” “Yes, yes, calm down, we’re talking about back then, remember?” “Oh, yes, sorry.” “Those questions, however irrelevant to the universe, were fundamental to even the most prodigious scientists of that era. It was not all bad, since most of the discoveries of that time came from trying to find the ultimate truth.”

“Religion is that stuff about the universe being created, right?” “Exactly, there is a deity that is more powerful than us and have created us. Somewhat like man and ants, we could do whatever we wanted with them…” “but we didn’t create the ants!” “Yes, I was, uh, trying to come up with an analogy, sorry. You see, that’s one of the reasons why it failed over the time, people ran out of stupid analogies and science took care of the rest. With time, we stopped asking stupid questions as well, so the long sought answers about the universe died out and, well, came the age of enlightenment.”

“What does that have to do with war?” “Oh, yes, war. So, ever since the stone age, most wars were waged for religious reasons. It may not make a lot of sense now, but different people had different religions, and they could not accept that other people could believe in a different deity, or even in the same deity, with slightly different rules. That has led to a lot of controversy, and due to the lack of diplomacy, wars.”

“However, after a while, people realised that religion was not just a matter of belief, it was a powerful weapon. If you could make people believe in what you want – that you are in direct communication with such deity, for instance – you would recruit every single man that believes in that deity to your cause. With time, when money came into scene, that was the most powerful way to acquire money. Later on, when religion started to fail, people had to create different fears, such as their own safety. That’s when terrorism came to scene, but again, that had strong religious roots.”

“So, war was about money, then?” “Exactly! Money and power, which invariably leads to more money (or power).” “Oh, that’s stupid! Everyone knows you get more if you cooperate than if you fight over something…” She was warming up and I’d lose my meeting but I wouldn’t stop now!

“Have you ever heard of John Nash?” “Hey, John Nash, I know him! Game theory, right?” “Well done!” I was really impressed, they normally learn that stuff at 10, but she was barely 7 years old. “There were some people a bit ahead of their time, like John Nash and Stephen Hawking, but they were few. Most of the prodigious scientists were all looking for the ultimate answer. And funny enough, for more than a century after John Nash, people still waged wars for money…”

She was looking down, and a bit sad… “My mum always say that I don’t listen and I only learn through pain… I guess this was their problem, wasn’t it?” “I think so” said I, resolute. “I think there’s yet another explanation that fits into Nash’s predictions. There were so many factors into why waging wars actually makes less profit than not, that people could not see it straight away. Whoever said that was taken as an anarchist, or an idiot – which at the time, was almost the same thing…” “What’s an anarchist?” That truly took me out of balance… I wasn’t prepared to elaborate on that. So I didn’t.

“Back to war… Nash’s idea, and that we all take for granted today, is that collaboration is far more stable and profitable than competition. I personally think that, what was really difficult for them to realise, was that competition is what made men evolve, but that’s also what made men stop evolving for millennia. Learning to collaborate was the single most important change in the world over the last three hundred years, and also what made our fauna and flora to go back to its original intent, and thanks to that, we still have our planet to live in.”

“Of course we do! Where else? Ha!” She was laughing seriously loud now. I believe a man of that age would not understand why, but I did.

My watch went crazy on the alarm, reminding me I had a meeting in 15 minutes, and I even hadn’t had a shower. That was my cue to leave, so just made some silly moves like pointing at the watch and smirking, and she got it straight away. Clever girl.