Drinking from Skulls until the Next Millenium

I read this essay at an event on the effects of war at the Independent Publishing Resource Center hosted by A.M. O’Malley earlier this month.

to the ground troops from the Korean War

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

That is a quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Today I want to start the conversation on the effects of war, the effects of war on us as humans, as a country, and as individuals. I think the first thing we need to do is ask, “what is war?” It seems easy enough to answer, right, but what is it?

A basic definition might be “one group of people fighting another group of people.”

But of course war isn’t that simple. Fighting is such an innocent synonym here. A more accurate definition would be one group of people using all the resources they can to take the lives of another group of people, to kill them. Now, since this is about killing people, don’t we need to ask a few more questions? Killing, for the most part, is against the rules in every civilization on the planet.

Who in our society are we going to ask (or sometimes tell) to do the killing?

Our citizens: our sons, our daughters, our brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers.

How will we ask our loved ones to kill?

We will use all of the resources and technological advances possible.

Who are we trying to kill? How do we justify killing other human beings?

Evil people because they have different ideology, different beliefs.

Who decides to send our loved ones to war?

The leaders, in our case the elected officials.

Now our definition of war has grown: War is when the leaders of one country send the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers of their citizens to kill another group with different ideology or beliefs using all the resources and technology at their disposal, no, I don’t want to say disposal because the resources and technology is anything but disposable. Let’s remember Eisenhower’s Cross of Iron and start again. War is when the leaders of one group send the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers of their citizens to kill the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers of another group with different ideology or beliefs using all the resources and technology they could otherwise use to feed the hungry, clothe and house their needy, or use in other ways to make their lives and world better. Is this a good definition?

Then we can see what the effects of war are on humanity. Detrimental.

Now that we’ve defined war can we agree that it is also detrimental on a country?

Can we agree that war should be the very last action a country should take, the action it takes when all else fails because we know what it will cost us in lives and resources?


Our country, the United States, the country that sent me to kill the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in more than one foreign land, the country that I bled for, that friends of mine died fighting for, has been at war most of its short life. Looking at the history books we have been at war more than 90 percent of our 239-years.

Let’s look at some of the highlights:

1776-1800 The Revolutionary War, The Northwest Indian War, The Half War with France, The First Barbary War.

1801-1900- The Indian Wars, War of 1812, Mexcian/American War, Civil War, Spanish/American War, Second Barbary War.

1900-2000 – Philippines/American War, Banana Wars, WWI, WWII, Korean War, War in Guatamala, Vietnam War, The Cold War, Persian Gulf, Panama, Gulf War, Haiti (I was there), Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan.

2001-Present – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and most recently the War on Terror. It seems war has evolved to the point where we don’t need a second group to fight. We are now declaring wars on ideas, which is more convenient. Now the people we kill don’t have to decide if they’re in the group we declared war on, we get to do that.


If war is the absolute last resort for a country, why do we, the most freedom loving, technologically advanced, economically forward nation on the planet do it so often?

No, really, I’m asking you. I don’t know. Wish I did. My guess is that like it or not there are positive effects of war. Money – we’ve had two wars raging for over a decade and our rich somehow keep getting richer. The divide between rich and poor has never been so great except maybe during Feudalism, and it took a third of the world dying from the Black Plaque to get out of that system.

What are the other positive effects of war? Power. We are the most powerful nation on the planet right now and that didn’t come from being peaceful. Technological advances: Radar, the microwave oven, the Internet were all military projects. Medical advances such as blood transfusions, infection control, prosthetic limbs, again military projects first. Culture can be another effect of war. Think of the oldest stories we have Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Canterbury Tales, most of Shakespeare’s plays, all the way to the popular books and movies today… Full Metal Jacket, Lone Survivor, American Sniper. There is something to be said about glory… when you ring that bell pride echoes long and loud throughout our culture.

If we have undeniable positive effects of war and undeniable negative effects, how do we balance this? How do we decide when the positive effects outweigh the negative?

Again, I’m asking for real.

Hopefully, in the future, we as a country take into account the effects war has on us as individuals. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs latest statistics we lose 22 veterans to suicide every day, every day. Every month over 1,000 combat veterans attempt to kill themselves – that is more than one every half hour. Just in 2012 more military veterans died of suicide than where killed total in the Afghanistan War since beginning in 2001. 73.4 percent of combat arms personnel are leaving the armed forces with a service connected PTSD rating. These are our sons, our daughters, our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers. This is horrible. We can all agree this is horrible, but what these statistics from the VA don’t cover are the families. What about the parents, the siblings, the children of the ones coming back? Divorce rates in the Army alone doubled after the wars started. The divorce rate with the soldiers I went over with has to be in the high 80 percent range. Unstable living conditions and at least one parent with PTSD, what does that do to the children? And that’s our veterans and our families, no one really talks about the civilians in the combat zones. In Haiti I saw women trade handjobs through a chainlink fence for C batteries. One morning my squad found the body of a dead Haitian man in his early twenties half buried in our dump. He had been killed by another local. They were fighting over what we threw away. The Haitians jumped a ten-foot brick wall with razor wire on top and braved getting arrested by us just to pick through our garbage, garbage they valued enough to kill each other for. In Iraq most the men of fighting age are dead from decades of war leaving elderly men, women, and children to fend for themselves in a land torn apart by war. In Taji, Iraq, there was an entire village made from the blown out rubble of a military industrial complex. They drank from stagnant puddles and burned tires to cook their food over.

We have defined war and found the negative effects outweigh the positive, so why do we still wage it? Is the violence put in our souls or is it innate and simply brought out by circumstance? Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an essay on war in 1862 called “Drinking out of the Skulls until the Millennium.” If you read this essay you will notice it could have been written yesterday, but now after the millennium we still face the same problems. We still know that every war ship launched and rocket fired steals from what we can be, but we still launch them, fire them, bomb them, more now than ever in history.

Hawthorne wrote, “Set men face to face, with weapons in their hands, and they are as ready to slaughter one another now, after playing at peace and good-will for so many years, as in the rudest ages, that never heard of peace-societies, and thought no wine so delicious as what they quaffed from an enemy’s skull. Indeed, if the report of a Congressional committee may be trusted, that old-fashioned kind of goblet has again come into use, at the expense of our Northern head-pieces,–a costly drinking-cup to him that furnishes it! Heaven forgive me for seeming to jest upon such a subject!–only, it is so odd, when we measure our advances from barbarism, and find ourselves just here!”

By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.

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