I stare out at the idyllic waters of Punggol Beach. Passersby are relishing their day off under the sun with the sea as a companion. As I gaze at a landscape that epitomises the glory of island living, I remember that I am, in fact, standing on the land that once witnessed the Punggol Beach Massacre.
In 1942, some 400 Chinese civilians, victims of the Sook Ching purge, were killed by the Japanese on the northeastern shore of Singapore. Many men suspected of being anti-Japanese were shot dead and exterminated. The victims of the massacre were discarded into the sea or left abandoned on the foreshore. The British, who were governing Singapore at the time, surrendered the island after only a week of fighting.
My great-grandfather and grandfather were alive at the time. Growing up, I heard many stories of the Japanese occupation of Singapore. To me, these stories are not just hand-me-down tales about a bygone era. War–for the most part of human history–was a fact of life. The result of being born in an era of ‘peace’ has led generations into believing that peace is a natural state of affairs. It is not.
Since time first began, wars have diverted humanity onto unforeseeable pathways. It has closed certain roads and opened many others. As far as the history of the Earth is concerned, war is also a fact of life. At times, the Earth herself, the ecosystem in which all life is born, has also carried out acts of war on those who subsist on her land and in her waters. We have chosen to call them Acts of God or Natural Disasters.
War, as we understand it in humans terms, is organised violence. Different societies have, over time, fought different sorts of wars. From nomadic societies, to agricultural societies, to urban societies–we all have an obligation to defend our homes and our way of life. But at whose expense? Let’s face it. We live in an era and in a world that has been shaped by war–and not the absence of it.
Cities all over the world have dedicated whole museums to the stories of veterans and civilians who sacrificed their lives so that we could be here. We, as humans, have also conveniently included and excluded certain chapters of our own history in order to systematically shape a worldview that is inconsistent with what actually happened.
When we do think about war, we are reminded of its carnage–in terms of casualties and costs. We are told it is all a waste. War is violent, unpredictable and chaotic. What we don’t seem to recognise is that it takes strategy and organisation to create a war and to lead a people to victory. War could even be argued to be the most organised of all human activities. In the aftermath of its conclusion; we regroup, reorganise and reshape our societies in unforeseeable ways.
In peacetime, we can conclude, based on carefully-crafted stories, that war is an evil that only brings misery. But perhaps, an alternative view would be to see it as a reorganisation of the world. For the revolutionaries of the world, war was a fight to survive and to exist.
While the heated debates continue among historians and politicians regarding the legitimacy and necessity of war, the evidence suggests that we, as humans, have had an innate tendency to attack each other ever since we started roaming the planet. Unlike animals, however, we do not simply do it because we’re hungry and need lunch. Our rationale for waging war is often inconclusive. Why?
There are escalation points that lead to tipping points that lead us to declare a state of war. Furthermore, for a large scale effort to be put into place, resources and personnel from all walks of life must be mobilised. The whole business of war is not as chaotic as the news stories make it out to be. War is not simply that moment when a foot soldier or a civilian is fighting for his life on the battlefield.
Some relegate the rationale for war to greed and competition for resources. Others say that it is because we feel a kinship towards our fellow man–particularly those who hail from a similar familial, ethnic or religious background. Others say that we lash out when we feel threatened. While war would not exist without a precipitating factor, it is hard to pinpoint exactly which precipitating factor leads to war.
The continued prevalence and persistence of war in certain regions has led me to ask: what factor leads us to fight a particular group over another? The very existence of alliances between warring groups against enemy groups–and sometimes even groups that have little in common–can lead us to conclude that we don’t just wage war on anybody.
So when we choose to wage war and decide on a target, my question is: why has that particular target or ‘enemy’ been chosen over so many others?
Violence for the sake of violence has never been celebrated in society. If war, like peace, was a natural state of affairs, we would not paradoxically have the propensity to form friendships that require cooperation, trust, and altruism. We humans have, over a sustained period of time, figured out how to use violence in an organised, purposeful and strategic way. For us to create peace as a natural state of affairs, we had to create a world where we had become better killers than ever before.
Great powers have never been ‘nice’ ones. What they must do, and do reasonably well, is to provide security and stability for their own people. Once a country has declared war on another country, or even within a group in their own country, they have, in essence, created a relationship that will not end when the war ends. At some point, when it all ends, reparation or reconciliation efforts will have to be made. There is a reason why historically even the victors of war do not leave their victims in shambles. Why? Altruism? I think not.
Humiliating your victim will create the optimum conditions within which the war will re-perpetuate. It is not in any victor’s self-interest to prolong a hardship longer than is necessary. Humiliation is not a feeling that humans can cope with for extended periods of time. It is what leads to retribution and retaliation.
On the other hand, victory can entrench the victors in rebuilding efforts. War has often paved the path to massive political and social upheaval. This vacuum can lead to one set of rulers replacing another. In the absence of rebuilding efforts, the aftermath of war can serve to rally radicals to create a new repressive regime in its wake.
War is a costly endeavour. After the deconstruction, reconstruction will begin. As to whether what is reconstructed is better or worse than what existed before the war–now, that is a matter of perception and personal values.