For most of my life, I perceived a basic ontological difference between war and peace. They seemed to be polar opposites—good people want peace and bad people want war. But I’m no longer so sure.
There exists, perhaps, an innate human desire to fight for what we believe in, a desire to defend our home fronts. However, by the time we get to the battlefield, we often don’t know whether it truly deserves our fighting.
The summer after my senior year of high school, my best friend and I spent two weeks hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. We spent most of our time either talking to each other or introspectively enjoying the silence of the woods, but my most memorable experiences from the trip came from various interactions with other hikers.
The types of people who take a six-month hiatus from their lives to follow a path through the woods tend to be, at the very least, interesting. Many of the thru-hikers that I met were outdoor enthusiasts, others pensive introverts, and a select few were escaping some aspect of their lives that they wished to change. Yet one man in particular, whose trail name was the Weatherman, was harder to categorize.
After a day of summiting two peaks, my friend and I reached a shelter and put our bags down. We began making conversation with one of the other hikers in the lean-to, a strong and rather intimidating man in his twenties. After some small talk, I asked him about the tattoo that covered almost half of his left arm.
He sighed and told me that it was the biggest he was allowed to get—if he could have covered his whole body with it, he would have.
“The biggest you were allowed to get?” I asked.
“I was in the Air Force. It had to be small enough to cover up.”
“Oh, I bet that was pretty cool,” I replied, trying to stimulate the conversation.
“Nah, it wasn’t. I hated it.”
At first, he didn’t seem like the type of guy to hate the armed forces. But he continued.
“It wasn’t really what I thought it would be. They told me what to do all the time. And I’m fine with that, usually. It just seemed like the goal we were moving towards wasn’t worth it.”
“Well wasn’t your job, at least, exciting?” I wondered out loud.
“I was the meteorologist of my station, so I told them when the weather was safe to launch missiles. That’s why I go by ‘Weatherman’. It’s just that most people out here don’t know that that means I’ve killed people.”
I sat in silence under the comfort of the shelter and looked out at a stream nearby. It wasn’t an awkward silence, per se, just a heavy one. I could sense that he’d been through something much realer than I ever had. He reached into his bag and pulled out some tobacco and marijuana. With the joint between his lips, he lit the end and inhaled. He looked up, away from my gaze, and mumbled something profound as the smoke left his mouth.
“Honestly, I would have rather joined the Peace Corps.”
I replayed the words in my head, over and over. This guy? The Peace Corps? And then it hit me. On the surface, war and peace seem to be fueled by conflicting motives and opposing forces; however, the individuals behind them are often the same. Put simply, they are people who want to defend what they consider “good.” The manifestation of this desire varies, of course, between individuals and circumstances, but the desire itself seems innately human.
For the Weatherman, the ideals of the Air Force—and its designation of the United States as his home front—initially felt right. However, the glorification of war and the glamorization of defense eventually lost traction. Instead of acting blindly, he decided to reevaluate whether this fight really warranted his fighting.
I’m not quite sure what the Weatherman’s Peace Corps statement says about humanity, nor how war and peace fundamentally relate. I also don’t know exactly how individuals justify both under the same premise of good. But I do believe that there is something to be said about a universal source of inspiration for each of us to defend our home fronts.
In some ways, I like to think that the Weatherman’s tattoo reflected the good within him—the same good within all of us that inspires peace, war, and the defense of every home front in between. When forced to cover the ink in the military, his intrinsic desire to do good was stifled by the military’s own institutional agenda. In fact, I would argue that this deceptive paradox between good and evil is precisely that which makes us human. We are what we do, and so we strive to do good things—whether that means pulling the trigger ourselves or merely predicting the meteorological conditions for others to do so.
We all want to defend what we believe in, and to further some cause larger than ourselves. But like the Weatherman, most of us are still figuring out what that means.