Johanna Skibsrud | “If I were human”: Reflections on One Hundred Years of War

As Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons opens, the Second World War has just ended and Joe Keller has been acquitted of the crime of knowingly shipping faulty airplane parts to American pilots overseas. Joe’s younger son, Chris, has returned safely from the war, but his elder son, Larry (a pilot) has not. With the exception of Keller’s wife, Kate, the characters are attempting to leave the past quietly behind.

The attempt fails. In the third act, Chris realizes that he can no longer sustain the illusion of his father’s innocence—and therefore his own. “I could jail him! I could jail him,” he shouts, referring to his father, “if I were human anymore” (154).

For Joe, to be human is to be “only human.” It is to be part of a system over which there is no ultimate individual control.   For Chris, on the other hand, to be truly human is to retain the ability to step out of that system—and the specific parameters of one’s own life—in order to realize and act upon a higher and more universal ideal.


“No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace,” wrote Herodotus, “in which, instead of sons burying their fathers, fathers bury their sons.”

And also: “Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing.”


This year, we mark the centennial of the beginning of what is commonly considered the first modern war: “The War to End all Wars.” A war that we have, perhaps, never stopped fighting. With the signing of the armistice on the eleventh of November, 1918, the world was reimagined on entirely different lines, politically, culturally, and historically. Boundaries were redrawn, new countries and identities established. We are still feeling the reverberations. In recognition of the revolution in warfare technology that set the first world war apart from any that had come before, international organizations sought to develop and enforce universal standards of what it meant to be human, and what it meant to wage war. One of the earliest uses of the phrase “crimes against humanity,” for example, was in an Allied statement made on May 24, 1915 in response to the Armenian genocide. The statement warned members of the Ottoman government of their personal responsibility for crimes, which—at another period in history—might have been accepted as the inevitable consequences of war. At war’s end, an international war crimes commission recommended the creation of a special tribunal for the trial of “violations of the laws of humanity.” The US objected to the creation of such a special tribunal, claiming that the phrase “laws of humanity” was far too imprecise.

When the Swedish founder of modern taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus, developed the classification Homo sapien (which he first identified by using only the word, Homo) he did not record, as he did for other species, any specific identifying characteristic. Instead, he identified the human being only by “the old philosophical adage: nosce te ipsum {know yourself}” (25). Even when, later, the further designation sapien was added, the complete term could never be considered a categorical description. “It is worth reflecting,” writes Giorgio Agamben, that this “taxonomic anomaly…assigns not a given, but rather an imperative as a specific difference” (25). In other words: according to Linnaeus, the human being has no specific identifying characteristics that might separate him from other animals other than his ability to recognize himself (26). “To define the human not through any nota characteristica, but rather through his self-knowledge, means that man is the being which recognizes itself as such, that man is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human” (Agamben 26).


What it means to be human has always been a matter of reflection and inquiry. We are, perhaps, defined best by our resistance to definition, by the very act of inquiry into the nature of what and who we are, and why it should matter. Both literature and war can be considered the concrete pursuit of these unanswerable questions. Both grapple with established truths, seeking to disrupt or re-employ them. Both result not in definitive answers, but the re-establishment of age-old questions. With both we are presented—just as we are in All My Sons—with a dialogue between pragmatism and the ideal. Between Joe’s idea of being human as “what the little man does” and Chris’s loftier vision of what it might mean to discard our private concerns and embrace the universal.


When Chris finally works up the courage to accuse his father, Joe pleads with his son to “see it human”: “Chris…Chris,” he says of his crime, “I did it for you, it was a chance I took for you” (146). Chris is unwilling to accept such a seemingly small and personal explanation. “What the hell do you mean, you did it for me?” He asks. “Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in the world?” (146). But his attack is not just directed toward Joe; he knows that he has also been complicit in his father’s crime. Though he did not have any direct involvement with the crime itself, he finds himself, in the face of something he knows is wrong, utterly powerless. Unable to seek justice—or even to understand what, in this particular context, that word might mean.


“The most hateful grief of all human griefs is this,” laments Herodotus: “to have knowledge of the truth but no power over the event.”


In direct contrast to war, literature offers a space of reflection within which we might consider the inherent incompatibility of truth and power, as well as the essential ambiguity at the heart of what it means to be human. Literature invites us to recognize the essence of the human as that inherent gap between fact and fiction, perception and the real. By acknowledging the ambiguity according to which we are defined, literature affords us the possibility of becoming—as Muriel Rukeyser writes in The Life of Poetry—“more human” (132).

If to be human is to recognize oneself, it follows that to be “more human” is to recognize oneself more completely. This, indeed, is literature’s task. In direct contrast to the impulse of war, which seeks to disrupts boundaries only to establish new ones, literature seeks (borrowing an oft-quoted phrase from the painter, Paul Klee) to “render visible” not any positive reply to the question of what it means to be human, but the very space of relation according to which human being has for so long been defined.


When, on the twenty-second of June, 1941, France signed an armistice with Germany, many Germans saw it not as the end of a month-long campaign—not, indeed, as a turning point in the Second World War—but as the beginning of the end of the First. Today, the recent Balkan wars, the still more recent conflict in the Ukraine, our Nuclear legacy, and the continued conflict over Israel, are just a few reminders that the Second World War (which so many believed to be a continuation of the First) has never really “ended” either. The solutions arrived at in order to resolve key conflicts in 1945 were merely displaced—boundaries, definitions and alliances merely shifted, disguised, or temporarily ignored. The officially recorded dates of historical conflicts, like the boundaries they either imposed or revised, are—like all human endeavours—a complicated and indissoluble blend of apparent fact and inherent fiction.


“Very few things happen at the right time,” reflects Herodotus, “and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” Through history (a word that comes to us from the Greek—originally meaning something more like “inquiry”) we confront, and thus come to understand our experience. It is, today, perhaps, the discipline of literature, however, that consciously retains its roots in the creative and inquisitive process Herodotus describes. By arranging events in such a way that we might come to recognize and understand their relation—by filling in and working against the inevitable gaps and biases of the historical record, in an effort to illustrate not just the documented facts, but a more global truth—literature invites us to become “more human.” It invites us to encounter and come, through that encounter, to recognize ourselves.


But this may become, especially in the context of our contemporary theaters of war, increasingly difficult. As war technology advances exponentially and we become more and more able to replace human effort, skill, and sacrifice with robotics, we risk also displacing our essentially human ability to recognize ourselves, and—even more dangerously, in the context of war—others as human. We risk, in other words, losing the essentially human capacity for empathy, which literature emphasizes through its ability to think past direct experience and the simple relation of the “as” into the realm of the “as if”—where any range of relations becomes suddenly possible. Literature is able not only to think the I, the now, it is able to think the I in relation to what the I is not, the now in relation to both what was, and what is to come.

Because of this, it is literature more than any other discipline that has proved most prescient in predicting the development of war technology. Because literature, and in particular, science fiction, considers many of the same problems that scientists and military strategists do, but without “the constraints of a budget or lab, time or beaurocratic politics,” it is often able to more quickly and efficiently work out solutions (Singer 159). In his 2009 study, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Peter Singer points out that science, technology and literature are all driven by a creative and innovative impulse. It is not the development of war technology itself that Singer warns against, therefore, but a lack of careful and reflective consideration when it comes to that technology. Technical advancement, he laments, is far outpacing policy decisions today—and largely because much of what is currently being produced is still so unconceivable. In order to attempt to explain the scope of the changes occurring in the field of robotics, Admiral Mike Mullen puts it in broader historical terms: “First, you had human beings without machines. And, finally you have machines without human beings.” Security analyst Christopher Coker agrees. “We now stand on the cusp,” he has said, “of post-human history” (as quoted in Singer 194).


Almost reflexively, however, scientists and military personnel alike continue to reassure each other and themselves that the human will always “stay in the loop” (Singer 123). But when it comes to war, humans have been moving steadily “out of the loop” at least since the First World War. One hundred years later, a new era of warfare is dawning. Unmanned systems “can fly faster and turn harder, without worrying about that squishy part in the middle.” They don’t flinch in the line of fire, either—or feel pangs of guilt, confusion or remorse when faced with the task they have been designed to employ: killing human beings (Singer 194).

It is the hope of many analysts, however, that more “precise” unmanned weaponry is in fact a very positive step forward—one that offers us “a very different age,” perhaps even “a more human one” (194). But while robots succeed in reducing some of the “fog of war” with their hyper-focus and quick reflexes, they also introduce a whole new element of unpredictability onto the battlefield. What is missing from robots, at least at this point in their development, is the sort of emotional intelligence that would allow them to differentiate between complex situations and react appropriately. Machines still lack what Mark Garlasco—a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch—calls, the “human element…the human has morality, has an empathetic response” (as quoted in Singer, 387). This is something the industry is working very hard, and very quickly to correct. The question therefore becomes when not if computers will become self-aware (Singer 102), when not if (in other words) computers will become human—at least in the terms according to which the human has so far been defined.


But if the technologies imagined by science fiction are rapidly becoming real, what remains a fantasy is the idea, on the one hand, that technology will save us, and on the other that it will be our demise. We will never be able either to entirely become-machine, or return to an imagined “natural” human state. There has never been, that is, and there never will be, a firm line that separates us from our technologies. It is the task, therefore—instead—of scholars, artists, governments, analysts and policy makers alike, to—alongside technological development—continuously re-examine and re-define what it means to be human, and what it means to wage war.


The biggest risk, pretty much unanimously accepted by analysts today, is that increased military reliance on unmanned systems—though they may “lessen the terrible costs of war” in terms of the number of servicemen actually employed in the field—will “lower the threshold for going to war.” Singer is blunt on this point:

Unmanned systems represent the ultimate break between the public and its

military. With no draft, no need for congressional approval (the last formal declaration of war was in 1941), no tax or war bonds, and now the knowledge that the Americans at risk are mainly just American machines, the already lowering bars to war may well hit the ground (319).

Perhaps the cultural historian Paul Fussell, himself a veteran of the Second World War, expresses the revelation afforded by modern technology in warfare best when he says: “If there is no risk, no cost, then it isn’t war as we think of it. If you are going to have a war, you’ve got to involve people and their bodies. There’s no other way” (As quoted in Singer 325).


“No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace, in which, instead of sons burying their fathers, fathers bury their sons.”

Crucial to technological development today is a concurrent emphasis on genuine historical and literary inquiry, through which we might recognize and consider the relationships between cause and effect, the apparent and real, human and non-human. If we lose sight of the importance of this, we may also begin to lose sight of the violent chronological reversal and emotional rupture Herodotus describes—and thus, our inherent horror of war. It is when we lose this sense of the horror of war—when war becomes normalized, and we cease “inquiring” after our individual and collective responsibility when it comes to embarking upon or waging war—that we cease to be human.


Though, like All My Sons, many of Arthur Miller’s plays focus on the role of the individual as he struggles to maintain and assert himself against a “repressive or destructive society that can neither understand nor accommodate him” (Mason 5) (acknowledging, in this way, what Herodotus once called, the “most hateful” of all human griefs: “to have knowledge of the truth but no power over the event”), Miller was ultimately optimistic about the role of the individual in society. As critic Jeffrey D. Mason writes, Miller asked that his characters, as well as his readers, “assume responsibility for their society and act on the belief that action can lead to results; his is a clarion call to activism” (57).   Although the limitations of action and the “moral ambiguities” that can sometimes incur when taking that action are laid bare in All My Sons, the imperative is clear: nosce te ipsum (know yourself). The individual’s sense of “duty or conscience” (Mason 41) is what, for Miller, is necessary in order to move him beyond the scope of a sometimes disastrously limited personal vision.

But there is never for Miller’s characters—as for any of us—any clear path of action open to them. Their attempt to find a moral center is always “fated to end in ambiguity” (Otten 25). Because of this, it may be—as Terry Otten has argued—somewhat “paradoxical” that it is this attempt that consistently acts as “the ennobling principle” for Miller’s heroes (25). I would contend, however, that is precisely this commitment toward a “moral center” despite the inevitable ambiguity that resides there that acts as the “ennobling principle” in Miller’s character’s lives, and in our own. It is, after all, an acknowledgement of this space of ambiguity—of the “as if,” within which every genuine literary and historical inquiry resides—that constitutes true self-recognition. To be human is to recognize and accept the tremendous responsibility of remaining—through limitless possibility—undefined.


Johanna Skibsrud was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1980. Her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was awarded the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her the youngest writer to ever win Canada’s most prestigious literary prize. The book was subsequently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Award and is currently translated into five languages.