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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Promised Land / War

Maybe it was last year. I was in the middle of a class discussion about—well, I forget exactly what, maybe it was Ivan Illich, maybe it was Václav Havel—and the conversation turned to the topic of war. Most college students, in my recent experience, don’t think much about war—or about current events to be honest—but I have been reminding them for over twenty years that the horrors of the past, of genocide, the Holocaust, chemical and biological warfare, could happen at anytime. If Germany, home of the most sophisticated and educated European culture of the early twentieth century could cave to something like Nazism, it could happen to anybody. Seeing recent disconcerting events unfolding over the Western Democracies™, I guess I was right.

I have thought long and hard about the problem of war, though I have never served in the military. Perhaps this stems from my earliest memories of waiting for cartoons to start on television in the morning and having to wait through the news reports of the dead and missing in Vietnam. I’m sure those experiences, administered in homeopathic doses over the course of my early childhood, served as something of an anti-war vaccine.

The thing is, as I was discussing with my students, I can’t believe war is still a thing. You’d think the human race would have figured this out by now, right? Watching recent geopolitical developments—not only in Ukraine, but also in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Italy, and elsewhere—I find myself somewhat astonished that people go along with this theme and variation on totalitarianism and “soft totalitarianism” (“it’s for your safety”). And I don’t just mean the general populations, but also those enlisted in the military and police forces. Why do the men and women in uniform go along with the ruse? Why do they victimize the proletariat at the command of their masters? And I have also watched—and I’m sure you have, too—as people of relatively comfortable means in a kind of mimesis of the elite classes cheer on the prospect of war—even nuclear war. This is insane.

Over the course of my life struggling to understand the phenomena of war and human cruelty, I have turned to two sources of, if not comfort, then at least of consolation: the Iliad and the writings of my tutelary spirit, Simone Weil, whom Albert Camus called “the only great spirit of our time.”

The Iliad tells the story of the absurdity of war. The Greeks have been fighting in Troy for a decade—just to get Helen back from Paris and restored to Menelaos. Hardly a prize worth all the lives lost. But this is how the powerful roll. To add irony to the tale, Homer opens The Iliad with Achilles sulking in his tent because Agamemnon took away his war trophy, the slave girl Briseis, for his own. The story’s absurdity is extended further in Achilles’s slaying of Hector, the most noble figure in the epic, and dragging his body behind his chariot in shame for weeks afterward. Integrity doesn’t matter in a world characterized by absurdity. As Weil writes in her essay, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force,”

The wantonness of the conqueror that knows no respect for any creature or thing that is at its mercy or is imagined to be so, the despair of the soldier that drives him on to destruction, the obliteration of the slave or the conquered man, the wholesale slaughter—all these elements combine in the Iliad to make a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.” [1]

I think this an apt description of our own moment—and of much of the chatter on social media (from people who will never pick up a weapon) for that matter. Force is the sole hero.

Weil expands on this notion in “Human Personality,” concerning the usually unspoken utterance, “Why am I being hurt?”:

Those people who inflict the blows which provide this cry are prompted by different motives according to temperament or occasion. There are some people who get a positive pleasure from the cry, and many others simply do not hear it. For it is a silent cry, which sounds only in the silent heart.

These two states of mind are closer than they appear to be. The second is only a weaker mode of the first; its deafness is complacently cultivated because it is agreeable and it offers a positive satisfaction on its own. There are no other restraints upon our will than material necessity and the existence of other human beings around us. Any imaginary extension of these limits is seductive, so there is a seduction in whatever helps us to forget the reality of the obstacles. That is why upheavals like war and civil war are so intoxicating; they empty human lives of their reality and seem to turn people into puppets. That is also why slavery is so pleasant to the masters.” [2]

The question is: how intoxicated are we at this point?

Weil’s contemporary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin served in World War I and saw the horrors of armed conflict up close. He recalls his state of mind in the face of this in his essay “The Promised Land”:

“—And was peace, then, no more than this?

“—The peace that all through these long years was the brilliant mirage always before our eyes.

The peace that gave us courage to hold fast and to go into the attack because we thought we were fighting for a new world.

The peace that we hardly dared to hope might be ours, so lovely it seemed…

And this is all that peace had in store for us!” [3]

Thus “The War to End All Wars.” Thus geopolitics. Thus “The Great Reset.”

In a kind of scatological free-association, this all reminded me of a song I wrote with my friend Graham when we were in our early twenties. We’d been writing songs together since we were fifteen and we were just getting good at it. We were exploring a variety of genres and styles, incorporating mandolin, harmonica, fiddle and other instruments into our arsenal of available textures. It was really an exciting time. The world opened up. Everything seemed possible.

One Sunday night we were driving around in my jalopy drinking whiskey and Coke (don’t judge me) listening to a documentary or something about Bob Dylan. I remember something about Dylan hitchhiking around Minnesota, something about the Bible, something about trying to find himself as a young man—something Graham and I were doing ourselves.

The next day or so I came up with a very folky and clever chord progression and showed it to Graham. He immediately got to work and the Dylan story transfigured through his imagination. I can’t recall all of the verses, but snatches come back:

Looking out into the blazing sun

With my Bible and my thumb

No inclination as to where we’d go

No inclination at all

But I remember the chorus:

Thanks be to Jesus and to everyone

I thank the Lord I am alive

Thanks be to you, my trusted friend

All together: We’re alive.

Now Graham wasn’t then a religious person, nor is he now that I know (haven’t seen him for a few years). But something beautiful spoke through him then. We called the song “The Promised Land.” What I loved about his lyric was that it didn’t offer any answers. Rather, it rested in the knowledge that the Promised Land is a reality we can enter at any time, that it is always present. Even in times of war.

One of the great anti-war poems.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here.

1. Simone Weil, An Anthology (Grove Press, 1986), 186.

2. Ibid., 52.

3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War, trans. René Hague (Harper & Row, 1965), 278.

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