“It is regrettable for the education of the young
that war stories are always told by those who survived.”
—Louis Scutenaire, Belgian writer and poet
The Romans enjoyed watching gladiators fight to the death for mere entertainment. Today many of us have a Coliseum mentality—we root for the lion, not the gladiator.
How can our fascination with violence be explained? Why do people enjoy war movies like Saving Private Ryan, fight movies like Rocky, and horror movies like The Blair Witch Project? What attracts viewers to television shows like The History Channel (largely the history of war and weaponry), War Stories hosted by Oliver North, and Storm Stories on the Weather Channel? Why do we love to be entertained by a hero recounting his experiences, whether he is a good Samaritan, a fireman, or a war hero? Why do some veterans say that World War II was the highlight of their lives? And what powerful emotions emanate from words like glory, patriotism, duty, and courage that we would voluntarily kill or risk being killed for what those words represent?
A few people have sadistic streaks and are excited by gore and violence. They lack a moderating conscience and take pleasure from inflicting pain onto others and watching the victim suffer. The least affected of them may just fantasize about it. Fortunately, the percentage of hyper-sadistic people is very small, but even if they represented only 0.0001% of the population, there would be 65,000 of them in the world.
Those who are entertained by war stories (including myself) feel a sense of pride from words like “duty,” and are moved by their nation’s symbols such as the national flag and by music like their country’s national anthem. We are entranced by action, adventure, competition, and relief from boredom (filling prescriptions, selling insurance, or being back on the farm). Most people also love new things and are stimulated by a diversity of experiences.
Our mind protects us from horror by drawing a protective curtain between the entertainment, and the personal nature of maiming and killing real people, and destroying valuable property. We disassociate the movie from reality of suffering; we don't relate the body in the tank to a real person's life. We also disassociate the destruction of property from something it represents. We don't relate to the enormous waste of resources: the time it took to build, the wasted labor, and the cost to rebuild it. When we are moved to violence from emotional fervor produced by words, symbols, or music, we must be careful that we first draw back our mind's protective curtain and objectively consider the consequences.