There is something about our species that can’t help turning every last tool into a weapon. In the Old Testament, Cain popped off his brother Abel with the jawbone of an ass, which showed imagination if nothing else. I once tried to write a silly piece about a bloke who killed people with the assbone of a jaw, but I could never make it work. After all, choosing the gob-skeleton of a donkey is surreal enough in itself.
We have this thing, we Homo sapiens, with re-inventing every available object in order to make it a homicidal exhibit. In the Courtroom, a flunkey passes a bicycle pump to the judge, as the prosecuting counsel explains to M’lud how Agnes Spleen thwacked her lover to death with it on account of his preference for a girl with drop-handlebars.
In the present era, this has become an art form. We used to have proper wars involving guns, cannons, tanks, bayonets and grenades. But with the coming of atomic weapons, we have been forced to endow formerly benign objects with the ability to defeat our enemies. Suddenly, there are dozens of new types of war: cyber, propaganda, energy, currency, surveillance, water….the list is very long indeed. There seems no end to the implements both concrete and abstract we will adapt in order to subdue others. All this has set me thinking.
Employing eccentric weapons is nothing new. The women of Troy waged sex war against their husbands in order to stop them going to war. (They succeeded commendably). For decades, British trade unions engaged in class war to bring the Toffs to heel. (They failed miserably). In the 1960s, the big fear was biological warfare. Employing bacteria as a form of mercenary may well have been the ultimate in human oddity. But there are many options still left.
Take rap for example. Somebody setting out to drive me away from a given territory would only have to bombard my domicile with rap music to have me high-tailing it to anywhere far, far away. Similarly, there is no way I could cope with a steady stream of Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to my door: twice a year is fine, but twice a day would have me open to any suggestion within a week.
Technology manuals are perhaps the ultimate weapon. You would only have to issue an enemy with geek-written TV, DVD, pressure cooker or car instruction booklets to reduce them rapidly to a rabble unable to distinguish between CDs as a means of transport, or headlights as a form of cooking aid.
Future wars may well not involve anyone fighting and dying about territory: they may indeed consist of nothing more sadistic than pictures of a grinning Simon Cowell being waved above trenches. The thing is, such wars will be about individual surrender rather than death. Beijing’s troops will play Chinese opera to Russians, and the British will bombard the French with radio commentaries on cricket.
But whatever happens, the participants will discover this: there is a finite size to the pack with which one can identify. That size is limited to cultural media references pack members can easily recognise, and use as bonding glue. Ultimately, we will never put an end to war until the definition of culture grows beyond tribalism – and it shows no signs of doing that. A love of football cannot defeat the tribal support of a team. A love of music will never make Tchaikovsky fans like Bayernische oom-pah-pah. And a solid Old Labour trade unionist is never going to rub along with a liberal Californian ecology fan.
Noel Coward turned wit into a weapon. W C Fields did the same with sarcasm. Private Eye has waged war on the Establishment for fifty years with ironic satire. And Murdoch has worked tirelessly to bring British culture to its knees with vicious tabloid invention. I continue to feel that, as a species, we are an evolutionary mistake: in oxygenating our heads to facilitate escape from predators, natural selection eventually produced a born thug with a big brain. That perverted cerebrum has harnessed every means imaginable to attack its fellow human beings – from psychological torture to germs. It has invented, among many other horrors, death camps, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, slavery, totalitarianism, and chicklit.
But it has also been responsible for great art, magnificent architecture, timeless classical music, saints, genuine prophets, inspiring literature, hysterical comedy, and Bauhaus furniture.
Last year in France, I saw some exhibits by a sculptor who turned gun barrels, tin helmets, pistols and shell cases into beautiful ornaments. But he clearly didn’t belong in mainstream society…any more than Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, St Francis of Assisi, Tony Hancock or William Shakespeare did.
The human brain is capable of producing great wonders. It is, in fact, our best tool. It is also our most murderously dangerous weapon.