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War at its Worst: City of Thieves

Our series of articles--and I welcome any suggestions below--of scenes from film and literature that depict war at its worst so far:

War At Its Worst: A Farewell To Arms

War At Its Worst: Present Tense

War At Its Worst: My War and Falaise

War at its Worst: Hell Sucks in the Imperial Citadel

War at its Worst: Atonement

“The Forever War” at its Worst: Iraq

"The Forever War" at its Worst: Afghanistan

War at its Worst: Slaughterhouse-Five and Dresden

War at its Worst: The Ultimate Practitioner

War at its Worst: For Whom the Bell Tolls

War at its Worst: For Esme, with Love and Squalor

War at its Worst: Band of Brothers "Breaking Point"

As I wrote here, I believe war is the opposite of civilization. A lot of people think that the primitive is the opposite of civilization; it is not. The primitive is just a lesser degree of civilization (technically, its negation). War destroys all laws, rules, customs, traditions, ethics, morals and beliefs of a society. It stands in opposition to everything that makes up civilization, with survival left as the only priority. (H/T to the narrator in Ursula K LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.)

At times, fiction authors depict that awful senselessness, the chaos and anarchy of war at its worst. I'd like to share those passages. (Michael says this is my pacifist side seeping into my writing.)

Our first passage is from the opening chapter of David Benioff’s excellent City of Thieves. (Click here for my review.)

You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten months earlier...eaten with disregard...in June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter...

There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings--all gone and burning in someone’s stove. The pigeons were missing, too...You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we’d laugh and shake our head, not believing it and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt...By January the rumors had become fact...

The rest of the book expands on this anarchy, the sense of people desperately fighting each other for food and warmth. Society’s beliefs have fallen to the wayside; if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat your own dog.

three comments

I’d like to note that the sense of humor in hopelessness seems to be another common theme of war memoirs and my war experience. Laughter, it seems, never dies. Or when it does you know things are truly terrible.


“I believe war is the opposite of civilization.”

I tend to concur. One question that I constantly asked was “why would people destroy their own roads, schools, bridges, etc and hurt their neighbors?”

It’s almost right out of the movie Fight Club. Through self-destruction, i.e. People’s War or Insurgency, one group is intentionally tearing apart the existing society in order to remake it by their own design (political power/authority).

Another thing to consider is the acceptable level of violence in a particular society. Even in the US, a kid growing up in manicured, refined suburbs may be shocked at the violence levels in the inner city. One of the oddest forms of retribution that I saw was a man killing his neighbor because the neighbor was drunk and killed the man’s donkey, but that was acceptable in the rural villages in Iraq.


@ MikeF – I think your third paragraphs just summed up me feelings on the definition. I might have to write up a Fight Club quote on it.

On the second paragraph, I totally agree. A society’s attitude’s towards violence, authority, freedom, rules probably directly determine its likelihood to become insurgents or start a revolution.