Were I just arrived in the world and forming my picture of humanity, the Geneva Conventions would perplex me. If nations can ratify treaties for humane conduct in war, why, inhumanely, do they go to war? The Geneva Conventions prescribe that the wounded must be cared for. But they may be wounded? Soldiers are to be evil toward the healthy but charitable toward the injured. Try to kill people, but if you miss, nurse them. Can there be laws of war when war is the breakdown of law, the free-for-all nations resort to when they cannot agree? The human blend of civility and brutality is like a murderer who wipes his shoes on the mat before entering your house to kill you.
To the hazards all wars hold, World War II in the Pacific added the ocean's instability. A foot soldier in France, though fired at, felt the solace of solid ground. A bomber shot down over Belgium could parachute into a cornfield. War and water are two chaoses combined. On the sea's meadow, there is no trench to crouch in, no building to gather thoughts while shots pause. Battling midway between continents, the element is as frightening as the enemy. A fighter pilot sputtering through pierced and cracking air, wings burning, sees only blue below to match the blue above. His terra firma is a speck of ship deck floating on the deep. In modern naval war he glimpses the chaos before creation—air, water, and fire, but no earth.
Gossip consists of two people bonding with each other at someone else's expense. Over drinks after work, new friends speak ill of a co-worker. They do not mean to be mean. Rather, their unkind words are an offering of kindness to each other, as if to say, See how much more I like you than I do him.
We appreciate similarity by contrast with difference. Amid the foreign speech and customs of other cultures, we make instant friends with a fellow countryman, chattering like old companions, though on streets at home we would pass each other by as strangers. We exchange phone numbers but never call, because once home among friends, a shared homeland is an unremarkable bond.
A common enemy makes former enemies friends. Political parties battle each other in times of peace, while national unity is rarely so strong as in time of war. Widening the logic, if a hostile race of extraterrestrials arrived to annihilate earth, Iran and Israel would hold hands for the good of humanity.
During campaign seasons, I tire of the candidates' attack ads and mutual rummaging through one another's past sins. Such faultfinding, most of it false or exaggerated, seems not only mean-spirited but also petty and immature, like children too eager to tattle. One expects rudeness from taxi drivers or football fans, but not from men and women seeking the highest offices of government. Are these self-promoting finger-pointers to be the leaders of nations? But then I remember the old days, when would-be kings, backed by armies instead of campaign teams, rode out to bloody battles, took their rival's children captive, and cut off each other's head to gain the crown. From murder and kidnap, to mere lies and slander. Civilization is making progress.
Perhaps the more terrifying thought about World War II Germany is not that one might have been a Jew in a death camp, but that one might have been an S.S. soldier, smearing one's soul with the blood of the innocent. The more terrifying thought, in other words, is not that the Jews were ordinary people like us, but that the Nazis were too.
Mr. Stanley’s Aphorisms and Paradoxes are outstanding examples of the long-form aphorism... inevitably studded with discrete individual aphorisms that could easily stand on their own.
-James Geary, author of The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism