In contrast to Hamlet's paean for man in one of his soliloquies, humans possess a complex character which baffles many. To them, man remains largely indecipherable. As they view it, it is during great crises that man normally demonstrates his both noble and ugly faces. These trying situations test a person's possession of human qualities. The ready instances include wars, natural disasters, pandemics, incidents of bloodshed and chaos during and following world-shaking revolutions. There are also a lot of periods which are witness to both human attainments and chaotic failures.
Coming to the major wars, we can include the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Battle of Waterloo (18 June, 1815), Crimean War (1853-1856) etc. The Gulf War in the 20th century also stands out among them. These relatively medium-scale wars have been overshadowed by the prolonged Vietnam War and the World Wars I and II. Apart from conventional victories and ignoble defeats, the two global wars have also registered absurd human ambitions, cunningness, cruelty and conspiratorial skill. Down the ages, history has recorded many sagas of war-time heroic deeds and supreme sacrifices. Many of those have been portrayed in fictions, movies and memoirs in different times. Side by side, there are ample instances of both human brutality and sufferings. These mixed characters of man have added to the distinctiveness of the genre of war literature.
In general perception, wars are associated with mindless killings on the front, as well as civilian casualties and bouts of destruction unleashed by a victorious army on a weakened rival. This phenomenon has been in place since the medieval times. At this point one feels tempted to recall the Siege of Baghdad led by Halaku Khan in 1258, Japan's Pearl Harbour attack at the beginning of World War-II, and also the Holocaust conducted by the Nazis. Even in during war-time nightmares, glimpses of magnanimity, compassion and kindness shown to the once-mighty but now-vanquished adversaries are often found to be common events in war zones.
Nonetheless, thanks to their being chiefly overtaken by the desire for occupying foreign territories, wars, in general, emerge as occasions for demonstrating the evil traits of man. Mercy and empathy are a far cry here. In times of peace, the vile aspects of man just remain dormant. Powerful states continue to be on the lookout for a chance through which they can let their evil designs materialise. Barring the wars waged for defending one's land from aggression, all armed conflicts are driven by greed. As wars break out between nations and territories, the stronger nations' dormant expansionist ambitions to subjugate the weaker ones taint their dignity as superior powers. This trend has also been seen during the world-shaking events of the French Revolution, and the October Revolution. Although the phases of these revolutions have witnessed many excesses, the main goal of them was a change in the prevaling system of exploitation. However, many a revolution has gone awry due to their deviation from their earlier declared path. The history of revolutions is strewn with incidents of purges, witch-hunting, forced exile etc. Yet a section of people were always prepared to stand beside the persecuted even if it required great sacrifices.
The universal virtues of mercy and kindness are normally found to be on the backburner during large-scale wars and revolutions. But there are exceptions. The noble aspects of man surface on many occasions, even during an incident which involves the soldiers letting loose mass killings targeting a handful of innocent people on the enemy territory. The 20th century witnessed, apparently to give wars a seal of legitimacy, the world leaders agreeing on conventions which prohibit attack on unarmed civilians. These preventive measures mostly remain ineffective. The post-World War-II Geneva Conventions, binding on all nations, proved meaningless against the backdrop of the 1945 dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan, a member of the Axis Power, had by then already surrendered to the Allied Forces on being humiliatingly vanquished. Thus during both the World Wars, the monstrous genii of the then great powers, Germany being dominant, came out from the long sealed bottles hidden among mankind.
But these wars have also seen sagas filled with empathy, love for mankind and optimism for building a peaceful world. Besides, lots of isolated incidents showing man's eagerness to stand by fellow humans, even in conquered lands, unfolded on many a war front. Unlike in the old-time wars, filled with savage barbarity, the latent thirst for human bond and the compassion for one another began overtaking mankind in the 20th century. This development occurred despite the invention of scores of sophisticated weapons and the emergence of demonic figures like Hitler and Mussolini. Human communities' enlightenment through teachings of liberalism preached by thinkers and political theorists had a great role in the imposition of restraints on war madness.
The cases of natural calamities are different. They hardly spare people in its path. Great natural disasters like earthquakes and cyclones hit the poor and rich alike. The two calamities strike many regions intermittently. These disasters wrought by nature take thousands of lives, render many homeless and destroy properties. The world populations have been hit by earthquakes, cyclones, and occasional tsunamis, since ancient times. The extent of the losses of lives and property damages was confined to small and moderate scales in earlier times. The less developed and less populated state of human communities in the pre-Industrial Revolution times played a major role in the smaller radius of destruction. But miseries and dislocations they did inflict on people in different lands. And as seen during fierce conflicts, the disaster-stricken people also became used to finding the Good Samaritans beside them.
As centuries wore on, and the world entered the era of multi-pronged development, people continued to rush to the commercially important centres. It led to the fast emergence of congested urban areas. Vast rural swathes also witnessed concurrent increase in population. All this resulted in the rising intensity of the calamities' impact and trails of destruction. With people struggling to cope with the toll the disasters have exacted on them, they also discovered hands of cooperation and help extended to them. In the recent decades, the aftermaths of natural disasters remain filled with local and overseas relief organisations. Some of them arrive in the poverty-stricken areas with long-term programmes. They take the responsibility of feeding and rehabilitating the affected. A large segment of these organisations operates under the umbrella of the United Nations.
Except the slow pace of onslaught and a longer duration, almost the same features apply to pandemics. This scourge has visited countries and territories since the medieval times. The eras of the bubonic plague, called Black Death, in different lands, especially in Europe, in different centuries, stand out as the most terrible episodes in the history of mankind. Unlike natural calamities, large epidemics make their onslaughts slowly. They also last for long periods. Thanks to this unique feature, the plague pandemic, along with that of smallpox, killed over a million people from 13th to 19th centuries in Europe. Like in all trying times, the European pandemics had also their dedicated healers, attendants and researchers working on the diseases' cures. With the dawning of new times, pharmacists were found engaged in researches that also cost the lives of a few. In the 19th century, church-based charities in Europe were found standing by the patients. The following eras witnessed the emergence of nursing associations operated by large healthcare groups.
Compared to the early Europe, almost the whole world, now being ravaged by Covid-19, appears to have been thrust into apocalyptic times. Amid isolated attempts to invent a vaccine, the rapid rise in deaths and new cases, lockdowns etc speak of a deadly global chaos.
Unlike natural calamities, large epidemics like plague make their onslaughts slowly — Photo collected
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