I think our culture is so steeped in the idea of war that we sometimes have trouble conceiving of it as anything other than a normal thing.

Yesterday, on the way home from the IETF conference, I ran into a soldier on BART who was on the way back to Iraq. It’s hard for me to fathom what that must be like – here he is, on a train, in a beautiful city, chatting with a couple of nice women (he didn’t have any time for me, and who can blame him) and in a few short hours he will be back in the war which, by the way, is still going on, in case anyone forgot.

This fellow is 39 years old. He had no sense of balance—he fell down twice getting off the train. He was not drunk —I didn’t smell any alcohol at all, and I would have. So he’s got some head injury. And he was showing the women he was chatting with the exit wound from some bullet that had hit him. And he’s going back to that. He didn’t look thrilled, and he didn’t look upset—he just looked like that was his life, and he didn’t expect anything else.

Being a science fiction reader, I’ve encountered the Aztecs a few times in science fiction novels, and this has led me to do a little research about what they were like in real life. The Aztec culture was a culture that engaged in human sacrifice. They would rip peoples’ hearts out and offer them to the sun god. Our written records of the day to day life of Aztec culture are not very complete, but we do have written records, and we have some idea of what life was like in those times, in that place. How does a culture tolerate human sacrifice?

The answer, as best I can glean, and I do not claim to be an expert, is not that they were simply barbarians who were too stupid to know any better. They tolerated it for a number of reasons. First, they had reason to believe that they would not be the ones sacrificed – sacrifices usually weren’t taken out of the general populace, but rather from military captives. Second, they were told that it was necessary – that their future depended on it. That the sun would not rise if it was not done. Third, most of them didn’t have much choice about it.

I think the parallels between the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice and the modern tradition of war are strong enough to be taken seriously. The Aztec culture was dominant in its part of the world, in its time. It was prosperous, up to a point. And it was fragile, in that the conditions supporting it could not be counted on to persist, and in that there were severe injustices being done in the name of stability. And it fell, and the human sacrifices stopped. And, fortunately, the sun kept rising.

So when we are talking about war, trying to figure out how to explain just how barbaric it is, the history of the Aztecs might be worth visiting. They were not so different from the culture in the United States. They had sacrificial victims. We have soldiers—our own, and the enemy. They had a civilian population trapped between the fear of the apocalypse and the comfort of business as usual. We have a civilian population that is still afraid of terrorist attack, and still wants the comfort of a normalcy that is still present in some places, but fast fading in many.

They believed in magic; when we go to war, so do we. You probably have some inkling that the belief in war as a cause for peace is magical thinking, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But I think this is a point that might be convincing for some people who still accept the idea of war as a cause for peace. So I mention this here because it might be something to bring out when you are trying to get someone to doubt their faith in war. We are more like the Aztecs than I we imagine. We need to learn to believe that when we stop using war to get what we want, the sun will continue to rise.