Of course the answer is “Absolutely nothing” . . . a sentiment expressed by musical artist Edwin Starr in a 1970 song that became the biggest hit of his career. He transformed an overlooked album track by the Motown psychedelic soul group The Temptations into his own number one hit, boasting the top position on the U.S. Billboard charts for three weeks. It eventually sold over three million copies, all the while widely adopted as an anthem for the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Fictional character Elaine Benes in a Season 5 episode of Seinfeld makes reference to the phrase while riding in a taxi with her boss-publicist Mr. Lippman and a fussy Russian writer in tow named Testikov. True to form with her propensity for spouting witless gaffes, she blurts out that Tolstoy’s first choice to title his epic War and Peace was actually, you guessed it, War, What Is It Good For? followed by an unashamedly hearty, “Huh!”
And that’s how we might well characterize it, war, good for nuthin’ – in a protest song, or in a sitcom for a bit of cursory humor, the subject actually so horrific that we dare not even glance at its reality lest we gouge forever into our psyche images unimaginable. But maybe we should look.
I came across this photograph recently, saved on my computer along with others over the years I found strikingly provocative and moving. I think it was taken by an anonymous reporter covering the war in the city of Odessa, Ukraine. But it could be anywhere, anytime.
Look. Is she not the quintessential picture of misfortune, the hapless victim of yet another armed conflict, a tragic consequence of the savagery of men so eager to shed blood over an idea or a plot of ground? She is so much more than a statistic, though, or a feature for the evening’s world news report. She’s an old lady in a babushka who should be at home, making soup, peeling potatoes, lighting a holy taper in front of an icon, saying her vespers. But look. Here she is, running with a dog, like a dog, with whatever she can carry from a life broken to pieces by a good for nuthin’ war. And where are you going all alone, little grandma? Where are your sons? Are they buried in the cold earth too, like your dreams? The dreams of a beautiful young girl, long ago playing so carefree in the schoolyard, your white dress catching the summer sun’s beams, and your hair so bright and free, flowing like corn silk in the breeze.
Tolstoy wrote, “To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings, in undeserved sufferings.” And so we shall press on, in war and peace, loving God and life in the midst of suffering, hoping for a realization of the prophet Isaiah’s vision when men shall beat their swords into plowshares, and war will be practiced no more, when suffering will be forgotten, and the lady with the babushka will be young, bright and free again.