All languages evolve, and as time passes, words take up new meanings – or in some cases return to old ones. Usually, only old fuddy-duds (another term slipping out of usage, probably without lament) notice or chart the changes; although the archeologists of the English language do squirrel everything away in the vaults of the Oxford Dictionary.
Occasionally, the change happens in the realms of contemporary intellectual discourse. Take, for instance, what is currently happing to the word “Existential”.
For most of the 20th Century, existentialism was taken to generally mean that school of philosophical thought which held humanity is not subject to some sort of transcendent influence (e.g. God, metaphysical principles, or what have you) and man is therefore free to construct his own morality. One of the better (e.g. shorter and simpler) definitions comes from the German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life.”  Feel free to blame the pioneers of the movement (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and the French icing on the cake from Sartre and Camus) for much of the worst of modern life… this writer does.
Happily, or rather, very unhappily, the term ‘Existential’ is now being recycled.
The new use is being propagated on the blogosphere – the internet’s vast architecture of commentators, hacks, complainers, and aspiring scholars. It first surfaced with some American and Israeli writers talking about what happens if Hezbollah or some other Iranian-backed terrorist group, or Syria, gets hold of nuclear or radiological weapons. Anybody who is following the news closely will be aware of the reality of these threats; and the inevitable conflict that is lurching week by week ever closer.
Israel is a very small country. It comprises some 20,800 square kilometers and has no strategic depth to spare, not when almost all of it lies within artillery range of its neighbours. By way of comparison, the city of Toronto (not including the adjoining municipalities) is 5,900 square km in size, while Edmonton’s city limits engulf 9,420 square km.
In short, Israel has no room to play with and no space to spare. Any use of some dirty fall-out enhanced nuclear weapon or a Scud nose-cone full of radioactive dust that would make a portion of Israel uninhabitable (even temporarily) is a fundamental threat to the existence of Israel itself. Thus the bluster of Iran’s president about his nuclear programs or some of the intelligence leaking out of recent Syrian activities is ‘existential’… the very existence of Israel is at stake. It doesn’t take ballistic missiles to spread such toxins – artillery rockets, such as those Hizbollah has already fired in vast numbers across the northern half of Israel, can carry nerve gases or spew radioactive dust across large territories without any special effort.
In the 20th Century existential school of thought, the issue was to prove our existence in a cosmos with no rules or no god, and to embrace our existence. Existentialists rejected Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” and puzzled out something along the lines of “I am therefore I think, and because I am thinking, I know I am.” So what happens if the paradigm is “I am, therefore I fight to preserve my existence”?
Existential war is a war for existence, not for status, power, territory or resources, but for existence itself – as a nation, as a people, and ultimately as an individual. When human beings fight for those stakes, there are no limits. The choice of survival or extermination doesn’t leave many options open for negotiation; and if given a choice like that, all that a real human being can do is fight with all the ferocity, cunning and strength he or she can muster. To do anything else is to flunk out of life and get expelled.
Existentialism rejected all conventional moralities and sought to start afresh. Kierkegaard didn’t deny the existence of God, and there is a large school of existential theologians. Other existentialists, particularly in the 1950s and ‘60s thought that even if man was lost in an absurd creation, we could (and ought to) puzzle out rules for ourselves.
It should be pointed out that almost all of the rules and laws of war (such as they are) and accepted codes of conduct are based on older intellectual traditions going back to the Medieval Catholic Church, Hugo Grotius in the 16th Century, and then the intellectual climate of the early 19th Century. These were times – and cultures – where the idea of an existential war was alien. And again, why would anyone who was subjected to an existential threat even want to accept any curbs on their behavior?
In existential thought, we decide to be merciful, to be compassionate, to restrain ourselves; not out of any higher moral code, but because we choose to do so for our own reasons. In existential war, therefore, there is no absolute requirement for mercy, compassion or restraint, unless you choose to behave this way. But if your enemy has none of these limitations, then why should you?
These are not idle questions, and ponderings about just what Israel might be justified in doing in the next year or two. Israel is only the ‘Rhineland’ or ‘Austria’ in the minds of some of its enemies; a temporary short-term goal on the road to bigger prey – us.
Again, in the blogosphere, Existential War is coming up as new term from those who closely watch the websites and chat rooms of the Islamic Jihadist movement. Jihadists fantasize about the complete destruction of what we think of as the Western World. In short, they contemplate ending our existence. Let them fantasize all they like, let them attempt to put any measures into place, and we really should embrace the new realities of existential warfare. In the coming wars, restraint could go out the window – and it probably will.