When you ask most Americans if they know any French expressions they will say, “C’est la vie.” It may mean such is life, but it also implies a certain amount of fatalistic acceptance like “sh*t happens.” My favorite acceptance phrase in English is It is what it is. The title French phrase for this blog is different in that it points to cause – the reason things are wrong or out of whack. C’est la guerre, or it is the war, is an acknowledgement that while there is a problem, it is that way because of the war. As with many foreign phrases used in English, especially by Americans, the meaning is morphed slightly into aspects of life that don’t involve war or combat; such as work or sports competitions. The phrase was common and true in occupied France during World War II.
When I ponder c’est la guerre, my thinking goes more toward the conditions or philosophy of war, or the way of life during times of war. As an American, the concept is a little foreign to me (like our wars), since the only ground war we experienced was our war with ourselves: The Civil War. Ironically, it may have been the most destructive of our history in terms of loss of life and property. For at least the past 100 years, we have considered war as something that happens over there. Lucky us.
“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” ~ Sun Tzu
In the 21st century, what are the things that happen and are explained with c’est la guerre? The first casualty of war is always truth. This is usually followed by destruction, death and maiming, rape, humiliation, and man’s inhumanity to man (torture). We have travel restrictions, airport body scanners, and a plethora of personal armament. And those are purely defensive precautions for dealing with domestic terrorism.
While there are many good books regarding the philosophy of war, the classic gold standard is On War by Carl Von Clausewitz – required reading for virtually every military officer. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy may be the preeminent novel on the subject. And the classic for weaponry and strategy is The Art of War by Sun Tzu; more required reading, if not necessarily the best reading entertainment.
“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” ~ Sun Tzu
So the rhyming tongue-in-cheek variation of the French fatalistic terms (which are not so fatalistic in French) used in English go like this: c’est la vie, c’est guerre, c’est la pomme de terre (such is life, such is war, that’s a potato). Get it? It is what it is. Accept it.