Monday, February 26, 2007

Why We War

We’re forgetful. And unimaginative. That’s why we’ll always be fighting each other

Human beings are a lot more evolved than Chimpanzees. Rival tribes of Chimpanzees will posture loudly towards one another, but if territory is invaded Chimpanzees will fight their rivals to the death. To the naked eye, it is a commotion in a forest somewhere, between large, dark hairy animals that don’t even look different from each other. Yet they know their own differences very well, and fight tooth and nail against each other. Once a rival group is defeated, the Chimpanzees eat the dead members of the opposing tribe. No one knows why.

Human beings, who are a lot more evolved than animals, also fight competitively for territory. Even in the office, whether in an advertising agency, a call centre or a bank, staff are very clear on rank, and all are engaged in their obvious or more subversive attempts to claim power for themselves, even at the expense of their peers.
Human beings will always form groups, and these groups will compete against one another, sometimes for one thing, often for a combination.

In the schoolyard, fights are often about making one’s status (strength) clear to the other children. While it is in their interest, a schoolyard may allow school bullies to have their way, even if they don’t like him. Some weaker, isolated children will become loyal sidekicks with a successful bully in exchange for protection and the spoils of bullying. Countries do the same. In the end though, the schoolyard children tolerate their leader only when he operates either directly or indirectly in their best interests. As soon as his power wanes, or once he begins to operate in an intensely unilateral pattern, he will begin to face an endless series of up and coming opponents. He is easily overthrown by any one of a number of usurpers, and each time, that title is up for grabs. So a strong bully is good for the whole schoolyard, especially if he is a reasonably talented and effective, because then clarity prevails on who and what belongs where. A powerful but increasingly ineffectual bully on the other hand, illustrates a perilous Schoolyard situation. Imagine how dangerous the world must be as the leading Superpower finds itself increasingly quagmired in not necessarily it’s own problems, but world scale problems like climate change and resource depletion.

So.with that in mind, pick any war. Study it up close. You’ll wonder how on Earth people permitted themselves to go to war ever again, knowing the horror and atrocity involved when hundreds of thousands of people spend 24 hours a day implementing their murderous strategies. Civilian casualties in the Korean and Vietnam wars were in the millions. In the 2nd World War something like 20 million Russians died. In Iraq the civilian tolls are estimated at anywhere from 50 000 to multiples of 100 000. I know, the larger the number, the more meaningless it is.

Here’s an easy way to process those numbers. Go to a baseball game or any other sports event with a big stadium. Now imagine everyone in that stadium including you, gone. Their clothes, cars, houses still there, but the people, gone forever. You’d have to visit thousands of fully packed stadiums to experience what 20 million people feels like. It’s a lot of human beings, so it might take you all year. The point is, simply by providing you with this description, you’re doing one fairly useful thing: you’re actually taking an extra few moments to realize that you can’t actually imagine the scale of massacre involved. That’s an okay place to start.

Like buying a house, getting married and having kids, having a war can at first seem like a simple, half decent idea. You might have some damn good reasons too. The reasons will probably never involve you directly (unless of course, you’re the victim of a war, meaning, if you’re invaded and your streets are suddenly filled with boots and the dripping weapons of a foreign power). For the guy who chooses to go to war, as Hitler did, it’s probably a case of believing that the good guys always win, and deserve to (and God is on our side), and if so, why not? What’s to lose?

Quite a lot really. And the problem is that the definition ‘good guys’ is relative. From whose point of view are the good guys the good guys? And when the good guys pray to God, asking him to give them a victory over the enemy, who does God listen to? It’s a little like two soccer teams about to play for the World Cup, and both ardently pray to God to have them win. That’s called conceit. Is it fair that God singles out one team for the victory? What does that say about the team’s accountability to themselves and to reality, to hard work, or just to how the game works? More interestingly, would God even bother with the plaintive ramblings of a bunch of skinny millionaires with so much else going on in the universe? Why would he even involve himself with something so absolutely unnecessary? And to pick sides? What a bunch of narcissists we are! This is why when we do go to war, God leaves us in our own self-made hell. Because it’s a choice we make, it’s what we do to ourselves, despite the invoking of his name throughout. Was Jesus ever a soldier? Did he ever fight in a battle?

I would have thought that by now we’ve examined war in enough detail to know for certain what it is we’re dealing with. Have you seen The World At War? Or watched recent movies like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan? Not much good happens in a war; in fact it’s fair to say that war, for whatever reason, is a very bad idea.

Of course, whenever there is a war, the following words and sentiments become popular:
- hero
- patriot
- proud
- courageous
- sacrifice

It’s strange though, when you think about it. Imagine two teams of soccer players looking up to the stadium and seeing their entire audience vanquished by a laser beam from an alien spaceship. Anyone think they’d continue playing their game? They’d be struck dumb by the terrible horror of it. And as the soft gray ashes fluttered down on the field, like slow falling fluffs of snow, would one of the players write a poetic and meaningful story about the game, about sacrifice, courage and heroism? No. In the face of such spectacular slaughter, it is sufficient to say nothing at all. In fact, if you’ve experienced someone close to you dying, you’ll know that for a certain amount of time, not only are words and sentiments unnecessary, they are actually meaningless. And writing about one’s own dead mother or father or brother is demeaning because it is immediately a contrivance, a distortion of the obvious. Reality speaks better, and more meaningfully, than any man.

It is in our nature to war, and I believe we’re overdue now for a really big one. Have you felt the same sentiment? Many people do. Many people can feel it, like a dark cloud, slowly enveloping the Earth. There are just too many people, too many of us consuming, too many people just like you and me. And while it is important that people everywhere pollute less, consume less, find something meaningful and urgent to do with their lives, it’s never going to happen. Too many people simple aren’t interested in changing. Why should they? A war will quickly change the proportions of our consumption, our perceptions and our habits. We are still not ready, as a species, to choose to change. One more war will bring us closer, unfortunately, to where we need to be. There is no other way.

I think the reason Chimpanzees eat their victims is out of a mixture of fear (of being overrun, contaminated, or controlled by their adversaries) and an excitable bloodlust. They have a terrible fear of their opponents, learned from their parents, and it is only partly rational. Rational because their opponents will, just like they do, eat their victims. But irrational because being controlled by a stronger rival is considered worse than being dead. I don’t believe Chimpanzees eat their rivals because they enjoy eating the meat. They’re natural vegetarians, though ants and grubs play a part in their diet.
In the same way, I don’t believe our species engage in war because we like it. It’s because of very high amounts of indoctrinated fear, some of which is rational. Unfortunately fear of dying is used as a license to kill, instead of do what seems to me to be more intelligent (more evolved), which is to come together to preserve it. But we need to feel satisfied and safe in the knowledge that people who may be a threat to us, and who are perhaps capable of killing us for trying to wipe them out, so we need to know that will be completely and utterly destroyed. Eating the enemy serves this purpose, to soothe the Chimpanzee into thinking he has something to fear from his enemy. We do the same when we watch a movie, or prepare for a romantic evening, or celebrate a holiday. We eat. We eat our fears, we vanquish our enemies.

And our religion is also about blood sacrifice. We drink blood and eat the body when we do the ritual called Communion (which means empathy, and union, and relationship). The highest gift you can give to your fellow man is to sacrifice your own life for another. It’s recommended. It’s celebrated. We worship our God because of it. We’re prepared to kill those who don’t subscribe to it. Someone who tries to save his own life we mock as a coward and a traitor. Strange. The more who die and offer their lives to death, the better? Is that a rational psychology?

Meanwhile, you have to wonder, if we have only one life (whether or not we go to some afterlife or not), the fact remains that each creature here on this planet, is alive now, at the same time we are. We’re sharing an experience of what it means to be alive once. We can spend our lives killing everything around us, but that raises the odds of having our own lives – this one single life – lost forever. It is quite a thing to die. Perhaps not so when it is someone else. But it is possible for you to die. It is possible for me to die.

It is possible to die.

We seem to forget that when we’re encouraged to go to war. How important is the outcome of a war, when you and your family are dead?
What does it mean:
To fight for peace?
The war on terror?

It means the slow entry of a bullet or some other jagged piece of metal, slowly, into the vein in your neck. It means a jagged hand disconnected, lying in the Earth. It means one eye having been reduced to a scrambled red egg. It means plenty of sharp, stinging hot projectiles propelling themselves towards you, cutting tissue to ribbons. If you find yourself in a war, you will see horror, you might survive. But probably, you and many around you won’t. Because it is possible to die.

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