My second on line course is “War and Peace,” looking at theories of why people go to war, and how peace can be built. I am by principle opposed to military action and war in most cases. The costs of war in human lives, social stability, and the psychological state of both soldiers and the populations involved is immense. Most of the time wars could be avoided through better communication, diplomacy and clear signals of intent. I’m not foolish enough to think humanity is at a point where war can simply be abolished — but I also don’t think war is natural.
My eight year old son is right now fascinated by war. He draws detailed pictures of various weapons and scenes, including a soldier with some kind of missile launcher destroying the Eiffel tower saying “USA Rocks!” While drawing it he asked me what the German word for their army was, so I told him “Bundeswehr.” He wrote that in front of guys defending the Eiffel tower. (The Eurocorps, perhaps?) He later had the same kind of seen with Big Ben, with the clock falling on the defending forces below.
I have friends who would be shocked if their children drew those kinds of pictures, but he’s eight — and he does know the difference between imagination and reality. One time when Ryan showed me a picture of some dead soldiers I said, “gee, I bet their dads and moms aren’t happy.” He stopped a second and said, “Dad, it’s just a picture, it’s imaginary, not real.” Anyway, I’m not going to stifle his creativity because of adult ideas of political correctness. And it was nice that both the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were in Cars 2 that we saw this weekend.
So, besides the fact that I’m not an overly protective or controlling father, what does it mean that my son gets enamored with the idea of war and weapons? I think culturally it shows how we learn to see war, weaponry and conflict. It is cool, exciting, and one can have victory! The bad guys are defeated. Death is sanitary. “It’s imaginary, not real.” The ideals of honor, heroism and strength become part of who we are. It infiltrates video games, television shows and movies.
First, an aside to those who think I should try to protect my son from that culture: I understand the concern, but disagree with trying to shield children too much. Parents who think they can control the cultural inputs and produce a child that has their own exact values are naive. The more a child is protected and forced to follow paths that parents think are politically/socially/religiously correct, the more likely it is that a child will rebel or be unable to cope with the cultural forces that he or she will inevitably face. Better to let the child learn the culture, but reinforce lessons along the way. For me that means talking a bit about the drawings — acknowledging how cool it looks, how “awesome” the missile launcher is, and how gross the pool of red blood looks. But then at other times talking about the difference between real and imaginary. I actually have surprisingly “grown up” conversations with Ryan about war, religion, and life. In order not to be hypnotized by the culture, one has to be able to navigate it.
Yet the danger is that the glorification of war will desensitize children as they grow, and war will be seen as a big video game, covered by CNN, abstracted to the point that the spectators have no clue of what the participants in war endure — either the civilians caught in the cross fire “over there,” or the soldiers who have to deal with the reality of death and destruction around them. In such a case, the cultural messages of war as honorable, cool, a way of showing strength, and an abstract struggle of good vs. evil will overwhelm that part of war we don’t see — the grotesque, sickening, revolting and tragically sad destruction of families, lives and even cultures.
Is war natural? I think not. Conflict is natural. Self-defense is natural. Anger is natural. Aggression is natural. Sometimes these things turn into actual fights, but rarely does a participant die.
War is different. War is a social process, and in fact a social construct. A collective group (tribe, state, nation) chooses war against another group as an abstraction. Consider: the most poignant and successful anti-war book ever was All Quiet on the Western Front. It had no overt anti-war message, it simply described WWI as it was for German soldiers on the front. War was not glorious or heroic, but mundane, ugly and sickening. The British hated the book because it portrayed Germans as being as just as human and likable as the British. War requires you imagine the other as having evil traits, they are different from you — they don’t value life, they hate freedom. In order to justify killing them, we latch all sorts of absurdities onto the collective “other.” The Nazis and German militarists hated the book because it portrayed the soldiers as being normal, flawed and confused often afraid humans — not the noble heroes the military was supposed to be. War requires myth to be embraced; the reality of war revolts the senses.
War as we might define it (two collective groups fighting) probably began about the time people started farming, and created the notion of private property. The idea of private property is non-existent in many hunter-gather cultures — but once you farm you have to protect the land in order to get the benefit of your efforts. That means you protect the property.
Still, the formation of collective units is natural. Humans are social creatures, and throughout most of our history we have defined ourselves more as part of a group than as distinct individuals. Individualism is a western construct — one that is more myth than reality. So in that sense protection of and competition for resources by groups can be seen as a natural result of human progress in a world of scarcity.
So in regions where people truly lack, and there is a stiff competition for scarce resources, war may indeed be a natural manifestation of the human struggle to survive. Yet in places where people have enough to survive, that doesn’t cut it. In cases where war is about religion, ethnicity, ideology, conquest for the sake of glory, expansion, social darwinism or even to ‘spread democracy,’ war is human construct made possible by how we abstract it into something most people define and understand as something far different than its reality entails. Calling it ‘natural’ and ‘omnipresent in human history’ rationalizes that kind of approach. How can one condemn the inevitable?
But war is rare. Most states settle all their disputes peacefully; only 2% of the population actually fights in a war. Wars make the news because they are an anomaly from most of what’s happening in the world. Moreover, calling it a social construct does not mean we can easily choose to make it go away. All traditions, cultures, and rituals are social constructs. Yet once constructed people tend to reproduce them, and social reality becomes resilient. It’s difficult to, say, end slavery, racism or gain equal rights for women. Those changes required changing culturally shared beliefs, and people usually hold on to their beliefs, change thus can take generations.
So most war may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to overcome or something we don’t have to try to understand, learn about, deal with and at times experience. My hope in this class is that by learning about war and peace, students are able to see international conflict in a realistic light. That means both seeing through the myths of glory, honor and heroism, and also understanding that naive chants of “no more war” are unrealistic. War may be necessary at times, but if one supports any given war, one should do so understanding what war really is, with a cold sober appreciation of the immense costs and uncertainties it creates.