Archive for category Children and war

Abstraction is the Root of all Evil

In the course Children and War we showed a movie today called “The Invisible Children,” documenting a 2003 journey of some young Americans first to Sudan and then Uganda to find out what is going on in that part of the world.   The film was powerful; not only do we see how three apparently average young adults (early 20s, I’d guess) suddenly decide to head to Africa to learn about the violence and unrest there, but it’s recorded on their camcorder, not an official documentary.

In it we meet the children affected by the war in Uganda.  That war has been going on for over 20 years, with tens of thousands of children abducted in order to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group that claims to be “inspired by the Holy Spirit” but in reality is a hyper violent rebel force in northern Uganda.   The film documents the hundreds of children who, without adult assistance, walk miles every night to sleep in relatively safety in the bigger towns, taking shelter so that they are not kidnapped by the rebels.   Many are former child soldiers who have committed atrocities but are now trying to build a new life, others simply want to survive.  They have little, they live in squalor, and there are no schools or long term hope.

The film was graphic and moving.   We got to know the children by name as the film makers conducted in depth interviews.  They also showed numerous scenes of children dancing, praying, singing praises to God (they are mostly Christian) for having survived another day, and playing.  Somehow, despite the horror, the children do experience a lot of joy in their lives.

Yet the most riveting parts of the film were the points where children talked about their experiences, their dead siblings or family members, and their fears.   When the film was over, we were going to have class discussion.   As I looked at the class I saw that everyone was in tears, even five minutes after the film was over the faces of the students looked traumatized, as they were unable to talk.   Even the other instructor was unable to say anything.   A couple of students who had seen it before were less affected, as was a student from Nigeria.  But the rest simply stared out and continued to grab for tissues.

I then asked the class a question.  I note that I’ve talked about the conflict in Uganda to other classes.  I’ve given the number of child soldiers, talked about the war in southern Sudan (not to be confused with Darfur) for years, and even mentioned the children who have to commute to safety every night.  But never has any class reacted like this.  Why?   One woman, who would remain after class still in tears, finally said “we didn’t know them.”

In my classes I often use films and novels to go along with facts about a conflict or intense poverty.   When you get to know the names of children and see what their lives are like, it is much more gripping than being handed statistics.

I tried for awhile to get discussion going.  I related these emotions back to the Chris Hedges book we read earlier in the semester, War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, where he gives a graphic account of his years as a Pulitzer prize winning war reporter, showing how the myth of war and its enticing and addictive character hides the utter horror of its reality.  In the end he argues that love is the only force that can truly give us meaning that matters.   (I had a blog entry based on Hedges’ book last month.)

The students were saddened and sickened by the film because they saw other humans like themselves, children like their siblings or themselves a few years ago, living lives that should not be wished upon anyone.   They connected with the experience; even in a brief one hour film, these kids were real.  I pointed out that one cannot love a statistic or an abstraction.  Saying “there are 25,000 child soldiers in Uganada” is meaningless.  You can make a note of it, or think, “gee, that sucks,” but there is no emotional connection.  The same goes for war.   You can say “over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the last five years,” but that won’t get near the emotional reaction as having a young man or woman from ones’ hometown become a casualty of war.  One you know; the others are abstractions.

Abstraction is the root of all evil.  It allows one to see others are objects, irrelevant and disconnected from oneself.  This happens unconsciously, one doesn’t overtly say “I don’t think Ugandan children matter,” one simply doesn’t notice their humanity.  It is only a number.    We often hear rationalizations for that lack of concern.  You can’t compare Africa to America.  They don’t value their lives as much as we value ours.  They are savage or primitive.   Their culture is just different.

Those rationalizations only work when you remain disconnected.  In all cultures and societies, once you start learning about the people themselves and their conditions, you quickly understand that we humans are, indeed, all the same species.  We share a common core of psychological and physical needs; the continuities across cultures are far more powerful than the variances between cultures at basic human levels.   One cannot watch three 12 year olds trying to study in the darkness while they are barely surviving poverty in a war zone and dismiss them as primitive or not valuing life.  One can’t hear their stories (we also read Ishmael Beah’s book Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier) and learn their perspectives while holding on to a notion that we really are fundamentally different or more valuable.

We live our lives in a world of abstractions.  Other humans are labels, objects to be competed against, or villains trying to rob us of our freedom and happiness.  Thus it is easy to lay blame, avoid responsibility, and rationalize our wants, desires, and acts that do harm.   We all do it.   Sometimes we imagine traits to others that are caricatures (‘that car that just cut me off is being driven by some arrogant asshole who showed total disrespect for me by nudging in front, damn it, I’ll pass him now!), other times we simply look away.  We become very adept at living in and as abstractions.  Reason and rational thought are powerful tools, and are quite at home with an abstraction based view of reality.

But in those moments where we are confronted with the reality of other peoples’ pain, suffering, and humanness, the abstractions fall apart.  We cry.   We hurt.   We look at our own lives and realize how pathetically petty we are in fretting about trivialities while others fight to survive and endure hardship after hardship.   Emotion connects us with our humanity.   But not just any emotion; as noted a few days ago, fascism relies on emotion for its appeal and ability to manipulate the public.  Advertisers know emotion sells far more than making an argument on why one needs a product.   No, emotion that connects us with humanity is that which breaks through the abstractions and causes us to honestly empathize with the perspective and experience of another, without judgment or distance.  That emotion is love, not a romantic love, not even an agape selfless giving love.  Rather, it is feeling that others are truly as important as oneself, with the same inherent value and life.   It transcends reason and rational discourse.

Today as I saw the looks on those faces, I realized that the class had experienced that strength of emotion — of love for others — through a one hour film put together by three young men who traveled to Africa with a camcorder to just try to learn what was going on.   That, combined with the scenes they had of African children dancing, praying and singing gives me a strong sense of hope.   Books and films can changes ones’ whole perspective on life and the world through evoking the emotion of love, even if it doesn’t feel like one expects love to feel.   In a world afflicted with problems that, if taken as a whole, seem horribly depressing and brutally unsolvable, hope matters.   Small steps matter.   Acts of kindness matter, even if one doesn’t see the results right away.

And, when the rational voice speaks up saying, “look, those problems are everywhere, don’t worry about it, you can’t change the world anyway, your actions don’t matter, donate a little to an organization and forget about the problem so you can focus on your day to day world,” recognize the rationality of that statement.  And then smash those abstractions away.   Saving the world may not be possible and isn’t necessary.   But to ignore the humanity of others and deny any connection is to deny ourselves of real love.  And that hurts everybody.


Children and War

In less than two weeks the new semester will start, and I will be part of a course, Children and War, co taught by Dr. Mellisa Clawson, Professor of Early Childhood Education, for the third time. We taught this course first as a first year seminar in 2004 (when my oldest was but one year old), then again in 2006 as an honors course.

Team teaching courses across disciplines has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career. Different disciplines have different perspectives, and when you team teach and have a conversation about issues, it’s amazing how much one can gain in exploring those perspectives. Teaching this particular course, however, has caused me to rethink the approach political science takes towards the issue of war, and in general how our minds work. For me, this may be the most rewarding and important course I’ll ever teach.

There are not words to describe how intensely emotional it is to teach about, show images of, and read about the experiences of children and their families at in a time of war when one is a new parent. For every parent grieving I thought about how I would feel, I could picture Ryan, 1 and a half by the time we taught the course, as the victim every time a young toddler was shown. In our world of distractions and entertainment, it’s easy to bracket out those victims, and act like they don’t exist, or are irrelevant but inevitable collateral damage. When one teaches the course that’s impossible. Not only do we prepare the course materials, but in class we present it, explain it, and at times each of us in talking about something emotional — say parents watching their children die — had moments when we had to either wipe tears away or even leave the room for a second.

To be sure, there was a lot of time spent on child development theories, understanding post-traumatic stress syndrome and its impact on children, plus the historical background of conflict and how political science approaches studying/understanding war. The most intense emotional moments were not the norm. But powerful emotion was always there in some form, and it was even painful to watch students, sometimes almost in shock, hear about things going on in the world that they had not imagined. We also had to read the students’ weekly papers, which often were personal and powerful themselves. Every time we teach the course it is a unique and powerful experience.

If it was just the human emotion, that would be one thing. More important to me was the way that emotion influenced both students and myself. First, students, even conservative students who supported the war in Iraq, became far more sensitive to the human cost of war, and broke them out of our societal tendency to think of all these things in abstractions. Second, the students involved in the 2004 course also became more active in student organizations on campus, especially those involving children. They could not simply ‘get over’ the power of the course, they felt a need to try to do something. Finally, it became very clear to me that there is a real gap in how we in political science study war.

Children are hardly ever considered as a variable. While every scholar of conflict will say, “yeah, that’s sad and tragic,” they’ll note that the children are simply victims of the war, and thus not a subject of study. There may be side studies on refugees or child soldiers, but these are ‘niche’ areas of research. There are two problems with this. First, children are the next generation, the impact of war on a generation of children surrounded by violence that intense has to be severe. Stopping cycles of war and violence need to take that into account. The second point is more subtle but I think more important. We study war as an abstract, sanitized concept, with sentiment something to avoid. One can give academic papers without regard to the actually suffering being discussed, this is academia after all. Sentiment can only cloud clear, logical thinking.

Yet leaving emotion out has a similar effect. If one can bracket out the intense human suffering caused by military conflict, then it becomes far easier to simply use economic interests, strategic concerns, or ideological causes as being enough to rationalize risking war. The cost benefit analysis doesn’t really take into account the suffering caused, especially when that suffering can often be further bracketed out by a cold and I’d say heartless “we do all we can not to target innocent civilians,” as if that washes ones’ hands of damage done. By not letting sentiment be a part of the whole analysis, our policy schools, foreign policy bureaucracies, and universities leave out the most tragic part of the analysis.

One might object that this isn’t the case — we know it’s tragic, we know people die, it’s just not relevant to analyzing the causes and consequences of war. But do we really know? How many people see the images and hear the stories of the depth of suffering. It’s well known that the US media self-censors such images stories, not so much because of government pressure but the public doesn’t like to see and hear them. People can easily avoid even learning about depleted uranium shells, landmines, or innocent children shot at security points because the soldiers thought a car ‘suspicious.’ We are safe, we protect ourselves from grappling with the reality. And how can one understand the consequences by looking at humans as statistics. A world view absent sentiment abstracts one to a statistic.

I certainly understand why we leave sentiment out. Emotion does often lead one away from a clear analysis. Fascism was built on such emotion, so are groups like al qaeda. Negative campaign ads use emotion to turn people against candidates, often in irrational ways. So the idea that it has to be considered opens a complex set of problems, which I’m only starting to work through. Teaching this class again will be part of that continuing process.

Emotion, like rationality, can be bad or good. An evil genius uses rational calculus to do horrific deads, someone dealing with a crisis might be unable to operate if they can’t subdue their emotions. Emotion leads to road rage, it leads one to save a drowning child. In life we all seek a sense of balance. I don’t think we can understand and truly appreciate the ethical issues around war without a similar sense of balance. My personal challenge in my future research and academic career is to figure out how to do that. If not for the emotional experience of that course, I would not have the desire to approach this issue, since it seems outside the ‘norm’ in political science. But that’s the power of emotion — it drives life choices. People can’t diet, give up smoking, give up drinking or anything like that if they just decide in their head it’s the thing to do. Only if it’s from the heart — their children are at risk, they might die if obese, etc., — do people act. Part of this is the same kind of thinking behind my reaction last week to Les Miserables, in “Compassion.” The arts do have a way to tap into this, and that is intriguing. But emotion and sentiment can’t simply be bracketed out of social science. There has to be a balance.

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