Guarding Ground Zero, Beirut, 2005
I have a complicated relationship with war.
First, in the spirit of Confucian Rectification of Names, let's make it clear what I'm talking about here. War. Not the metaphorical kind, like the war on poverty, or ignorance, or crime, or drugs, or terror. Not what one gang of meatheads from one neighborhood does to another gang of meatheds from another neighborhood. Not defending yourself or another from violent attack by some random stranger. We're talking the kind of stuff that's fought with sword and fire, guns and bombs and armies, in or out of uniform.
Or, put more academically, organized violence perpetrated by one imagined community on another imagined community.
Like most people of my age who have been lucky enough to grow up in our relatively secure part of the world, I have no personal experience with war.
Perhaps I'm a little bit closer to it than some, though. Like most Finnish men, I've done my military service, and I grew up listening to my grandfather's stories, many of which were about war. More significant than that is that my wife is from Lebanon, and grew up there during its fifteen years of civil war. I've visited many times, and seen some of the ravages of that war, on the land and on the people. I even got to visit the UNIFIL peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon once, when Israel was still occupying that part of the country.
Back in 2006, when there was that little affair between Hezbollah and Israel, war came pretty close. Bridges I had crossed were bombed out. The beach where I swam was inundated with a black tide of fuel oil when the IAF bombed out the Jiyyeh power plant, releasing an oil slick all over the coast. There were fresh shrapnel marks here and there the next time I visited. I wasn't there. I was safely in France, watching the action unfold on television.
Yet it hurt. I felt a sheer, helpless, irrational rage, of the kind that made it very easy to understand why Hezbollah does not find it difficult to find recruits.
At the same time, I'm fascinated by war. I like to read about military history and strategy, about tactics and weaponry and the evolution of organized killing into ever more refined and lethal forms. I've sunk inordinate amounts of time into war games, mostly on the computer, but also on the tabletop and pen and paper gaming. I've gotten absorbed in reading about the battle of Agincourt or that of Cannae; about Mongolian combined-arms tactics, or the ways the Hezbollah stopped the Tsahal in its tracks in that 2006 mess. I've read Mao's manual on guerrilla warfare, and Sun Zi's timeless Art of War. I can quote a bit of Clausewitz on demand, and I can wax eloquent about British naval tactics in the Napoleonic wars. I loved Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky with its ridiculously long battle scene on the lake, and the charge of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King brings a tear to my eye, in the book and in the movie.
While I mostly hated military service, it was cool to blow stuff up and shoot guns, and I was good enough at it to get some shiny badges and plaques for it. The organizational and tactical aspects of it were also interesting enough to make the whole thing feel like not a complete waste of time. When one of the officers asked if I'd be interested in staying on after my year finished, or perhaps getting into one of our peacekeeping units, I refused… but not before just a tiny pause to give it some consideration. By then, though, I was so deeply sick of the twisted irrationality of the military, that that pause only lasted a moment.
I remember the exact moment the absurdity of the whole exercise struck home to me. That was close to the finish of my year, and I was assigned to oversee the new recruits returning from their first evening leave. One of them was a guy about ten years older than I am, a physician, and someone who took another option – military service with conscientious objection to bearing a weapon. That's the toughest choice of all, because you get to go through all the pointless reprogramming they throw at recruits, and everybody sneers at you for not being man enough to shoot a gun. He was standing there at attention, tense and nervous as hell, reporting in, and I just thought, what the FUCK? What kind of system makes someone like him stand quaking in his polished jackboots in front of someone like me?
War sucks. Despite all the guts and glory and lofty narratives and high causes we erect around it, there's really nothing glorious about it. It's just people killing other people for some stupid made-up reason. It really makes no sense that it has the power to snag the imagination and the emotions like it does, but then if it didn't, there wouldn't be any war. It's deeply built into us. A delusion, perhaps, but if so, it's one of the most evil, destructive, and tenacious ones we have to deal with.
I would love to be a pacifist, along the lines of Gandhi or Martin Luther King and all those other guys. Yet whenever I start to think of the implications – really think about them – I start running around in a labyrinth and find no way out that leads to pacifism without altogether leaving this mess of a world we live in.
Is there such a thing as a just war? If so, from whose point of view? By which criteria?
Let's break a taboo. This is so hard it makes me physically uncomfortable to think these thoughts, let alone type them.
What if nobody had resisted Hitler's little program to rearrange the map? What if he could have marched his troops to the Urals as easily has he took the Sudetenland, and realize his dream of the Reich? Would it have been worse than what actually happened? Would he even have been able to perpetrate his Endlösung without the brutalization caused by years of total war? If so, would he have been able to murder more than he actually did? Would those murders have been worse than all the other murder, death, and destruction that happened – Europe devastated from Calais to Moscow, 60 million dead, and still with half the continent under the thumbs of dictators just about as evil as the one that met his miserable end in that Berlin bunker?
It would have sucked to grow up under Nazi rule, or under Communist rule for that matter. But lots of people did, and most of them turned out OK.
Hitler wasn't the first warlord with plans to take over the world, and it's unlikely he'll be the last. The Mongols were far more successful, and at least as brutal. If Chinggis Khan had been able to hold his liquor better, even us here in the West might all be wearing little fur hats, and, perhaps, be good, peaceful Buddhists of the Tibetan variety. Where they met resistance, they left behind a desert where nothing would grow and no-one would survive. That guy in the Eisenstein movie – Alexander Nevsky – was sainted by the Russians. Why? Not for that little skirmish he won against the Teutons. For not resisting the Mongols, but rather traveling to Sarai and offering his fealty, thereby saving Novgorod from sword and fire. Sensible guy.
What's more, very few wars really are just, even if you can find one that is. Most are just painted that way, by the people who want them. All of them are believed just by those waging them; otherwise they wouldn't. Hitler's twisted motives made perfect sense if only you accepted his mental framework of the hierarchy of races and the manifest destiny of the Arisch to rule the world. Given any random war, you're much more likely to be fighting in an unjust cause than a just one.
So much for the case for pacifism. If I can make a case – even to myself – that resisting a monster like Hitler is not an open-and-shut case, then what's causing me problems?
Only this: I get very upset at injustice, even if it's as trivial as some jackasses being pettily cruel on an Internet forum. I just cannot bring myself to condemn someone who picks up a weapon to defend against injustice, once all other avenues have been exhausted. I cannot find it in my heart to consider someone defending his home and hearth immoral. I cannot help but be thankful to my grandparents' generation for the sacrifices they made. Had I been there when the tanks rolled over the border seventy years ago, it's unlikely that I would have refused to be drafted and been shot for cowardice instead (never even mind that I'm too much of a coward to choose that option, moral considerations aside).
My wife says that when war comes your way, you get down and stay down, or get the hell out of the way. She's been there, so she knows what she's talking about, and that position is just as morally defensible as the imperative to defend your country, as far as I'm concerned. But when the rubber meets the road, I don't know just how much of a pacifist I really am, but I hope to God I never have to find out. And that has fuck all to do with the Buddha.