Thursday, March 18, 2010

War, What Is It Good For?

Guarding Ground Zero
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.

Chinggis Khan


  1. This is a very thought provoking piece. It would be impossible for me to categorically state I am a pacifist. On several occasions in my life I've used physical means to defend myself. And I would do so again if necessary. Sometimes, in some circumstances one runs out of other options.

    When it comes to state-sponsored violence such as war the stakes are so much greater. Quite a few of my family members fought in WW2 in Europe and in the Pacific. Some died. I appreciate that they took these steps because as you say a world under a Nazi regime would have been worse than any nightmare imaginable. Totalitarianism, most of the time, descends into a death/power orgy type scenario. Khmer Rouge, Taliban, Uganda under Idi Amin, many things come to mind.

    "I get very upset at injustice, even if it's as trivial as some jackasses being pettily cruel on an Internet forum." Me too sometimes.

    "And that has fuck all to do with the Buddha." When violence is right there in one's face, there isn't time to think about ideals or morals or much beyond survival. One does what is necessary to survive. At some point though one does draw a line between what is defense and what becomes aggression. It becomes tempting to "punish" the attacker in the aftermath of violence. I think that is where the implementation of one's moral compass, however it is informed (Buddhism or otherwise), needs to be invoked.

    But you know who can predict how they would really behave in a war? We can be all lofty and idealistic contemplating it but if someone is shoving a weapon in one's face it becomes quite a different matter.

    Personally I don't rule anything out. We are all equally capable of nobility or wretched brutality.

  2. Very interesting thoughts PJ! I haven't thought about this at all as hard as you have, but with the combination of growing up in Sweden and caring deeply about fairness (in the abstract) it's hard for me not to agree with you.

    I'd also like to say that I like following your blog overall (1 out of 15 Google Reader subscribers!) even though I hardly care at all about Zen -- but because you always have something intelligent and thoughtful to say.

    /Jonas (Toaster)

  3. Thank you for this Petteri. You know I am also a study of military history and sometimes get wrapped up in the tactical nature of it, setting aside the human cost.

    I think when we examine a just cause or unjust cause, it is always difficult to distinguish lines of right or wrong. But, sometimes you have to met force with force, and that is the harsh reality of life. It is a shame that war has been so ingrained in us as a culture, either believing we are fighting for ideals or fighting for a noble cause. Dead is dead, and suffering is suffering, and no amount of nobility or righteousness makes it less so.

    For me as an American, while I despised George Bush, I fully supported the war into Afghanistan, although, I don't see any easy way out, thanks to the Pakistani Army supply the Taliban. But the Iraq war, I couldn't have been more opposed to it.

    The question I guess is, when is it the right time to fight? I think the answer is different for everyone.

  4. That was disturbing.

    There seems to be an IPCC-like consensus that when it comes to life and death (and maybe any other hic et nunc situation?, fuck the spiritual quest.

    Makes you wonder if the sole reason of wanting to awake to a self without hate, pride, etc is that you cannot act on latter with impunity.

  5. I heard a teisho about this. The teacher described a student coming to dokusan and solemnly announcing that his sole motivation to practice is a pure and sincere desire to liberate all sentient beings.

    Then she described how the teacher started laughing and laughing until she was rolling on the ground, beating the floor with her fists.

    Not being an enlightened being, I cannot know how such a being would act. I can only make a picture of it in my mind. I don't think trying really hard to be that picture will help my 'spiritual quest' (such as it is) any. That means I can only proceed from such moral sense and ethical reasoning I can muster, wherever I happen to be at the time.

    And, as NellaLou said, I have no way of knowing how I would actually behave should war come my way. Would I run and hide? Would I turn myself in and be shot as a deserter? Would I put on the uniform and go to the front out of fear? Would I do the same out of moral conviction?

    I have no idea, and from what little I've read, Buddhism doesn't have any final answers about that either.

  6. Thought provoking indeed. I think that the fact is that when war is a brutal reality that holds life and death for you and especially for others you care about, it ceases to be something you can experience consistently as a disembodied concept, and then the choice between action and inaction becomes something not made on philosophical grounds, but at a gut level instead.

    I admire those who can react to violent acts, threats and injustice by civil disobedience or abstinence, and would like to pretend that their path is an answer for everyone, but if that were the case, I think there would be a lot more of it around. There are not noticeably more religions preaching the anti-war message since the Quakers began it. for instance,("We feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, "Love your enemies." )

    But until everyone can follow such a Quaker-style view of war as something they absolutely refuse to participate in no matter what, there's no way civil disobedience or conscientious objection will stop war. That path remains a personal statement only at this stage in our evolution. How valuable is that? How much will it influence others, change group perceptions, mold a possible alternate view--it's very hard to say. But I think there's no doubt it has a powerful intrinsic value.

    I also think there's no doubt resisting injustice, however relative and subjective, is an imperative with it's own intrinsic value. That both extremes can coexist in the human psyche, or even in one individual, is a statement on the unfathomable complexity of what makes us human, and while many religions and philosophies strive to teach us about that place, the answers are equivocal at best.