If you’re a fan of samurai tales (or the science-fiction equivalent), you’re probably familiar with the practice of sword-fighting while wearing a blindfold. It’s seductive – the idea that someone could be so attuned to the information of their senses that they can block a swiftly-moving sword without seeing it. Maybe it’s even possible – I don’t know.
Sexy though that imagery may be, I think it’s better to know one’s enemy. I am not a samurai. I cannot react to the motion of a sword without seeing it. And yet I think that is what we who seek peace traditionally do. We fight symptoms, not causes. We do not know our enemy. We think that the military-industrial complex is the enemy, or we think that leaders who seek battle are the enemy. Or we think that war arises from poverty or hopelessness.
This is not so.
Imagine for a moment that we could by magic eliminate the military-industrial complex as it exists today. We would be like Herakles, cutting a head off of the Hydra. It is true that where an industry exists, those who are enriched by it will struggle to maintain their reason to exist. So we can argue, I think rightly, that the military industrial complex will tend to support the causes for war. But it is not itself the cause for war. It is war’s symptom. In order to fight, one needs weapons. So where there is war, or the hope of war, armorers will appear. And if you can figure out a way to get rid of the ones that do appear, new ones will keep appearing until the desire for war is gone.
So perhaps it is evil leaders who seek war that are the cause of war. If only we could get rid of such leaders, there would be no more war. I think we in the United States have a unique opportunity to see the wrongness of this view. We, the people, just rose up and elected a leader to replace the one who started the war in Iraq. We are tired of war. We are tired of paying for war. And yet we elected a president who, for all his good qualities, is an advocate of war. He is not an evil man. I think he is a good man. I think his intentions are good. I think he was the best we could do, and perhaps better than we deserve. Despite the fact that he is an advocate for war, I don’t think we can safely say he is the cause of war.
Dan Harper brought up injustice and broken dreams as a cause for war. I tried to refute that idea in my comments to his post, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The crux of the argument is that we have seen, in our own lifetimes, wars, like the one in Iraq, that were started for reasons other than broken dreams. I think the dispute in Chechnya qualifies as well. Indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of many wars that were started for this reason.
I think the reason we give credence to this view of war’s cause is that widespread despair makes for a fertile breeding ground for war. People who have no hope are easy to control. If you want war, people with no hope will be your soldiers. There are other kinds of soldiers – I don’t think that the U.S. raises its army on the backs of people with no hope, for example. But when we, through our acts of war, create populations in despair, it’s like spilling gasoline in the hot sun. All it takes is a match to ignite it, and what follows is a holocaust.
The most basic thing that people hold in common is the desire for satisfaction, and the desire to be free of pain. We want a blanket and a pillow to sleep on, and an overhang to block the rain. If we have that, we want a house. If we have that, we want a warm house. If we have that, we want the house to be in a nice place. We want enough food. We want to be loved. We do not want to be beaten. We do not want to be abused. We do not want to see the ones we love die, or suffer, or want.
But these things are the most common things in the world. Starvation. Homelessness. Loneliness. And so we seek refuge from them. We seek control. We seek refuge in many places. These are problems. We seek to solve them.
There are lots of forms of refuge out there in the world that compete for attention. We take refuge in work – if we work hard, we will be able to make enough money to get what we need, and to pay for medical care. We take refuge in others – if I can get that person to love me, they will take care of me. We take refuge in spiritual paths – if I can have faith in God, then I will be comforted even when I have nothing else.
And we take refuge in war. We think, that person who wants to beat me, let me kill him, and he will no longer beat me. That person who has what I need, and does not share it, let me take it from him, and then I will have what I need. Let me raise myself up through the power of violence, so that people respect me and give me what I want.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: do we take refuge in war? Do we think that war will work? If we do, then the cause for war lives in our own minds.
For me, it’s easy to say “no, no, I don’t think that.” Because intellectually war does not seem like a valid refuge. But all I have to do is pay attention, and I can see that I do believe in war, somewhere deep inside. I watched Live Free or Die Hard the other day, and I noticed myself wondering when the hero would kill the villain, because that would stop the violence. Someone honked at me and yelled at me to get out of the way the other day on Campbell just above River, and without thinking I flipped him the bird.
That’s the invisible blade we need to block. If there is a little voice in my heart that tells me I need to suppress the person who is doing what I don’t like, I need to hear that voice and know it for what it is. We will elect a president who advocates peace when enough of us actually believe peace will work that we no longer listen to that little voice. So I think the task before us is to seriously think about whether or not war works, and why. And then to think about whether or not there are actions we can take that are as powerful as acts of war, but are not causes of war; if so, what are they?