Friday, January 7, 2011

A Controversial Thesis: War is a force that gives us meaning.

Curious title, isn't it? If war is a force that gives us meaning, how does it give us meaning? The answer lies in the underlying myth that supports it, and has supported it, from the dawn of the human species. This is the Warrior Myth, and it is part of every culture and society. We see it in familiar stories of great warriors, heroes, heroines and gods, all of whom fight great battles to defeat "the enemy". In these tales, it is the warrior that is held up to be emulated by the young, especially young men. In Japan it is the samurai and his code; in America it is the pioneers, the adventurers, the men and women who fight our wars, and the war heroes. Underlying the Warrior Myth are two underlying assumptions that are woven so tightly into it that they reveal the great myth that underlies and defines it. This is the myth that says that our side is goodness incarnate, and their side (the enemy) is evil incarnate and must (and will be) destroyed, since the gods (or God) is on our side (the side of virtue and goodness). If you don't think so, review the history of the past thirty years, or the past sixty years, in which our acts have uniformly been presented as necessary and good, and their acts as unnecessary and evil. Anyone who questions our collective behavior, motives and the Warrior Myth is labeled as foolish ord dangerous -- an enemy, an outsider who is, at best, shunned.

A myth is a traditional story that is accepted as history, a story that explains the origins and the world view of a people. In America's national myth, ugliness, brutality and meanness are denied, or are romanticized, explained away and justified. We declare our motives to be pure, we set our heroes on pedestals, and we parade the veterans of our wars up and down streets on national holidays, all in the service of the great, underlying myth that we are paragons of virtue who do not and never have engaged in questionable or wrong behavior. If you doubt this, look back over the past seven years of the Bush Administration's "war on terror", in which every single act, no matter how questionable legally, has been justified as right and good, and all who have questioned it declared to be irrelevant buffoons or traitorous.

Myth, and more particularly the Warrior Myth may make great drama, but it is lousy history. As Chris Hedges powerfully illustrates, it is destroying us and the planet on which we live. The Warrior Myth devours the soul of our humanity, destroys countless lives (including those who return from combat, and those civilians who have survived it), and has morphed into a huge, powerful automated machine that has proven almost impossible to shut down because our society and our culture has become dependent on it. Myth is self-justifying, self-reifying...and in the case of the Warrior Myth, also self-destroying on a massive, impersonal scale.

"War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" is not an easy book to read, because Chris Hedges presents war in all its grisly, ugly and senseless detail. As a veteran war correspondent, he has lived it, and it shows. One of the chapters, and the longest one (Chapter 4: "The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War") which shows graphically the lie of "purity" that is embedded in the Warrior Myth, was very difficult for me to read. I recall reading "The Brothers of Gwynedd", three historical novels by British writer Edith Pargeter, and having to stop midway through the second novel because the stupidity and carnage of battle was too overwhelming. Set in medieval Wales at the time of the Plantagents, I read until I literally could not read any more. "Nothing," I told my wife, "has changed in the last five hundred years, nothing except our weapons, which are worse. We must change ourselves before we destroy ourselves, either accidentally or on purpose." But, as Hedges and others show, the march goes on.

What is the solution? "To survive as a human being is possible," Hedges writes, "only through love. And, when Thanatos" (the death instinct) "is ascendant, the instinct must be to reach out to those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity, and pathos of the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others -- even those with whom we are in conflict -- love that is like our own. It does not mean that we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm what we know we musts affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal" (pages 184, 185).

This is an important book for your future and for mine, and for our grandchildren. Unfortunately it is not a book that those in whom the Warrior Myth is most embedded, most especially our leaders and those dependent upon it for their livelihood, are likely to recommend or read. But it is a must read for anyone who wants a better future for those we love.

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