War: The Lure, the Madness, the Way Through

Three Book Reviews by Mac Lawrence

April 28, 2003


In thinking about war, I keep asking myself: What can possibly lead humans to do such horrible things to one another? And how can so many people willingly accept war as an option when the horrors of war are so obvious?

If we had answers to questions like these, and learned from them, the human race would have a much better chance of surviving in the coming years when the tools of war are even more deadly, and when there are more and more people -- many of whom are very angry and armed to the teeth -- competing for land, food, water, oil, power, religious belief.

One place I look for answers is in books, such as three I've read recently. Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History is a life work by sociologist Elise Boulding, who spent 50 years studying civil society, especially those societies and cultures which are peaceable. Carefully written, and accompanied by 72 pages of notes, bibliography, and index, it is for those who seriously study peace, international relations, and human rights. A typical paragraph, this from Boulding's overview, gives a flavor of the book:

"[A peace culture] includes lifeways, patterns of belief, values, behavior, and accompanying institutional arrangements that promote mutual caring and well-being as well as an equality that includes appreciation of differences, stewardship, and equitable sharing of the earth's resources among its members and with all living beings. It offers a mutual security for humankind in all its diversity through a profound sense of species identity as well as kinship with the living earth. There is no need for violence. In other words, peaceableness is an action concept, involving a constant shaping and reshaping of understandings, situations, and behaviors in a constantly changing lifeworld, to sustain well-being for all."

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book by Chris Hedges, who spent 15 years covering wars for The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and National Public Radio. He has seen war firsthand in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, the West Bank and Gaza, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Punjab, the Gulf, the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey and northern Iraq, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

While others theorize and plan, Hedges has lived war. He's been ambushed, imprisoned, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured by Iraqi Republican Guard, strafed by Russian Migs, fired on by snipers, and has witnessed humans at their worst.

He says this of war: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by mythmakers-historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state....It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it. Fundamental questions about meaning or meaninglessness, or our place on the planet, are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us."

About the present situation for America, Hedges notes: "We Americans find ourselves in the dangerous position of going to war not against a state, but against a phantom....As the battle against terrorism continues, as terrorist attacks intrude on our lives, as we feel less and less secure, the acceptance of all methods to lash out at real and perceived enemies will distort and deform our democracy. For even as war gives meaning to our sterile lives, it also promotes killers and racists."

Hedges refers to the book, The Psychology of War, in which author Lawrence LeShan differentiates between two types of reality: mythic and sensory. Hedges finds this distinction important: "In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph, just as the Islamic militants see us as infidels whose existence corrupts the pure Islamic society they hope to build. [Mythic war] gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity....In war, the state seeks to destroy its own culture.... Moral precepts -- ones we have spent a lifetime honoring -- are jettisoned.

"In sensory reality, we see events for what they really are. Most of those who are thrust into combat soon find it impossible to maintain the mythic perception of war. They would not survive if they did." Hedges quotes a Marine Corps lieutenant: "Just remember that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap that the politicians fed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other." Hedges adds that when the public also loses the mythic feeling for a war, as in Korea and Vietnam, "it is doomed for failure, for war is exposed for what it is -- organized murder."

Both the state and the press are important in presenting war to the public in mythological terms, Hedges notes. Actually, Hedges frequently uses the word "lie." "The myth of war is essential to justify the horrible sacrifices required in war, the destruction and the death of innocents. It can be formed only by denying the reality of war, by turning lies, the manipulation, the inhumanness of war into the heroic ideal....The lie in war is almost always the lie of omission. The blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents, and the horror of wounds are rarely disclosed to the public, at least during a mythic war. Only when the myth is punctured...does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythical manner."

In many places in his book, Hedges touches on how normal humans can turn into remorseless killing machines. In one passage, he writes: "I have watched fighters...enter villages, tense, exhausted, wary of ambushes, with the fear and tension that comes from combat, and begin to shoot at random....Items are looted, civilians battered with rifle butts, units fall apart, and the violence directed toward unarmed men, women, and children grows to feed on itself. They are high on the power to spare lives or take them, the divine power to destroy. And they are, indeed, for a moment, gods swatting down powerless human beings like flies."

When he was in the midst of war, Hedges found few sanctuaries. One was provided by a couple in love. "They are not able to staunch the slaughter. They are often powerless and can themselves become victims. But it was with them, seated around a wood stove, usually over a simple meal, that I found sanity and was reminded of what it means to be human." War eventually became too much for Hedges and he returned to the U.S. to immerse himself in studying classic literature.

After Hedges' book, it was a relief to read The Future of Peace by Scott Hunt. In the book's introduction, Hunt writes: "Kindness is alive and well, and we have good reason to be hopeful about the future. Despite the horrors that we see unfolding daily on our television screens, every day around the world there are countless acts of restraint, decency, and goodness....The century just past was the bloodiest ever recorded, and we have begun a new century with new animosities and fears that threaten to tear peace apart. Yet nowhere is it written -- either in our genes or in the stars -- that we are fated to repeat our mistakes. Our world, like our mind, becomes exactly and only what we make it....The desire for happiness is universal, fundamental, and irrepressible."

The key to a positive outcome, Hunt says, is to envision a world without conflict. To invigorate that vision, we need to encounter the right people. And that is what Hunt did, travelling the world to interview "some of the most fascinating people of our time. They are all great peacemakers who rose out of the ashes of conflict. From some of the most horrendous chapters in human history, these great leaders have emerged to show us a different path, proving not only that cessation of war is possible, but that the removal of hatred and violence from our hearts is possible as well."

Hunt's first story begins: "A dignified woman walks confidently through a large crowd. The woman is small in physical stature yet enormous in prestige. Her supporters are cheering, waving flags, and hoisting her portrait. Her slight build, colorful dress, and gracious smile stand in marked contrast to the heavily armed, drably uniformed soldiers lurking in the shadows. Without warning, the soldiers burst from the darkness, storm into the crowd, and form a line to keep the woman from reaching a nearby stage.

"The standoff is fraught with danger. The woman and her compatriots are well aware that the soldiers have a history of firing on peaceful demonstrators, and they would not hesitate to do so again in the name of public order. Yet the woman shows no hint of fear. She steps forward, waving off those who try to stop her. She advances slowly, resolutely, staring deeply into the eyes of the soldier who is pointing his rifle directly at her. The woman stands there as the symbol of freedom, face-to-face with the soldier, a symbol of violence and subjugation. He starts to tremble in confusion and fear and finally retreats. The woman steps gingerly, even graciously, through the line, followed by a flood of her supporters. It is a small victory of peaceful means over aggression."

The woman is Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's famous General Aung San and, later, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The military dictators in Burma have never known what to do with Suu Kyi. They permitted a democratic election in 1990 because they had promised the world they would, and were shocked to see Suu Kyi's party capture 82 percent of the parliamentary seats despite all their efforts to defeat her. They disqualified, detained, imprisoned, and drove into exile the successful candidates and put Suu Kyi under house arrest. They refused to let Suu Kyi's English husband visit her even as he was dying, and forbade Suu Kyi from attending the Nobel Prize ceremony. Still, Suu Kyi remains an heroic figure and the leader of the Burmese people.

The weeks Hunt spent attempting to meet with Suu Kyi, the searches of his hotel room, the circuitous taxi rides, the armed guards around her home, how he got the recorded tape through the airport search -- all are the stuff of a spy novel. When Hunt was able to interview her, he found a person who does not seek leadership, but takes it on willingly; does not see herself as extraordinary; has a lightness about her and a bubbling sense of humor. She is convinced that nonviolence has more power than violence and that patience alone is a loser if not paired with perseverance, "sometimes a dogged perseverance!"

Two other peacemakers Hunt interviewed are also highly revered by the people in their countries, and kept in near isolation. One is Thich Quang, a Buddhist monk who is Vietnam's leading dissident. As background, Hunt included a history of Vietnam, beginning with the year 208 B.C.E., when the country was called Nam Viet and dominated by the Chinese for a thousand years; America's war with its spraying of 100,000,000 pounds of herbicides on Vietnam's forests and search-and-destroy missions in villages like My Lai; and the current government of Vietnam "which severely limits freedom of expression, freedom of worship, and freedom to change the government by peaceful means."

Thich Quang has been imprisoned twice, once for two years (without a trial) for protesting the Communist government's destruction of Buddhist property, then for five years for organizing a relief effort for flood victims. All of his prison time was spent in solitary confinement in degrading conditions. Now, Thich Quang is confined to his pagoda in Saigon. He can receive, but not make, phone calls. No one in Vietnam is allowed to speak his name, and his three books are published secretly with his name blotted out.

When asked about his forced isolation, he told Hunt: "I often say that I am the most free man in Vietnam. The government has made me an outlaw. Now I have no obligation. They have no right to make me act according to their law. I have full freedom now!" And he roared with laughter.

Despite his experiences, Thich Quang says he bears no bad feelings towards anyone- Communist officials, policemen, or soldiers. "They are human beings. Ones just like you and me. I have compassion for them because they have no wisdom. They have common knowledge, but no wisdom. [Wisdom] is not gained through studying or reading books, but by meditating, by getting rid of hatred and anger and fear and self-cherishing."

What keeps him going? "It is my duty! I am a Buddhist monk. I have to take care of my people's happiness! That is my purpose." His method is to work "only through nonviolence, strict nonviolence. I cannot do anything violent. I work according to Buddha's teaching."

Another peacemaker kept in isolation is Maha Ghosananda, who is called variously "the Gandhi of Cambodia," "the Living Treasure," and the "the Living Truth." Hunt recounts the history of the U.S.-Vietnam war as it affected Cambodia, focusing on the U.S. secret bombing of Cambodia and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. To say that the Khmer Rouge committed unspeakable atrocities is an understatement.

"Yet," Hunt notes, "Maha Ghosanandra felt a sense of compassion even toward the Khmer Rouge soldiers, though they had murdered his own family and plunged the country into such darkness. His compassion for them seems incomprehensible at first."

But, as Maha Ghosanandra explained to Hunt: "I do not question that loving one's oppressors -- Cambodians loving the Khmer Rouge -- may be the most difficult attitude to achieve. But it is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in all of our negotiations. It means that we see ourselves in the opponent, for what is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are ignorant of many things. Therefore, only loving kindness and right mindfulness can free us."

My favorite quote from Maha Ghosanandra was his response to a question Hunt posed, asking what one would say to the general of an army who is planning to attack another country: "The Buddha dealt with this very situation. His family was fighting over water to build a rice field. He went to them and told them, 'If you make war, there will be no end to it. Those who claim victory will be met with hatred by those who lost. Those who won will also feel hatred toward those who lost. Hatred itself will kill you. There is no need for another enemy. Hatred will kill you.'"

Lest the reader dismiss Maha Ghosanandra as simple-minded and uneducated, he has traveled widely, and is proficient in English, French, German, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Hindu, Bengali, Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhalese, Burmese, Japanese, and Chinese.

Three of Hunt's other interviews were of people frequently in the news -- His Holiness the Dalai Lama, former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, and Jane Goodall. Each had valuable things to say, and these chapters are well worth reading. The book also has a sizeable chapter titled, "The Peacemakers of Israel and Palestine," which goes deeply into the background of that conflict, and includes interviews with people like Hanan Ashrawi and Uri Avnery.

I found the background and up-to-date information on Arias particularly interesting, since I thought I knew a lot about Arias' peacemaking efforts during the time of the Sandinistas. But I certainly was unaware of Arias' face-to-face run-ins with President Reagan, who kept trying to torpedo Arias' efforts for a peace treaty, insisting on a military approach using the U.S.-supported Contras.

Hunt offers some advice for America. Using the U.S. bombing of Cambodia as an example of an action with unintended consequences, he writes: "The people of our country, I believe, must be determined to exert maximum effort to prevent our leaders from using the nation's power in callous and unwise ways...that we prefer the simple wisdom of kindness to their labyrinth of political perceptions...that we treat others as we would have them treat us; and that we avoid hostility and cherish the lives of all people everywhere."

Hunt concludes: "Perhaps as individuals you and I will never achieve what the great peacemakers in this book have achieved. Yet we can do something, however minute it appears. All of these small acts, these small achievements, can eventually tip the balance and create a new culture of lasting peace."

"Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History" by Elise Boulding. Syracuse University Press, New York. 2000. $24.95.

"War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges. Public Affairs, New York. 2002. $23.00.

"The Future of Peace: On the Front Lines with the World's Great Peacemakers" by Scott A. Hunt. HarperSanFrancisco, HarperCollins, New York. 2002. $24.95.

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Mac Lawrence is an activist, a writer, and an editor for the magazine Timeline where this review was first published in print. He is a friend of, and occasional contributor to Swans.

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Published April 28, 2003
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