I’ve had this quotation from primatologist Frans deWaal in my head for a long time. Sadly, I think it’s relevant now for life in the United States:
“Humans have something of the bonobo and the chimpanzee in them, which makes them bipolar in character. Most of the time, actually, we like to have a peaceful relationship with everybody around us. But at the same time we can be aroused to a point, under certain circumstances – either by political leaders, or by an invasion, or by some traumatic event – that we start killing, and not killing on a small scale like chimpanzees do, but genocide… When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” — Frans de Waal, primatologist (source)
The two pieces of this passage that mean the most to me are that: (1) peaceful relations are our default preference, and (2) mass acts of violence require being goaded or aroused by some external push factor.
“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.” – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.
Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?
It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.
From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman, have written that a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).
However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.
Beware the mythic narrative of war. From Chris Hedges:
“If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the eight schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan a week ago and listen to the wails of their parents we would not be able to repeat clichés about liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan people. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining. And the press is as guilty as Hollywood. During the start of the Iraq war, television reports gave us the visceral thrill of force and hid from us the effects of bullets, tank rounds, iron fragmentation bombs and artillery rounds. We tasted a bit of war’s exhilaration, but were protected from seeing what war actually does.
The wounded, the crippled and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted off stage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless. And those whom fate has decreed must face war’s effects often turn and flee.”
A few years ago, I attended a conference on war and health in Seattle, and one of the keynote speakers was Chris Hedges, a former journalist who had covered several conflicts around the world. After he finished his presentation, the floor was opened for questions. I’ve since forgotten much of his speech and nearly all of the Q&A session, except for the final question. Someone in the audience asked him how his life had been affected by what he had seen, and how he readjusted to a life of relative comfort in the US.
At that point, he sighed and said that one of his young children had asked him something similar when he was preparing her lunch. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like “how can you be happy here making me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you’ve seen so many big, important things like war around the world?” And he replied that “it’s because I’ve seen so many wars that I know how important the little things are, like making sandwiches” (again, I’m paraphrasing).
This photo from a BBC report on the ongoing fighting in South Sudan made its rounds on the internet today, showing refugees being segregated by ethnicity at a UN compound. As of last month, an estimated 93,000 people had been displaced by the conflict, indicating the scale of the crisis (source: reliefweb).
Sign at a camp in Bentiu, South Sudan, segregating refugees by ethnicity. (Source: BBC)
From Chris Hedges:
“Lawrence LeShan in The Psychology of War differentiates between “mythic reality” and “sensory reality” in wartime. In sensory reality we see events for what they 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. Wars that lose their mythic stature for the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is– organized murder.
But in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects – eventually in the form of corpses.
for 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, at least during a mythic war, to the public. Only when the myth is punctured, as it eventually was in Vietnam, does the press begin to report in a sensory rather than a mythic manner. But even then it is it reacting to a public that has changed its perception of war.”
― Chris Hedges (2002) War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (p. 21-22)
NBC News has been running a compelling series on the return of American Col. Jack Jacobs to Vietnam, where he was wounded forty years ago. I recommend this insightful essay by Col. Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient and former West Point faculty. It describes his meeting with the former commander that ambushed his battalion, as well as his general reflections on the ‘enemy.’
But the enemy is an amoebic mass, a single-minded monolithic inhuman force. Killed in action, they are only a logistical problem, and you get a feeling of them as individuals only when you capture them, scared, wounded and shivering. They are no longer part of the enemy organism, and it is only then they come to life as people.”
… Continue reading