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Carl Hertel

We’re all confused

Carl Hertel

Carl Hertel

—Carl Hertel

General John P. Abizaid, Commander of U.S. Forces in the Middle East, recently told a Senate Armed Services Committee: “There is a great deal of confusion in a combat zone—all the time—almost as much as there is here in Washington, but not quite.”

The general offered this by way of explaining the confusion about who was in charge of Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison when abuses occurred there last fall. The confusion created by the fog of war is quite real. I recall my father and my uncle Pete telling me about World War I battles in France that were filled with uncertainty, confusion, and terror. Pete was shot in the neck by a German sniper on the day the armistice was signed, which underscores how ironic, unfair and confused war can be.

The engineering principle of “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” may also explain the mistakes and confusion that inevitably occur in making a war. Yet the current rhetoric about what is happening in Iraq makes one wonder what kind of omelet we’re cooking up over there. When all is said and done, the question about war that remains to be answered is, Why do we do it?

Psychologist James Hillman, in a new book A Terrible Love of War, offers many intriguing answers to that question. Among other things, he suggests that war might be normal. Humans appear to love it and, strange as it seems, religion has played a huge role in the history and perpetuation of warfare. Hillman points out that we humans have made a lot of war; “During the five thousand six hundred years of written history, fourteen thousand six hundred wars have been recorded.” And that doesn’t include the countless bloody wars that have not been recorded.

Hillman suggests that as a species we seem unable to stop killing our own kind in wars because of a lack of imagination. It is not that the horrors of war are “unimaginable,” but that as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said of the Vietnam War: “We can now understand these catastrophes for what they were: essentially the products of failure of imagination.” It seems we fail to understand war because, “as Einstein tells us, problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.” We simply need to raise the level of our thinking about war if we want to stop doing it.

Hillman’s chapter “Religion is War” surveys how religions have traditionally validated the transcendent aspects of war—and discouraged new thinking about how strict adherence to an exclusive religious belief has often set the stage for deadly conflicts. On another level, human ecologist Paul Shepard, in his book The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, saw war as “the state’s expression of social pathology.” For him, the departure from our integration with wild nature as hunter-gatherers, triggered by the advent of agriculture and the domestication of human life, has created the stress pathology that explains perpetual warfare. Separated from nature, we fail to develop as whole beings and do crazy things like make war and trash our environment.

Dr. Helen Caldicott, in her recent book The New Nuclear Danger, attempts to show how the imminent possibility of nuclear catastrophes threatens the entire planet. She exhorts humans throughout the world to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons and stop spreading nuclear materials around that terrorists can use in making bombs.

Hillman’s book approaches the central problem of our time: how do we wean ourselves from our “terrible love of war” before a nuclear disaster perpetrated by terrorists, or a psychotic state, or an awful accident cuts short our possibilities for a peaceful world. According to Hillman, “There is no practical solution to war because war is not a problem for the practical mind ... War belongs to our souls as an archetypal truth of the cosmos.” He sees war as a psychic problem beyond reason and hope, but urges humans to keep striving for sanity that takes us beyond killing each other to solve secular and religious conflicts. Dr. Caldicott sees the warring earth as “our patient” to be healed by timely changes in weapons production and environmental responsibility. Shepard says: “We can [and should] go back to nature ... because we never left it.”

If we take nature as a model, we find there are predators and killing and that you eat what you kill. However, among species other than humans, there is aggression, but not organized mass warfare.  As Hillman says, there are choices other than war. What we need to do is rise above the confusion war causes long enough to imagine what those choices are.






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