Any glance at the daily media easily attests to how attached humanity is to the use of violence to solve our problems. This is obvious in the global setting, but it is also true in our own societies; on our streets and even in our homes. Every day, someone is maiming, killing, or doing serious harm to someone else. It it so prevalent as to seem part of our very nature.
I aspire to be a good Buddhist when it comes to this stuff. I do a lot of meditating, and I am intimately familiar with how anger works in the mind, because for a long time I was an angry, cynical individual. Collective violence is a macrocosm of the individual, angry state of mind. The intelligent, educated, and skilled orators are expert at finding clever ways to mask the raw anger beneath ideas and polices that require violent action to see them through.
It is easy to lend support to actions that result in death of innocents when you do so from the extreme comfort far, far away from those who suffer for the violent policies you advocate. It is easy to wax polemic in ways that perpetuate deadly exchanges between enemies when done passionately at quaint dinner parties in suburbia or in heated exchanges on university campuses.
I am not a pacifist. Not exactly, at least. I don’t believe the world’s conflicts are always solved with group hugs. I studied war history in graduate school. My take on violence, in general, is this: if someone is coming at you with an axe, then your efforts to spare your life, by taking the attacker’s life if need be, are rightly viewed as necessary. This goes for when someone is pointing a gun at you with the intent to shoot.
I am an ardent supporter of the men and women who serve in our nation’s armed forces. This is not to say I agree with militarism, but I do believe there’s nothing more noble than to volunteer to serve your country without questions asked. These brave souls have made a career of training and sacrificing to defend their country and people, at risk of death. Given that, there’s a responsibility to see to it their lives and their skills are not unnecessarily employed in ways that dishonour the noble intentions compelling them to sign up.
There are some who claim to be “pro-military” but spend much of their rhetorical and political currency trying to spur politicians into armed interventions for dubious foreign policy aims. In this they cheapen a soldier’s life, as well as the lives of those living in the places they intend to do battle. They also place soldiers in the unenviable position of being the muscle to enact policies that dishonour the integrity in their decision to enlist. It is difficult to read the stories of former soldiers who are ashamed of their service because of the excesses they witnessed among their colleagues who were war-stricken and fearful. We should never have put them in that position. Ever.
Men in suits – politicians, the policy wonks – seem to have no qualms about using soldiers as pawns for their own global pet projects. In so doing, they are advocating killing, and dispatching proxies to do their bidding for them. Worse, they are flouting the responsibility to employ the armed forces in a way that prevents their death – that is, by not sending them where they don’t belong.
Any person who has studied military history knows that armies are made to fight ugly battles in the context of chaos and the constancy of death. They are not purpose-built to “nation-build” or “promote democracy” as many pundits, both left and right, seem to believe. To suggest armies are rightly used for these aims is to espouse delusion.
For example, the US mission in Iraq was doomed to fail, not because Saddam Hussein was a stellar leader, but because there isn’t a single example in the history of human kind where a war caused an instant, positive political shift in the circumstances of the polity left to endure its consequences. Clausewitz, be damned.
In the past, we weren’t as naïve or stupid enough to fight our battles for such nebulous purposes. Prior to the 20th century, militaries were used for nation-building, indeed: imperialism, colonialism, revanchism, and outright plunder for economic aims – to benefit the nations who dispatched their armies. For God and Country they went. This seemed worth the soldier deaths at risk, and there was little care for the “civilians” killed in far-flung lands.
We used armies for craven ends because, well, armies were, and still are, made of soldiers armed and trained to kill. When they weren’t fighting battles in the fields – where it was soldier against soldier with civilians watching unharmed on the sidelines – their more dubious missions seemed like reasonably good uses for armies at the time.
In the early 20th century the League of Nations and then the United Nations were created. It was a codification of a collective international belief that the old aims for dispatching armies were illegitimate in a world made of sovereign nations. The mutually suicidal, nihilistic reality fashioned by the possession of huge nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Cold War also helped keep the lid on military adventures of the old kind.
But today there are a bunch of baby boomers who grew up in the most prosperous epoch in human history. They never personally experienced the horrors of living in a state of total war like their parents. Since colonialism and imperialism were rendered illegitimate causes for dispatching armies, new ideas to fudge the rules were needed. So the lofty aim of “spreading democracy” became the stand-in for “imperialism.” Military interventions to “topple ruthless dictators” became the pseudonym for colonialism.
We don’t have to go back to the misguided revolutionary republican idealism of Napoleon Bonaparte to gain insights into how stupid and impractical using violent means to spread such political ideals is. Hey, I love democracy too. It’s just that, well, you can’t really craft one with the explosive power of tanks, surface to air missiles, and strategic bombing sorties. These are just antiseptic ways to gloss over repeated instances of killing people, which isn’t the best underpinnings for an ethically robust political order.
We needn’t go so far back in human history to make the point. Every single US military intervention from Vietnam onward – direct or by proxy – was grossly unsuccessful in achieving their objectives. The adventures failed to achieve the dubious, illegitimate aims of installing stable, if fascist, US-supporting regimes as much as the well-intentioned ones of toppling unco-operative dictatorships.
Only the first Gulf War was successful, but it was a UN-sanctioned intervention to defend a powerless nation against unprovoked attack. It was successful precisely because its objectives were limited and strictly military in nature: pushing the invading army back to its own agreed-upon international borders. That success should have taught us something lasting about fighting wars in the future.
Aside from unrealistic military objectives, the poor long-term success of many interventionist wars betrays a terrible lack of wisdom their theoretical adherents share. Humans, being what they are, tend to prefer internal machinations to combat the skullduggery of home-grown tyrants among them. Prolonging the misery for a home-grown plan is always better than a more immediate solution imposed by an outside force. It’s not hard at all to imagine how Iraqis or Afghanis would be mistrusting of a bunch of exotic soldiers parachuting in after having blown their country to pieces and saying they’re there for “goodness.”
I feel for modern generals. They have the most thankless job of all the senior bureaucrats in a democracy. They’re expected to prepare for and succeed in the most politically controversial adventures their political masters can fabricate. In my country, they must do so on a limited budget, with aging equipment and insufficient supports to help those who are charged to fight those battles cope with the traumas they face in theatre; situations that are unlike any their fellow citizens could even imagine.
Their noble sacrifice in signing up to serve is dishonored as they are dispatched like mercenaries and left to suffer alone the psychological scars of the horrifying experiences. Think of the massive perceptual shift asked of a soldier raised in Canada, Belgium, or Australia who is dispatched to a place like Afghanistan where they are engaging people like the Taliban who believe in a pre-medieval global order and cheapen human life as such.
All of us have a cousin, friend, or loved one who serves. It maddens me to think they’d be sent off to die or to suffer the psychological torment of having taken lives – all for sake of some political agenda with a very limited chance of success in the end. Secretly, I bet most generals take the same position as me, the pussy-footed Buddhist, when it comes to the utility of the armed forces: fight battles that are vital to your actual survival and no more.
The mission in Iraq, and others like it in the decades before, put soldiers who believed they were doing something noble into the unenviable position of being perceived as thugs and plunderers in the countries they were dispatched to occupy. Yet I will say those who have died in such missions have not done so in vain. They died trying to serve their country. That willingness to sacrifice gave their life more meaning than any citizen could hope to achieve.
The blood of the soldiers’ deaths is on the hands of those who sent them to battle without fully appreciating the realities of what is involved in such a mission. They sent people to kill and be killed for objectives that they should have known would not succeed.
The sad reality is, this true of nearly every decision to employ lethal violence to solve our problems. They do not work, even if we dearly wish to cling to the belief they do. The argument against killing is as much moral as it is practical, which is surely no coincidence, but an axiom which makes most decisions to employ violence for political aims reckless and inhumane.
The moment one has to start getting into rationalizations of why the killing of innocents is an unpleasant consequence of “necessary” violent actions, one leaps into an ethical abyss. Any human being who claims moral high ground from whatever pulpit they happen to stand upon, but then speaks from there to extol lethal actions to make amends, or to advance some specious doctrine or other is engaged in something reprehensible. Any demagogue who claims killing “infidels” or “occupiers” is a worthy pursuit – for God, for justice, or other alleged grievances is a fraud. Anyone who can ramble off their coffee-shop diatribes about the justifiability of actions that inevitably kill innocents is being a fool.
Those who see virtue in violence to effect lasting political change prey on the total, absolute, collective ignorance to the realities of what is involved in such actions. And in large part, they succeed. Shame on all who allow it, for lacking a sense of history and humanity that, if heeded, would easily compel our thinking to change. Shame on us for our lack of imagination, for our inability to come up with solutions to human problems that do not constantly entail the death of children and innocents in the achievement.
Worst of all, our addiction to violent solutions perpetuates the idea that killing for a notion, an artifact of a delusional mind, is a legitimate intention for a sentient human being to possess. It never is. I’d like to see any man try to convince a child otherwise.
To borrow from Robert Graves, our use of violence too often requires us to “spell away the soldiers and the fright” in our minds when it comes to armed warfare. It’s the way we’ve made it a palatable solution in our minds. I wish we’d take greater pause after counting the dead, and commit to sacrificing no more lives in violent actions that so not work and demean our humanity.