Vision, not plans, is what moves men. A desperate struggle in a back alley is not something for which we would imagine giving our lives, but a frantic fight for survival is maybe the most honest we can ever be in describing the taking of life. Dark, dirty, desperate… this is the truth of death.
Given this truth, why do we have war? Conflict may be an inevitable affliction of human nature but the systemized, nationalized sport that is modern warfare is insanity incarnated. How can we, as a species, witness the near-constant stream of murder and sacrifice that comprises war and simply accept it as an inevitable part of life? Because we are given visions. Bright, shiny things that–with the help of Mother Culture’s whisperings–we choose to believe not only justify the horror, but demand it.
Fight-or-Flight: The Truth of Death
I was once told a parable. A guru takes on a student who is desperate to learn the secrets of success. The guru tricks the student into wading deep into a river until the student’s head is barely above the water. The guru forces the student’s head under the water and manages to hold him there until the student has almost drowned. When the boy has recovered, the guru tells him ‘When you desire success as you desired air, you will be successful.’
My friends and I used to have a ‘Fight Club’ of sorts. A fight went on until someone passed out or tapped out. I was always very good at worming my way out of a variety of chokeholds but I was caught more than once. When your body registers that the fight you’re in has put your survival at stake, when you realize you’re in your opponent’s guard and he has you trapped, when his arm snakes around your neck and your vision begins to tunnel, you brain surpasses all higher thought functionalities and kicks on Survival Mode. Fight or flight? Your choices are limited, you are trapped. You have to fight, even if only to win the ability to flee.
Your mother’s fiance comes home drunk again and charges, fist cocked. You have less than a second to act, too little time to weigh options–in fact, too little time to think at all. You shove your sister behind you and the lights go dark.
When the moment comes, you fight the guru’s grip without considering what he’s trying to teach you. When the moment comes, you slip out of the choke not because you remember your teacher explaining how to do it but because you need air or you won’t survive. When the moment comes, you shove your sister behind you not because you’re thinking “She’s defenseless, he won’t stop until one of us is on the ground, I love her and it’s the right thing to do” but because on some base level you believe her life is worth more than your own.
This is not meant to belittle the accomplishments of soldiers, or to say that no one has ever died for freedom. Or liberty. Or democracy. It’s not to say that war is not addictive or that testosterone and bloodlust don’t sometimes drive men. The point I’m trying to make is that when the cards are on the table, you’re not thinking of your country, your traditions, or the ideals your culture upholds. You only think of survival. We train our soldiers to understand that survival is contingent on the annihilation of the enemy, but even that thought is something we spend weeks or months brainwashing into them. When rounds are flying inches above your face and shrapnel is flying through the air, you pass through fear into an emotionless void. You only do what you can do, what you have to do, to survive. Maybe you risk your life to save someone. Maybe you die protecting someone whose life you perceive as being worth more than your own. But you don’t weigh the pros and cons of such an action before you commit to it. When fight-or-flight is fully engaged, you lose the ability to do anything but act and react.
The Spoils of War
What about those of us back home when we get the knock at the door, when we get the phone call? When they roll the body bags in, when they lower coffins into the ground, are we thinking about justice? About honor, or freedom? We work very hard to trick ourselves into believing that we are. The reality is in that moment we’re feeling our bubble of perceived invincibility, the bubble we must reside in to be able to function without constant paranoia of death, burst. We aren’t invincible, we realize, no one is. And we feel the awful tearing of some bright piece of our life leaving forever. A friend, a relative, sucked into eternal abyss.
What do we gain from war? Not as a country, not as a society, but as individuals? Did your freedom or liberty increase as 90,065 people–over 73% of which were civilians– died in Iraq? (Numbers are from Wikileaks ‘Iraq War Logs’ cataloging the war from January, 2004 to December, 2009; for other numbers you can start here). Is your life more democratic now than it was before? Do you have more money in your pocket or more material possessions? Objectively speaking, did the common American gain anything positive from our most recent war?
The impacts of war for the majority of any society don’t aren’t pleasant. The only spoil we receive from modern warfare is the touch of death. Mothers, brothers, friends, all gone forever, and the knowledge that by virtue of your tax dollars you are now an accomplice in the ‘sacrifice’ of our troops and the murder of civilians as well as enemy combatants.
So Why Do We Have War?
If it weren’t for demagogues, all wars would end with the first round of casualties. When our illusions shattered and reality set in, both sides would do whatever needed to be done to reach a mutual agreement without bloodshed. Instead we let politicians and leaders lie to us, convince us of great, shiny ideals: Liberty, Freedom, Honor… People far removed from the desperate, dirty struggle, the emotionless void of reaction that is the fight for survival, convince us that these values (which are themselves illusions created from perceived value and selective observation) are not only concrete, real, but that they are worth dying for! Not worth the politicians themselves stepping on the battlefield, of course, but well worth the ‘willing’ and ‘noble’ sacrifices of the faceless masses. Our deaths.
Our blood provides the fuel for countless campaigns so our leaders can profit–whether directly or indirectly, personally or politically–all while wrapping coffins in the flag as if our nation was on the minds of our soldiers when they died.
At least when weapons were made of bronze, those who stood to gain from war were the only ones who could afford to participate–to put their lives on the line. Ironworking made the common man a soldier and we have laid our lives on the line for the profit of others ever since. In fact, we’ve been lied to for so long that these invented words, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, have become living things! We believe these ideals exist autonomously, and through the lens of our selective cultural memory any wake or funeral can be amended post-mortem to exemplify our commitment to uphold these ideals, rather than realizing the other truth: these lives are lost for nothing more than the profit of the few. Why remember my uncle as his drunk squadmate described him, whimpering and crying until he finally drowned on his own blood, when I can choose to forget the horrid reality and believe he died for freedom? And if he died for freedom, freedom must be worth dying for. And if freedom is worth dying for, then this war must continue! As must the next! And the next! We need more meat for the grinder.
Visions, not plans, are what move men. Pericles was spot on in his funeral oration propaganda. George Bush was right in invoking higher ideals in his speech. When faced with the inevitable brutality, fear, and desperation that truly comprises a battle to the death, we would all rather walk away and live another day. But we must crush Sparta! And we must have oil! So we will defend the cultural richness of Athens, we will defend democracy, we will hunt down the terrorists, and we will save the world from WMDs. We will fight, and we will die for honor, justice, and our nation.
We will let others lie to us and we will lie to others. We’ll lie so well we’ll trick ourselves into forgetting how war may benefit the rich or how freedom is relative within a hierarchical society. We’ll forget that humans invented war. As a society, as a species, we’ll forget the difference between conflict and war. Because some things are worth dying for, even by the millions. Because we’ve been given a fantastical vision. And at the end of the day these visions, not plans, are what move men.