These days war is rarely absent from the headlines, and to say so is no great insight. As for history, it comprises most of it. If you check carefully, after World War 2 the fighting never really stopped. What we see now is no more than another chapter in the long narrative, with a religious ideology replacing an economic one as our ever so useful and implacable enemy. The collapse of diplomacy, the preparations for hostilities, the actual fisticuffs and bloodletting itself, and the long clean up afterwards: ’tis a very familiar pattern. Whatever one’s analytical take, it’s obviously deeply embedded in our nature and practice of geopolitics. Will we ever graduate from the dualism of friend or foe to the monism of mankind? I would say yes, without doubt, but how long will it take? Until exhaustion sets in, until the appetite for destruction is finally whetted? Until the spirits of the astral plane are so obvious to us here that the illusion of departure is finally shattered?
Currently we are watching African and Middle East hotspots, where it appears religious sectarianism, with its built-in historical resentments, rivalries and deeply felt hatreds, is propelling the seemingly endless slaughter of civilians as well as combatants. This perception is modified by our increasing suspicions of the accuracy and truthfulness of our Western media conglomerates, and the knowledge, almost undeniable at this point, of the entrenched biases that its governing elites insist upon. We know we are subject to almost endless propaganda and the high tech surveillance which seems to be its inevitable companion. We know they obfuscate, exaggerate, lie by omission and commission, fiddle with the stats and analyses to configure the most useful media fodder, all the while feathering their nests with kick-backs and stock manipulations.
Centuries ago networks of paid informants chattered it up with the best of them in the coffee house, tavern and marketplace, trying to keep tabs on the tendencies and directions of dissent for the various factions in the ruling elites. Now they hang their hats in blandly typical offices, listening to what computer based analyses tell them is significant. One imagines some of them swallowing the state’s propaganda and others feeling guilty but darn glad to have a job. Very few of us, if any, want loony jihadists barely out of short pants getting a toehold anywhere in our hard won freedoms, but most of us are appalled, at least when we turn to investigate, at the high price we are paying for this supposed protection.
But ultimately, whether things have gotten completely out of hand as some insist, or are merely sliding inexorably in that direction, it’s all a functioning cog in the great wheel in what I would call our rage for war and death by honour, an attitude that’s as old as any hill you care to point to. To quote Chris Hedges, “war is a force which gives us meaning.” Its passionate frenzies permit its celebrants dance steps forbidden in times of peace and production. Whether we are bored with our humdrum daily lives in farm, village or town, excited or oppressed by some insistent ideology sprouting out of religion or jingoistic nationalism, or hypnotized by paranoid demagoguery, we are, and always have been, dupes of those who would harness our anxious insecurities to further their aims in the geopolitical power plays of the day.
Caesars, Pharaohs, Kings and Generals: all still in play. Navies, armies and air forces: soon to be replaced by drones and satellites? The rage for war: soon to be outmoded by a brotherhood of man which no longer recognizes differing ethnicities and religions? It’s coming but not next week, or the following one. And those of us who envision it, are we dreaming in colour, clueless in time? Some would say so, and how could we deny them? The evidence for them is all around: the ruthless slaughter of innocents continues apace on the spectrum from machete to drone. Whether the blood spatters on the face or is less than a blip on the screen, the absence of empathy is all too apparent. An absence always justified by the careful demonizing of the enemy at the gates, even if those gates are 20,000 miles distant. And who performs that demonizing? Our media, our politicians, and regrettably, some of our churches; all of them playing on our old, outdated fears and distrusts. Criticize those squeaky clean patriots and you’re a dirty traitor: such an easy play to pull out of the hat any old time. Much harder to deliberate outside of that knee jerk envelope.
Previously our lives were rough, diseased and dangerous, and we were easily bribed with tantalizing illusions of glorious improvements once the enemy was conquered. Now that our lives are relatively comfortable and safe, the trick is to convince us that our high standards are threatened by jealous fanatics bent on disturbing the ill-gotten gains our peace seems built on. You know, the old-empires-built-on-economic-slavery gig. As a critique it is accurate, but those righteous defenders of the will to exploit exist everywhere and everywhen, whether empire, republic, city state or client state, it is a fact of human nature not economic system. In reality we are all conscripts, generals and pharaohs alike, feeding the war machine and the myths it employs in its endless lust for profits. And the elephant in that room is that victory is not even necessary for profits. Stalemates are far better; recycle that ancient squabble. Let off some steam and turn another buck.
Of course, these industries of death have their origins in our very human rage for war and its death by honour medals. As English poet Philip Larkin intones, “Beneath it all desire of oblivion runs”. In that endless tug-of-war between Eros and Thanatos , the latter gains the upper hand in war as it “works toward the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves”, as Chris Hedges points out. Intriguingly, the religious always see a glorious paradise for the honourable fighter whereas the materialists and nihilists seem to crave oblivion. Going obe, as I do from time to time, one can meet up with both categories, each trying to match their new realities with their expectations. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s tragic. Like life I guess.
On our long, meandering way to the sovereignty of individualism and the transcendence which returns us to divine status, we begin as insecure nobodies dependent on the mass for inclusion and approval and our would-be leaders know this all too well, using it to enslave us in the expansion of their power and riches. Some of us, of course, graduating to more subtle goals and desires, have grown out of that particular need, and are left to watch, seemingly helplessly, as others, their feet seemingly glued to that lower rung of the ladder, flounder in its tenacious grip, convinced that ruthless slaughter will somehow resolve their intolerable situations. Or at least even up the numbers. We know that it won’t, but recognize that graduates cannot advise inductees, not really. We can, of course, act as compassionately and mercifully as our prophets advise, but we cannot learn their lessons for them. There are amongst us, naturally, some who would profit from their rage, paranoia, and crippling need for honour, and do so with impunity, gathering their millions as the archetype of the miser would bid them to do, but, alas we cannot learn their lessons for them either.
Our job is to know, and love, and forgive, for they know not what they do.