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IF ONE ASPIRES TO ACHIEVE PEACE, ONE NEEDS TO KNOW WHY PEOPLE LOVE WAR

by Richard A. Koenigsberg

The paper presented here is adopted from a keynote address presented by Dr. Koenigsberg at the United World College of the American West.

When UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar realized that Saddam Hussein would not withdraw troops from Kuwait—and therefore that his nation would be subjected to a massive assault—he declared: "I cannot imagine that someone wants war for the pleasure of killing his own people." Although it is customary for national leaders to send soldiers into battle (where death occurs), this way of putting it makes us extremely uncomfortable. However, if we use slightly different language, our discomfort disappears. Let us say that it gave Hussein pleasure to discover—once the war had begun—that his people were honorable and virtuous—that they did not shirk their duty to die for Iraq.

I. INTRODUCTION

Two hundred fifty million people died in the 20th century as a result of political conflicts initiated by states. Journalists and historians record the slaughter. But do we really understand why it occurred? Why have societies brought into being forms of behavior that have generated and continue to generate monumental destruction?

Human beings create many things, for example, air conditioners. For those of us who do research on a hot summer day, we know that air conditioners are a wonderful invention. Warfare is also a human creation. This invention, however, does not produce positive or beneficial results, but only death, destruction and the maiming of human bodies.

Many of us have seen films portraying the chaos and horror of war. In the quiet of a movie theater—watching the depiction of battle—the thought runs through one’s mind: war is insane. Yet characterization of war as a form of insanity rarely appears in history books. Warfare is conceived as a normal dimension of civilization, however insane it may seem.

Saying that war is insane, however, doesn’t take us very far. The objective of this paper is to articulate the mindset that leads people to kill and die in the name of nations, ideologies and religions. What is the source of the human attraction to warfare? Why have human beings created such a destructive and self-destructive social institution? Why do people often believe that war is a necessary and good thing?

II: THE GOODNESS OF WARFARE

I have found it valuable to interrogate warfare within the framework of the concept of sacrifice. War is an ideology based on the idea that it is worthwhile to sacrifice human lives in the name of one’s nation and its sacred ideals.

Frank Sinatra sang, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Although this may no longer be true for love and marriage, it is for warfare and nation-states. The bad (violence and destruction) is intimately bound to the good (one’s beloved nation and its sacred ideals).

Hitler declared, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” Although Hitler is conceived as an exceptional case, this statement contains the essence of the thinking that generates war (and many other forms of collective violence). Most political leaders do not say this as clearly as Hitler, but if we substitute the name of any nation in place of “Germany,” Hitler’s statement makes sense: “We may engage in inhumane forms of behavior, but if we rescue our nation, we will have performed the greatest deed in the world.”

Warfare is undertaken under the assumption that one is acting to rescue a sacred, beloved object. Insofar as defending or rescuing the sacred object is conceived as the most important project in the world, any and all forms of behavior—however “inhumane”—are considered justified and justifiable.

“Peace movements” seek a world without war. These movements’ aspirations would not be difficult to achieve if everyone believed that war was a bad thing. However, many conceive of war as “necessary.”

If one aspires to achieve peace, the first and most fundamental question is: What logic contained within the ideology of warfare transforms an activity that produces bad things—death, the maiming of human bodies and destruction of the artifacts of civilization—into an activity that is conceived as necessary and good?

III. SADDAM HUSSEIN

The second American war against Iraq began in early 2003 without substantial negotiations. Before the first American war against Iraq, however—the Gulf War launched in 1991—extensive and strenuous diplomatic efforts were exerted before the United States attacked Iraq.

It was clear to many observers that a country of 23 million people with weak air defenses could not possibly withstand the assault of the greatest military power in the world. If Saddam Hussein did not withdraw his troops from Kuwait, the United States would attack—and Iraq would be devastated. Yet Hussein refused to back down.

When UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar realized that Saddam Hussein would not withdraw his troops from Kuwait—and therefore that his nation would be subjected to a massive assault—he declared: “I cannot imagine that someone wants war for the pleasure of killing his own people.”

We are not accustomed to hearing people use this kind of language in relationship to war. Although it is customary for leaders and nations to send soldiers into battle (where death occurs), I’ve never heard a leader say he was going into war because he enjoyed the fact that his own people would be killed. Saying it this way makes us feel uncomfortable.

However, if we use slightly different language, our discomfort disappears. Let’s put it this way: Leaders and nations wage war—and in the process often find it necessary to sacrifice the lives of their own people.

Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw from Kuwait and the United States initiated a massive attack. As everyone had anticipated, the Gulf War generated monumental death, destruction and suffering within Iraq. However, it does not appear that Hussein conceived of the Gulf War as a bad thing.

Looking back in his speech of January 17, 2000—on the “Ninth Anniversary of the Gulf War”—Hussein praised the Iraqi people for what they had endured. On a “day like today,” he said, evil-ridden humanity had “delegated you to act for it.” Your valiant army, he said, “responded to the call.” Hussein declared with pride that the battlefields had been anointed with the “fragrant blood of men and women believers.”

The value attached to what a man loves, Hussein explained to his people, is measured by the “sacrifices he renders to them.” The noble Iraqi people had fought and sacrificed “all that is dear and precious.” They had shed their blood seeking the love of God in “hope to win His satisfaction.”

It is clear that Saddam Hussein did experience pleasure when reflecting upon the death of his people in the Gulf War. We still hesitate to say that he waged war for the pleasure of killing his people. So let us say that Hussein was happy to discover—once the war had begun—that his people did not shirk their duty to sacrifice their lives—to die—for Iraq. His people had demonstrated that they were honorable and noble by virtue of the fact that they had died for their country.

IV. WARFARE AS PROOF OF DEVOTION

The belief that sacrificial death is noble or honorable transforms the destructiveness of war into a virtue. Perhaps the most famous statement in the history of Western warfare is a phrase from the Roman poet Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” What does it mean to say that dying for one’s country is “sweet and fitting”?

Soldiers who die on the battlefield are idealized and memorialized by their countries. A veteran of the Second World War—speaking on July 4, 2001—stated that “the ultimate hero is the dead soldier.” The dead soldier is a hero because he has sacrificed his life for his country.

Perhaps death in battle is conceived as “sweet and fitting”—a good thing—because the act of dying in warfare constitutes a demonstration that the soldier loves his nation. Dying for one’s country represents the supreme act of devotion—the apogee of love.

In the case of Islamic radicals, willingness to die for a sacred ideal is called martyrdom. Jonah Winters explains (1997) that the Arabic word shahid provides the meaning of the term martyr, which means “witness” or “testimony.” The martyr gives witness to the sincerity of his belief by virtue of his willingness to die and kill for it.

In the West, people do not believe that sacrificial death or martyrdom is the purpose of political violence. Rather, we assume that societies engage in activities such as warfare in order to achieve real objectives, e.g., self-defense, the acquisition of territory, economic gain, etc. We do not conceive of martyrdom or sacrificial death as the purpose of war.

Ali Benhadj, on the other hand—leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front—proposes that slaughter and death are political activities or goals that should be pursued for their own sake. If a faith or belief is not “watered and irrigated by blood,” he writes, it “does not grow; does not live.” Principles, he says, must be reinforced by “sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah.”

According to this conception of radical Islam, martyrdom and sacrificial death are ends in themselves—apart from any political objectives the group may seek to attain through their violent actions. The purpose of martyrdom or sacrificial death is to substantiate the truth or reality of one’s ideology by giving witness to one’s sincerity and the depth of one’s devotion.

Franco Fornari argues (1979) that the ideas for which we die must be true “because death becomes a demonstrative process.” Warfare allows a society to put its money where its mouth is. Willingness to sacrifice one’s life represents proof of devotion. Dying is represented as good and noble because it occurs in the name of one’s nation and its sacred ideals.

A young Iranian revolutionary interviewed in the 1980s stated that the blood shed by Iranian martyrs was like the water of an irrigation canal that “gives life to crops.” By virtue of the blood shed by martyrs, the “religion will grow.” This relationship between blood sacrifice and the authentication of religious beliefs is not difficult to understand. Does a similar mechanism lie at the heart of Western warfare?

In Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), Carolyn Marvin theorizes that what is really true in any society is what is “worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.” At the behest of the group, Marvin says, the “lifeblood of community members is periodically shed” through the enactment of a ritual called “war.” According to Marvin, “blood sacrifice creates the nation.”

During the First World War (1914-1918) young men on the Western front representing the nations of France, Great Britain and Germany were required to get out of trenches and try to break through the opposing line. Men in trenches on the opposing side were waiting. They slaughtered the oncoming troops with machine gun fire and artillery shells. Nine million men were killed in the First World War and twenty one million injured.

Many political leaders of the time glorified the soldiers’ sacrifices. P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, declared that the first two years of the war had been the most “glorious in the history of Europe.” Heroism, he said, had come back to the earth. Such “august homage,” Pearse gushed, was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives “given gladly for love of country.”

People claim to be astonished by contemporary terrorists who blow themselves up in the process of attempting to kill their enemies. Yet Westerners barely reflect upon their own suicidal political rituals, for example the First World War. The vast casualties that occurred during that war were the result of millions of men acting precisely like terrorists: allowing their bodies to be blown to bits as they attempted to blow up the bodies of their enemies.

V. DEVELOPMENT OF A COUNTER-SACRIFICIAL CULTURE

For 26 years—from the end of the Vietnam War up to September 11, 2001—people in the United States became less enamored by the idea of sacrificial death for a cause. The televised return of dead soldiers in body bags during the Vietnam War caused the reality of what happens in battle to sink in. Americans began to abandon a romantic conception of warfare.

By the mid-1990s, the United States had evolved what I call a “counter-sacrificial culture.” Americans no longer believed that there was anything worth killing or dying for. Military scholars wrote on the policy of “casualty aversion” (see Hyde, 2000 and Townsend, 2000). Prior to 911, it seemed that the United States was unwilling to send troops into battle if there was a possibility that even a few soldiers might be killed.

Jacob Weisberg noted in his October 1994 article in Newsweek—while the invasion of Haiti was being considered—that only about 400 U.S. soldiers had been killed in action in the 20 years since the end of the Vietnam War. Serving in the armed forces was a relatively safe job: driving a truck was three times riskier than being in the military; driving a taxi six times.

On the eve of an invasion that did not happen, Richard Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and said that Haiti was “not worth American lives.” Senator John Glenn stated that the case for intervention could not pass the “Dover Test”—the televised return of body bags from Port-au-Prince to the Air Force base in Dover, Delaware.

Writing in the New York Times on July 16, 1995, Roger Cohen suggested that unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia spelled the “death of Western honor.” Eric Gans noted on June 26, 1999, that the model of heroism constituted by the sacrifice of the individual life for the sake of the collective was “rapidly losing its viability.”

Many political observers trace the American policy of casualty aversion to what occurred in Mogadishu in October 1993 when the United States withdrew from Somalia after 19 American soldiers were killed in battle. Bin Laden was aware of what had occurred and wrote about this event in his 1996 Declaration of War against the Americans.

He taunted Defense Secretary William Perry, calling Somalia the United States’ “most disgraceful case.” After American propaganda about her power, Bin Laden wrote, one pilot was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and the United States left the area, carrying “disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you.”

Clinton’s threats, Bin Laden said, were merely a “preparation for withdrawal.” Bin Laden concluded by addressing the United States with a statement widely quoted by commentators and politicians—among them George Bush—in the aftermath of 911: “You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear.”

Mark Bowden (in Atlantic Monthly, 2002) wrote about Saddam Hussein’s plans for the 1991 Gulf War. Several weeks before the American offensive, Hussein proposed to his generals that Iraq would capture U.S. soldiers, tie them to Iraqi tanks and use them as human shields. Hussein claimed triumphantly, “The Americans will never fire on their own soldiers,” as if such squeamishness was a fatal flaw. He insisted to his Generals: “Our forces will put up more of a fight than you think.”

There would be many casualties on both sides. However, Hussein said, “only we are willing to accept casualties; Americans are not.” He concluded: “The American people are weak. They will not accept the loss of large numbers of their soldiers.” Saddam Hussein equated political weakness with a nation’s unwillingness to sacrifice its soldiers. He felt that he and his people were superior: Iraqis were willing to sacrifice lives for their nation, whereas Americans were not.

In his Inaugural Address (January 20, 1961), John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In subsequent years—prior to September 11—politicians rarely asked the American people to embrace sacrifice. The United States evolved into a nation focused upon personal gratification and material gain. Christopher Lasch’s book published in 1979, The Culture of Narcissism, identified this cultural trend.

In his 1996 declaration of war, Bin Laden said of his followers: “These youths love death as you love life.” He explained that his youths are “different from your soldiers.” Your problem, Bin Laden said, will be how to “convince your troops to fight” while our problem will be how to “restrain our youths to wait for their turn in fighting.”

Bin Laden, like Saddam Hussein, felt that his people were superior to Americansbecause his young followers were willing to die for a cause, whereas young Americans were weak: unwilling to sacrifice their lives. From Bin Laden’s perspective, American culture was inferior  because its people possessed no sacred ideals for which they were willing to die or kill.

VI. “WE’RE NOT IN MOGADISHU ANYMORE”

The United States attacked Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. In light of the policy of casualty aversion that had dominated the United States for ten years, a question arose in the minds of commentators. What would happen when American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan? Would the United States retreat? Would Americans turn against the war when dead soldiers began returning in body bags?

Charles Krauthammer’s column of January 18, 2002, was entitled, “Can America Take Casualties?” Citing Bin Laden’s assertion that the US had left Mogadishu humiliated and defeated, Krauthammer suggested that Bin Laden believed he had set a trap in Afghanistan, calculating that Americans would arrive in force, take a few casualties and then flee.

Krauthammer declared that Bin Laden had it wrong: The war on terror was different. When attacked or engaged in an “existential struggle,” America is not only fierce, “it is stoic.” The columnist concluded that no one should underestimate “America’s capacity to sustain casualties in such wars.”

A column by Ben Shapiro appeared on April 9, 2003—after the Iraq war had begun on March 18—with the headline, “We’re not in Mogadishu anymore, Toto.” Shapiro insisted that not only would America take casualties in order to achieve their mission, but that it would overcome its reluctance to  inflicting civilian casualties.

American foreign policy during the 1990s had been dominated by the desire to avoid American military casualties as well as civilian casualties. Because of this policy, Shapiro suggested, the first President Bush & Bill Clinton never got the United States deeply involved in any military conflict. This pattern, Shapiro claims, led Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden to peg the US as a “weak horse.”

The early stages of the Iraq War, Shapiro says, were characterized by a high regard for civilians. April 7, 2003, represented a turning point: the US military learned that Saddam Hussein and senior officials were meeting beneath a restaurant in a commercial block in Baghdad. An Air Force bomber dropped four satellite-guided one-ton bombs— leaving a crater 60 feet deep, flattening the restaurant and three nearby houses, and killing 14 civilians.

The Washington Times wrote that Saddam Hussein may have picked the meeting spot precisely because Americans had stated that their objective was to avoid civilian casualties. Hussein did not believe the United States would bomb a commercial block. Columnist Ben Shapiro exulted: “Saddam didn’t realize: the Mogadishu days are over.”

A few days later, another incident confirmed this strategic change. From the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, Iraqi snipers fired small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on an incoming United States tank. The tank targeted the hotel, the base of operations for most international journalists, firing one round and hitting the 15th floor, which housed the Reuters news agency. Two journalists were killed and another three wounded.

Army Col. David Perkins told media that the military regretted the incident, but blamed Saddam Hussein’s forces for militarizing civilian areas. Shapiro wote that the attack on the Palestine Hotel sent a message to enemies of the United States: They could no longer find safety by hiding behind civilians—even journalists.

Shapiro concluded that the United States had achieved an important step in the war against terror: “Overcoming our aversion to civilian casualties in order achieve victory.” The attacks, Shapiro says, pushed our military policy in a new direction, “away from Mogadishu.”

References to Bin Laden’s statements about the abrupt withdrawal of American forces from Mogadishu appeared again and again in the writings of columnists during the first years of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. They frequently cited Bin Laden’s assertion that the withdrawal of the United States from Somalia proved America was weak and cowardly.

These columns by Krauthammer and Shapiro—along with many like them—insisted that America had overcome its “Mogadishu syndrome.” No longer would the United States be afraid to suffer casualties, nor hesitate to inflict casualties. Never again would America enter a battle and then “cut and run.”

After September 11, the United States abandoned its policy of casualty aversion and reaffirmed the ideology of warfare. Attacking both Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush insisted that America would return to her true character—that of a courageous, heroic people willing to wage war in the name of a just cause. Just as Middle Eastern warriors were killing and dying for Allah, so young Americans would sacrifice their lives in the name of freedom and democracy.

VII. VIOLENCE AS SACRED DUTY

On September 7, 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited progress on the global war on terror. He expressed sympathy about the rising number of American military deaths, but warned that enemies of the United States should not underestimate the willingness of the American people to “suffer casualties in Iraq and elsewhere.”

Rumsfeld told reporters that American progress on the war on terror had prompted a backlash from those who hoped at some point that the United States might conclude that the pain and cost of fighting wasn’t worth it. Rumsfeld declared: “Our enemies have underestimated our country. They have failed to understand the character of our people.”

President George Bush spoke in similar terms about the character of the American people and their willingness to sacrifice. He declared immediately after the September 11 attacks that the “resolve of our great nation is being tested.” But make no mistake, the President said, we will “show the world that we will pass this test.”

In his speech of May 8, 2004, Bush stated that not so long ago some had expressed doubt about the American character and the capacity of the United States to “meet a challenge.” Americans, he said, had given their answer: “I have seen the unselfish courage of our troops. I have seen the heroism of Americans in the face of danger.”

On September 5, 2006, President Bush cited Bin Laden’s Mogadishu statement and responded directly to his provocative remarks about America’s lack of courage. Bin Laden and his allies, the President said, are absolutely convinced that they can succeed in “forcing America to retreat—and cause our economic collapse.” Responding to the belief that the United States was “weak and decadent and lacking in patience and resolve,” President Bush stated simply, “They’re wrong.”

By engaging the enemy in battle, the United States would prove that its people possessed courage, strength and willpower. By fighting on in the face of casualties—refusing to “cut and run”—America would show that it was not weak.

Acts of violence are undertaken by societal groups in order to defend and promote their sacred ideals. Bin Laden, for example, initiated acts of terror in the name of Islam and Allah. Citing the Quran, Bin Laden told his disciples that even if they did not like killing and fighting, nevertheless: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But is possible that ye dislike a thing, which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you.” Even if one disliked fighting, one was obligated to wage war against infidels for the sake of Allah.

Bin Laden felt that he had no choice but to act as he did. “Our life on this planet,” he declared, would be meaningless if we did not “worship the God of the Ancient House.” In a similar vein, George Bush proclaimed on August 21, 2006: “We will complete the mission in Iraq. If we ever give up the desire to help people to live in freedom, we will have lost our soul as a nation.”

John Lennon asked us to “Imagine there’s no country:” to conceive of a world in which there was “nothing to kill or die for.” Apparently, many people cannot bear the idea of such a world: they fear that life would be meaningless—that they would lose their soul.

VIII: KILLING FOR FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY

On November 6, 2003, President Bush stated that the advance of freedom is the “calling of our time; the calling of our country.” He proclaimed that liberty is the design of nature and the “direction of history.” The freedom that Americans prize, Bush said, is not for us alone; it is the “right and capacity of all mankind.”

I witnessed a CNN television interview with Condoleezza Rice during Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon. While the interview was being conducted, video footage in the background showed collapsed buildings and dead bodies, refugees wandering in the desert, etc. The interviewer asked Rice—in light of the devastation that we viewers were seeing—”What has happened to United States foreign policy in the Middle East?”

Rice responded: “I believe that the current US policy in the Middle East is the best that we have ever had.” I was taken aback by Rice’s words and moved closer to the television screen to observe her facial expressions. My first reaction was, yes, she is uttering these words with complete sincerity. My second thought was: “What could she possibly be thinking?”

What was the basis of Rice’s belief that—in spite of the carnage in Iraq and Lebanon—United States policy in the Middle East was the best ever? A speech presented by Rice at a Southern Baptist convention on June 14, 2006, reveals the logic underlying her support of warfare.

Rice stated that “we in the United States are blessed with lives of tremendous liberty.” America, she said, “embodies but does not own these liberties.” The United States of America, Rice proclaimed, “stands for ideals that are greater than ourselves.” We go into the world, she said, “not to plunder but to protect, not to subjugate but to liberate, not as masters of others but as servants of freedom.”

Rice addressed her audience: “So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the choice before our country, before us as Americans. Will we lead in the world or will we withdraw? Will we rise to the challenges of our time or shrink from them?” The United States, she said, is a nation of “great compassion and conscience and democratic principle.” We must ask ourselves: “If not for America, who would rally other nations to the international defense of liberty?” What grandiose ideals support Rice’s advocacy of warfare!

How may we understand  Rice’s endorsement and support of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon? The United States was engaged in a world-wide war against terrorists who, according to the Bush administration, were people whose fundamental objective was to destroy freedom and democracy. George Bush continually asserted that terrorists were motivated by their “hatred of freedom.”

The Bush administration’s ideology claimed that destroying terrorism and promoting freedom and democracy go hand-in-hand. The purpose of bombing was to remove a terrorist group, Hezbollah, from within Lebanon, thereby “clearing the ground:” removing evil in order to make space for goodness. According to this logic, once terrorists were removed from Lebanon’s territory, the seeds of freedom and democracy (which had already been planted) would have an opportunity to grow.

Condoleezza Rice concluded her speech by asserting that if America does not “serve great purposes”—does not rally other nations to “fight intolerance, defend freedom and give hope to those who suffer oppression”—then our world will “drift toward tragedy.” We have no reason to believe that Rice was not sincere as she uttered these words—that evoke a sense of goodness, kindness and charity.

According to the ideology of Rice, then, warfare is the flip side of the coing of promoting freedom and democracy. In the name of freedom and democracy, killing is necessary—and people will have to die. In defending and supporting war, Rice does not believe she is supporting a bad thing. On the contrary, Rice embraces war—slaughter—in the name of goodness and virtue.

IX: AMERICANS TOO POSSESS IDEALS FOR WHICH
THEY ARE WILLING TO KILL AND DIE

Bin Laden and other Middle Eastern radicals often made statements along the lines of, “We love death the way you Americans love life.” Statements like this convey the idea that Muslim culture is superior to American culture because their people possessed sacred values for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, whereas Americans—bogged down in the corrupt, material world—did not.

September 11 provided Americans with the opportunity to prove Bin Laden wrong. George Bush declared in late 2001 that since September 11 an entire generation of young Americans had gained new understanding of the value of freedom and its “cost and duty and its sacrifice.” Out of evil, good would come as youngsters suddenly “understood the definition of sacrifice.”

On Nov. 6, 2003, President Bush stated that the success of freedom rested upon the courage of free peoples and their “willingness to sacrifice.” Americans had on many occasions amply displayed their willingness to “sacrifice for liberty.” The sacrifices of Americans, Bush said, had not always been recognized or appreciated, yet have been “worthwhile.” Acknowledging that the struggle in Iraq was a massive, difficult undertaking, he insisted that the war is “worth our sacrifice” because freedom is “worth fighting for and dying for.”

The intensity and scope of the American government’s reaction to September 11—its determination to wage war ferociously and to persist in fighting—represented a response to the gauntlet thrown down by Bin Laden.

X: WARFARE AS SACRIFICE

In 1984, I saw a movie about the Battle of Port Arthur that took place during the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The movie depicts endless carnage. Japanese soldiers get out of trenches in battle after battle, run toward Russian trenches—and are mowed down by machine gun fire. Tens –of thousands of Japanese soldiers were slaughtered in this war.

I was horrified and aghast as I watched. What was going on? Why did Japanese leaders so readily send their soldiers to be massacred in battle? Five years later, I learned that an identical battle strategy was used by the French, British, Germans and Russians in the First World War—resulting in far greater carnage.

For the four years of 1914-1918, most of the nations of the world were embroiled in this futile struggle. On every front, the military strategy of “offensive at all costs” was employed. Young men were required to get out of trenches en masse and move toward enemy trenches—where they were cut down by machine gun fire and artillery shells.

Based on my research on the First World War, I began using words like “strange” and “weird” to characterize the phenomenon of warfare. I was surprised—not only by the extraordinarily destructive battle strategies and mass killing that characterized the war—but also by how casually events are written about. What occurred during the First World War was extraordinary, yet historians do not write as if anything extraordinary had taken place.

Gradually, I realized that historians were unable to explain what had happened during the First World War. They could not account for the massive carnage; nor could they tell us why nations and their leaders persisted in employing a battle-strategy that was futile and self-destructive. After four years of fighting, little had changed from a political or military point of view.

The great weakness of Western thought is its assumption of rationality. In spite of 100 years of Freud, political scientists and historians still imagine that people do things for “real” reasons. People have yet to grasp the irrational or unconscious sources of behavior.

In the movie about the Russo-Japanese war, the Japanese General receives a note from a courier in the midst of his conversation with the Emperor. The General bows to the Emperor and begins weeping profusely. The Emperor puts his hands on the General’s head to console him and asks, “What is it? What has happened?” Continuing to bow and weep, the General says, “My first son has been killed. Very gratifying! It’s an honor for a soldier to die in battle. Very gratifying!”

When Saddam Hussein learned of the death of his two sons, Uday and Qusay—killed by US forces on July 29, 2004—he declared to his people:

“I bring you the glad tidings, the honorable news, which is the wish of every sincere citizen. We thank Allah for honoring us with their martyrdom. We sacrifice lives and money for the sake of Allah, Iraq and our nation. If Saddam Hussein had 100 sons other than Uday and Qusay, he would have offered them on the same path.”

The ideology of warfare revolves around sacrificing human beings for the sake of a society’s sacred ideals, e.g., a nation, God, ideology or Emperor. Societies wage war for these entities, which are conceived as greater or more significant than life itself. In the name of these ideas and entities, people are willing to die and to kill.

Later in the movie, the Japanese General tries to motivate his troops out of their trenches to face Russian machine guns. They are trembling—knowing that their charge will be unsuccessful and that most likely they will be blown to bits. The General comforts them, explaining,”Success is not the purpose. The purpose is to risk your life for your country.”

The history of war is the one of destruction and self-destruction. If we look at war through the lens of rationality, it makes no sense. It seems to be a form of insanity. Billions of dollars are spent, hundreds of thousands of lives are lost and nothing is gained. War seems like a “tale told by an idiot.”

But war does signify something. Perhaps the Japanese General had it right. The purpose of war is not to achieve some definable goal, but precisely to risk—to sacrifice—one’s life for one’s country. People wage war in order to demonstrate that they are devoted to their society’s sacred ideals. Warfare is undertaken to prove that one is faithful to a beloved object.