The Horror of War

by rthieme on March 16, 2002

tank7tharm3hbThe horror of war comes in many forms.

The more obvious horrors include picking up body parts as you dig through dust and rubble or trying to heal somehow the endlessness of grief or wanting to diminish the bitter rage that fuels a desire for revenge.

Everybody knows those horrors. It’s the more subtle horrors that take time to percolate through our denial. I love hiking in Zion National Park in Utah. One wonder of that sacred place is an oasis as green as any garden in the middle of a desert. The water that causes ferns and lilies to bloom on the rock walls of caves comes from rain that has percolated through a huge limestone plateau until it seeps out to make that oasis.

That’s a good metaphor for how unseen spirits percolate through our own desert spaces and emerge in blossoming gardens when least expected. But it’s also a metaphor of how things we don’t want to know percolate through our denial until they too emerge with a bitter taste of snot-green bile.

Living inside our justifications, we blur details that interfere with our vision of righteousness. People who have lived as minorities know that minorities must understand a dominant culture better than it understands itself because so much is at stake if they miss a cue. Minorities do not have the luxury of minimizing the truth, whereas members of dominant cultures can focus on their myths about themselves rather than their actual behaviors.

When you’re the eight hundred pound gorilla, it’s easier to judge yourself by your words or good intentions while judging the enemy – any enemy – by their actions.

I have watched my share of World War II movies. There is plenty of horror there, the death camps, the Battle of Stalingrad, the massacre of millions. But there are images too of more subtle horrors: Nazi officers enjoying themselves at dinner parties; parents strolling on warm Sunday afternoons with their children; members of the Gestapo dancing and laughing in nightclubs. While all the while the more obvious horrors go on around them.

Most of those people did what most of us do when there is danger in the air – they calculate quickly how to be safe, then live life as normally as possible, while around their fear-driven decisions the tall walls of “I don’t want to know” rise silently while they sleep.

I thought of this on a warm springlike Saturday afternoon that brought a lot of us outside. Children played in the park, parents walked behind strollers. That night we had a quiet dinner with friends. Those who went to synagogues churches or mosques that weekend no doubt prayed for the triumph of good and the overthrow of evil and asked God to keep them safe.

People everywhere in the world feel less safe since September 11th and one response is to increase surveillance, trust those in power, and spend money on weapons. That makes us feel safer.

During the Cold War, I posed the question, “How much of the world do we need to control to feel safe?”

I was looking at how we had spread ourselves around the world to the gates of the enemy. We needed the western hemisphere, of course, and we needed Europe, Africa and Asia to contain the Russians and Chinese. The entire southern hemisphere, in short, and the northern hemisphere to the border of the Warsaw Pact and west to China was what we needed. Once the Soviet Union and China were neutralized, we would almost have what we needed.

To really feel safe, we needed … all of it.

During the Cold War, any country or movement perceived as a threat to our interests which we defined as “our way of life” was a danger. That justified the use of any and all means to subvert, overthrow, or defeat that threat. The second half of the twentieth century is a record of two empires coming more and more to resemble one another in how they behaved on the world stage.

Those memories are the context for reflecting on the more subtle horrors of war that are seldom the subject of patriotic movies.

We become what we fight and justify what we do by projecting all of the horror onto “the other.”

Intentional forgetting is how our societal mind erases those images of ourselves in the eyes of “the other.” The management of perception and psychological operations are the cornerstones of war in the 21st century.

In the long term, only a fight for a better life for the wretched of the earth will generate security. The complexity of the issues before us will not be resolved by simplistic answers but that’s all we’ll get from what we call “the news,” those wrap-around seamless images of the righteousness of our cause.

When the President of the United States and the leaders of terrorist networks believe passionately that God has chosen them to achieve God’s will, I do not sleep more soundly.

Since the end of World War II, the momentum rolling like thunder through our battlecries confirm our commitment to do whatever is necessary to feel safe.

We must control all of it. Opposition is the enemy.

Still … there are disquieting moments when we see a different image of ourselves in the eyes of others than the one reinforced through repetition and consensual self-censorship. When that happens, we need to take a break … enjoy ourselves at a dinner party, go for a stroll on a warm afternoon with our children, go dancing in nightclubs. And, of course, pray … we must always pray for the triumph of good and the overthrow of evil.


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