December 13th, 2007 02:05 EST
200 years ago, if someone told you slavery Will end, you would laugh
200 years ago, if you had walked into a room and said people alive that day would see the end of slavery, you would have been laughed at.
In 1807, few actively opposed slavery. Many Americans agreed slavery was distasteful, even unfair, but nonetheless, owning people was regarded as a necessary fact of modern life. Some may have gone so far as to say that a utopia without slavery would be a good thing, but few could imagine an America in which owning a human being was against the law.
A generation and a half later, it was just that.
Over the decades before the civil war, opinions hardened, and some grew to despise slavery, while others vehemently embraced it. But as war approached, many Americans continued to believe that, whatever your moral misgivings, the economy depended on slavery. If you thought otherwise, you were regarded as soft in the head.
Now back in 2003, when President Bush gave his famous “Saddam has 24 hours to get out of town” speech, Americans were the audience. Bush wanted America’s blessing for his war plan, and he got it. Many Americans had misgivings about invading Iraq, but we went along with our President anyway. As Bush continued drumming up support, most of us realized he was lying or exaggerating about weapons of mass destruction. We understood that he was reckless, but he won our support.
Because we believed Bush’s war on terror, with all its deficiencies, collateral damage and civilian deaths, was an unpleasant necessity of modern life. We accept war. We accept that sending our young people to foreign shores to engage an uncertain enemy, is as inevitable as paying taxes. In this age of instant worldwide communication, in which interaction between governments can be precise and clear, we still believe problems are solved by shooting.
Let’s try to understand war for what it really is. Let’s bring it home. On the eve of Bush’s pre-invasion speech, we should have asked ourselves: “Even if my country was ruled by a brutal dictator, if soldiers from another country appeared with guns and bombs to liberate me, would I be pleased?” And then, let’s assume that after bloody battles and destruction, the dictator was gone. Would I then say to the liberators, “You’ve bombed our civic structures, locked up our men on the slightest whim, unleashed the most repressive forces in our society, so I’m ready do what you say.”
Come on. We all know that if some armed nation appeared on our shores to give us a lesson in good government, we’d run them out of town. We’d do so even if our leader had been brutal. We know that, that whatever good these invaders are doing, they’re still shooting at us.
That’s not fair, you say. We only shoot Iraqis if they do something wrong. But really, America’s long-term military occupation, the curfews and arrests without explanation, sets the bar for “wrong” pretty high, don’t you think? In all fairness, we must ask ourselves, “What would we do if someone landed here and did that to us?” You might respond that those curfews are “for the Iraqis’ own good.” But if a world power landed on our shores and instituted curfews for our own good, we’d send them packing.
Deep down, we all realize it’s absurd to expect Iraq to be pleased with the mess we’ve made of their country. But yet, as Iraqi deaths mount, as once-thriving neighborhoods become cemeteries, we refuse to come to grips with the destruction we’ve caused. That’s because we accept war. We are slow to understand that the institution of war itself, is the problem.
We’re told that people against war are out of touch with reality. Peacenicks have their heads in the clouds, the story goes. They don’t understand that the world is brutal. But think for a moment. A military force lands in an urban area, starts blowing up civic structures, shoots and bombs people and create general upheaval, and yet, we expect that nation to greet the invaders warmly and appreciate the effort? That sounds very unrealistic. How could we have been surprised at America’s unpopularity after the invasion?
Of course, when the situation in Iraq deteriorated, analysts gave the war a hard look, and concluded we didn’t try hard enough to win hearts and minds. They said we shouldn’t have banished all the Bathists, and we should have put more effort into understanding Iraq society. But these assessments are beside the point. The problem is believing you can invade a nation and make people cooperate. The problem is believing that because you are bigger and have more guns, people will do what you say If someone invaded America, would we “cooperate?” We don’t even like being stuck in traffic behind slow-moving cars, let alone being invaded.
The terminology of war obscures what it really is. Phrases like, “we wanted to take out Saddam”, as if he were a piece on a chessboard that can be manipulated with a minimum of fuss. Phrases like “we wanted to start from zero and rebuild Iraq society.” What does that mean, “start from zero”? As if a nation of people is a slate that you can write on and erase. People who talk that way have unrealistic notions of what weapons can accomplish. They are the ones who live with their heads in the clouds, believing that you can displace populations and topple governments without creating catastrophes. Obviously, if you invade a nation, you will unleash forces beyond your control and make untold enemies for years to come. How could that come as a surprise?
Even the phrase “a war” obscures what warfare really is. We call it “a war”, as if it were a single, unified event. But a war is multiple acts of violence, and each act creates orphans, widows, each destroys homes and factories, creates joblessness and hunger, destroys livelihoods and sets of chains of unpredictable repercussions for years to come. Each act spins its own cycle of bloodshed and hatred. It’s not “a war.” It’s multiple instances of killing people. And not surprisingly, each act of violence creates new sets of enemies, and reinforces the notion that Americans talk about democracy but shoot anything that moves.
In justification for the current mess, Americans claim that Iraq has always been a violent place, even before we got there. But once again, why not put yourself in their shoes? If a world power landed in America and toppled our government, America’s political extremists would arm themselves in response, just as has happened in Iraq. Our extremists would take the opportunity to settle old scores, using the gun to accomplish what they could not do at the ballot box. What’s happening in Iraq is what happens when a government is toppled by war. If a foreign power landed here and marched through our streets, occupied our government buildings, we would become a violent people. Given such circumstances, America would quickly return to the law of the jungle. The problem, then, is not “an Iraqi” thing. The problem is a war thing.
Indeed, those who are quick to complain about “violent Arabs” should examine the history of our own Civil War, the bloody battles that led nowhere, the endless carnage, the burning of towns and countryside, American fighting American, both sides invoking God and duty. Can’t you just imagine the Europeans reading about us in the papers. “Tsk, tsk. Look what those Americans are doing to each other.”
Americans always seem ready to swallow war whole. Reading accounts of the days right before our civil war, one is struck by the willingness of young men on both sides to march into battle. They couldn’t wait to get shooting. They were ready to kill and die. By examining the Iraq war through the lens of our own fratricide, you can see where the insanity lies: The willingness of humans to be directed by Presidents or Mullahs to shoot other people. As Bush realized to his glee, you don’t need to coerce potential soldiers. You don’t need to “draft” them. There’s always a certain percentage of people that are quick to believe that a bloodletting of another tribe is a good solution to any given problem.
There are reasons why Americans can’t grasp that shooting people in large quantities does not produce happy results. For one thing, we tend to regard the world outside the US as a seething cauldron of violence, so when we learn of the effects of war, we’re not horrified. Americans are trained to believe that the rest of the world is gripped in cycles of bloodshed, regardless of what we do. Thus, we are slow to examine our own role in creating that bloodshed. Americans seldom travel abroad, and are surprised to learn that in most places on earth, it’s not normal for dead, bloated bodies to appear on one’s doorway. Honestly, lives were not a dime-a-dozen in Iraq until America arrived. To be terrorized by death squads and have headless corpses appear in the town plaza is not an Iraqi thing. It’s a war thing.
We are taught that war is noble, and that the highest expression of patriotism is not to grab a book and teach a kid how to read, but to grab a gun, travel far away, and start killing. Although we’re proud of American know-how, of our determination that created a general well-being unmatched in history, we can’t imagine our nation using its resources to teach the world bloodless conflict. Instead, we elect leaders who say the rest of the world only understands violence.
In many spheres, Americans have learned the limits of force, for example, child-rearing. Nowadays, we accept that when a child acts up, you shouldn’t come out swinging. This is progress, because until a generation ago, most parents believed that disobedient children needed to be beaten, and if that didn’t work, you beat them some more. These days, we understand that repeatedly belt-thrashing little Billy for not taking out the trash might teach Billy that you’re bigger, but won’t make him take out the trash. When you slap your kids around, they want to slap you back. Big wonder, huh? But apparently, bombing a nation is somehow different, and it never occurs to us that when you bomb people, they want to bomb you back.
Pretty simple stuff, but that basic logic escapes many of us. After a war fails, the Generals complain that if we had only used more force, then we could have won. That’s a bit like pointing out the back row of teeth still in little Billy’s mouth, saying that if we only had the guts to knock out all of Billy’s teeth, then he would have obeyed us. That’s nonsense, of course, and when it comes to kids in our care, we understand that brute force does not breed good behavior. But in our relationship to other nations, we want a president who will shoot early and often, who has the guts to start a war and never look back.
Globalists often point out how rapidly the world is changing, how telecommunications has rendered the planet into one big interconnected village. Our economy is global, we are told, and families living in a mud hut thousands of miles from me are actually my neighbors. Well, if it’s really true that we are more interconnected in more immediate ways than ever before, and that we must rethink all our business relationships, then it’s also time to take a fresh look at war. Why should we assume that conflict between states should be conducted with shrapnel delivery systems – seeing who’s better at lodging chunks of metal in your opponents’ flesh and bones? If globalization is causing us to rethink so many familiar assumptions, then war is also up for a bit of rethinking. Face it. We solve our conflicts the same way cavemen did in the prehistoric age, by ripping holes in people’s skin and make them bleed to death. Isn’t it time to move on?
It must be said that peace gets a pretty bad rap these days. People believe that if you’re ready to go to war, you are vigilant and care about your country. Conversely, a nation slow to take up arms is considered indifferent to the threats around it. We equate non violence with a lack of watchfulness. We’re taught that peaceful nations are lazy nations, destined to wake up one morning surrounded, the wolves at the gates. We think of France, the nation that rolled over for Hitler. We are taught that conflict reduction is the same as conflict avoidance, unwisely putting off hard choices ‘til it’s too late. But really, war happens not because you’re not prepared for battle, but because you’re not watching how the world is changing, how alliances are rearranging, how yesterday’s reliable ally has become today’s snake in the grass. A nation can have a large army in the wings, but if that nation is awake and watching, it may never have to deploy that army. War results when choices are narrowed, when the only option is to fight and even kill.
The reason why this talk seems so unfamiliar is that President Bush has been bruising for a fight since his first days in office. He has always pushed for conflict, behaving antagonistically on the world stage, hoping someone will throw the first stone so he can come out shooting.
The war response should be regarded as a phase in human evolution, a perfectly apt primeval tool for dealing with tribal threats. But even though the nature of threats has changed, humans have not discarded war. Why? Because the mob response is politically useful. Politicians can easily manipulate society’s xenophobic dispositions that results in war. And it’s the politicians that win, not the people. Politicians prey on the viscerally appealing catharsis of dealing a body blow to a tribal enemy. Threats that we should be dealing with, like illiteracy and public health, don’t pack the same emotional wallop as the specter of evil hordes on the horizon.
To say to yourself, “If the people around me don’t know how to read, my livelihood is threatened” requires that one employ a highly developed level of reasoning. A president threatening, “KILL THEM BEFORE THEY KILL US” carries the spine-tingling resonance of a life-battle. The quest to cure AIDS, to feed every mouth and find alternate fuel for our planet, doesn’t create an adrenaline rush. We feel no visceral “fight or flight” response. It’s too bad that global warming doesn’t wear a mustache, bear the name “Mohammad” and carry a box-cutter. If it did, we’d have licked it years ago.
Our acceptance of war is not surprising, given that each week, movies are released into theaters that embrace war as a manhood-builder, a right-of-passage, a nation-unifier, a backdrop for romance, or just a rip-roaring good time. We’re taught that war is good for young men, that it builds character, matures and toughens, yet in real life, people returning from war bear debilitating psychological wounds. This belief that war brings out the fighting best in our young people does not square with the true condition of the men and women returning from the front. But such a person, the hard-drinking wounded warrior, unable to retain friends or family, has become a romantic figure in our culture, a celebrated icon, rather than a regrettable casualty.
War marginalizes virtues that we would otherwise value. In wartime, those who can see through the fog and challenge the prevailing wisdom are considered disloyal. This is the opposite of how we raise kids. We are pleased when our children are assertive, when they leave home with confidence, march right up and get the good jobs. We teach our kids to forcefully articulate their positions and speak up for themselves. Our society admires go-getters who don’t take no for an answer. During war, however, we are taught not to question, to reduce our suspicions and wholeheartedly believe everything our leaders tell us. But history is not kind to civilizations whose citizens act like sheep. Journalists, diplomats and statesmen who dare to tell a president that his war is counterproductive, are considered betrayers. To be patriotic is to be silent about obvious failures right in front of us. Even as errors compound, a true patriot must somehow remain uncritically supportive of the Commander In Chief.
Now this whole uncomfortable way you feel right now, reading my moralistic, one-sided anti-war talk, so brash and black-and-white – that’s how most people felt about the Abolitionists in the 1800s. Anti-slavery folks preached their cause repeatedly, and most people responded, “Put a cork in it, will ya’?” Just as then, we get annoyed with strident, self-righteous, absolutist talk about any moral cause.
But the Abolitionists were right.
Today, we recognize that owning other human beings is always wrong. We no longer say “Maybe the other side has a point,” or, “Owning human beings is justified in some cases.” No. We call it wrong. We call it absolutely wrong.
Building a case against something as commonplace as war is tricky, because you’re asking people to disregarded what they see around them. You’re asking people to look, not around, but ahead. You’re asking people to employ a simple Golden Rule standard – “Would you want someone to do that to you?” – while society teaches that shooting Muslims is patriotic. Besides, war is everywhere. Might as well rant against the sky being blue.
In the 1800s, the corridors of power offered many justifications for slavery-- from misinterpretations of Darwin to Old Testament theology to the simple theorem “might makes right.” And today, pop-Christian theology teaches that since humankind is evil, one can expect no better from human institutions, that humans are not capable of anything better than wanton bloodletting. I don’t believe that, and I hope you don’t either.
Instead, let’s try this: The next time some president rallies us to arms against a convenient boogy-man, we can tell him no. We can tell him no a thousand times over until he hears us. Then we’ll watch him turn around, cradle his billy-club and slouch back to his cave, ashamed.