It’s amazing the way obviously flawed ideas and beliefs can become widely accepted as certainties. Take, for example, the certainty that war is inevitable. I hear over and over that there is absolutely no chance — zero, nil, nada to the power of nada — that there can ever be true peace between, say, Israel and Palestine.
Likewise, India and Pakistan will continue to fight forever, and so will North and South Korea, Russia and Chechnya, Iraq and Iran, Tamil and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, China and Tibet, Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia and Kosovo. Or, as one variation on this belief goes, if these hatreds were to ever stop, they’d be replaced by others as bleak and violent.
We hear this everywhere. We hear it from our friends and our relatives, in blaring newspaper headlines or in scholarly books by authorities like Victor Davis Hansen. We see it on the morning and evening news (and, on this rare topic, it doesn’t matter whether you watch Glenn Beck on FOX or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC — the lead story is not going to be about the possibilities for long-lasting global peace).
Of course, anything we believe in as completely as we believe in the eternal necessity of war has got to be false. And it is.
The flaw in logic here is obvious: war is a man-made thing. It’s a voluntary condition. Hurricanes are inevitable. Earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes cannot be halted. But all that’s required to end a war is the human choice to do so. Imagine if we could stop tsunamis as easily.
If the people of Israel and Palestine or India and Pakistan or North and South Korea were to choose to stop fighting, conditions and compromises for peace would begin to fall into place. But, oh yeah, here it comes: THAT CAN NEVER HAPPEN. NEVER EVER EVER EVER. Why, I want to know, can’t it happen?
In fact, throughout history, terrible national and ethnic rivalries have been forgotten. Germany and France spent a century and a half at each other’s throats, and if you look back at the hatred and propaganda they spewed back and forth between the era of Napoleon and the era of Hitler, you’ll realize that their mutual hatred was no less intense than that between the Jews and the Arabs, or the Tamil and the Sinhalese, or the North and South Koreans, or the Bosnians and Croats and Serbs.
Yet somehow, these nations have found a way to turn a state of war into a state of peace — not a tense, brittle peace, but apparently a true peace. All they had to do was stop fighting. Once peace manages to take root, it becomes obvious to all how petty the justifications for war had been all along.
Meanwhile, most of us who speak of the inevitability of war have never actually suffered in one, have never been anywhere near a war. We live comfortable and luxurious lives, and its from our living rooms and desks and offices that we declare war to be inevitable, peace to be not worth pursuing.
I have a theory as to why we humans cling so intensely to the belief that war is inevitable. I call it the Trauma Theory. The basic idea is that wars create a warlike state of mind, that wars are viral, and that the violent history of the past two centuries — the age of Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Bush, Bin Laden — has left us all with a bad case of this virus.
We are quietly traumatized by the horror of war — not the horror of seeing it directly, but the horror of the disconnect between our comfortable lives and the scenes of terrorism and death and injury and waste and disease and slavery and famine and rape that we see on TV, or learn about in history. We can’t bridge this gap. War looms far away as something alien, nightmarish and unreal. We grant it mighty powers because we are in awe of it, the way ancient humans were in awe of distant comets or volcanoes.
All we really seem to know of war is that it’s more terrible than anything we’ve ever seen, that it’s completely separate from and unlike anything we encounter in our everyday lives. Therefore it must have power over us. It must be bigger than we are.
We are traumatized and frightened, not by war itself, but by the dissonance, the complete disconnect, between the pleasant conditions of our everyday lives and the horrors of the distant images we see. This trauma manifests itself as a simple break between two forms of reality: the peace that actually surrounds us (because, really, most of us live in peace) and the war that we know to be out there somewhere, looming in the dark bushes around the village, ready to pounce.
We cannot bridge this gulf, this break, this trauma. We don’t know how to live in peace with our friends and neighbors and also hate our vicious violent enemies. This leaves us in a permanent condition of intellectual unreality. It leaves us unable to think.
I’ve had to do a lot of difficult thinking and reading myself to come up with this “Trauma Theory”, and I don’t know if I’ve managed to explain it very well here today. I’d like to know if I’m making any sense so far, and if so I’d like to develop and defend this further. A weekend philosophy series will be a good place to discuss this theory, because, as I previously mentioned, philosophy itself is widely discredited in our society, and the Trauma Theory offers an explanation for this as well. Perhaps this break in reality, this condition of unthinkability, that makes peace seem so impossible is the same condition of unthinkability that makes philosophy seem so irrelevant in modern times.
I think there’s something worth chewing on here. What do you say?