Philosophy Weekend: The Trauma Theory

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?

13 Responses

  1. Churchill said, “The history
    Churchill said, “The history of mankind is a history of war.” I say this in sorrow: clearly, man is a warlike animal.

  2. Dan, I don’t think it’s clear
    Dan, I don’t think it’s clear at all. Just because Churchill happened to be charismatic and uncommonly quotable (and an inveterate racist to boot) doesn’t mean said quotes are accurate, only memorable. I’d only go so far to say that the written history of mankind is a history of war. Wars are far more interesting to read about than times of peace, and perhaps they shape history more, but they are without a doubt far less common than periods of peace. There’s truth in the cliche ‘no news is good news’. If bloody war was the norm, we’d be reading a lot more about peace, wouldn’t we? I’ll go out on a limb here and say less than 1% of the people reading this article have ever participated in war.

    That said, peace is often bought with the currency of war. The peace you mention, Levi, between Germany and France, was gained through years of bloodshed, and not mutually agreed upon over coffee and cigarettes. How many wars have been averted through diplomacy? That I’d like to know.

    As long as men and women follow leaders, salute flags, and sacrifice thought for patriotism, then yes, I think war is inevitable, but not, most importantly, the norm.

    Man is clearly a herdlike animal.

  3. Hepcat, you said exactly what
    Hepcat, you said exactly what I was going to say in response to Dan. I also think it’s a myth, and an unfortunate one, that man is a warlike animal.

    In fact, wars usually happen by mistake, by miscalculation. Both sides in the American Civil War expected the conflict to last a few months at most. It’s not clear that anyone wished for or chose the four-year carnage that resulted. World War I was also expected to be over quickly — that was the false promise the leaders on both sides made to their people. Even World War II was stumbled into, based on Germany and Japan’s overly hopeful calculations that they could force their enemies to compromise after a few successful strikes. In all these cases, the citizens were promised quick decisive victories at little cost. It’s hard to say they chose the level of violence and misery that resulted from believing in these promises.

    Yes, absolutely, what man is, rather than a violent animal, is a herdlike animal. That’s exactly my point (thanks Hep).

    I can easily answer the other question as to which substantial peace treaties were not the result of horrible long wars. Well, many once believed that Ireland and Great Britain could not reach a real settlement, and they did. South Africa managed, after decades of strife, to end apartheid and transition to a majority-rule government without a lot of violence. I think these examples offer some hope.

  4. true true, Levi. “War is
    true true, Levi. “War is over, if you want it”.

    and actually wanting it is where the power comes in…… some humans are just born with an innate altruistic outlook…. but for most of us, living BEYOND our own circumstances is a lifelong exercise……

    thanks for writing this and igniting thoughts among all of us……

  5. War/Peace… yin/yang… the
    War/Peace… yin/yang… the Great Duality on which all of Life is based upon.

    It is unfortunate for most of hu’manity has leadership that can call the shots as to whether there will be war or not, but historically this is the fact. It’s not the foot soldier who begins the wars but the leadership who becomes at odds with another leadership. When the disagreement becomes such that both sides will not move the proverbial ‘inch’ what choice is left? A battle ensues which often results in a full-fledged war at the expense of the innocent.

    But like all things subjected to yin/yang, a balance needs to be regained and the war ends, the people deal with the aftermath as well as they can, the dust clears and hands are shaken and Peace resumes… until the next disagreement.

    Wars are not between two individuals. If they were two individuals would be able to overcome the expense and destruction of war by eventually shaking hands and agreeing to disagree… the most common solution between people. But again, this word, leadership. rises to the occasion and there is where all wars begin. Individuals can duke it out and not bring others into the fray (other than vocal support, cheers to the winner), but leadership over a country when confronted by another leadership in an opposing country, the numbers change and what happens between two individuals has now escalated in thousands of individuals no longer acting as individuals but rather like a united movement to either wage war or defend itself from the offense.

    War is numbers… the greater the numbers the more deadly the war. Peace on the other hand is not so much the type of Peace that comes from, say meditation where one may unite with their true self, but Peace amongst people is an absence of War. Fortunately, most of the world’s people live within that absence of War on national levels. And it is that level of warring that I believe most of us believe War is.

  6. Levi,
    Great post, and I am


    Great post, and I am enjoying this weekend philosophy series. I too was a philosophy major (and went even further down socially futile the rabbit hole in graduate school), and I share your disappointment that the value of philosophy is not more readily self-evident.

    Your thoughts here on war are especially interesting, since violence is probably the most problematic social interaction in human life. Without an inclination to and passive acceptance of violence, our world, our history would be very different. Better.

    I want to add the voice of another philosophical writer to support your “trauma theory.” In “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” Albert Camus puts forth the idea that war and violence are not just human constructions — as opposed to natural forces — they also require active, positive support. Meaning, for violence to exist, we need to maintain our violent relationships just as we need to maintain our friendships. All relationships, whether violent, loving or friendly, require maintenance.

    I look forward to more of these pieces.


  7. Fighting of some variety is
    Fighting of some variety is currently, as we find ourselves now, inevitable between humans because it is what is left when words fail to deliver a compromise over some view over stuff and/or ideas. It is an option one can take when words or the withholding of services have not had their desired effect. It could get to the point where war is viewed as not being a feasible option. I do not think that war is a feasible option, so by that rationale we could get to a point where everyone thinks like me. It is at least possible. The way people think now means that for now war IS inevitable; war is an outcome of our ways of thinking. If we change the way we think about war then the likelihood of wars occurring is lessened. If we change the way we think about nations then war becomes less likely. If we change the way we think about economics war becomes less likely. If we change the way we think about religion war becomes less likely. If we change the way we think about revenge then war becomes less likely. If we change the way we think about race war becomes less likely. If we change the way we think about violence war becomes less likely. If we show more gruesome pictures of the effects of war on the television war may become less likely. If we scale down armies and the acquisition of arms war becomes less likely. War is big business because it requires big machinery which cost big bucks. War is what we do right now. It is who we are right now. Not me. Not you. But our leaders. All this can change but it is asking a lot. It has to come from the top as well as the bottom. It is inevitable that wars will occur if people in charge (and those who join and fight in armies) believe in it. It is really as simple as that. If war is thought of as a response to the breakdown of dialogue or as method for the acquisition of goods and land then it follows that it is inevitable. It is only not inevitable if the people with the ability to wage war do not think like that. And they do. They just do. Clearly they do. Take a look around. Until that changes nothing changes.

    And war, for me, yes, true, is something on the television, internet, or in books. Thank god for that, I say.

  8. While all past wars might
    While all past wars might have been avoidable, present conflict (and future conflicts) are increasingly about diminishing resources. I will not say war is inevitable but as food, water, and oil supplies are reduced, it is probable that regional conflicts will increase in number.

  9. i like what was said about
    i like what was said about the choices we can make to end war. free will cuts both ways and more often than not has ended wars and prevented wars, but it only takes a few not willing to make the same choice to start a war. once started, it must be ended. by the provoked, ideally.

  10. Alex, it’s hard for me to
    Alex, it’s hard for me to believe that there isn’t enough food, oil, and other resources for everyone on Earth. I don’t have any sources handy to back that up but maybe someone else does. Anyone?

  11. i have some cheese, if that
    i have some cheese, if that helps. and some olive oil.

  12. It seems like sociopathic
    It seems like sociopathic leaders can pick up on “normal”, ordinary people’s indifference and prejudices to create institutions which make antagonism, hatred and suffering appear inevitable
    aspects of the “human condition.” But, as you state, they aren’t inevitable. I think that defending ourselves against such dehumanizing rulers and institutions is absolutely necessary to minimizing suffering and war in the world.

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