Doing What We Can't Help Doing


Wars, like the political eruptions of teenagers, groan under the weight of moral justification: We are fighting to protect ourselves, protect democracy, establish democracy, end atrocities, avenge former mistreatment, dissuade dictators. We have to save something from something or for something. If we don't fight, this boogie or that boogie will take over the world.

When you notice that all teenagers do the same things at the same time, you suspect that what is involved is hormones. So with wars. Military adventures only seem to be about things. Really they are just military adventures. We fight for the same reasons fish school and peacocks strut--because it's how we are.

You don't think so? Step back, look at the world on a scale of centuries, and it is obvious. History is one long repetitive story of war. Start anywhere: The Old Testament, the Eddas, Homer. When the Greeks of classical antiquity were not fighting Persians, they fought each other. The Romans fought everyone they could find and often, when they needed a new emperor, each other. In the Middle Ages, knights fought as a hobby; when they couldn't find anyone to fight seriously, they held tournaments and fought for sport.

Wars pass by in their thousands, The War of Spanish Succession, of Jenkins's Ear, of the Roses, of this and that and practically everything. We're still doing it--everywhere, always, today, yesterday, tomorrow.


Because we are over-brained apes. Fighting is built into men (far less into women). Our instincts crave it. Watch young males in a movie theater when Star Wars is playing. They will be on the edge of their seats, leaning unconsciously with the maneuvering of the swirling space-fighters, adrenaline pumping, thinking "Get him, get him, get him!"

It's how we are. Videogames, football, boxing, jousting, paintball, NASCAR, gladiatorial games, drag racing, dueling, war, and bar fights are expressions of the same drive.

We fight as naturally, inevitably, and unthinkingly as dogs sorting out questions of territory. What is instinctive seems so perfectly reasonable that we seldom ask whether it makes sense. Perhaps army ants believe they are fighting for some forested virtue.

If you are male, and don't believe in instinct, find a big man with a pretty girlfriend, and put your hand on the wrong part of her topography. Without reflection, he will arrange for you to make several mortgage payments for your dentist. But why? You didn't harm her in the least. For that matter, how comfortable are you in a dark forest when you hear something . . . moving? Even if you know it has to be a deer or a house dog?

Instinct rules us. Little girls left to themselves play house and care for dolls. Little boys form hunting packs. As a kid of ten in a civilized suburb, I joined with my buddies to venture into farther suburbs unknown to us. We had a distinct sense of venturing into alien and possibly hostile territory. When we encountered other kids, there was a sizing up, a calculation of the odds, a question of whether to run, fight, or hang out. We were unconsciously practicing for adulthood, like tussling puppies.

If people have an inbred desire to fight, so do they have an inbred moral sense. In the past a king could simply strip the peasants of their provisions and ride off to put cities to the sword. What people thought didn't matter. Today a modicum of support from the public is needed. In war, people do ghastly things that in time of peace they regard as hideous. Comfortable folk unafraid will not readily approve. Thus lying is essential to war. People must be frightened, enraged, or both.

It is easy to arrange. Half of the population is of below-average intelligence, four-fifths are not sure where the enemy nation is, and fully ninety percent do not know what countries border on it. Further, people do not handle abstractions well. Instead they personalize, confusing the enemy nation with its Evil Leader: Iraq is not twenty-five million rather ordinary people; rather it is Saddam Hussein. Cuba is not an island of eleven million agreeable people who sing and dance splendidly; it is Fidel Castro. Warring governments encourage this confusion.

Part of the boilerplate of war are the atrocity stories used to arouse hatred in the public. Armies commit atrocities-your army, my army, the other guy's army. Everyone agrees that everyone else does it. When no real atrocities are convenient to hand, governments manufacture them. Some are so conventional that there ought to be a rubber stamp: Babies are bayoneted, women's breasts are cut off, and pregnant women are disemboweled.

Curiously, a company commander who takes sniper rounds from a village of 250, and calls in an air strike, will say that he has never seen an atrocity. Nor were the carpet bombings of London and Hamburg atrocities; rather these were legitimate burnings alive of children, the unlucky, and the slow. If truth is the first casualty, reason isn't far behind.

It is useful in war that people do not respond emotionally to what they cannot actually see. A thousand abstract dead mean nothing, whether they died in a war or an earthquake. This explains the desire of the military to control the press. An inattentive democracy will tolerate a war provided that it is described as surgical and intended for high moral purposes; and that the footage shows videogame bombs falling precisely on distant targets. This also arouses pride in their gadgets.

If television showed a soldier, anybody's soldier, with his face shot away, interior of the mandibular joint glistening cartilaginous white, the man gurgling in agony with globs of yellow god-knows-what bubbling out of his throat, the war would suffer in the ratings.

Thus you will never, ever, ever see footage of the dead and wounded as they actually are. Not ever. This is said to be to protect the dignity of the injured. No it's not. It's to keep small-town Idaho from vomiting and saying, "Stop!"

Morality? Countries have none. They pretend for political effect. China objects to our brutalizing of Iraq, yet was perfectly happy to brutalize Tibet. France objects to our behavior in the Mid-East but behaved savagely in Algeria. Countries celebrate defensive wars to drive out invaders but, a few years later, are invading someone else's country. It's how we are. You might as well look for morality in a used-car lot.

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Fred Reed's picture
Columns on STR: 76