Thursday, May 17, 2007

When Nations Lose Their Love For War, Or: How To Evolve For Dummies

You will know from my prior posts that I once loved war. When I was eight, I was riding in the back seat of her Subaru when my new step-brother Lance's girlfriend, Meredith, asked me, "Why do you like war so much?" I answered, "War decides the fates of nations and everyone who lives in them." The front seat fell silent for a long time.

I played war against older boys and men, some of whom were officers at War Colleges, through the most sophisticated means then available to me, the board games provided by Avalon Hill or Strategic Simulations, Inc.. Until I began to think about girls in a different way ("Love is a continuation of war by different means," to capsize von Clausewitz), this intellectual heat-sink was my whole-hearted passion. Later, I dabbled in playing the sublimated combats of football, enjoyed computer simulations like Air Warrior, and still watched a lot of war movies. I went to see "Saving Private Ryan" on opening night, and would do so again. War is inherently fascinating, it's a cliff-hanger, and preparing for it is an excellent idea if you, on collective or personal levels, want to survive. Because for a million years, humans, particularly males but females as well, have been uniquely selected for violence.

Paradoxically, our brand of hyper-competitive violence, the one which our DNA strand allowed to spawn, blossom, and turn upon itself, has immense survival value. All the primates have it, but ours is powerfully amplified, and it's what got us here against far more physically gifted enemies. When you look into the close-set eyes of a well-fed wolf, for example, you'll see a magnificent, highly intelligent predator which can run through deep snow in packs for days to bring down its prey. We couldn't do that. If a respectful chill doesn't run through you when those eyes lock onto yours, you've been insulated from too much.

Today, we don't think of predators as enemies, but as dying breeds. Which they are, and they deserve not to be expunged but saved as fellow travelers. They can relate, and if we could converse with them, we'd have one hell of an ancient talk. But let me make myself perfectly clear: these predators were once our mortal enemies, pure and simple. Wolves were more than playful competitors for food. We were locked in a desperate struggle with them and other predators for dominance, food, and species survival. They hated us for our freedoms, ate us far more often than we ate them, and saw us as a source of meat. Which we were.

It must have seemed unlikely many times, but we won the Wolf Wars, and it was they and our other tormentors who were imprisoned and driven to the brink of extinction. We should have great sympathy for them, because we were at that brink ourselves at least once before. We almost checked out as a race, as DNA evidence shows, and we died down to a mere band of individuals. That band was the one which adapted, and some shards of its adaptation must have been fierce and harsh indeed. All of us came from them. We left the forest and the trees starving and bare-handed in search of anything we could eat, stretching our palates so far and wide we've started taking subscriptions to Food and Wine Magazine.

The capacity to organize into collective forms of protective violence saved the human race in wars against predators like lions and tigers and bears, oh my, all of whom were once well above us on the food chain. Where tigers still roamed in unguarded situations, surprising numbers of us were recently meat; upwards of 50,000 people a year were eaten by tigers in India as recently as a half-century ago. But as a race, we long ago refused to accept our status as "meat." When collective organization didn't save us from such a fate, we were motivated to diligently acquire technical solutions, the means to overcome or at least shore up our weaknesses. We made tools which could hit at distances, extending beyond the reach of tooth and claw in order to project the force required to stave off wolves, lions, tigers and bears, to enhance our own ability to eat or tame the largest mammals, and to elevate our status as a predator worthy of respect and fear. Our minds wished for arrows, missiles, and spears, and as if by magic, like the satellites which traverse the orbits of the skies, our nimble hands extruded them.

As we organized ourselves into tribes, races, and nations, while we trained our wounded, wished solutions on our tormentors, we began to use these tools on each other, too, more and more. We didn't stop until the tools reached counterproductive levels of overkill. And here we are, hostage to our solutions. Hollywood apocalyptic fantasies can finally come true, with terrorists nuking Key West as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis flee it in the movie "True Lies," as the predators we once feared are captive in zoos and clinging to a marginal-species existence, and as Republican presidential candidate (Mitt Romney) got the biggest cheers in the debates the other night when he said, "I would double the number of inmates at Guantanamo."

Americans still naively believe, perhaps more than any other people, in the application of death-dealing technologies as palliatives for achieving peace. Probably because of prior successes in shared experience, that belief is sealed into the permeable pores of our mythology like a poison gas, the protective wrapper of which was ripped off when we gained the status of Sole Superpower. As Bill Murray said in the movie 'Stripes,' to inspire his fellow post-Vietnam Army classmates in boot camp: "Hey! We're Americans, and we've been kickin' ass for over 200 years. We're 10 and 1!"

Yeah. I've been to places, have talked to remnants of families dwelling in cities and nations which have been on the receiving end of overkill. They didn't like it. They and their nations lost the love for war, growing bitterly opposed to it in all forms. On my first day in Germany, a thirtyish father with two small children in a stroller poked me painfully and repeatedly in my chest, demanding, "What is your explanation for Dresden? Take your missiles home!" A few years later, in Japan, a teenager asked me, "Why did your country drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, when you had already won the war? Nagasaki was full of Christians, like you."

I have met German women who were gang-raped by Russian soldiers, and slept as refugees on torn-off house doors in freezing train stations. Men in Japan told me how they, as starving boys, allowed themselves to be gladly stacked like cordwood into train baggage racks; on the racks, they would go a full day's suffocating ride away to pick up the weekly rice ration for their families. I've met angry old veterans who were machine-gunned by .50 caliber bullets which disabled them for the rest of their lives, I can't forget the people with melted faces and arms, the ordinary blokes and hausfraus who still cried over being blown up in their homes and losing their loved ones in the rubble. And once, in a jail in Yugoslavia, I was mere kilometres away from where twenty-five or fifty thousand men, women, and children were executed and buried in mass graves. No one really knows who died or how many in that or other places, and no one told me a better reason for those murderd bodes than to point to vendettas which reach back to the thirteenth century. It didn't seem to work for them, either.

They tried to tell me the madness. The survivors know how terrible and senseless these violent solutions were, and for a time at least, their children and their nations have lost their love for war, as I believe the United States is about to do.

America is going to be utterly defeated in Iraq, and it's not going to be like Vietnam. The die-hards will again cry, "We were stabbed in the back!" Stabbed by those among us who doubted, didn't execute well enough, supported terrorists, or voted anti-war. Stabbed in the back by the public again, like they think happened with Vietnam. For the record, it wasn't the public, but the military which planted the knife then and there. They ceased to believe in victory. In Iraq it was announced this week that voluneeter troops can no longer have MySpace pages, or use YouTube. MySpace is how they communicate with their families and friends. YouTube is how they get news and share it. America is going to have difficulty processing the loss, but the Overkill Machine will have, in conjunction with the governments which built it, entirely have brought the stabbed back upon itself. People don't put up with this. And we know it's not only the living who are killed in war.

This will be different from Vietnam. Vietnam was a wasteful war fought over flawed ideology and theory, but having no appreciable oil reservers, it wasn't an Energy War. When we pull out of Iraq, we will have lost privileged access to resources which power the engines of the the high consumption upon which our way of life is based. The blame-storming will make Vietnam's wrenching, frustrating, insecurity-inducing debacle look like the aftermath of a game of Stratego in comparison. Back then there were some tremors of a required change in lifestyle, but our culture preferred tp reach for more violence to bully and quell them. This is different. When it comes to oil, this war is for keeps. That's why the daily and nightly attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad are being censored and not reaching us, why the car-bombing of the last open market there cannot be photographed or written about in the press. Its' too painful to admit. It's the whole mythology of twentieth century America we're losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're losing a way of life, and that is not unacceptable.

Yet we'll have to face it. Defeats have much to teach. I'm hopeful that America as a country can rise to the challenge defeat poses, and that after it, we'll engage in a great spiritual growth. Victory has a joyous momentum which the Greeks knew naturally bred hubris and led to tragedy. When you gain mastery over something, gain adulation, and become too good at it, if you don't get corrupted and distracted, you'll eventually just get bored. In our cores as humans, it has been more the process of mastery we have reveled in than its end points, and our most delicious joys have not been found in the mutations of murder, but in charting, as a race, a course to the new and right directions which have never rested on rewards. At this point of violent overkill, many are the nations which have lost their love for war, and which are ready for moving on to the kind of the species-wide, collective maturation needed to deal with that capacity for overkill before it extinguishes us.

There are worse things than losing wars and sluffing off the failed facades of imperial ambitions. Go visit Italy, Spain, Holland, England, Japan and Germany to see what I mean. I will be proudest of my nation and its people when they're finally forced to search their souls, to search inside them for what is good and what must be newly done. I'm confident we will find a compass down inside there which will point us in the right direction. The chasm between here and there is still wide, and much heartache and futher conflict lies between, but the chasm between an outdated mythology and a more humble, productive process can be crossed.

When we find the compass, it will point us on a course away from the Energy Wars, to a new American Way of Life which doesn't think in terms of the Age of Oil. In that journey, I hope, lies the transformative answers to blunting the problems of Overkill, rounding off the reflexive need for dominant hierarchies, and addressing the urges we evolved which led to both. I know it's a lot to hope for. My hope doesn't matter, it's neither here nor there, but the time grows nigh when someone had better write and publish "How To Evolve For Dummies." I don't want no more Hiroshimas, no Dresdens, no more Nagasakis. We need to evolve, and I really want to read it.