A few years ago, a psychiatrist friend told me of a conference he attended in Europe, at which an elderly Inuit man had been a speaker. This man made one of the most succinct assessments of Western culture in declaring: "your children yell and scream; you lie to them!"
The culture is so embedded in lies that truth-telling has become a subversive act. All institutions are affected by this virus to varying degrees, but none more so than our political systems. In America, governments plunder — via taxation — some forty-five percent of the wealth produced annually. On a worldwide basis, state-run wars and genocides kill an average of two million persons each year. Thus, the very nature of political systems belies their stated purpose of protecting our lives and property.
But we do not like to admit our gullibility in being lied to — particularly when it involves the behavior of systems we have learned to revere. We prefer other explanations for political wrongdoing that will not reveal our dupery. We eagerly swallow the party line that the tortures at Abu Ghraib were but the perversions of lowly privates and corporals; that President Bush’s lies were occasioned by a faulty intelligence system; and that news reports of political corruption and deceit only illustrate journalistic sensationalism and the dangers of an unregulated Internet! Peaceful protestors at political conventions are instantly transformed into "destructive anarchists," against whom courageous, outnumbered, and embattled police officers must struggle to maintain order in the community.
Our propensities for metabolizing lies are so well-established within most of us that we insist our children be inoculated against the forces of truth. We send them to government schools for the same indoctrination that produced our confused and contradictory state, and condemn — as "elitists" — those who homeschool their children or send them to private schools. Perhaps most of us believe that our normally neurotic state is simply "human nature," the inevitable "way things are," and that the best we can do for our children is help them learn to conform to the same regimented, lockstep lifestyles that we have learned to endure.
Whatever the explanation, the reality is that, for the purpose of preserving our squalid, institutionally-defined self-image, many of us are no more desirous of protecting our children from the destructiveness of the state than ourselves. In a word, far too many of us seem to love the nation-state more than we do our children, and are prepared to offer their lives in sacrifice to political interests. How else can one explain the sense of shame expressed by so many World War II and Korean War veterans when their sons refused to serve in Vietnam? What other meaning is to be attributed to the proud words of so many parents of modern soldiers stationed — or killed — in Iraq?
Many years ago, I read other words — whose author I do not recall, although I believe it to have been either John Locke or John Stuart Mill — the essence of which was that a man had a moral duty not to allow his children to live under tyranny. We have done far worse than fail in this duty; most of us have energized our ignorance to insist upon the aggrandizement of the tyranny that continues to destroy our children and grandchildren.
Our culture sanctifies war, offering images of glory, heroism, and noble purposes to induce young people into becoming participants. With college costs increasingly beyond the reach of lower-income families — which was not the case in my youth — the state enrolls young people into its ranks with promises of college tuition and the learning of marketable skills. "Be all you can be," says the U.S. Army, with no mention of the risk of death or great bodily harm that might ensue.
Why do we not require, of the military enterprise, the same kinds of warning labels that socially-responsible people insist be included on far safer products such as cigarettes and alcohol? For the sake of "truth in advertising" that so agitates people in other settings, why not include the following at the end of commercials on behalf of military service: "WARNING: service in the military could be hazardous to your health. You could be seriously wounded, maimed, or blown to pieces in a foreign land"? At the very least, mention could be made of the fact that college tuitions will not be forthcoming should the soldier not be alive to enroll in college!
Such warnings, however, are the responsibilities of loving parents, not of the state that exploits their children. The parental record, in this regard, is a mixed one. When conscription was in place during the Vietnam War, many parents assisted their children in leaving the country or going into hiding. When military service became purely voluntary, and when military campaigns were more limited in scope and frequency, too many parents failed to see a significant threat to their children’s lives in enlisting. When war is considered only as an abstraction, with no immediate threat to ourselves or our children, many of us see no cost associated with flag-waving or condemning peace activists. We fail to understand the long-term implications of immediate rhetoric or policies. But when one’s child is sent into combat, war is no longer an abstract proposition. At this point, many parents are forced to confront the harsh consequences of their contradictions.
I have spoken to, or seen interviewed on television, parents whose children are in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are not possessed of the depraved bloodlusts one hears from the Bill O’Reilly’s; nor have they the same indifference to the deaths of others so readily expressed by George W. Bush and his neocon advisors, men who were quick to shield their own lives from combat during the Vietnam War. In 1998, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, occasioned by Clinton-era sanctions against that country, was a "price [that] is worth it." American parents who might have shared Albright’s view, when directed against Iraqi children, would be less prepared to defend such a vicious proposition when their children were the objects of sacrifice.
Parents of soldiers are worried for the lives of their sons and daughters. Like their soldier-children, they are not interested in ramming some humbug system of "democracy" down the throats of other people, or making the world safe from politically-concocted "threats." Soldiers may rationalize their participation in state butchery, . . . but only long after they have safely returned to their homes. While in combat, almost all soldiers have but one abiding motive: to stay alive for one more day and to protect their comrades.
"War hath no fury like a non-combatant," said Charles Edward Montague. George Bush and his depraved warlords and media drum-beaters exemplify this characteristic. While they continue to shriek their bellicosity from the comfort of their parlors, the tired and frightened soldiers only want to go home. This is a truth that should be remembered by the veterans of earlier wars who, decades later, sit around in VFW halls, wearing uniforms that no longer fit them, and condemn those who oppose the war system that now gives them their sense of identity!
As I stated in an earlier article, war is far more destructive of the lives of people and of social systems than we are accustomed to acknowledging. Jose Narosky observed that "in war, there are no unwounded soldiers." A friend of mine, who served in the Marines during the first Gulf War, gives a very vivid account of his experiences. The constant thundering of bombs and artillery; and the swirling of such concentrations of sand and dust that he often didn’t know whether it was daytime or night, have left a permanent imprint upon his very being. Despite his not having been wounded — nor, to his knowledge, having killed anyone — he still has nightmares that awaken him. Some of the worst wounds of war do not draw blood.
If we love our children sufficiently to protect them from wars and warlike thinking, we must stop lying to ourselves and to them. Rudyard Kipling discovered the truth of this the hard way, observing that:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
We must confront our own thinking, and understand the destructiveness implicit in conflicts over "right" and "wrong," or "good" and "evil." Can we move beyond the divisive, politicized thinking by which we see others as nothing more than resources to be exploited for our narrow purposes; or can we learn to love and respect the lives of others? Such a transformation is not a simplistic choice between "love" and "hate." Our social conflicts — be they in the form of wars, genocide, or less bloody efforts to regulate the lives of others — are driven not by a hatred of others, but by such an intense love of our group that we are prepared to destroy those who do not share our identity.
The love that precludes wars derives from a love for life itself. It is the expression of an integrated wholeness, rather than a special privilege to be conferred upon some and denied to others. To live otherwise is but to extend our destructive divisiveness into the next generation. We need to understand that the obverse side of the patriot’s proposition "America: love it or leave it" is, as it has always been, "Iraq: bomb it back to the stone age."
We must continue to remind ourselves that the deaths of your children and mine are implicit in every war. The events of 9/11 should have awakened us to the fact that we cannot love and protect our own children while we attack the children of others. Madeleine Albright’s assessment of the "price" of her government’s war against Iraqi children confirms what any intelligent person knows about political calculation: the benefits are always exaggerated; while the costs are always underestimated, and paid by others.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.