What People Believe

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How do you persuade a man who has a wife and children and who works hard but can barely make ends meet to take a pay cut and go do something that has a high probability of getting him killed or seriously injured?

Clearly, it is not in a man’s self-interest to go to a foreign country and fight in a war, the outcome of which won’t affect him or his family. So how do you persuade him to do it?

The answer lies in the nature of the human being. We are mind-directed creatures. We act on the basis of our beliefs. Therefore, if you can control what people believe, you can control what they do. That’s the whole purpose of advertising, for example — to instill in people’s minds the belief that a product or service will be beneficial to them.

Persuading people to go to war is much more complicated and involves identity, which is constructed of beliefs. When we are born, we don’t know who we are or where we are. We only know we’ve just been pushed out of the warm womb into the drafty world of giants who can pick us up by our feet and whack our backsides. We protest the only way we can — by yelling.

The first beliefs that will come to constitute our identity come from parents or caregivers. Any psychiatrist can tell you how important these beliefs are and how difficult they are to shed. Then we begin to add more from our peers, from the culture and from education. So, we learn we are Americans, and just what are Americans? Well, we are told about that largely through history, through stories told by our own family and stories we read or see in the movies.

And once we identify ourselves as Americans, then we will act as we believe Americans, as we have defined them, ought to act. It was not in my self-interest to go into the Army. I had a good job. I had already decided against the military as a career. But, as an American, I believed it was my duty, so I went, and if the Army had said to go to Vietnam, I would have gone without question. My identity as an American was based on my beliefs, and part of those beliefs was that every American had a duty to take his turn on watch.

Millions of men have gone to war because, as Americans or British or French or Germans or Russians or Japanese, they believed it was their duty. The danger lies in the fact that unscrupulous men, through misrepresentation and propaganda, can motivate people to go to war even though it is not in their country’s interest, much less their own. Unless there is an invader threatening one’s home and hearth, it is never in the interest of an individual to go war — unless he decides to be a mercenary.

It is an evil paradox that men with the lowest motives can launch wars by appealing to the highest ideals of better men.

The millions killed in all the wars were nobodies as far as the leaders who sent them into war were concerned. They were cannon fodder. They all shared in common the fact that their political leaders were willing to sacrifice them for greed or ego. For all practical purposes, all of the dead in wars are unknown soldiers in the war leaders’ eyes. The dead are known only to the people who loved them.

The trick is to remember to make the distinction between America in the abstract and America in reality. The America in the abstract is made up of all our experiences, memories, stories, legends and myths. The America in reality consists of what exists right at this moment.

And what exists right at this moment is a corrupt federal government with a foolish man in the White House. What exists at this moment is a military-industrial complex with a vested interest in war and conflict. What exists at this moment are unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What exists at this moment is a government solicitous of corporate welfare, but one that doesn’t give a hoot about the individual American.

Rudyard Kipling said it so well when in a poem he wrote: "If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied." Be alert when you hear politicians talk about abstractions like patriotism, national security and international stability. They are trying to control you by controlling your mind.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2006 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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