u201CWhat if they gave a war and nobody came?u201D This was one of the better bumper-sticker messages of the Vietnam War years. Its sentiments provide an insight to the question of whether it is truly possible to end the war system.
There is a way to end all wars, and the means of doing so can be stated in the following words: we must learn to love our children and grandchildren more than we do the state. That’s it. No international treaties; no candlelight vigils; no referenda by the electorate; no abstract philosophic doctrines to recite. All that is required to end the wholesale butchery that most of us are eager to celebrate with the waving of flags is for each of us to put the faces of our children and grandchildren alongside the image of the state and ask ourselves: which am I prepared to sacrifice for the sake of the other?
There is a common assumption, the falsity of which is most often revealed in times of crisis, namely, that parents have an intense love for their children. When the costs of protecting and fostering the interests of our children are relatively low, this statement probably finds a great deal of support in human behavior. I would go even further and, consistent with Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, add that most parents would likely risk their own lives to save those of their offspring. I have seen mother birds fake an injury to themselves in order to draw a predator away from her nest of chicks, a practice as instinctively based as that of a human mother putting her children behind her when confronted by an attacker. What we think of as our u201Cfree willu201D is not always the product of our conscious thinking, but is often driven by a genetic disposition to continue itself into another generation.
If this is so, what kind of u201Ccrisisu201D could cause parents to override these natural tendencies to protect their children from harm or death? This inquiry raises the question of u201Cwhou201D we are. If, as I believe to be beyond all doubt, each of us is motivated by self-interest, u201Cwhou201D is the u201Cselfu201D whose interests we are fostering? Is it our protoplasmic and/or egoistic sense of being? Does it include our extended family relationships, and perhaps that of our friends, neighbors, and work associates? In the words of Alice’s caterpillar, u201Cwho are you?u201D
Since early childhood, our minds have been carefully conditioned — by institutions presuming the authority to train us in mindsets that serve their interests — to regard our subservience to organizational purposes as an integral part of who we are. In a secular society, such subservience is to the state. This is not simply a matter of being trained to favor state interests over our own, but of learning to have such interests coalesce into a unified sense of self.
It is in this way that we develop u201Cego-boundaryu201D definitions of u201Cwhou201D we are. Such categories go far beyond political classifications, to include race, nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity, lifestyle, ideology, or any of numerous other categories by which we have come to think of u201Courselves.u201D
In our politically-structured world, most of us have learned to identify ourselves through the nation-state of which we are a part. From this transformation from our biological/egoistic definition of u201Cselfu201D into a u201Cnationu201D or u201Cstateu201D meaning, our minds become prepared — like that of a mother bird — to risk our individual lives in order to protect our enlarged definition of u201Cself.u201D It is a mistake to assume that we are u201Csacrificingu201D our sense of self in going off to war: the interests of the nation-state are the self-interests of the person who has identified himself with this ego-boundary. This is what drives the suicide-bomber to destroy both himself and others.
How does one break into this vicious circle of institutionalized and sanctified destruction and put an end to it? We make the feeble excuse that wars will end when u201Cothersu201D change their ways and decide to quit the practice. But you have no control over others. The illusion that you do is what creates the war system. Since war involves two or more parties, and you cannot control the energies of others, your efforts to end wars is necessarily confined to the withdrawing of your participation in the system.
But how is this to be done? Our conditioning often leads us to suppose that political involvement — such as working on behalf of candidates — is the way out of war’s destructive ways. But politics is the war system, whether conducted against domestic or foreign enemies. Believing that you can excise the most vicious and destructive part from the political thinking that spawns it, is like believing you can end cirrhosis of the liver without confronting the addiction of alcoholism. Such an approach is a total evasion of the problem. It is as though ending wars is only a matter of generating popular slogans, spreading the use of bumper-stickers, or erecting international scarecrows to ward off the same forces that underlie all political action.
If you have been conditioned to see yourself as a manifestation of the u201Cego-boundariesu201D with which you have identified yourself, is it not evident that examining your own thinking — including the processes of your conditioning — might be a place to begin? Does your very soul insist — as it was trained to do — upon maintaining its u201Cpledge-of-allegianceu201D commitment to the state? If you consider your existence subordinate to the state’s interests, upon what basis could you urge a higher purpose for your children?
During the Vietnam War years, I recall hearing a few fathers — themselves veterans of World War II — expressing shame over their sons who fled to Canada rather than getting themselves fed into the war machine. I also recalled the statement — whose author I no longer remember — that a man had a moral duty to not allow his children to grow up under tyranny. What pathetic beings, and what terrible parents, were those men who felt disgraced by sons who regarded their well-being more highly than they did that of the state.
There are few more depraved forms of child abuse than those found in parents not only allowing, but eagerly promoting, the sacrifice of their children to any purpose. This tendency is often brought on, I suppose, by a lack of awareness of the harm faced by the child. Politics feeds and depends upon an ignorance of the costs of its undertakings, a lack of awareness that government schools, the media, and other statist voices have no interest in helping people to overcome. If we were able to comprehend the consequences implicit in our present action, we would be less inclined to act without assessing the costs of our doing so.
If your child wished to participate in military action that others portray as u201Cheroicu201D — an image reinforced by movies starring the likes of John Wayne (who had the good judgment to remain out of World War II!) — your sense of parental love and responsibility might dictate your taking him or her to visit a veterans hospital or cemetery to see the costs others have borne.
I disagree with those who do not want to see military caskets or the bodies of dead children shown on television. The sociopaths who tune in to Faux News in order to tune out to reality should — along with other defenders of the war system — be provided a steady showing of decapitated children, or bodies blown apart by cluster bombs. Likewise, parents whose children are of military age and inclination should be shown photographs of soldiers blown into many pieces by an artillery shell. The purpose of making such pictures available is not to gratify perverted tastes, but to give everyone a demonstration of the real costs of warfare.
It is the essence of responsible behavior for individuals to experience all the costs of undertakings of which they approve. Most of us prefer to hide behind and take refuge in our ignorance. Perhaps pictures of dead and maimed soldiers and children can help overcome this trait, tempering the enthusiasm with which so many people feed their children to the war machine.
How do we dismantle the ego-boundary structures in our mind, and walk away from the citadels of state power? Is it possible for us to discover how to be an American — or an Australian, Norwegian, or Egyptian — without attaching existential importance to that fact? If so, we will likely end the divisions between ourselves and others and end our contributions to the war system that is the state. We will then be able to embrace our children and grandchildren with the love we have hitherto given to the nation-state, and no longer be willing to sacrifice their lives in the playing of this insane game.
Perhaps Dawkins’ book may help us discover the fact of our genetic commonality with all human beings, an awareness that will help us break down the walls states find it advantageous to their interests to erect among us. By ending the separation between u201Cusu201D and u201Cthem,u201D we may find ourselves unwilling to sacrifice the lives of other people’s children for the u201Coffenseu201D of having been born in the u201Cwrongu201D country, or of parents of the u201Cwrongu201D religious views. Can the war system long survive if the anger and hatred generated by political systems were to be dissipated by the forces of love for our children?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.