Why Peace?

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Previously by Bretigne Shaffer: Are There Any Arguments for NukingHiroshima?

This essay originally appeared in the book, Why Peace, compiled by Marc Guttman.

As I write this, my son is running around the house naked, even though I’ve asked him twice to put his clothes on. I can hear the bathroom sink swooshing on and off as he makes a swimming pool for his zoo animals. I weigh getting up and possibly waking his baby sister, who is sleeping on my chest, against the lesser likelihood that he will catch a cold from running around the house naked and wet. I decide to stay put. The swooshing continues.

I wonder how a man named Scott Oglesby would deal with my son’s exuberance, his lack of “respect for authority,” his occasional noisiness. Last December, Oglesby, a police officer, was at Stevenson Elementary School in Bloomington, Illinois, when he heard a seven-year-old special-needs boy having a seizure. Oglesby ran into the room where the boy was being restrained by a school psychologist, shouted “you’re giving me a headache!” and grabbed the boy by the throat, holding him up in the air until he turned red, before throwing him down in a chair. Oglesby is now on “restricted duty,” but no criminal charges will be filed against him.

I’d like to think that cases like Oglesby’s are rare exceptions. But every week there seems to be another story about someone being shot with a taser over a traffic violation, or for not responding the way the officer wanted them to. There was the paralyzed man thrown from his wheelchair by an officer in a Florida jail; the New York City cop who stopped a woman from driving her dying daughter to the hospital; the mentally handicapped teenager who was tasered to death after waving a stick around; and, in May of 2010, in another increasingly common militarized raid on a family’s home, the shooting death of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones as she lay sleeping next to her grandmother. (There is little doubt as to what happened because the 20 officers who burst into the girl’s home had brought with them a camera crew for a reality-TV show.)

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

When I first read Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” years ago, I saw in the first stanza a lament about the loss of a central authority, of political authority. Now I think he meant something else.

I have to believe that there was a time when people would have responded to the likes of Officer Oglesby by unceremoniously dipping him in tar, tossing a bucket of feathers over his head and casting him out from civilized society. Today he and his ilk are given “administrative leave” at best, and are soon back on the streets to endanger the rest of us. At the same time, more than half a million Americans sit in prison for the crime of using or selling substances the government disapproves of. Our nation has the highest per-capita prison population in the world by a very wide margin. Yet people like Officer Oglesby and the officers who killed Aiyana Jones do not count among the incarcerated. We are told that it is a punishable crime to ingest certain prohibited substances, a bigger crime to sell them. But, it is not a crime to shoot a seven-year-old girl in the head while she lies sleeping next to her grandmother. We have become deeply confused as to who the criminals are.

The question “why peace?” seems a silly one. Doesn’t everyone want peace? Isn’t that one thing we can all agree on? Everyone says they want peace, but very few are truly opposed to war or other forms of aggression. When she was US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright famously told the world that whatever was gained from the economic embargo of Iraq was “worth” the deaths of half a million children. But I bet she says she wants peace. The assertion – almost always conditional – has become meaningless.

As the United States government prepared to invade Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003, I did everything I knew to do to prevent it from happening. I engaged in debate, I signed petitions, I handed out pamphlets in sub-zero temperatures, and on February 15th, 2003, I marched in New York City, along with hundreds of thousands of others who were opposed to the war. On my way to the demonstration, I wondered how many would show up. I had the sense that I was in a minority, that most people didn’t care that much, or were too busy living their lives to do something like march for peace.

When I stepped out of the subway station, I was taken aback. Pouring into the street from every direction were people of all ages carrying signs and waving banners. As far as I could see, the streets were filled with people who shared my desire to prevent this war. I started to believe that maybe the sheer force of our humanity, our collective “no!” to more bloodshed, could prevent it. Barely a month later, the U.S. government began its invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I learned from that experience that demonstrations do not prevent wars. I was heartened by the outpouring of public opposition to war, but realized that we would need to come up with something much better than an appeal to those who are committed to waging war if we were to change anything. I also realized that most who said they were “anti-war” were really “anti-some-wars” – and not only out of political partisanship, but out of a desire to be taken seriously.

Nobody wants to come out and say that ALL war is wrong, that it is never justified. That would be unreasonable. Everyone knows that war is sometimes necessary. Everyone knows that sometimes there are just evil governments that invade other countries or commit atrocities against the people living under them. It is awful, it may even be unthinkable, but even if war is never good, there are times when it is necessary, and the practical and right thing to do is not to shy away from this reality but to be an adult and make the tough decision. Everyone knows that.

The problem with what everyone knows, though, is that it is quite often laced with omission and untruth.

Most children in American schools are taught very carefully about war, and why it is sometimes necessary. This lesson has to be very carefully planned and executed, because much earlier, those same children have been taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Adults might rightly fear that such children would not find it easy to reconcile the two positions. So we are taught about the American Revolution. We are taught about the Civil War. And then, at some point (for me it was in seventh grade) we are taught about World War II, the Holocaust, and the horrors of the concentration camps. I had nightmares about stormtroopers and gas chambers after those lessons, and I’m sure other children did too. I don’t remember precisely what those seventh-grade history books told me, but I came out of that class believing that the U.S. government went to war to save the Jewish people from the gas chambers, that it was right and just and that every once in a while, government does the right thing and this was one of those times. I’m sure other children did too.

Only later did I learn that saving the Jews was not the reason for the U.S. entering the war; that the government that supposedly cared so much for Jewish victims of the Nazi regime would not allow those same people to land in America – an act that might have saved many hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives without any military action at all; that the justification for US entry into the war, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was not an unprovoked act, as we had been taught; that the nuclear bombs were not dropped on that country in order to end the war; that the Japanese government had been trying to surrender but balked at doing so unconditionally, a demand the US later easily revoked after the real purpose of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – a show of force to the USSR – had been achieved.

It was only much, much later that I even thought to ask the question, relevant only to the version of history that had been presented to me: Why does saving innocent people in Germany justify killing innocent people in Japan? I still have yet to hear a satisfying answer to my question.

Far from proving the need for military intervention to deal with murderous madmen, the example of WWII shows precisely how the institution of war and the special rules that sustain it protect such sociopathic killers – as long as they are on the winning side. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has admitted as much, saying that the firebombing of Japanese cities and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been considered war crimes had the U.S. lost the war. They still should be. “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” asked McNamara, who by all accounts spent his later years haunted by his roles both in World War II and in the Vietnam War. Of course there is no answer to this question that makes any sense. So why are the rest of us not haunted? Why do so many of us refuse to apply consistent standards of morality to those who make war?

My son is now making a jam sandwich in the kitchen. Every once in a while he comes back to show me what he’s done, blueberry jam smeared across his face and hands, and I tell him to go wash his hands so he doesn’t get it all over everything. He ignores my request and runs back into the kitchen, squealing with delight. He is “defying authority,” and I am relieved. Too many of the problems I see in the world are the direct result of obedience and respect for authority.

We have lost our center. The little boy who was choked by Officer Oglesby understood that what that man was doing to him was wrong. “Mommy, didn’t that police officer’s mommy say he shouldn’t do that to people?” he asked later. That little boy has more clarity than the adults whose comments defending such abuse litter the blogosphere. He still knows the difference between right and wrong. It has yet to be wrenched from him by the system meant to “educate” him.

When I was in high school, someone once pointed to a bunch of kids who were teasing a mentally handicapped boy. “See? That’s what happens in anarchy!” He announced proudly, apparently demolishing my arguments against the state. Incredibly, it didn’t occur to me to point out that this wasn’t happening in “anarchy” but in the very controlled and authoritarian setting of a government school. It didn’t occur to me to tell him about my experiences in a Montessori school, where such behavior was unheard of.

Maria Montessori believed that children have a natural instinct for learning and a natural instinct for civilized co-existence. When teachers do not interfere, children learn; when children are treated with respect, they naturally become respectful; when they are encouraged to resolve their conflicts peacefully, they do so. I went to school with a little boy who had Down’s Syndrome, and I never saw any child treat him with anything other than compassion and decency. In the years I spent there, I witnessed some conflicts, and even a few rare instances of someone being hit. But the stereotype of abusive, bullying playground behavior was an alien thing that I never even heard of until I entered public school.

There, the lessons were just the opposite: That children are savages and must have learning and respect forced upon them. Oddly, this is to be accomplished not by showing them respect, but by treating them as lesser beings, while demanding that they respect those more powerful than them. Is it any wonder they soon start bullying those smaller than themselves? The lesson here – the lesson that goes on to inform adult decisions, institutions and problem solving out in the world – is that might makes right. Children are told to respect authority simply because it is authority. Simply because grown-ups are bigger and can punish them if they don’t obey. Nothing more.

An old Cherokee tale tells us that there are two “wolves” fighting inside each of us, two opposing sides of human nature: Good vs. evil; peace vs. aggression; compassion vs. hatred. The battle between the two sides rages in each one of us, and the side that wins is the side that we feed. Most of what we call “education” feeds the bad wolves. It works against our better nature and feeds what is worst in us, allowing it to grow at the expense of what is best. It may be true that violence, hatred, and even cruelty each come from a place within our nature. But a healthy society does not exalt them. It does not try to magnify and expand the very worst of our nature, making it dominant. A healthy society discourages these attributes of human nature. We are not a healthy society and what we have become is unnatural.

It is hard to explain to people who have only known the culture of this kind of schooling that there is another way, not only of educating children, but of living in the world. It is hard to get them to see that things don’t have to be the way they think they are, that it is within the nature of each of us to live peacefully. That the “law of the playground” is a lie and Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction. That there is always another way.

It was a long time before I really questioned the underlying premises of war: Primarily, that killing innocent people can ever be a legitimate form of self-defense or retaliation against a violent aggressor. At some point, I was presented with the absurd hypothetical thought experiments to which the apologists for war must always resort when asked to defend its morality. I was asked to believe that a bizarre set of circumstances, combined with a certainty of outcomes possible only in a purely academic construction, offer a passable analogy to the real-world situation faced by the war-makers. I was asked to accept the premise that killing is always the only possible solution and I was further asked to accept the assumption that the war-makers are concerned with preserving innocent life. Confronted with the question, I realized that yes, I would be willing to kill an innocent person in order to save myself or someone I loved. But I also realized that the act would still be a crime, though perhaps one mitigated by my necessity. In war, such crimes – all but the very few exceptions that prove the rule – are dismissed. In war, an act that ought only even be contemplated under a set of bizarre, highly unlikely, and strictly controlled circumstances is institutionalized and made routine.

Wars of aggression must always masquerade as defensive wars. From the Spanish-American war to Vietnam and now Iraq, we have all become familiar with the lies and propaganda used to justify what many call the “illegitimate” wars. That time after time these claims turn out to be false is no accident of history. This is the nature of the institution of war itself, which grants nearly unlimited powers to do violence to a single entity within a geographic sphere. To expect that the war machine thus spawned will act on behalf of anyone’s interests other than those at its helm; to expect it to use its powers to promote freedom or to protect the lives of the innocent is to believe in fairy tales. Even support for the best of all possible “good wars” must necessarily have these fairy tales at its foundation.

To believe that war can ever be “good” is to believe not only that the academic hypotheticals are accurate representations of the real-world conflict and that violence is always the only solution, we must also believe in lies that are deeply ingrained in most of our psyches. One of the most pernicious of these, one that persists in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary, is that governments act in the interests of the people they govern.

Americans seem particularly susceptible to this line of reasoning. We vote for the people who rule our lives, the logic goes, and therefore we control them and are responsible for what they do. Most of us cling to this line of thinking and no amount of crony bailouts, “Constitution-Free Zones,” indefinite detentions without charge, SWAT-style raids on unarmed Americans in their homes, sexual molestation as a condition for air travel, or executive orders allowing for the murder of any American citizen at the whim of the president will convince us otherwise.

It’s funny to me that so many in the anti-war movement fail to recognize this, insisting instead that the problem is one of undue corporate influence on government. Many of these people distrust corporate monopoly, yet have no problem with the monopoly powers granted to the far more deadly state. They seem to believe that, in the absence of corporate pressure, the state would suddenly begin to act in the interests of those it governs. Until anti-war activists begin to comprehend the danger inherent in granting a monopoly to a single entity to “protect” and “defend” – until they learn not to expect anything other than abuse of such a position – they will remain impotent in the face of the war machine.

This first big lie spawns another one: The lie of collective identification with the nations we live in and the governments that rule us. Believing in this allows us to absolve our own government of its crimes against innocent civilians who live under evil or repressive governments. For if we are responsible for the actions of our government, those civilians must likewise be responsible for the actions of theirs, and “we” are therefore justified in using violence against them. This bloodthirsty collectivist thinking prevents us from recognizing the enemy we have in common with those civilians: Not “their” government and not “our” government, but the very institution of the war-making state itself, and the privileged position it occupies in our societies.

Even Christian just-war theory carves out a unique moral code for the war-makers, laying out conditions under which it is acceptable to kill innocent people. Why? There are no such conditions allowed for the rest of us. No matter how threatened we may believe ourselves to be, we are never permitted by the laws of society to kill an innocent human being without serious consequences. This is the biggest lie of all. It is the lie that says in some situations murder is no longer a crime; it is the lie that tells us the lives of some people are worth less than the objectives of others. Made concrete, it is the lie that in the most real and final way possible allows some people to pass judgment on the value of the lives of others.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it to see him tear around the house yelling at the top of his lungs, but my son is actually very civilized. He is reasonable and can be reasoned with. But he asks lots of questions and he wants to be treated with respect. I worry about how he will fare in a world that demands obsequious obedience to arbitrary authority. My daughter suffers from seizures. They are under control now, but what happens if she has a seizure when she is older and encounters an Officer Oglesby? Or is simply surrounded by people who are increasingly conditioned to see anything unusual as a threat? And whose first impulse is often violence?

Earlier this week, there was a story about some young American soldiers in Afghanistan who decided it would be “fun” to kill some civilians. After shooting a 15-year-old boy, they posed for pictures with his body. After the boy’s grief-stricken father had identified his body, the platoon’s leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, “started u2018messing around with the kid,’” wrote Rolling Stone Magazine, “moving his arms and mouth and u2018acting like the kid was talking.’ Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, he reportedly sliced off the dead boy’s pinky finger and gave it to (pfc Andrew) Holmes, as a trophy for killing his first Afghan.”

I find myself looking at people differently than I used to. I see young children in military fatigues and camouflage and I wonder what their parents can possibly be thinking. I wonder about the young men I see around me. How many of them are war veterans? The guy in front of me in line at the grocery store has a crew cut. Has he ever cut the finger off the corpse of someone’s child that he killed? Does he still have it somewhere? What does he do now? Is he in law enforcement? Would he fire on unarmed Americans if ordered to? Or if he just felt like it? Grab my son by the throat and hold him up in the air if he annoyed him? I don’t know who the people around me are anymore.

My own answer to the question “why peace?” is an easy one: Because I unconditionally oppose the killing of children, and because I do not believe the lie that it is “sometimes necessary,” or that it can ever be “justified.” I suppose I could add to this “…or innocent adults,” since there is certainly nothing more moral or just about killing them. But for me it is the systematized and sanctioned killing of children that makes war intolerable.

“Serious people” aren’t supposed to bring this up when talking of war. In the days and weeks leading up to a war, we don’t hear the talking heads pontificating about the deaths of children. Instead, they ask how much the war will cost, how long it will last, what the goals are and whether “we” will accomplish them.

Nobody ever asks, “how many children will we kill? How many will we maim? Mutilate? And how will we kill them? Will we blow them into little pieces with u2018smart bombs’? Will we poison them with toxic sprays? Will our soldiers shoot them in the head? How many will they rape first? And how many children will die simply because they no longer have access to clean drinking water, or because the hospitals have been destroyed?”

To ask these kinds of questions is to reveal oneself as a “kook,” “naïve,” a “bleeding heart” and “unrealistic,” and to lose any hope of being taken seriously in the debate. Yet what could possibly be more serious?

Among the footage from the US war on Iraq, there is a scene in an Iraqi hospital. In it, a man carries the body of a baby that is either dying or already dead. Not because the baby has been shot or because his or her home was bombed, but because as a result of the UN-imposed economic embargo, there is no medicine available to treat the baby’s condition. The look on the man’s face as he carries the bundled up child helplessly should haunt anyone who so much as missed one opportunity to speak out against that murderous policy.

The scene is one of hundreds of thousands of such personal tragedies from that one act of war alone, some of which have been captured on camera, most of which have not. Each time I see one, I am jolted into an awareness that the images could well be of myself or my child. Thankfully it is not me, not my family, and it is purely by accident of where I was born that it is not. Knowing this, I feel some kind of responsibility to those who, purely by accident of where they were born, have these horrors inflicted upon them.

I am not a pacifist. I do believe that violence is sometimes justified. But war is not simply “violence,” and one need not be a pacifist to oppose war. One need not renounce all violence in order to oppose the establishment of a class of people who are above the law; a special situation under which it is acceptable to kill innocents. If the moral codes upon which our societies are built are to mean anything at all, then we must oppose war. If we believe that people have a right to their own lives, a right not to be killed or assaulted by others; and if we believe that that each person has as much right to be here as anyone else, that no-one is above the law, whether by virtue of political, social, economic or any other status, then we cannot believe in war.

Of all the lies that support war, one runs deeper than the others. It is a lie that was given to most of us at a very young age. It is a lie about who we are, what we are capable of and what is the true source of the violence in our world. It tries to make us believe that the way we live now – with our Officer Oglesbys and fire-bombings and economic embargoes and the cutting off of fingers of other people’s children – represents the natural order of things. That because we are such flawed beings, we can expect no better.

“As long as humans have a proclivity for violence,” this lie tells us, “there will always be war.” This is utter nonsense. War does not persist because human beings are flawed or unenlightened, or even because we are violent or hate each other. Even if all of this is true about us, it does not explain war. War is not just another form of violence. It is the institutionalization of unrestrained violence with no meaningful accountability for those who inflict it.

Our problems are not caused by our flawed nature, but by flawed institutions. There will always be Officer Oglesbys in our world. There will always be some people who don’t mind using violence to get what they want. There will always be criminals. The question is whether we have systems that protect the rest of us from the criminals, or systems that enable and even encourage the real criminals, while criminalizing those who are peaceful.

We would do well to disabuse ourselves of the notion that institutionalized violence creates order. It does not. It creates a safe place for people like Officer Oglesby, the men who killed Aiyana Jones, the Robert McNamaras and Curtis LeMays and the countless thousands of others who murder with impunity under cover of the state. It creates anarchy – the anarchy of Yeats’ poem, spinning us out of control and taking us further and further away from anything that can legitimately be called order.

But these institutions also eat away at our center. They eat away at who we are, conditioning us to accept force, violation and disrespect as part of our daily lives; to accept the doctrine that might makes right, and to believe that nothing else is possible. They tear us from our own centers, our own moral centers, our knowledge of who we are.

“Why peace?” The reasons to abhor war are numerous, from an unyielding belief in the sanctity of human life, to fears for our own children’s future. But the simplest answer, the most obvious answer, is the one that seems to elude most of us, either because we have forgotten it or had it “educated” out of us: Because it’s what we’re made for.

Bretigne Shaffer [send her mail] was a journalist in Asia for many years. She is the author of Memoirs of a Gaijin and Why Mommy Loves the State. She blogs at www.bretigne.com.

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