To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. That is certain. – Plato, The Republic
It is time to look behind the news. Operation Iraqi Freedom is officially concluded; U.S. operations in Afghanistan are reportedly moving in a similar direction. More generically, however, debate about combat operations, strategy and tactics remains ongoing.
Inevitably, we can reliably assume that similar debates will arise concerning still unforeseen theatres of conflict. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the prospect of such debates. But, even in our persistently anarchic and self-help system of world politics, it is ultimately important to seek and understand the more underlying and recurring reasons for war.
Freud understood. Whether we will choose to support or oppose any particular conflict, core causes and correctives of all war lie deeply embedded in the largely unchanging nature of humankind. It follows that until we can begin to understand and reform this corrosively destructive nature, our entire species will remain both predatory and imperiled.
At its most basic or “molecular” level, what we have witnessed in Iraq, and what we still see clearly in Afghanistan and other places, especially Syria, Pakistan, Sudan, and North Korea, is the malignant tribalism of a chaotic world order. There exists, also, in several regional “theatres,” a resultant or at least associated fusion of sectarian violence with various explicit (aggressively non-negotiable) claims of “sacredness.”
The 19th century German philosopher Hegel once commented: “The State is the march of God in the world.” This observation now applies equally to certain sub-state, jihadist terrorist groups. Faced with the dizzying unreason of both already-sovereign and sovereignty-seeking “tribes,” states and aspiring states that routinely extend compelling promises of inclusion and immortality in exchange for “martyrdom,” our global system stands a steadily diminishing chance of permanent survival.
We must also consider another, unprecedented fusion, one that is quite literally dreadful. This is the coming together of atomic capability with possible leadership irrationality. Presently, such an ominous combination is most readily worrisome in Iran, and perhaps North Korea and Pakistan, but there are also many other areas in which decision-making elites could sometime choose to value certain presumed religious obligations (“holy war”) more highly than any “normal” preference for national or group self-preservation.
As a species, we cannot hope to “fix” any particular conflicts until we have first understood the underlying human basis of violent world politics. The grinding chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan is more productively identified as a symptom than as an actual disease. More noteworthy than any immediately recognizable issues of separatism, insurgency, and suicide bombing, is the tangible consequence of individual human death fears, and the corollary individual terrors of social or national exclusion.
Always, global violence and disorder have their roots in the much deeper pain of individuals. In the end, this primal malady is the ubiquitous incapacity of people, everywhere, to discover authentic meaning and comfort outside the (state or terror) group, and, instead, within themselves. In our own intellectual history, this trenchant observation was already offered in the mid-19th century by the American Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau.
Despite the undying worldwide hopes still associated with the United Nations, a system of collective security can never save us. Any enduring rescue must always lie elsewhere. Above all, we must first acknowledge that there is always a crucial inner meaning to world order and global civilization. This individual human meaning can only be uncovered amid a widening willingness to look beyond assorted group promises of personal salvation (“You will not die”) in exchange for organized barbarism (war or terrorism).
“Just wars,” as we have known from Grotius to Jefferson, have a valid place in the world. They must, however, be fought only to protect the innocent, never to slaughter anonymous noncombatant “others” in sordid and bloody bargains for personal immortality. More than anything else, perhaps, it is the “denial of death” by individuals that ultimately spawns war and terror.
Although still unrecognized, even in universities, there is no greater power in world affairs than the power over death. From the beginning, all principal violence in world politics has been driven by a contrived tribal conflict between and within nations, and by a conspicuously “sacred” promise to reward the “faithful” with freedom from mortality. A related promise has been to include each loyal believer in a privileged community of the elect.
This lethal and usually irresistible promise is not unique to the present moment in history. It was as plainly evident in the “secular” policies of the Third Reich, as it is today throughout portions of the dar al Islam, the World of Islam.
Whether we know it or not, without an outsider to despise, a “heathen,” an “other,” we humans are generally apt to feel impotent, lonely, and lost. Drawing almost all of our benefits of self-worth from the collective, from what Freud (following Nietzsche and Stirner) called the “primal horde,” we technically superior beings remain unable to satisfy even the most elementary requirements of peaceful coexistence. Ironically, our substantial progress in certain technological and scientific realms has had absolutely no counterpart in fostering civilized human relations. We have advanced aircraft and advanced telephones, but still remain locked into fully barbaric patterns of social interaction. Recalling William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we know that we can be taught manners and gastronomy, but that, when the chips are down, the veneer of civilization can become utterly thin.