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War, Truth, And The Shadows Of Meaning


Beres-Louis-Rene

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.

Still, insistently, we want to be upbeat about the world. Desperately, we want to receive streams of reassuring messages on the cell phone, and on related social networks. When someone is asked, “How are you?” the answer is always be the same. “I’m great.”

This is an unhesitating or push-button response, a mostly untruthful reply, born of an almost viscerally felt need to appear popular, vibrant and “successful.” Such need is not merely demeaning and injurious; it is also sorely misplaced. No one of us is ever really “successful” except to the extent that we may become privileged to relieve the pain of others.

There will always be suffering and injustice in the world. In major matters of world affairs, nothing really important ever changes. Yes, we may continue to develop shiny new electronic toys, telephones, and other gadgets to fill the breathlessly busy but often empty days. Nonetheless, on the utterly overriding issue of human survival, we will probably live more precariously and tentatively than ever before.

In this persistently omnivorous arrangement of planetary politics, we humans remain dedicated to all conceivable varieties of ritual violence, and to various sacrificial practices that are conveniently disguised as war, politics, or diplomacy. Oddly, perhaps, this grotesque dedication is not necessarily an example of immorality or foolishness. After all, our entire system of international relations, first shaped after the Thirty Years’ War at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), is itself rooted in a codified pattern of institutional horror.

No doubt many of us will continue to live well personally, but only because we have steadfastly refused to believe what is coming. Preoccupied with gossip and nonsense, the television and electronic news devotes more time each day to the latest celebrity sex scandals, sports team rivalries, and local killings than to the increasingly impending paroxysms of mega-terror and nuclear war.

Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with statistics, charts, and numerical calculations, we Americans still misunderstand the animating rhythms of particular enemy civilizations. These relentless adversaries can never be influenced by any conspicuously humane or concessionary prospects for “peace.” Instead, eagerly embracing homicide as remediation, these foes will prefer to leer voluptuously over expected mountains of fresh corpses. Then, because we have consistently failed to understand them, they will declare, contentedly, “Life is good.”

For global civilization, hope exists, but it must now sing softly, weakly, in an undertone. For some, the palpable horror of life on earth may even create a deafening noise, but for them it will still be possible to listen for faint sounds of grace and harmony. To survive as a species, we must first pay very close attention to our utterly private states of anxiety, restlessness and apprehension.

In some measure, the time for “science,” “modernization,” “globalization,” “social networks,” and “new information technologies” is already over. To prevail, the individual human being must somehow learn to rediscover what Ralph Waldo Emerson had called a “genuine” or “self-reliant” life, one that is deliberately detached from mass identity, overriding death fear, and, especially, ritually violent promises of immortality.

With such a candid expression of an awakened and mortal individuality, we humans could still learn that agony is more important than astronomy, that cries of despair are more meaningful than the most exquisitely refined powers of technology, and that flowing tears have much deeper meanings than publicly constructed smiles. “The man who laughs,” commented playwright Bertolt Brecht, “has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”

In the end, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, etc., are merely symptoms. We humans now lack a tolerable global future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have failed to learn what is truly important.

Our core problem is not that we have eaten too sparingly of the Tree of Knowledge, but that we have stubbornly refused to eat voraciously from the Tree of Life.

Until we can finally understand who we are as individual persons, we will always be preparing to fight and debate the next war.

Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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