Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, June 22, 2003  

Toward the end of the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," there's a scene in which Lawrence is driving his united desert tribes to Damascus and they encounter a fleeing column of Turks. The Arabs will follow Lawrence's lead, though they desperately want to wade in for the slaughter. Earlier in the film, the Turks tortured Lawrence, and he shares their old tribal enmity. It's one of the most poignant moments in film, as the director David Lean allows the camera to watch dispassionately on as Peter O'Toole--as Lawrence--slides into insanity. He can't resist his hatred, and soon the sands are stained with blood.

I saw the movie on Friday at our local repertory theater, and so it's fresh in my mind. Yesterday, seeing the quotes of hate-ridden soldiers in Iraq, I was awash in their sense--as seen on Lawrence's face--of being overtaken by emotion. As Tacitus pointed out in comments to the post, though, what that emotion meant to me wasn't clear.

In terms of human experience, war (in the broadest sense--including huddling in a basement, watching your wife being raped, being pinned under fire, watching loved ones die, and so on and so on and so on) creates the space for the most uncontrolled, reactive emotion we are capable of. In 2003, we forget this. Our power is so overwhelming, our technology so many years ahead of our (usual) enemies, our press so favorable to the heroes of war, that we forget that men and women still must go out and fight. They enter a conflict in which metal is exchanged at hundreds of miles an hour. It doesn't matter much if your army has stealth bombers and ICBMs when a civilian pulls a gun from underneath his robes and starts blasting at you. So of course, this extreme circumstance creates extreme emotion: hatred.

I'm a Buddhist. My views on war are pretty much well outside the mainstream on the issue. It's my view that if you look at the level of human suffering on the globe at any given time, it's constant. The suffering just moves around. Taking the view that war accomplishes some useful outcome is parsing the situation very carefully, defining outcomes very specifically. Empires rise and fall. Wars are waged, and evanescent cultural comforts gained and lost. Even within countries, the levels of suffering wax and wane, depressions to boom times. And so it is with individual lives. We live, we experience, we suffer, we rejoice. It's life. Taking this larger view, it's my conclusion that engaging in war is the riskiest of all ventures. In almost every case, it creates the seeds for more wars. And for those unfortunate enough to be in a war, the Lawrence-like insanity and uncontrollable hatred is never far away.

But I also know that this doesn't reflect the realpolitik of global conflict. You marginalize yourself when you say that war, as an institution is enormously dangerous. In comments to another blog, Lawrence Krubner wrote that the only way to handle the situation in the Middle East is with force. It's a widely-held sentiment.

So is there a secondary message even a Buddhist has the credibility to deliver? I think there may be. War is enormously dangerous. The chicken hawks like to preen and trash talk, and so far no one's seriously opposing them. But the danger isn't to their well-being. In terms of realpolitik, it's exactly what they want--they want to rally patriotism and put their leader in a jet. The danger is to the long-term health of America. Before the Iraq invasion, plenty of folks saw the danger of this muddled effort--we saw the dead piling up, we saw the post-war confusion, we saw America presiding over a powder keg.

And we also saw the US soldiers subjected to a situation that would inevitably damage them. It's impossible to kill, watch your friends and comrades die, to be shot at without incurring serious psychological (not to mention physical) damage.. If we're going to submit our citizens to that situation, what's the goal? To have Bush appear like a Caesar and appeal to our vanity of empire? We're dealing with realpolitik here, right? So let's not go sentimental and think that we were invading Iraq for the sake of oppressed people (Congo and Burma stand as refutation to that). Let's not think that we did it to make America safer--not a single source has ever credibly linked Iraq to terror, and no one was seriously arguing that it was the most threatening country to the US. And let's not think that invading was done with any real confidence of bringing American-style Democracy to the deeply divided country. So the question is, with all the damage this war has caused, is causing, and will continue to cause, why did it make the most sense of all possible options?

Specialist Corporal Michael Richardson has a right to know. As a Buddhist, a witness to all the damage this war has caused the world, I do, too.

posted by Jeff | 10:35 AM |
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