The Sense of War

How do we come by it – this ” warring madness,” this
bloodlust? The historian, Will Durant, says that in all recorded human
history (and, no doubt, prior to recorded history) there have only
been twenty-nine years of global peace. Quibble with the preciseness
of that claim, if you will. The fact remains that peace is a rare
commodity. The penchant for peace hardly seems to be in our nature.
That is one explanation for the aeons of bloodshed. It’s bred in
the bone.

Speaking of bones, there is that early scene in Stanley Kubrick’s
brilliant film 2001: A Space Odyssey (2001 was two years ago, by the
way. Imagine that). The band of apes, human pre-cursers on the verge,
is idly messing about when one, pushing a pile of bones around
suddenly finds one resting in its palm. He grips it with that
opposable thumb, lifts it, swings it, pounds it on the ground. Then,
as the music rises to over-the-top pitch, he raises it, tosses it into
the air in evolutionary triumph. Clearly he has not discovered an
implement for stirring soup. He has discovered a club. Let other
tribes beware. This tribe has a weapon of mass destruction. Bred in
the bone. Human nature.

We are creatures of nature and nature, as Tennyson wrote (lest we
romanticize too much), nature is ?red in tooth and claw.? Many have
delighted in reminding us of our still-barbaric nature. Back in the
70’s, anthropologist Desmond Morris gained popular fame with a
book titled The Naked Ape. The title says it all.

Perhaps, like me, you were introduced to William Golding’s
Lord of the Flies by a bore of an English teacher who
imagined himself a master of classroom discussion. A group of English
boarding school boys are shipwrecked and washed up on a deserted
island. No adults. No established culture. No law, politicians,
churches, or police. The scene is set. What plays out inevitably (this
is Golding’s lesson after all) is primitive religious impulse,
sacrifice, power seeking, dominance, and choosing up sides. No
surprises there.

Traditional Christian theology assures us that we are a bad lot,
destined since the fall of Adam and Eve to remain so until redeemed
from our innate sin by Christ’s triumphant return accompanied by
the mother of all battles, by the way, Armageddon: divisions of
charging angels and the sanctified spilling of the blood of sinners.
Human violence, so the story goes, is a direct consequence of first
man and first woman’s disobedience – their will to power –
humankind’s willful turning from God. No sooner had humankind
gained the power to choose than did Cain choose to slay his brother
Abel in anger, out of jealousy.

So, it is said, we make war on each other because it is in our very
nature to do so. It is also in our nature, so many believe, to drive
to rise above the common herd, to achieve recognition, glory, and
honor. To be a hero. To lead the pack. One can do that in many ways,
of course: by inventing the wheel, discovering oxygen, transplanting a
heart, leading a nation to a promised land of freedom, dying on a

But most choose fame and glory, with a bone-club, sword in hand, or
finger on a button. Oh to have been at Thermopylae, to have stood with
the Maccabeans, shared victory with Henry at Agincourt! Henry IV
writes to Crillon, “Hang yourself brave Crillon, We fought the
battle at Arques, and you were not there!” Crillon missed a
chance at heroism, glory, definition as a man among men through death
and bloodshed. As far as King Harry was concerned, Crillon might as
well be dead as to have missed such a marvelous opportunity. Those
were the days in which, if you were the leader of the nation and you
wanted to go to war, you went right up front of all the others.

The New York Times reviewer of Anthony Sawford’s book
Jarhead calls it, significantly, a “coming of age”
story. It’s about Sawford’s tour of duty in the Marines in
Vietnam in which he writes, “I understood that manhood had to do
with war, and war with manhood, and to no longer just be a son, I
needed someday to fight.”

One of my colleagues, Unitarian Universalist minister Davidson Loehr,
wrote in the UU ministers Online Chat recently about being a
photojournalist in Vietnam. He says,

I guess a – terribly important thing to understand about soldiers
who go through the experience of war is that it is absolutely the
most powerful – I say, sacred – experience they will ever have.
Nothing in the rest of their lives is likely ever to touch the
depth, power, immediacy, danger, or excitement of war. It is the
closest thing our society has to a coming-of-age ceremony.

While it’s true that the veterans of fifty, or forty, or thirty
years ago may have been daily confronted with death in their time of
war, it is also clear that for many of them, those were the years in
which they came alive and many have not felt so alive, so important,
so filled with purpose and value, since they put their uniform away.
And when their stories are told they are told almost wistfully –
recounted as adventures. So, we make war – perhaps because after aeons
upon evolving aeons it is still in our blood and bred in our bones to
pick up a club or throw a spear or a missile; perhaps, to some extent,
because of the blare of the trumpet, the snapping of banners in the
wind, and the promise of a hero’s life or even death the making of
war remains irresistible. As the officer in the movie ?Apocalypse Now?
says, “God, I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”

But let me move to another, perhaps more subtle reason why we human
beings can maintain warfare as an option, though it doesn’t stray
far from what I’ve been saying. Consider the proposition that war
injects meaning, value, and purposes into essentially hollow and
meaningless lives.

With his book The Message in the Bottle, one of my favorite
novelists, the late Walker Percy, seduced by his own reputation for
insight into our sinful nature, ventured disastrously into the realm
of non-fiction. There is, however, one intriguing thought in that
random collection of thoughts that stays with me and is revived. Percy
has us imagine that we are going about our daily routine when we get
word that a hurricane is building in strength and could be coming our
way. Hour after hour, throughout the day and into the evening, we
listen to the reports and watch the news clips of the havoc being
wrought in the hurricane’s path. The sky darkens. Rain begins. The
trees creak and moan, swing wildly back and forth. We bring in the
lawn furniture. Something is happening. It gets late. We nod off –
perhaps to dream of Dorothy and the wicked witch. Then, jolted awake
by the silence, we turn to the window. Where is the devastation, the
rubble, the broken carcass of the cursed dog across the street? All is
well. The threat has passed. The rain has stopped. The trees are still
and the sky has brightened. Nothing happened. Are we relieved? Well,
of course.

Come, says Percy, be honest. Somewhere in the back of your minds,
somewhere just a little below full awareness, is the unacceptable
emotion: disappointment. Something was going to happen. A drama was
unfolding in our undramatic lives. And it passed us by, leaving us
with nothing more than whatever shred of meaning we had possessed.

War has the same exhilarating effect writes Chris Hedges in his book
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Chris Hedges is an
active Unitarian Universalist, a graduate of the traditionally
Unitarian Harvard Divinity School, a journalist, Pulitzer Prize
winner, and a correspondent who, as he says, has crawled on his belly
through every war in the past twenty years. Hedges’ thesis is
that, for all its horror (and he does not minimize the horror), for
all its horror, war is a drug – “a potent and lethal
addiction.” He writes,

[War] is peddled by mythmakers, historians, war correspondents,
filmmakers, novelists, and the state – all of whom endow it with
qualities it often does not possess: excitement, exoticism, power,
chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and
fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty.

Can it be true – the war offers the chance to enhance our lives, to
“rise above our small stations in life…” I do remember the
terrifying bellow of the Air Raid Warden on our block during the war
in England. Sitting by the fireplace in the dim glow of small lamps,
listening to the radio with my mother and father and, suddenly,
“Put out that bloody light!!!” Someone had forgotten to draw
a curtain or pull a shade. A beam of light from a living room window
perhaps guiding a Luftwaffe bomb to our very street. I remember
shaking and crying with fear. And I remember my father growling,
“Damn that man!” and saying, “It’s only Harry, the
dustman, gone mad with power.”

How many emptiers of barrels of ashes, street sweepers,
chimney-sweepers, out of work lay-abouts were thrust into power,
authorized to shout in the night, given stripes, and become leaders of
men? My great uncle, who before the war had worked in a rail yard
emptying coal cars, through a series of who-knows-what horrible
eliminations, became an officer, photographed then resplendent with
boots a stick, a Tom Brown belt, and a hat, with a visor, no less.
Hedges writes,

The enduring attraction of war is this: – Even with its destruction
and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give
us purpose, meaning, and a reason for living. Only when we are in
the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of
our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and
increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives
us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.

Think of what dominates television programming these days. It’s
called “reality TV.” It astounds me and depresses me that
even the major networks, in prime time, feature people swallowing
worms and wriggling grubs, diving into pools filled with ice, or being
buried in a box full of snakes. How desperately empty, how incredibly
pointless does a life need to be for someone to allow himself or
herself to be subjected to such mindless degradation? And how vacuous
are the lives and the minds of the millions who sit and watch, and, by
their watching, encourage more of the same? No wonder seventy percent
of Americans approve this war. For many, if not for most, it is the
only event of note that has happened in their lives in a decade –
perhaps ever. Reality TV. Hour after hour of real guns, real soldiers,
real death, destruction, and devastation.

Wilfred Owen wrote a poem of the First World War. It’s called
Dulce et decorum est.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent
– My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
The old lie “it is sweet to die for one’s country.”

“War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.” War is not, of
course, the only force that gives us meaning. By no means is it true
(and I do not suggest it nor does Hedges in his book) that only those
in empty lives go off to war. There are, no doubt, those here this
morning who went to war because something thoroughly evil had arisen
in the world, something that only violence and sacrifice would send to
the pit from which it came. But if we are going to “study”
war, as the hymn puts it, if we are going to consider war, think about
it, attempt to understand it and in understanding war and how we
perpetuate it perhaps understand a little more of ourselves, then we
must consider the part played in the barbarism and banality by our
very unfinished, surely still-evolving human nature, by our secret
desires for heroism and recognition, and by our lives that threaten
always to unravel into emptiness and loss of meaning, requiring some
excitement in which to carry on. For it is surely not simply that wars
are fought in our time because bad people do, or threaten to do, bad
things to good people, or because one warrior in silver armor is sworn
to free the wretched captives of the warrior in black armor. We have
come a long way from one primitive banging another in the head, either
for effect or for a hunk of wildebeest. But we have also come a long
way in terms of complicating justifications, rationalizations,
psychological, sociological, and, yes, theological reasons for the
contemporary equivalent of banging in the head.

Perhaps our religious communities, in searching for their meaning, can
be at least among those places in our cultures where – as in mountain
temples – we learn to no longer need to find heroism in violence, no
longer need to rise above our station. Perhaps our religious
communities can, in some far off day, take us beyond war by truly
setting before us possibilities for lives of meaning, value, purpose,
and excitement in the wonders of daily life.

A final quote from Chris Hedge’s book: he writes,

To survive as a human being is possible only through love. And when
Thanatos (death) is ascendant, the instinct must be to reach out to
those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity, and pathos of
the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others – even
those with whom we are in conflict – love that is like our own. It
does not mean that we will avoid war or death. It does not mean
that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its
mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures.
It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has power both
to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm
what we know we must affirm.

Perhaps the term “love” is too elusive here. I will presume
to offer a substitute term – compassion. Compassion is the ability to
be in the place of the other. So, with apologies to Mr. Hedges,
“Compassion has power both to resist in nature what we know we
must resist, and to affirm what we know we must affirm.”

May all that we say and do lead us further into peace.