Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Lust for War




Back in the '80s I was watching an episode of “The New Twilight Zone,” in which Tony Franciosa, who was playing a demon, made the comment, "Ennui fills my days." Hmm, I thought, that's interesting, because ennui (or accidia) is a sin. It means a life of boredom, without meaning or purpose. It's not surprising, I thought, that a demon's life would be filled with ennui. And some other bad things, too, like envy, and sloth, and cowardice, and murder, and the lust for destruction. . .hmm I could swear C.S. Lewis noticed this in “The Screwtape Letters.”

I suppose the aforementioned traits are the reason why some men lust after war. I don't mean the kind of men who are born warriors, like the mythical Hercules (who, like all mythical characters, must have been based on real people). There are never many of these natural-born warriors in every generation. I mean Chickenhawks, who lust for war as long as they don't have to go. In fact, the last thing on their minds is going. They not only don't want to be at the front, they don't want to be at the rear, peeling potatoes. But they certainly will cheer for war, as long as they are several thousand miles away from it.

There always seems to be a lot of Chickenhawks in nearly every country. I guess there always has been, throughout history. Are there any Chickenhawks in the Bible? I should look. There is certainly a lot of other practical information in that book about human nature.

God knows there's enough Chickenhawks in the United States. There's a popular one on the radio, who always seems to avoid answering if he really skipped out on military service during Vietnam because of a cyst on his heinie. Or was it because he he hurt his knee playing football in high school? Personally, I'd rather say I hurt my knee rather than I had something wrong with my butt.

I suppose having a nice, peaceful life isn't good enough for Chickenhawks. Well, actually it is. They want peace for themselves. They just don't want it for other people, on the other side of the world. They want the vicarious thrill of war, while they sit like Pug-like inert lumps safely watching the TV.

Sheesh, talk about the imperfections of humanity. Better yet, the imperfectability. There's certainly something wrong with some people when peace isn't good enough for them, and it takes a war to get them revved up and make them feel there's a meaning to their lives. Otherwise, like my friendly TV demon, ennui fills their days.

I don't think the phrase "the lust for war" means much of anything by itself. It comprises a multitude of sins. It only makes sense when it's analyzed. If you want to understand something, the first step is to name it, and then take it apart. Things are much more dangerous otherwise.

The first sin of Chickenhawks, obviously, is cowardice. Chickenhawks are composed of the greatest cheerleaders for war you will ever see, as long as they are completely insulated from fighting it themselves. Observing Chickenhawks is how I finally decided on the definition of a true coward: you fight while I stay on the sidelines and give directions. Or course, I will simultaneously proclaim my bravery and curse everyone who mentions they're hearing a "buk buk buk" come from my direction.

The second sin of Chickenhawks is the ennui of which I just wrote. This one is pretty scary. Apparently there are some people out there whose lives are so lacking in any kind of purpose that they only feel fulfilled when there is a war. A war giving meaning to life? If there's a Satan out there somewhere, isn't that exactly what he would say? On the other hand, there certainly is a devil inside all of us, and that is all we need.

How in the world can war give meaning to some people's lives? Maybe Erich Fromm, author of such books as “Escape from Freedom,” and the political scientist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who wrote “Leftism Revisited,” were on to something when they suggested people want to be part of a group, so they can merge themselves in it to lose their anxiety and loneliness. They can lose their ego, their "self," in a group.

Chris Hedges, in his book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” writes this: "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, 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."

People are social creatures, and very few can live as disconnected atoms wandering around by themselves. But there are problems with mobs. When people suffer from ennui, merging themselves into a group lessens it. When there is a war, the energizing effects of it gives a meaning to those ennui-filled lives. Watch “Triumph of the Will,” where a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people part to let Hitler walk through, and you'll see the Dionysian frenzy of a mob of people. There's no ennui or lack of meaning there. It's a destructive meaning, but a destructive meaning is better than no meaning at all.

Robert Nisbet, in his “The Quest for Community,” also suggested people like to be in a group because it allows them to exalt themselves. It allows them to become part of something they consider greater than they are, even if it isn't, even if it is something very dangerous. The sin of ennui can lead people to become part of a group which exalts itself and finds a meaning in war. Watching war and planning it is exciting to the Chickenhawk. I suppose it's just like a little kid playing video games on the TV.

There's ennui and cowardice. What else? Well, now, there's sloth, specifically intellectual sloth. Those who lose themselves in a group often don't think things through. Maybe, most of the time. Why they heck should they? There's that warm herd feeling. Why spoil it with analyzing it and coming to the conclusion that maybe it's not such a good thing? Did any member of the Borg ever say, "You know, maybe I don't want to be a Borg anymore"?

Chickenhawks tend to idolize their leaders, sometimes following them right over a cliff. If you're going to be part of a group, you have to have a head, someone who's the leader. These groupthink people are the ones I've heard say, "My President." They would of course be outraged if anyone suggested that 65 years ago in another part of the world, someone just like them was saying, "Mein Fuhrer." (By the way, I'm not comparing Bush to Hitler. I'm comparing the one who says "My President" to the one who says, "Mein Fuhrer." I knew I'd have to repeat that.)

That word, "idolize," is an important one. It's related to the word, "ideal," which is the opposite of "devalue." Human nature makes those words opposite sides of the same coin. To some people, things are either idealized or devalued, good or bad with nothing in-between. To devalue someone is to dehumanize them, which is the first step to murdering them.

I've never heard it specifically listed as a sin, but to dehumanize someone is one of the greatest sins there is. It's the reason innocent people killed in war get called "collateral damage." Dehumanization is the basis of all propaganda. You tell people the enemy spits babies on bayonets, and some of them will believe it. When the enemy is devalued like that, the prohibition, "You will not murder" (the closest to a specific sin describing dehumanization), becomes much easier to break.

Almost as bad as devaluing is idealizing. As opponents are devalued, allied soldiers are idealized. They are praised for "making for the ultimate sacrifice," then forgotten when they come back permanently maimed. It's hard for Chickenhawks to idealize someone in a wheelchair. Such a sight will always burst the fantasy bubble in which they live.

People will idealize their ethnic group, their country, and their cause. They will claim God supports them, in every way. That is the sin of idealization, or making something into an idol. It's worshiping false gods. And worshiping your country, and your government, and your leaders, is certainly worshiping idols. All of which have feet of clay (and feet of clay comes from a a Biblical story about an idol).

It is the same thing, over and over, throughout history: people make themselves and their own into false idols, then worship them and don't know it. And don't believe it if it is pointed out. Then they always make their opponents into a devil. And all the while, the enemy is doing the same thing to them.

Cowardice, ennui, sloth, dehumanization and murder, the worshiping of the idols of self and State. . .those are the sins of the Chickenhawks who lust for war. And one of the strangest things about it is to them, those vices, in some kind of Bizarro World upending, are instead patriotic virtues.

2 comments:

Kent McManigal said...

"...to become part of something they consider greater than they are"... Like those pitiable losers portrayed in the army ads on TV?

Bob Wallace said...

Yep.