Wednesday, October 5, 2011
War as a False Religion
The last several years of wars have been enlightening to me about how some people react to them. The last few wars the U.S. was in – the first Iraq war, the "wars" on Serbia, and Panama – were so short I couldn't draw any conclusions. We haven't been in such a long conflict since Vietnam – and for people born since then, for all they know about it, it might as well have been the War of 1812.
I was a kid during Vietnam, too little to pay that much attention. I do remember the now-in-Hell ghoul Robert McNamara, who'll be washing several million gallons of blood off his hands for a long time to come. He was such a catastrophe, and so incompetent, he made Rumsfeld look like a tactical and logistical genius.
I also remember the power-mad Lyndon Johnson, who, if I had a time machine, would gladly replace with Barak Obama, who would be a decided improvement. LBJ, a pathological liar (as all true politicians are), said he would get us out of Vietnam and instead escalated the war. Then after his first term he ran away, dumping the war in Richard Nixon's lap. Close to two-thirds of the casualties in Vietnam occurred during Johnson's administration.
But now, I've had some some ten wars of war (and will have several more for observation), so I've had plenty of time to think about the effects of war on some people. The conclusion I've come to is that war is a religion.
Admittedly it is a false religion, but it is a religion nonetheless. The word "religion" means "to tie, fasten or bind." That is exactly what war does to some people – it brings them together into a community. It gives meaning to their lives. And that makes war a religion, albeit a ghastly one.
Robert Nisbet, an influential conservative sociologist – and "conservative sociologist" almost sounds like an oxymoron – wrote in his book Community and Power (republished as The Quest for Community), "The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the 20th century...one of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade."
The book, indeed all of his books, is about the alienation that comes from the loss of community. Such loss always happens with the expansion of the State. As it expands, it destroys all the intermediary institutions such as religion, neighborhoods and families. Finally, what could be left is nothing between people and the State. There are various names for such a condition – fascism, communism, Nazism. The State becomes everything, and people become absorbed into it. Think of the Borg.
Writers such as Erich Fromm and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn have pointed out many people want to be absorbed into a group as an escape from their alienation. It gives them a sense of community and security. Nisbet adds there is something else – such people don't give up their individuality in such groups, but instead exalt their selves, as they now believe they are part of something they think is much larger than they are.
They become, as I call it, "a community of gods." They believe the group itself is god-like, or blessed of God, so they partake of that "divinity" by being part of the group. They are literally worshipping their selves, a worship that always means those outside of the group are devalued into sub-humans whose murders are considered justified, necessary, and dismissed as "collateral damage."
As Russell Kirk noted, "the monstrous self is the source of all evil." The Nazis, the communists, and the fascists were that monstrous self writ large. I believe this is why Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote, "'I' is from God and 'We' is from the Devil." That "We" can only be of the Devil when the State destroys the intermediary institutions, and the only "We" left is the combination of the people and the State.
During long-term warfare society becomes militarized and in doing so damages, destroys or absorbs such intermediary institutions as churches. Then we end up with disgraces such as Jerry Falwell claiming "God is pro war," which of course means God supports only the wars of the United States.
When the interests of religion and the interests of the State coalesce into supporting the same unjust wars, what we have left is no true religion at all. The State instead becomes God on Earth. War then becomes the fist of that god, one to smite the "wicked."
"When the goals and values of a war are popular," writes Nisbet, "both in the sense of mass participation and spiritual devotion, the historic, institutional limits of war tend to recede further and further into the void. The enemy becomes not only a ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil which the forces of good may mobilize themselves into a militant community."
In short, war can give meaning and community – and the intoxication of blood and power – to some people's lives. That makes it a religion, a false one based on hubris and being drunk with power. Power does more than just corrupt; it intoxicates. In The Lord of the Rings, it was that power that turned Smeagol into Gollum. The same thing could happen to people in reality.
Always ignored, of course, is what war does to those on the receiving end. If not ignored, then rationalized. "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them," noticed George Orwell.
This meaning and community – this religion – is a false one, destined to bring disillusionment and destruction to those who believe in it. War is a false god. Perhaps sometimes war is unavoidable, but it is an idol that can never give true meaning to a peoples' lives.