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Abolishing the War System: The Big Picture

The patina of glory that surrounds war is wearing off. Is this the beginning of the end of the war mindset?

Sparrow gun, image by Adam Jones

Photo by Adam Jones

About the murderous rampage of U.S. soldiers from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, who killed and dismembered Afghani civilians evidently "for sport," the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported on September 20, "Army officials have not disclosed a motive" for the outrage. Let me try.

Violence is puzzling when we can't see the forest for the trees. If we focus on just this event—and it's certainly a shocker—we may not realize that it's part of a much larger pattern. We must take a step back—in fact, two steps—and take in the whole picture.

What these men did is only one of many signs of breakdown in both of our long, drawn-out wars in the Middle East. In Iraq, for example, from a report filed by McClatchy's Washington Bureau on September 17:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse in the ranks, and the associated misdemeanor offenses, have risen alarmingly in the nine-year course of the war."Drug and alcohol abuse is [now] a significant health problem in the Army," stated a 350-page report the Army released in July.
  • Sexual assault tripled in the period 2001-2009; and most telling:
  • So did suicide. There were 148 Army suicides in the first six months of this year and the toll is expected to surpass last year's grim total of 160.

Moreover, record numbers of veterans from both wars are unable to work, maintain relationships, or stay out of jail.

At least now the Army is starting to lend some humane attention to these men and women, after a decade of denial and neglect. Said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army:

We can't use these people up, have them develop a problem and then throw them away and not take care of them. There is no way. I can't be part of an organization like that. Part of the reason they're having the problem is the situation we put them into.

And what is that situation? These soldiers lose it because they were put into a war that should never have been fought. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—and our leaders knew it. Similarly, it was not necessary to destroy the entire Taliban movement—assuming that military force could accomplish such a thing—to capture Osama bin Laden (which, of course, has not happened anyway).

People are becoming more aware that we cannot solve problems by waging war on them.

But to get the final answer, we have to step back yet again. We have to recognize that there is such a thing as moral progress. Slavery was considered normal from the earliest records of history down to the 19th century of our era, when a small band of Quakers in London started a movement that broke the spell and suddenly brought to light the horror of enslaving another human being. Slavery still happens, but that's because of other factors; it was formally abolished in the 19th century because the time was right for people to wake up and stop looking on a whole race of human beings as objects, as possessions.

Today, we are reaching a similar crisis with the institution of war. Despite appearances, people are becoming more aware that we cannot solve problems by waging war on them. If you are not aware that this is happening, you are not alone; watch any news or "entertainment" program and you'll see that competition, violence and war are still considered "normal." It's rare to spot nonviolent, alternative methods, since they are so rarely featured in mainstream media.

Iraq VeteranHeal the Warrior, Heal the Country:
Our country will not find peace until we take responsibility for our wars.

It is significant that a good number of the troubled veterans we just mentioned are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), exactly, but a variant recently uncovered by psychologist Rachel McNair that she calls PITS: perpetration induced traumatic stress. Simply put, when we do violence against others, we are in some psychological way hurting ourselves—and that pain is becoming more evident as the patina of glory surrounding war wears off. One brigade commander correctly pointed out that the drug problem is "just a symptom of the disease." But the name of the disease is not dysfunctional leaders or lax discipline or a particular conflict that should not have been fought; it's war.

When we do violence against others, we are in some psychological way hurting ourselves—and that pain is becoming more evident as the patina of glory surrounding war wears off.

Back when he was campaigning, soon-to-be President Obama said that we must "not only end war [in Iraq] but end the mindset that leads to war." Of course, he did nothing of the kind. And, so, it's up to us.

I encourage anyone who hasn't already done so to familiarize him- or herself with the alternatives to war that fall into three broad categories:

  1. living more lightly on the earth, since most wars today are fought over its diminishing resources;
  2. diplomacy, mediation, and international institutions that can keep disputes from turning into wars; and
  3. nonviolent mechanisms to deal with the wars that nonetheless break out, like the unarmed interventions just mentioned that are helping to reduce violence in trouble spots all over the world now.

I recommend that we all learn about these things and talk about them with family, friends, and our congressmen or women. You may not get anything but raised eyebrows at first, but remember what Gandhi said about a real innovation: "First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you—and then you win."


Michael NaglerMichael Nagler is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. This article first appeared on Truthout.

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