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Vol. 11, No. 1, 2012
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Robert J. Lewis
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Louis René Beres
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

current and future wars are but shadows of

Rene Louis Beres


Louis René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international politics. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog (Oxford University Press).

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing
but the shadows of the images. That is certain.
Plato, The Republic

Operation Iraqi Freedom is officially concluded; U.S. operations in Afghanistan are moving in a similar direction. Still, internal debate about combat and tactics remains ongoing, and we can reliably assume that similar debates will quickly arise concerning future theatres of conflict. While there is assuredly nothing wrong with the prospect of such debates, it is urgent to understand the reasons for our ‘next’ wars.

These reasons, always-underlying, are nuanced, recurring, and often inter-penetrating. Whether we will ultimately choose to support or oppose any new conflict, the core causes and correctives will inevitably lie deeply in the shadowy emotional corners of humankind. Until we begin to acknowledge and reform a usually corrosive human nature, our entire species will stay both predatory and imperiled.

At its most basic, or ‘molecular’ level, what we have witnessed in Iraq, and what we still see fearfully in Afghanistan and other places, is the endlessly malignant tribalism of a chaotic world order, and, also, the resultant fusion of sectarian violence with aggressively sanctimonious claims of group superiority. The 19th century German philosopher Hegel once commented: “The State is the march of God in the world.” This literally dreadful observation now applies equally well to certain sub-state, especially Jihadist, terrorist groups. Faced with the dizzying unreason of already-sovereign and sovereignty-seeking ‘tribes’ -- states and aspiring states that freely extend compelling promises of inclusion and immortality in exchange for ‘martyrdom’ -- our global system stands precious little chance of stability or coexistence.

There is another unprecedented fusion to be examined. This is the possible joining together of atomic capability with leadership irrationality. Presently, such an ominous combination is most evidently worrisome in Iran, North Korea, and a potentially post-coup Pakistan. But there are many other places in which certain ‘eccentric’ decision-making elites could plausibly choose to value certain presumed religious obligations more highly than any national or sub-group preservation. These would represent, of course, the most dire circumstances of sacred or ‘holy’ war.

As a species, we cannot hope to fix or dampen any particular conflicts before we have first understood the human basis of all world politics. In this vast and fractionated arena, passion regularly trumps reason. Almost always, there is much more to be learned from Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jung and Freud, than from modern economics, or (heaven help us) contemporary political science.

We must learn to look seriously ‘behind the news.’ Metaphorically, the grinding chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan can be more productively identified as a key symptom of pathology, than as a disease unto itself. More explanatory, in the long term, than any immediately recognizable issues of separatism, insurgency, and suicide bombing, are: (1) the distinctly tangible consequences of individual human ‘death fears;’ and (2) the corollary individual terrors of social or tribal ‘exclusion.’

All global violence and disorder are epiphenomenal. These readily observable symptoms have their most nourishing roots in the often indecipherable disorders of private individuals. In the end, this primal malady of pain and anarchy reflects a ubiquitous incapacity of people, everywhere, to discover authentic meaning and purpose within themselves; that is, outside the hideously false comforts proffered by ‘tribes.’

Despite the curiously undying hopes associated with the United Nations, no system of collective security can save us. Planetary rescue must lie elsewhere. Above all, we must affirm that there exists a crucial inner meaning to world order and global civilization. This individual human meaning can only be uncovered amid a steadily-widening willingness to look beyond assorted group promises of personal salvation (“You will not die”) in exchange for complicity in the always-jubilantly organized barbarisms of war or terrorism.

“Just wars,” as Hugo Grotius argued back in the seventeenth century, can have a correct and indispensable place in the world. They must, however, be fought solely to protect the innocent, never to slaughter anonymous noncombatant others in a sordid and bloody exchange of collaboration for "immortality."
Although still unrecognized, even in universities, there is no greater power in world affairs than ‘power over death.’ Never. From the beginning, violence in world politics has been driven by systematically contrived tribal conflicts, both between and within nations. Always, in one form or another, the deal extends a conspicuously ‘sacred’ promise to reward the faithful with freedom from mortality.

A related promise has been to include loyal believers in a privileged and celebrated ‘community of the elect.’ Here, looking triumphantly over mountains of fresh corpses, the good tribal citizen knows that he or she is still standing. Could there possibly be a more compelling promise?

This lethal and normally irresistible exchange of violence for sacredness is not unique to our present moment. It was already evident and determinative in the interminable wars of ancient Greece and Rome, during the Crusades and in the Third Reich.

Whether we know it or not, without an outsider to loathe -- a heathen, an other -- we humans are apt to feel isolated, impotent, lonely and lost. Drawing virtually all of our self-worth from the collective, from what Freud (following Nietzsche and Thoreau) had called the "primal horde," we technically superior beings are unable to satisfy even the most elementary requirements of inter-personal harmony. Ironically, our plainly substantial progress in technological and scientific realms still has no discernible counterpart in truly civilized social relations.

We humans can manufacture advanced jet aircraft, or even travel to outer space, but before we are allowed to board a commercial flight, we must first take off our shoes. The point, of course, is not to make us more comfortable as passengers (this is never the case), but only to ensure that we won't blow up the plane.

How fundamentally we have miscarried our most basic planetary responsibilities. How unimaginably we have scandalized our own creation. Insistently, we deeply want to be upbeat about the world. Desperately, we absolutely ache to retrieve streams of banal yet reassuring messages on the cell phone and on related social networks.

When someone is asked, "How are you?" the answer must always be the same. "I'm great."

This is an unhesitating or push-button response, a mostly wistful reply, born of an almost viscerally felt need to appear popular, vibrant, and above all, successful.

Such concocted need is not merely demeaning and injurious. It is also misplaced. While anathema as a principle of competitive world politics, no one of us is ever really successful except to the extent that he or she can relieve the pain of others.

There will always be great suffering and injustice in the world. “The ceremony of innocence,” says the Irish poet, Yeats, “is drowned.” In the major matters of world affairs, nothing really important ever changes. Yes, we may continue to develop shiny new electronic toys, telephones and other gadgets to fill our breathlessly-busy, but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually empty days. Nonetheless, soon, on the utterly overriding but neglected question of human survival, we will live more precariously and tentatively than ever before.

In our persistently omnivorous arrangements of planetary politics, we humans remain dedicated to all conceivable varieties of ritual violence, and also to various sacrificial practices that are conveniently disguised as war or diplomacy. Oddly, perhaps, this grotesque dedication is not necessarily an example of immorality or foolishness. After all, our entire system of international relations, first shaped after the Thirty Years’ War at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), is itself rooted in a codified and unchanging pattern of expanding harms and institutional horror.

No doubt, at the purely personal level, many of us will somehow continue to live well in this murderous world system, but only because we have steadfastly refused to believe what still lies ahead. Preoccupied, literally, with hyper-consumption, gossip and political nonsense, the television and electronic news devotes more time each day to shallow witticisms, crude commerce, celebrity sex scandals and grotesque killings than to the steadily impending paroxysms of mega-terror and nuclear war.

Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with statistics, charts and numerical calculations, we Americans still misunderstand the animating rhythms of certain adversarial or enemy civilizations. These relentless foes can never be influenced by any neatly rational prospects for peace. Nor can they be effectively challenged by the usual historical correctives of war. Instead, eagerly embracing homicide as remediation, they will prefer to leer voluptuously over expected heaps of enemy dead. Then, they will declare contentedly: "La vita è bella."

For our deteriorating global civilization, hope still exists, but it must sing softly, in an undertone. For some, the palpable horror of life on earth may create a deafening noise, but, even for them, it will still be possible to listen for faint sounds of personal grace and harmony. To survive, as a species, we must first pay very close attention to our private states of anxiety, restlessness and apprehension. Only then will we be able to see meaningfully beyond the shadows of truth.

In some significant but wholly unrecognized measure, the time for science, technology, modernization, globalization, and social networking is already over. To survive and grow, the individual human being must finally learn to rediscover what the American Transcendentalist thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had once called a “genuine,” or "authentic," or “self-reliant” life, one that is deliberately detached from mass identity, crippling death fear, and ritually violent paths to immortality.

With such a candid expression of an awakened and mortal individuality, we humans could still learn that agony is more important than astronomy, that cries of despair are more meaningful than the most exquisitely refined powers of technology, and that flowing human tears have much fuller meanings than the smiles and gibberish of tribes. "The man who laughs,” understood playwright Bertolt Brecht, "has simply not yet heard the horrible news."

In the end, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and so on, are all merely symptoms. The immanent horror of current and future wars can never be undone by tackling symptoms, improving global economics, fashioning international treaties, defeating endless insurgencies, or by spreading plutocracies disguised as democracy. We humans lack a tolerable global future, not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have utterly failed to learn what is important.

Until we can finally understand who we are as individual persons, both our potentialities and our limitations, we will remain mired in the shadows, preparing, pitifully, to fight the next war.


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