current and future wars are but shadows of
WHAT IS IMPORTANT
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.’
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
someone is asked, "How are you?" the answer must always
be the same. "I'm great."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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