war, truth and the
SHADOWS OF MEANING
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
It is time to look
behind the news. Operation Iraqi Freedom is now officially concluded;
U.S. operations in Afghanistan are reportedly moving in a similar
direction. More generically, however, debate about combat strategy
and tactics remains ongoing.
we can assume that similar debates will arise concerning still
unforeseen theatres of conflict. To be sure, there is nothing
wrong with the prospect of such debates. But, even in our persistently
anarchic and self-help system of world politics, it is ultimately
important to seek and understand the more underlying and recurring
reasons for war.
understood. Whether we will choose to support or oppose any
particular conflict, core causes and correctives of all war
lie deeply embedded in the largely unchanging nature of humankind.
It follows that until we can begin to understand and reform
this corrosively destructive nature, our entire species will
remain both predatory and imperiled.
its most basic level, what we have witnessed in Iraq, and what
we still see clearly in Afghanistan and other places, especially
Syria, Pakistan, Sudan, and North Korea, is the malignant tribalism
of a chaotic world order. There exists, also, in several regional
theatres, a resultant or at least associated fusion of sectarian
violence with various explicit claims of sacredness.
19th century German philosopher, Hegel, once commented: “The
State is the march of God in the world.” This observation
now applies equally to certain sub-state, terrorist groups.
Faced with the dizzying unreason of both already-sovereign and
sovereignty-seeking tribes, states and aspiring states that
routinely extend compelling promises of inclusion and immortality
in exchange for martyrdom, our global system stands a diminishing
chance of permanent survival.
must also consider another, unprecedented fusion. This is the
coming together of atomic capability with possible leadership
irrationality. Presently, such an ominous combination is most
readily worrisome in Iran, and perhaps North Korea and Pakistan,
but there are also many other areas in which decision-making
elites could sometime choose to value certain presumed religious
obligations more highly than any normal preference for group
a species, we cannot hope to fix any particular conflicts until
we have first understood the underlying human basis of violent
world politics. The grinding chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan is
better identified as a symptom, than as a disease. Especially
noteworthy are the tangible consequences of human death fears,
and also the corollary terrors of social or national exclusion.
violence and disorder have their deepest roots in the pain of
individuals. This primal malady is the ubiquitous incapacity
of people to discover meaning and comfort outside the (state
or terror) group, and, instead, within themselves. In our own
intellectual history, this trenchant observation was already
offered in the mid-19th century by the American Transcendentalists,
Emerson and Thoreau.
is always a crucial inner meaning to world order and global
civilization. This individual meaning can only be uncovered
amid a widening willingness to look beyond assorted group promises
of personal salvation in exchange for war or terrorism.
wars, as we have long known, do have a correct place in the
world. They must, however, be fought only to protect the innocent,
never to slaughter anonymous noncombatant others in sordid and
bloody bargains for immortality. Often, it is the denial of
death by individuals that spawns war and terror.
is no greater power in world affairs than the power over death.
From the beginning, all principal violence in world politics
has been driven by a contrived tribal conflict between and within
nations, and by a conspicuously sacred promise to reward the
faithful with freedom from mortality.
an outsider to loathe -- a heathen, an other -- we humans are
apt to feel impotent, lonely, and lost. Drawing almost all of
our benefits of self-worth from the collective, from what Freud
(following Nietzsche and Stirner) had called the “primal
horde,” we technically superior beings remain unable to
satisfy even the most elementary requirements of peaceful coexistence.
Ironically, our substantial progress in certain technological
and scientific realms has had no counterpart in fostering civilized
human relations. We have advanced aircraft and advanced telephones,
but we still remain locked into barbaric patterns of social
planetary politics, we humans remain dedicated to all conceivable
varieties of ritual violence, and to various sacrificial practices
that are conveniently disguised as war, politics, 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), remains
rooted in a codified pattern of institutional conflict. Usually,
we call this the balance of power.
global civilization hope exists, but it must now sing softly
in an undertone. For some, the palpable horror of life on earth
may even create a deafening noise, but it will still be possible
to listen for faint sounds of grace and harmony. To survive
as a species, we must first pay very close attention to our
most private states of anxiety, restlessness, and apprehension.
man who laughs,” understood playwright Bertolt Brecht,
“has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”
Afghanistan, Iran, etc. are merely current symptoms. The immanent
perils of life on earth can never be undone solely by improving
global economics, fashioning new international treaties, defeating
endless insurgencies, or even by spreading democracy. Rather,
we humans now need to acknowledge ourselves as individual persons.
the herd or the mass is the author of suffering.