Column: War, and sculpting minds with culture
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nuthin.’ — pop song, 1968
War is the Father of us all. – Herodotus, Greek historian, 5th C. BCE
War is over, if you want it. – John Lennon
Forgive me Lord, I do so love it. – General Patton, American Army
War is the typical normal condition of humanity, not peace. – James Hillman, psychologist
Introduction: how do we prepare Canadians to accept combat losses?
Remembrance Day is near. It is the right time to speak about Canadians and our readiness to go to war when our government and other institutions of leadership tell us we must.
We shape minds by massaging them into the form we intend. We treat minds as clay. The hands on the clay? Sources of opinion, and selection of information, impress the shape we desire upon the mind.
The very young men who answered the call-up for volunteers in 1914 possessed a consciousness not likely to be found in 2018. Duty meant something enormous to them then. The Empire, the Crown, the British race, meant a great deal to the volunteers; it was remarkable how few Francophones in Quebec volunteered, having a quite different consciousness in their quite distinct culture.
My consciousness is formed by these things: I am a healthy, heterosexual, WASP Ontario male with eight years’ university education and no physical nor mental handicaps, who self-identifies as a Sixties radical-democrat, intellectual, and socialist. All of what I write, from this introduction on, is derived from these determinants of my character, values, cultural consciousness, and ideological convictions.
These facts about me may be sufficient to dismiss what follows, as being “prejudiced.” My mind is open, I would say, but definitely has a shape.
Canada, a colony trying to join the big boys of Empire
Letters to my local print newspaper have had writers at odds over capitalism and socialism, and business vs. working people. There was even a writer critiquing a Christian bishop over the pope, making the point that papal religion is “bronze age ideology.”
Canadians have a lot to fight over, eh?
Readers, pause for gratitude. Our fights are figurative, not literal. War is far from our homes. The fractured, polarized state of our only land neighbour is a sobering prospect of how badly divided their democracy, in several ways the nation most similar to us, can become.
That neighbour is our number-one ally in the geopolitics of our global order. Because of our intimate relations with the USA, Canada made a new precedent for itself in 2001, going far around the globe to make war in the middle of Asia in a mission that was, arguably, a capitalist, post-colonial police action to defend hegemonic power. But that is my opinion, not a fact.
We thus became like America, Britain, and France. Our media ignored the radical newness of this policy. Before this Mission, we never used our military to fight insurgencies. We had never fought people who called us invaders.
My weekly co-op radio program, The History Hour, for several seasons took as its theme the topic of war and military history. Not a topic that many might, in a Lennon-esque way, want to hear about. I need to write about it. Canada’s Afghan Mission demands it. Our news media do not apologize, ever, for their errors and failings, yet they were muted, inert, and/or useless as critics of our violence in Asia. They did not speak truth to power, they conformed with it.
Our recent war in Afghanistan
(1) What did Canadians want to accomplish by letting our government send our forces to Asia to kill and destroy?
(2) Do we think the mission was worth the atrocities of violence and waste?
(3) Did we think hard, with effort and seriousness, about it? If not, why not?
(4) Did we try democratically to alter the government policy if we disagreed?
I will answer my questions, in my order.
1.) The Mission was to protect the new government of Afghanistan, installed early in 2002 by the invasion of the nation by the US and its NATO allies including Canada. Kabul was quickly occupied and a Constitution written for a Republic with Islam as its majority religion, but entrenched rights for minorities and for women, and President Karzai was elected. We would train and equip his armed forces and defend his regime against insurgents. We would build some schools and hospitals, roads and bridges too, to show the people our good intentions and assist Karzai. We decided what territories to protect, and tried to make those zones secure for civilian life.
2.) We did believe our invasion, and a new regime, was worth the small number of our casualties. The invasion — begun within three weeks of 9-11 — was the American response to being attacked by civilian airliners flown into buildings. The US invoked the NATO treaty terms: the allies fight together so that all must defend any member that is attacked. Afghans of ethnic groups other than the Pashtuns in the south were eager to help overthrow the Kabul Taliban regime. We had a swift “victory.” But the warlords who helped defeat the Taliban didn’t do it for Westerners’ reasons, to attain our goals. They had other agenda.
3.) Canadians were told about the Taliban in a selective way to manipulate opinion against their regime: their record on women’s rights, minority religious rights, education, justice – were judged to be atrocious. We began to see ourselves as bringers of our way of life to people desperate for it. We knew almost nothing about Afghan history and how the Taliban originated in Western machinations against the Soviet army in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988. We knew nothing of American responsibility for the rise of a new form of Asian Muslim rage and aggression against the West, which I will label Islamism. It is a rage begun in Iran under the Shah, who was a tyrant propped up by the USA, and in Egypt and Syria when Arabs saw Israel aided and abetted by the West in recent wars.
4.) Perhaps if Canadian forces and other NATO troops quickly left Afghanistan after the new Republican Karzai government was in power, at the end of 2002, we would have scored a success and had very few casualties. Casualties upset us, and attendance at Remembrance Day rituals across Canada increased. We began to pay attention, rather late; we had not thought about what we were doing when we entered Afghans’ land, where the people, their culture, history, economy, and politics, were so alien to the Western mind. We assumed we are the culture everyone wants to imitate.
How did Canadians become invaders of Afghanistan?
Canadian soldiers had entered a new world when they were brought to Afghanistan by NATO Treaty commitments. That treaty was falsely invoked by the USA and President Bush; yet we did not raise any doubt that we should go, so soon after September 11, 2001. We acted out of unreasoning sympathy.
We were doing something we had never in our history done. We were invading a land where there was no external invader to expel. We went to fight internal insurgents and create a regime and a society we thought was better. We did not know what the masses of Afghans wanted and we talked only to those whose minds were heavily influenced by Western attitudes of normalcy.
Karzai was a great figurehead for a regime comprehensible to electorates in rich Western democracies. He speaks English. He dresses well, is handsome, has the political lexicon of a Westerner, and is a Pashtun — he is of the ethnicity of people in the south of Afghanistan, roughly half the nation’s population.
Pashtuns originated the Taliban political/ religious faction that took over the country’s Kabul government in the wake of a civil war from 1988 to 1996. That long bloody civil war was not known in the West’s media, a barbarous war far away. We did nothing to interfere in it or help the people who were dying in it. The Taliban won. They built the first national regime with real power to rule since the Soviet Army had evacuated in 1988.
The Soviets had backed a Marxist Afghan regime since 1976, and invaded in 1979. The US armed anti-Soviet forces, and “won” when the Russians left. Then America’s attention faded. While Afghans killed one another with US weapons, the US ignored the chaos. The Taliban brought peace.
The Northern Alliance of non-Pashtuns lost the contest with Taliban forces, but their feudal lords kept some regional power and were only looking for a chance to reverse the verdict of the civil war. In 2001, that chance came. Hence, we and NATO came into a situation with a long, deep history — and we knew nothing about it. But our ignorance made us arrogant.
The great misery of Canada’s new foreign policy is, we have adopted the “white man’s burden” along with otherpowers who’ve been intervening for over a century around the globe in places where the empires saw “reasons of state” toforce a differentgovernment and Western ways onpeople far from imperial homelands.
Canada has a historical record of not helping any empire impose its rule over alien folk. We refused to go to war against African Boers in their rebellion against Britain (1899) against the Irish (1918/22), the Turks (1922), rebels in India (post-WWI era) or African rebels (post-WWII era) or in Vietnam. We were, happily, not colonialist law-and-order supporters. Until the Afghan Mission.
In summary then, the worst immaterial effect of the Afghan Mission is its precedent. We have since then helped Libyan rebels against their dictator, but thankfully our P.M. said no to interventions in Syria, and I am grateful to him for that. I hope he said no because he reads well the mind of Canadians. We do not want another Afghan-style intervention war that costs us dear in our soldiers’ lives and war expenditures.
We are not imperialist police; we ought not invade to make alien people be like Westerners. We won’t impose our political or religious empire on distant lands.
My last question is, will we educate ourselves in future? — enough to stop a policy such as we upheld in Afghanistan when we learn it is wrongly-motivated. We did not learn sufficiently about the Afghan Mission and its meaning, before we had our soldiers there, dying and killing. Once we’ve let blood on the ground, it is too late. The soldiers’ families, the armed forces, the Royal Canadian Legion – these are potent voices rejecting the call to stop, voices saying: “We must fight until we win or they died for nothing, their deaths will mean nothing.”
And even our progressive voices, such as feminists, are co-opted by saying Canada was in Afghanistan to enforce women’s rights. It is up to us to stop our wars — before we attempt “the military solution.”
Learn before we leap to war
I believe in educating Canada’s electorate. We can be helpful abroad — if we learn before we leap. I try to inform Nelson’s public opinion every year at Remembrance Day, by carrying anti-war messages at the cenotaph. It makes me unpopular. But some people thank me. My fifteen minutes of national fame came to me for my protest when Michael Enright interviewed me on CBC for The Sunday Edition.
A hardly-acknowledged motive for the Afghan Mission was purely a political-military agenda: Harper wanted us to stand tall, be assertive, on the global stage. The Canadian armed forces’ high command, with the PM at the apex, wished to upgrade our capacity for war to a high level commensurate with 21st Century technologies and training for violence. This motive has accomplished its goals.
Canadians are asleep to that motivation in Harper’s personal psyche — innocents in geopolitics as we are. We once were proud of our UN peacekeepers role. Now we are not helping in that role in any major fashion, while much less-affluent nations supply significant peacekeepers in the world’s worst war zones. Justin Trudeau said “Canada is back!” on the world stage after becoming our prime minister; it was, like a lot of his rhetoric, more about glossy image than actual substance. Canada is not back, not at the level of our 1990’s UN peacekeeping support roles. We are acting as players in NATO’s thrusting policies of adding new alliance members eastward, at long distance from the Atlantic region. NATO sells itself as a champion of liberty and peace.
If we want to atone for our violence in Afghanistan, we must be very generous in bringing Afghan immigrants to Canada. We should take as many as need to come, and be less eager to let in Asians whose main qualification is their pecuniary investment benefit to Canada. Immigration policy in this nation is dictated by the needs of corporations for investment and workers, and by demand for capital that wealthy foreigners bring here in exchange for their citizenship.
War and the consciousness of the West
Human mind and its consciousness is a mysterious phenomenon, a spiritual quality inhabiting the material machinery of brain and electrochemistry. It is much affected by culture, but in ways our physical science cannot explain.
Our culture in Canada is part of the stream called “the West” and traces its roots deep into the Mediterranean basin, to Israel, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Judeo-Christian threads of the fabric are interwoven with Greco-Roman.
War is part of that fabric. Israelites produced a religion with a god, YHWH (“ I am” or “Being”) still worshipped in churches and synagogues. The Hellenes or Greeks originated their own pantheon, with a supreme god Zeus and a god for war. Curiously, few historians of war seem to take our religious past seriously when exploring their topic. I know religion shapes consciousness, and as I want to know why war is part of our humanity, I study religious mentality.
The book of Genesis in the Bible, its first book with parts dating to the ninth century BCE, is a slice of consciousness in ancient Israelite mind. It does not tell how war came to humanity. It tells of the first man and woman, the first murder (Cain kills Abel) and the origin of languages and nations (the Tower of Babel). But when war is first mentioned, after Noah’s flood, it is a very casual entry into the story of Abraham.
Abraham makes war for personal reasons, to rescue his nephew. After his victory, with allies, he meets “Melchizedek” (Hebrew, mlkzdk, “king righteous”) who rules at “Salem” (peace.) This king sacrifices to “god most high” (el elyon – this might not be YHWH) with grain, not dead animals. It is very interesting to think that Cain’s vegetable sacrifice was rejected in favor of Abel’s burnt offering. Does YHWH like sacrificial blood?
For this Semitic/Hebrew consciousness, war does not seemingly deserve an explanatory origin tale. We know why humans are divided by languages, for we have the origin tale of that division in The Tower of Babel. But for war, no tale of original conflict other than the Cain and Abel story.
Zeus (from the Indo-European root, dyaus) or Roman Jupiter (dyaus pitar) is identified with warfare right from the moment of his appearance in myth. He leads the war of his brothers and sisters against his father Chronos (a.k.a. Saturn) and the Titans. It is a cataclysmic battle. Monsters fight the gods, Zeus prevails, the Titans are banished, and he establishes the powers of his family, assigning the province of war to his son Ares (Roman Mars).
The Hellenic mind conceived of conflict (agon) as an ur-motif, an original theme, of the cosmos. It was a miserable fact of life for Greeks, their cities (poleis) fought wars constantly. Wars ran throughout, and finally collapsed, their golden age, exhausting the cities, which became absorbed first into Macedon’s empire and then into Rome’s. War was the bane of Greeks’ independent vitality. They did not rationalize war, as the Romans did.
Laws of war: trying to put order over chaos
All of our ethical attempts to control war with agreed-upon rules descend, in a historically-linear, way from how Greeks and Romans conducted diplomacy and ritual in hostilities between states. Our concepts of “just war” originate with that consciousness, and Christianity reasoned its way to the notion of the justice of war by combining Greco-Roman philosophy with moral and religious traditions of the ancient Israelites as recorded in the Bible. The modern state of Israel is a Western nation, making ruthless war with cutting-edge technologies against people on its borders and within them; Israel’s right to exist as a state in that geography is predicated with biblical argumentation.
In 2018, the West’s way of making war is the global norm, and the UN is an institution where Western legal principles adjudicate warfare. Today, when Western civilization has achieved global dominion, no one should doubt religion and war are implicated and symbiotic in the mind of humanity.
War’s matrix is human consciousness. Peace will evolve when an altered humanity appears.
Anyone serious about the study of war really must read Victor D. Hanson, Culture and Carnage: how the West has won, and J. Hillman, A Terrible Love of War. Just those two books alone will substantially enlighten interested readers. Two fine Canadian writers have contributed studies of war: Jack Granatstein is an admirer of Canada’s soldiers and writes in a patriotic vein, while Gwynne Dyer writes much more philosophical volumes on war and military men.
Charles Eisenstein, also, has reflections on war that anyone will benefit from considering.
Making Minds: what we do to our children
A friend recently told me about a personal, family situation that is painful and, I am sure, common. She and I are parents. Parents suffer when their adult children are suffering the breakdown of a marriage, and we are suffering this.
What does one say, and do, when one’s beloved child makes, or has made, a very significant decision and that choice reveals itself to have been quite mistaken? For certain, one does not say, “I knew you were making a mistake, you should have let me make the decision for you.”
We love to see our children become fully adult and launch into their lives, but we decry the pain we and they feel when they suffer failure and loss.
We have suffered pain and loss in our own adult lives, and in my own life, I kept much of the detail of such failures from my parents, who lived at a great distance from me. I pay a price in shared pain for enjoying the closeness of my relationship with my child. If I were less engaged in my child, and her children, I would for sure know less of their ups and downs in any detail. But I do not want distance, and I am willing to pay that price of sharing pain when my close relatives are in periods of crisis.
When I think I perceive a pattern of error or misjudgement in my child’s conduct of life, I have learned to be very, very circumspect about what is appropriate to say, and how I may exercise some tiny influence toward a direction I would like my child’s path to go.
Influenceis precious, and all I desire, for I wish no power to do more to direct my adult child. I had power over my child’s infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and I did my best to guide and educate in that long period. I want no power over other mature, functioning adults. It is hard enough with children to know what is right and how to exercise the power one has over their lives.I surely do not want to maintain that power over adults who can make their own choices.
“If you love someone, you set them free.” Good advice for parents. Freedom is much more than nothing left to lose.Freedom to say “No!” — when all around you the forces of cultural leadership and governmental power demand that you comply — is a freedom I cherish. Conformity is always easier than autonomy.
Preparing Children to be obedient Citizens
Obedience is a quality parents value in their children, but the degree of this we want from our child is not the same from one parent to the next.
Obedience is a quality governments value in citizens, but again, not all governments value it as highly as others. In the cool moments of international legal debate, the laws of war, and treaties and protocols to protect civilians, prisoners, and property, can be decreed and legislated at the UN. Soldiers in Western armies are instructed in these laws of war, but emphasis is lacking to teach fighters that their conscience must question their combat behaviour.
In combat armies demand obedience to officers’ orders by their soldiers. It is impossible for a soldier to exercise independent moral judgement according to conscience on the battlefield, no matter how much democracies’ armies might pretend that they value soldiers with moral courage. Officers will tolerate no disobedience, and mutiny is a capital offence on the battlefield. Draft refusal or resistance, too, carries penalties so severe that it is simpler for conscripts to accept their enlistment
As a teacher I wanted obedience, and so did almost all the teachers I have known, even when we said we wanted to teach “critical thinking skills” to our students. Society expects teachers to inculcate respect for properly constituted authority. Yet we also want independent thinkers and active resistance to the powerful when the latter are tyrannical. When I face angry, aggressive, even threatening attitudes from some people during my Remembrance Day demonstrations for peace, I hold my ground, keeping my principles higher than the ease of doing the conventional thing.
Every parent decides for her- or him-self just what kind of lessons to teach and model to their child in the matters of obedience, conformity, and autonomy.
I have deliberately written this column in a style different from my latest one, published in late September. That one was a series of observations about random topics that had raised their prominence in my attention over a few weeks. This one has been single-focused on the way our minds are conditioned to accept war, to obey our government when it orders us to go to war, and the responsibility of individuals to challenge conformity and to think energetically about how we pass on parts of dominant culture that we should resist.
I will probably write the next column with the intent to persuade readers that the human project demands that non-conforming individuals challenge culture more and more, as culture more and more escapes our understanding, our ethics and morality, and our capacity to regulate it. Two writers I have recently discovered, the authors whose concern with culture I am wrestling with currently, are Robert Bellah and Merlin Donald. Check out their work if you are interested in the topics of cultural evolution and evolving consciousness.
In my September column, I referenced Christopher Hedges as a thinker who can analyse the politics and pathologies surrounding “chaos agents” like the American President. Hedges has just published a new book; an interview with him on the subject of how the West is decaying can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aj1-47VqgOs
Hedges dislikes “hope” as he sees it spread in the culture by the likes of Stephen Pinker and Oprah Winfrey.
Despite Hedges’ dislike of hope, I must offer readers another fine Charles Eisenstein podcast here for a less doomy view of the future: