To Die For

With the governments of Australia and New Zealand preparing for their centennial celebration of the First World War this April 25th (Anzac Day) for which they spent millions of dollars, others are preparing activities and exhibitions directed at achieving and maintaining peace.  And as always, these memorial day events come with debates about “war ethics”, ‘hero’ stories and official slogans and banners about those who “gave their lives for peace”.

I will be at some of those activities, attending vigils and a peace workshop organized by The Peace Movement Aotearoa, where I will once more promote my book In the Real World, which is set in modern day (peace time) Australia, and which is written for that exact age group that makes up those kids who are today being persuaded to join the military.

In the RealWorld

For the protagonists, sixteen year old cousins Jerome and Mariette, wars were events of long ago and faraway countries, until, during an Anzac Day family reunion,  their boys-against-girls pranks get totally out of hand. This sets off a series of emotions and revenge responses that mimic what happens to normal peace-loving people during wars. As the stand-off spreads to their school, more and more kids (and teachers) get involved until nobody quite knows what it was about anymore, which again mimics most wars. In the meantime, the cousins learn more about what really happened in the two world wars from the accounts of their grandparents and their history teacher, and slowly begin to understand that the ‘heroes’ from the school books were no more than scared young boys, who had no idea what they were getting into; that governments forced most of them and that those who protested faced imprisonment or death at the hands of their own armies.

In the process, the book addresses a number of other directly related issues, such as freedom, democracy, uniformity, obedience, moral duties, ethical values and the idea that we owe our freedom and peace to those who went to fight.

That people go to fight in a war to achieve peace is at the very least self-contradictory. Yet thousands of people accept that notion and repeat it to their students or children without standing still to think about it. The reason for this lack of critical assessment lies in the fact that children are told this when they first enter school and, like Santa Clause, if a message is merely repeated year after year, most people never question it.

The same applies for the idea that people are supposed to die for their country, which is ingrained in most people: that we have freedom and that we should interfere in other countries to achieve freedom for them, and that therefore, young boys have the duty to give up their own freedom and their own life to save the lives and freedom of others. This message generally goes hand in hand with messages about democracy, which claims equality. But what is equality if you are the one told that your life isn’t as important as the lives of those you are supposed to give it up for; that your life isn’t worth as much as that of the government members (and royals) you are supposed to defend.  If you say “die for your country”, you implicitly say that this abstract entity (a country) is worth more than life itself, worth more than the lives of innocent children.

Another common phrase is that remembering war – by having such memorials – will prevent the next one. I don’t even have to discuss that, because as they prepare their memorials, most western governments are happily preparing to send the next batch of unaware boys to Iraq.

The hero stories that are in book shop windows, like the medals worn at the memorials, are messages for prospective soldiers that they can be heroes too and come back to be celebrated, while in fact, those who do come back are either traumatized or physically maimed and suffer all kinds of emotional problems, which makes them useless for the society they come back to. Most of those ‘heroes’ from the past wars get their once a year celebration and are ignored the rest of the year.

Then the idea that we should be grateful for having peace and freedom, as if the government handed this to us. As if it was theirs to give and if we didn’t have governments, we’d be living like wild animals. I am not saying that social groups do not need some form of organization, but only half the population actually believes that people cannot live without governments as we know them now.

I tend to take a global view of these issues: If governments (and I mean every single one, always and everywhere) did not claim pieces of the Earth as their own, they would not need to wage war with each other to dispute them; they would not need to feel obliged to control and order those who live on those bits of soil around.

Philosophers, especially, have a habit of talking about “just wars”, wars that somehow have a justification that makes them objectively right. But is what is right in the eyes of the soldiers, also right in the eyes of the mother who sees her children blown to bits? Is a “just war” also just for those who are used as pawns to do this blowing up? If soldiers did not exist (and I mean soldiers everywhere and always, including those Hitler used to carry out his wishes) then tyrants and wars could not exist. If people were not willing to blindly follow orders, we would never have this discussion.

But large amounts of people do follow orders and psychology can explain why this is and who those people are. However, just because this is a fact of human nature, does not mean that we cannot change our collective attitude towards war; but it has to be a collective effort.

We need to remember that, regardless of what words schools use to motivate children – words like “individuality” and “critical thinking” – these are mere fashionable slogans, while schools as social institutions are there to create obedient citizens; they need uniformity, they measure to one standard and they truly believe that moulding children to the expectations of the establishment (“fitting in”), which includes preparations to serve their country, to obey orders and “defend freedom and equality”,  will make those children happy, because they will feel useful. – In previous posts I have explained why this is not the case: that different psychological types have different needs and some children are born individuals who cannot be moulded to fit the norm without damaging them emotionally.

The key to remember is that from a psychological perspective, about half the population (in any culture) will naturally feel they have a duty to “the greater good”, that they ought to fight for their country or obey orders, while the other half feels that the country is there to serve the people it harbours: to  honour them as individuals. The first half naturally equates “moral values” with being ethical; they believe that doing right is being good. The other half does not equate those notions.

Only by understanding which natural inclination you have, and which your loved ones (or students or teachers) have, can you begin to understand their motivations with respect war ethics. Only if large amounts of people begin to understand these aspects of human nature, can we begin to make changes to our general attitude to war. Only by understanding that these differences are part of human nature and exist in the exact same amount in the people of other nations – the nations we may be at war with – can we begin to be more tolerant to each other.

In my view:  Either you value life or you discard it on command, but you can’t have it both ways. You cannot promise children that they will be heroes, while omitting the true facts of wars. You cannot glorify war with memorials, while claiming to want peace.

In my view: Soldiers don’t exist because there are wars; wars exist because there are soldiers.

In my view: If we are serious about wanting peace, we have to change the stories we tell our children.