The power of war, like the power of love, springs from man's heart. The one yields death, the other life. But life without death has no meaning; nor, at its deepest level, does love without war. Without war we could not know from what depths love rises, or what power it must have to overcome such evil and redeem us.
- William Broyles Jr.
1: Theories of Aggression
Rathus arrives at the conclusion that there are five foremost ways in which psychologists understand war, and in which individuals react to or participate in war and aggression in general. These are the biological, cognitive, psychodynamic, humanistic-existential, and learning perspectives.
The biological assumes that aggression is natural in the human state and ultimately works for the betterment of the individual participating in aggression and that it can also exist for the betterment of the collective society involved in aggression. Sociobiology says that humans compete for survival and for their goals in life and that this leads to aggressive behavior in a very basic and natural way.
The cognitive perspective assumes that aggression is a result of conscious thought and decided intentions, and that aggressive behavior is present in those individuals who have experienced the most aggression in their own pasts. Aggressive individuals understand other individuals as aggressive and hostile even when they are not, and this can often result in aggressive acts including war.
The humanistic-existential perspective is the most optimistic. It understands war and aggression as something contrary to human nature. Aggression, this theory contends, comes in the form of defensive reactions against outside incursions. What causes those outside incursions is not addressed.
The psychodynamic theory contends that aggression usually manifests in small acts that in fact prevent larger acts. Small-scale, everyday aggression can prevent large or more devastating aggression simply by allowing the individual or the society to "let off steam". Even wars, in this perspective, are a result of the need to let off steam.
The learning perspective views aggression as a learned behavior passed down and inherited from one to another. Individuals that are treated in an aggressive manner, in turn, behave aggressively. Individuals who become aggressive are influenced by their own experiences, the experiences they view (this includes viewing violence in the media) and the experiences that they are otherwise aware of.
2: "Why Men Love War"
While any of the above theories might provide the motive for war, Broyles contends that there is something so unique about the experience of war that it draws men into it in the most instinctive and natural way. It is something removed from aggression, and the above theories of aggression can only begin the probing into the human mind in search of understanding war. The proximity to death and the resulting "epic" narrative of war is attractive. The otherworldliness of the entire experience, the uniqueness, is something almost fully irresistible. The ability to destroy life and property without punishment is attractive and allows men to be entirely destructive without consequence-- as is part of man's nature, the author contends. The bonds that exist in the world of war-- total allegiance to those who might save your life and total disregard for the lives of those who are trying to take your own-- is simple, instinctive, and profound in human nature. Controversially, Broyles spends a lot of time discussing the thrill of the kill-- it is not just that killing may be a part of nature, he contends, but it is instead the fact that people enjoy killing which is the general casus belli of every conflict in human history.
People are allowed to enjoy killing in wartime-- they are encouraged to do so, and there is no regard for regular civilian rules. Nor is there any indication that the enemy could ever exist in a civilian world-- they are demons to be vanquished, not people whose interests must be considered. As Broyles recalls in his own experience in Vietnam, "...we didn't burn houses and shoot people; we burned hooches and shot gooks."
The processes of dehumanization-- which Broyles only briefly alludes to in that single and profound statement-- that are inherent in and necessary for every war are also inherent in and necessary for every act of genocide and other large-scale forms of aggression (including structural aggression such as slavery and state violence). It is something easy to identify with in the us-them world of killing or dying, but it is terribly difficult to overcome. Many World War II veterans who fought in the Pacific during World War II still do not consider "Japs" to be humans, for example, or if they do then they are a lesser breed of human. It's been almost seventy years. But time is of no consequence in this. The experiences of the Pacific arena in World War II were so profound and required such a shift in the perception of the Japanese and the perception of self and of Americans that once these shifts occurred, they could not be undone. What Broyles describes as the "epic" narrative of war and the "proximity of life and death" is something that strikes so deep into the core of a human being that there is virtually no force able to exert more influence in the human mind. To many veterans, the Japanese were machines programmed to kill or die, and they still are. In war, everyone becomes a machine programmed to live or die. In some sense, no one is human. In another sense, Broyles would remind us, we are more human in war than in any other phenomenon of human history.
Broyles talks about war as something attractive to mankind, woven into the fabric of man's nature. And to overcome the instinct that creates war, we must always be conscious of that instinct in the first place. We must acknowledge it and react to it by resisting it, not by abiding by it. It is dark to suggest that we recognize this instinct-- it requires that we suspend the rules by which we are raised and admit that we are all capable of terrible, terrible things-- but then again, so does war. Yet recognition is necessary to overcome what ultimately propels every war in the history of our world. We must acknowledge that it is part of the nature of man, and then we begin to change the world around us by changing our own nature and resisting war.
A friend of mine, who suffers from severe PTSD after eight years in the Marines, cannot even understand Americans as human-- he sees nothing as human, and everything, at every point in time, on the brink of killing or dying. War is his reality, and leaving Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq never changed that reality. Coming back to America did not change that reality. I was in the mountains with him one day, and he looked down at the small people beneath us. He sat down and pretended to be taking out a sniper rifle, and started laughing. He'd make the motion of pulling a trigger and make the pop sound with his mouth. He'd count them. Then he started talking about how we should jump off a cliff, and see how far down we make it before we die. Death is as close to him as life is, I realized in that moment. To Broyles, this is the human state. To us, it seems unnatural. But to any man who had spent the last eight years doing what my friend had done, he'd have to agree with Broyles. To people like my friend, our own daily lives are a distortion of reality-- war is the only actual reality.
3: America Today
Claud Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land" is a recollection of Brown's own childhood in 1940s-1950s Harlem. It is an article that seems far removed from World War II, Vietnam, or Iraq, but it is in fact very close to them all. People in 1940s-1950s Harlem were encouraged to fight. Reputations were based on fights won. People were described by how they fought, which hand they hit with, etc. Parents taught their kids that fighting was a way to win respect in the community and that is was necessary, and would be ashamed when their young children would run from fights. The world they lived in was simple, as the author recalls-- people are constantly trying to steal away "your manhood", which was everything necessary for life, and you had to defend it through physical violence. This is a sort of world that is well-known to any veteran. The enemy is trying to take away what is important to you. You must defend that thing by killing your enemy. Killing your enemy may involve terrible and seemingly inhuman atrocities, but it is necessary, because you must defend that thing which is important to you. That "thing" changes from war to war, but the basic concept remains the same.
It is also a world very similar to the world in which many Americans live today. It is the world of poor inner cities, rural dirt backroads, impoverished ghost towns, and competitive upper-class, fast-paced communities. It is the way in which a huge number of Americans are introduced to violence and the way in which they arrive at the conclusion that violence is acceptable, necessary, natural to the human state, or even inherently good or otherwise not worth resisting. Violence is a tool to achieve one's own ends or to defend that important thing. It does not come in the form of war, but instead in the form of small-scale violence. Yet this is the very same concept that must be present in the human mind for war to exist.
A year ago I stood outside the gates of Dachau. Written in twisted black iron upon those gates was a phrase: Arbeit Macht Frei, the German for Work will set you free. It is easy to remember the Holocaust and to proclaim that the Nazis were inhuman. Yet nearly 70,000,000 German humans watched while more than 12,000,000 humans were cremated, shot, or gassed in their own territories, and that is the fact of it. The Japanese humans killed more than 300,000 humans in the city of Nanking in a systematic raping in little more than six weeks. German and Soviet humans killed millions of humans as they advanced back and forth, sometimes for sport, sometimes to further a racist agenda. Allied humans killed millions more humans in the firebombings of cities in Germany and Japan-- almost every major city in those countries, in fact. Then, over the course of little more than a month, more than 210,000 humans would die in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States chose to drop these bombs because they decided a naval blockade would be inconvenient, and would drag on for a few more weeks-- they decided they were unwilling to wait those few weeks, so 210,000 people died.
Inside of Dachau there stood the only statue that has ever chilled me to my bones. It was a simple black iron statue of starved bodies, almost fully two dimensional, with their mouths open and crying. They were welded together in terrifying positions, reaching for heaven or each other. Some were stacked on each other, but an observer could tell that these figures had some last breath of life in them, that they were still waiting for some sort of deliverance. Under the statue there was a plaque which read Never Again.
But it happens every day. It is the thing in our minds that lets us separate one group of humans from another. That separation lets us hit someone else. When developed further, it lets us kill someone else. Then it lets us drop a bomb, or throw a body in a furnace, or twelve million of them. It is the same concept that takes root in the human mind-- that we are human, and they are machine. That we must defend what is important to us, and killing those machines is what is necessary to secure that important thing. These things happened again. They will always happen, unless, as Broyles advises, we understand that love and war emerge from the same place, and that it is only our conscious direction that could ever possibly decide that the one is more prudent than the other.