War licenses destruction, breaking the bodies and land and will of the enemy. War is a condition that suspends human respect and care and authorizes destruction.
Americans accept the idea of war; we launch war on poverty and war on terror-invoking an abstraction seen as good to kill abstractions seen as bad. If poverty and terror should be destroyed why and how is war the the weapon? War corrupts, breaks, ruptures, ruins. It does not build, nurture, create. It destroys, some argue, in order to create. It transforms its acts of terror and cruelty by that good intention into good and reasonable actions. The figure invokes sanitation or surgery or violence as cleansing in itself.
So for many war is a noble self-sacrificing action, heroic. Killing and dying and maiming and ruining and ravaging, burned children, tortured innocents, fold into a drama of metaphysical good and evil. Individuals are melded and subsumed into abstract objectives and tactics. War is humanity’s most persistent madness.
Why do we admire it? Why praise it, why say we must win? Plato said all wars came from the body, from greed to own and feed. Plato blamed the body and trusted mind which more surely causes war by its will to dominate.
Why, more to the point, do we believe destruction is good? Perhaps it’s a deep birth metaphor: bloodiness, pain, and labor produce a child when the struggle is over. Aztecs thought warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth were entitled to special recognition in the afterworld. Warriors who face death before their natural time are counted noble when they die. Americans want to see the dead from the Iraq war as heros even when they die by friendly fire or accident or doing their job as soldiers. Achilles in the Greek underworld chides Odysseus who praises him as the most honored warrior of all. Achilles says he’d rather be a live slave than a dead hero. And this very sobering line is cited by Plato as one of the dangers of poets. Such sentiments aren’t good for society he says. How will we persuade young men to fight, he asks, when the greatest national hero says heroism’s a hoax?
Our politicians are afraid to be anti-war. Being willing to kill and attack are thought required postures. They pose like strongman Saddam, thinking that to show ‘weakness’ about warring will invite the aggression of those who brandish better. The cowboy diction of taking out the bad guy infects all. We know now that nuclear war over Cuba was averted over 45 years ago by a Russian submarine officer who countermanded a direct order to shoot nuclear missiles at the American embargo ships. It was very close, it almost happened.
War not only destroys bodies and land and community of the ‘enemy’. It corrupts the human conscience of the aggressor. This is why warmongers always argue their war as righteous, revenging attack, as the action of victims not violators. Intentions do not change the acts.