the paradox of war -- 1/26/15
Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. From the earliest times, man has been faced with the challenge of reconciling the horror of death with the excitement and intensity of war:
"Millennia of fighting large aggressive animals meant that [prehistoric] hunting parties became tightly bonded teams that were the seeds of our modern armies, ready to risk everything for the common good and to protect their fellows in moments of danger. And there was one more conflicting emotion to be reconciled: they probably loved the excitement and intensity of the hunt. ...
"The [brain's] limbic system comes into play. The prospect of killing may stir our empathy, but in the very acts of hunting, raiding, and battling, this same seat of emotions is awash in serotonin, the neurotransnitter responsible for the sensation of ecstasy that we associate with some forms of spiritual experience. So it happened that these violent pursuits came to be perceived as sacred activities, however bizarre that may seem to our understanding of religion. People, especially men, experienced a strong bond with their fellow warriors, a heady feeling of altruism at putting their lives at risk for others and of being more fully alive. This response to violence persists in our nature. The New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has aptly described war as 'a force that gives us meaning':
War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.
"It may be too that as they give free rein to the aggressive impulses from the deepest region of their brains, warriors feel in tune with the most elemental and inexorable dynamics of existence, those of life and death. Put another way, war is a means of surrender to reptilian ruthlessness, one of the strongest of human drives, without being troubled by the self-critical nudges of the neocortex.
"The warrior, therefore, experiences in battle the transcendence that others find in ritual, sometimes to pathological effect. Psychiatrists who treat war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have noted that in the destruction of other people, soldiers can experience a self-affirmation that is almost erotic. Yet afterward, as they struggle to disentangle their emotions of pity and ruthlessness, PTSD sufferers may find themselves unable to function as coherent human beings. One Vietnam veteran described a photograph of himself holding two severed heads by the hair; the war, he said, was 'hell,' a place where 'crazy was natural' and everything 'out of control,' but, he concluded:
The worst thing I can say about myself is that while I was there I was so alive. I loved it the way you can like an adrenaline high, the way you can love your friends, your tight buddies. So unreal and the realest thing that ever happened .... And maybe the worst thing for me now is living in peacetime without a possibility of that high again. I hate what that high was about but I loved that high.
"'Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent,' Hedges explains. 'Trivia dominates our conversation and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.' One of the many, intertwined motives driving men to the battlefield has been the tedium and pointlessness of ordinary domestic existence. The same hunger for intensity would compel others to become monks and ascetics."