Those Who Fail to Learn from History…

…are doomed to repeat it.

As I write this, the drums of war are beating ferociously in Washington, D.C.

I fully expect that the United States will soon, and yet again, be engaged in an Imperialist War in the Middle East. The public pretext once again is weapons of mass destruction, this time chemical weapons allegedly unleashed by the Syrian government on its own people. Such actions, if true, are immoral and evil. I doubt that anyone would find such actions appropriate under any circumstances – that is not the question. The question is, “What constitutes an appropriate response?”

The decision to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation is ultimately based in the fictional belief that we can control reality. We don’t really give a damn about the Syrian people, we believe on some level that if we don’t intervene in Syria that chemical weapons will be released in the United States one day, and that if we do intervene then chemical weapons will never be released in the United States. We suffer from the delusion that if we just shut down this threat – and then next one, and the one after that, ad infinatum – that we will with absolute certainly avoid the release of such weapons in the US. The problem is that no such level of certainty exists.

War always destabilizes regions in which it occurs – and the governments that wage it. When one government is toppled another takes its place – and that, too, is a process we cannot control. We may believe we are inserting a puppet today, but tomorrow that puppet could just as easily be toppled and another, less desirable, person take their place. War destroys economies and infrastructure, rips families apart on both sides, causes senseless damage across the board – and, more importantly, simply doesn’t work. Examining just the last one hundred years we learn that World War I solved nothing and in fact caused World War II. World War II stopped Hitler and caused the Cold War.  The Cold War caused the Korean conflict which solved nothing, and also Vietnam, which solved nothing. Worse yet, we apparently didn’t learn anything in either Korea or Vietnam. Gulf War I led inevitably to Gulf War II – the World Trade Center was only a pretext, as were the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Afghanistan was little more than a profound failure to learn from the Soviet experience in that same country. What did we leave behind in each of these places? A destroyed infrastructure, political instability, and more enemies than when we started. Things for the citizens of these sovereign nations have gotten worse, not better – and here at home we have paid the economic and personal consequences of our imperialistic tendencies. We have seen, but apparently not understood, that we cannot control the outcomes of our own actions, much less any other nation’s actions.

More important for me as a person of faith is the moral question, and there are plenty of them. Do we have the right to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign nation? If we are going to claim our justification is that no nation should release chemical weapons on its citizens, then surely our next target is Japan for its failure to adequately address the ongoing issues with radiation escape at Fukushima while diverting its attention instead to getting other reactors up and running. After that, we may as well attack ourselves for our failure to adequately regulate the pesticide industry and companies like Monsanto that may (to be fair, we don’t know) be poisoning us by genetically modifying the very food we eat.

The next moral question we confront is whether it is possible to teach people that killing is wrong by killing people. It has famously said by Albert Einstein that you cannot solve a problem using the same kind of thinking that created the problem. There is no evidence that the death penalty, in those States that still have it, is in fact a deterrent to murder. States with the death penalty do not have dramatically different murder statistics than those that don’t. Given that Syrian government and military installations are in residential areas, the collateral damage from even so-called surgical strikes will be enormous. At the risk of stating the obvious, death by drone strike and death by nerve gas have the same outcome. It matters little to the deceased or those who mourn them which way they died.

More essentially, it seems to me the question is whether or not violence is ever an effective intervention in any situation. I want to say that it is only effective in very rare and extremely isolated incidents. If a madman breaks into a school or similar place bent on shooting people, he needs to be stopped by any means necessary. What makes these cases unique is that we can clearly see that by acting to stop the madman we eliminate the threat. It’s not as if there is an international alliance of school shooters from which someone else will simply come along to replace the threat we have eliminated.

The truth is that as a culture we are obsessed with violence. It pervades our entertainment, our relationships, our homes, our streets, and even our schools. We are addicted to the adrenaline rush it provides, but the adrenaline eventually returns to normal and we are left looking for our next fix. I believe that if we are to survive as a species we must abandon violence. I also know that we do that not by passing legislation but by changing hearts.

Will people die in Syria if we don’t intervene? Absolutely. They will also die if we do intervene. The problem is that every act of war is one step in the wrong direction, for it moves us not toward building a non-violent world but rather away from it. Can we see that it is not in our power to control the actions of sovereign nations and that even if we could it is not our place to do so? If we want to change the hearts of the world we need to “bomb” them with food, not explosives. If we want to change the hearts of governments we need to listen to them, to hear their grievances and address their needs. We need to build relationships, not destroy them through military action.

The real question is whether or not as a nation we are evolved enough to move away from violence and toward non-violence. The road from primitive, tribal response is a long one and takes time. It requires the primary spiritual task of dismantling the ego – the idea that there is a permanent, unchanging “me” that will go on forever just as it is now, completely independent of anybody or anything else. When we have begun that task, we may be able to come to understand that we need to dismantle our national ego – the idea that there is a permanent, unchanging United States that will go on forever just as it is now, completely independent of anybody or anything else. That knowledge will be key to freeing us from the tyranny of fear that our present and former Presidents have enjoyed placing us under. This nation will not last forever, it is not the nature of nations to do so. Ironically, the policies we put in place and actions we take in an attempt to ensure its survival have the effect of hastening its demise. The choice is ours. Which will it be, business as usual or a chance to change the game? I am not optimistic.

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