War exposes a disturbing truth: there is little separating the oppressor from the oppressed. Blinded by hate and ideology, handed unlimited power to use lethal force, absolved of moral choice by the state or dominant authority, wrapped in the absolutism of nationalism or of religious or ethnic chauvinism, numb to emotion, human beings need little to turn into monsters.
The power to indiscriminately snuff out human lives is seductive and intoxicating, especially to those who came from positions of powerlessness. It hands to killers the god-like ability to strut and posture as titans, able to force others to cater to perverse and degenerate whims, able to instill fear, even terror, in those around them. In wartime there are the all-powerful and the all-powerless. This vast divide, one I witnessed in the wars I covered in Central America and later the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, creates a demented world where the forces of death reign supreme. Darkness resides in all of us. It must be kept at bay.
“The power to indiscriminately snuff out human lives is seductive and intoxicating, especially to those who came from positions of powerlessness.”
War has an undeniable eroticism for those who wield the weapons. Human beings in wartime become objects. They are dehumanized. They exist to serve the whims of the heavily armed warriors. The vulnerable—women, children, the infirm, and the elderly—are cast aside or pushed around like pawns on a chessboard. Choices of language, how you describe your adversary, rob the enemy of humanity, a process that leads to them being beaten, abused, tortured, and murdered. War celebrates hypermasculinity. It elevates the callous, the numb, the hard, and the strong. It is defined by sadism. It denigrates tenderness, compassion, nurturing, and love. Sex is transformed in wartime into an act of bestiality, one that in the slang of the military is equated with defecation.
The sublimation of the self into the crowd, where power is amplified and projected outwards, creates feelings of omnipotence. To question the mass, to challenge in any way the brutality and inhumanity of the armed unit, is to be instantly cast out of the magic circle and transformed into an object of hatred yourself. I often saw physical courage on a battlefield. I rarely saw moral courage. Those disgusted by what took place around them usually remained silent. They were not about to sacrifice “comradeship” for life as a pariah. They lacked the supreme strength to stand up as a moral individual. From the moment one enters the killer fraternity, the basest, most degenerate lusts are celebrated. It is hard, especially for young men yearning for power and meaning, to resist.
Marine Corps marching cadences—officially approved or not—capture these perversions:
Casey Jones was a son of a bitch
parked his train in the whorehouse ditch
lined a hundred women up against the wall
bet five dollars he could f*** them all
f***ed ninety-eight till his balls turned blue
backed off, jacked off,
f***ed the other two.
And with this unchecked sexual debauchery comes unchecked murder. Another Marine Corps cadence revels in the power to kill children:
Jarheads, Jarheads coming back?
Been twelve years since we seen Iraq,
Fighting and shooting all day long
Killing and a-slashing and singing this song
Napalm sticks to kids, Ooh Rah
Napalm sticks to kids.
Brown, black, yellow, or white
they all burn just as bright
brown, black, yellow or white
they all die in my sight.
Primo Levi, who was in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, writes about Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish collaborator who ruled the Lodz ghetto as a petty tyrant on behalf of the Nazis. Rumkowski, referred to as “King Chaim,” turned the Lodz ghetto into a slave labor camp that enriched the Nazis and himself. He deported his opponents to the death camps. He raped and molested young girls and women. He demanded unquestioned obedience. He ingested the evil of his oppressors. And, for Levi, he was an example of what too many of us under similar circumstances can become. “We are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit,” Levi wrote in The Drowned and the Saved. “His fever is ours, the fever of our Western civilization which ‘descends to hell with trumpets and drums,’ and its miserable adornments are the distorting image of our symbols of social prestige.”
“Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility,” Levi adds. “Willingly or not, we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.”
The problem, as Levi points out, is power, and especially the power to decide who lives and who dies. In wartime, all of our moral strength has to be amassed to resist the blandishments of power. This is difficult. Societies in war are by nature Manichean. There is no room for nuance, context, or understanding. I once debated Christopher Hitchens. When I attempted to explain the injustices we have carried out in the Middle East, he cut me off to shout: “Shame on you for defending suicide bombers!” To acknowledge the humanity of the powerless and the demonized in wartime, a humanity that is like our own, is to put yourself at risk. Any attempt to lift up the voices of the other is met with the cant Hitchens expressed. And to document or denounce the abuses carried out by our killers is to be labeled a traitor.
Nationalism or religious extremism is narcissism. It is encoded with racism. It celebrates our unique goodness and virtue while denying these qualities to those we fight. We see in our acts of violence a force to purify the earth, to rid it of the evil that is embodied in other human beings. This celebration of ourselves is seductive. When I publicly denounced the calls by the Bush administration to invade Iraq, I would come into work at The New York Times and find my phone messaging bank full of anonymous threats and hate-filled messages. The rage I had unleashed by denouncing the calls to invade Iraq was not political. It was a rage by people who had been handed reasons to feel morally superior and to shake off their despair and alienation. Many, for perhaps the first time, felt as if they belonged. They were able to compensate for their powerlessness and alienation by identifying with the military power projected by the state and a noble crusade. I threatened these feelings of inclusion, moral triumphalism, and empowerment. They loved the euphoria. They did not want it deflated.
How does one resist the toxic brew of narcissism, violence, and comradeship? How do we build within us walls to prevent us from becoming, as Levi warned, like Rumkowski? How, in the face of these forces of death, do we find a way to live the moral life?
I see the world through the lens of my faith. I was raised in a religious household. My father was a Presbyterian minister. My mother, a college professor, was also a seminary graduate. I graduated from Harvard Divinity School. I learned a long time ago to ignore what people profess. “Religion,” as H. Richard Niebuhr said, “is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.”
Nevertheless, I found in the Middle East, and in the United States when I wrote a book on the Christian Right, that religious zealots or fundamentalists rarely come out of a religious tradition. They usually have a secular and often troubled past. They seek, rather, the veneer of religiosity to sanctify intolerance, bigotry, violence, and criminality. They invert the core understanding of the great monotheistic religions, the knowledge that when human beings attempt to become God they become Satan. Those raised in religious traditions are usually acutely aware of the internal battle we must wage against the temptation of evil, of sin, of the darkness within us. To seek to be God is a very different form of religious expression than to seek repentance, understanding, and humility.
It was the monotheistic faiths that elevated the concept of the individual, the idea that we can exist as distinct from the crowd or the tribe. It was the monotheistic faiths that taught us that as individuals we are called upon to make moral choices, even ones that can jeopardize our status and security. The central importance of individual responsibility in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is accompanied by calls for altruism. The idea of the individual as a distinct moral being, coupled with the importance of altruism, laid the foundations for the open society.
We are taught to love our neighbor, not our tribe. The prophets—Moses, Muĥammad, and Jesus—saw dissent and criticism on behalf of the powerless as a religious vocation. They understood the importance of the separation of powers. Culture and society were not formed to cater exclusively to the privileged and the powerful. The religious life, these faiths taught, often requires us to oppose authority. Immanuel Kant built his ethics upon this radical individualism. Kant’s injunction, “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means,” is rooted in the teachings of the Qu'ran and the Hebrew and Greek Bibles.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says God put “olam” into human consciousness. “Olam” means “eternity,” but it can also be translated as “mystery” or “obscurity.” We do not know what this mystery means. It teases us, as the poet John Keats wrote, out of thought. But once we recognize this mystery and honor it, simplistic answers no longer work. We are all born lost. We all suffer. And “the only certain happiness in life,” as Leo Tolstoy wrote, “is to live for others.”
Resistance to evil, to abstract hatred, requires us to build relationships with the demonized and the oppressed. It requires us to be acutely aware of our capacity for evil. It requires the emotional ability to see in all human beings, indeed in all life, the sacred. It requires us to remain rooted in a world not of hypermasculine strength but of compassion and tenderness. It requires us to find ways to overcome the deep dissociation that defines the modern, digital age. It requires the capacity for self-awareness that wards off the allure of mass emotions.
The ability to love, not in the abstract but in the particular, is the antidote. Those who lack the capacity to love are those who most fear death. They are desperate to live at all costs, including the cost of another. This is why in wartime love is banished and replaced by its opposite—comradeship. This comradeship, as J. Glenn Gray points out in his book The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, is mistaken for friendship.
“The essential difference between comradeship and friendship consists, it seems to me, in a heightened awareness of the self in friendship and in the suppression of the self-awareness in comradeship,” Gray writes.
“Friends do not seek to lose their identity, as comrades and erotic lovers do. On the contrary, friends find themselves in each other and thereby gain greater self-knowledge and self-possession. They discover in their own breasts, as a consequence of their friendship, hitherto unknown potentialities for joy and understanding. This fact does not make friendship a higher form of selfishness, as some misguided people have thought, for we do not seek such advantages in friendship for ourselves. Our concern, insofar as we are genuine friends, is for the friend. That we ourselves also benefit so greatly reveals one of the hidden laws of human affinity. While comradeship wants to break down the walls of self, friendship seeks to expand these walls and keep them intact. The one relationship is ecstatic, the other is wholly individual.”
“Resistance to evil, to abstract hatred, requires us to build relationships with the demonized and the oppressed. It requires the emotional ability to see in all human beings, indeed in all life, the sacred.”
“Friendship opens up the world to us by insulating us against passions that narrow our sympathies,” Gray writes. “It gives us an assurance that we belong in the world and helps to prevent the sense of strangeness and lostness that afflicts sensitive people in an atmosphere of hatred and destruction. When we have a friend, we do not feel so much accidents of creations, impotent and foredoomed.”
Those who are most adept at carrying out violence have been rendered numb. They lack self-awareness and therefore lack a conscience. They do not have real friends. They seek to become God. The more disconnected they are, the more efficient they become as killers. Zealots and fundamentalists, and these can come in secular form as we see with “new atheists” such as Sam Harris, commit the greatest heresy possible—they externalize evil. They seek to rid the world of this evil, always personified in other human beings, and they become agents of evil.
The religious life is not designed to make us happy, or safe, or content. It is not designed to make us whole or complete. It is not designed to free us from anxieties and fear. It is designed to save us from ourselves, to make possible human community, to let us see that the greatest force in life is not power or reason, but love.
In every conflict I covered, whether in the Middle East or the former Yugoslavia, it was those rare moral individuals able to cross cultural, religious, and ethnic lines who best vaccinated themselves from hate. They had the capacity for genuine friendship. They saw in the enemy their own face. Once the war began, these relationships and their radical individualism, often rooted in religious faith, saved them, although they as distinct individuals did not always survive.
A polarized world—one where we retreat into our own tribe, where we lack the linguistic, historical, and cultural skills to engage others, where we refuse to confront the evil within us—dooms us. Ignorance fosters fear. Fear fosters hatred. Hatred sees violence as salvation.
The road to redemption leads outwards into other cultures and communities, ones that take time and effort to understand. It is rooted in self-awareness. It is rooted in the strength, fundamental to faith, to be a moral individual. It is rooted in the acceptance that when we stand with the oppressed we are often treated like the oppressed. The courage to take this stand, no matter what the cost, nurtures the goodness that is also within us. It is the expression of faith.