A Warrior Nation

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 19, 2007.
Four years into the grand misadventure which, euphemistically, we now call “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” a lot of Americans are scratching their heads, asking how we got into this mess.

Now we know that none of our excuses for invading Iraq have proven to be grounded in reality. Our troops have found almost nothing that could be construed as a weapon of mass destruction. The war has increased the threat of terrorism around the world. As evil a dictator as Saddam certainly was, the American invasion of Iraq set off a season of violence that has been far more deadly than ever was the Baathist regime. By many measures, the Iraqi people are less free, not more. Reports of torture and other war crimes have sullied America’s reputation. What happened? How did we get so bamboozled by a smooth talking wannabe Texan wildcatter who, despite his boots and drawl, is actually a product of Andover, Yale and Harvard?

Some suggest that the American public’s initial support for the war was rooted in the fear that lingered after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Others may point to our ongoing national petroleum jonze as being at fault for American permissiveness as we sent our troops off to Mesopotamia to die and kill in a war that most of us no longer understand or support.

I believe there’s merit to such suggestions, but I also suspect there is a deeper reason for our great national mess: we are a warrior people.

Writing during the prelude to World War II, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung noted, “Let man but accumulate his materials of destruction and the devil within him will soon be unable to resist putting them to their fated use” (from an essay called “The Modern Spiritual Problem” in the book Modern Man in Search of a Soul first published in 1933). If there’s a better one-sentence explanation of what went wrong four years ago, I haven’t read it.

For more than sixty years the American taxpayer has been subsidizing the creation of the deadliest military in human history. For more than a generation, our ability to kill has far exceeded the requirements of national self-defense, and periodically over the years we have been unable to resist the temptation to put the machinery of death to the test.

This also is why so many Americans eagerly desire to build a wall along our southern border. A nation of warriors must have enemies, must be under constant attack, and when we are at peace, an enemy must be invented, even if the enemy turns out to be a penniless indigent campesino from Michoacan.

The good news is that we don’t have to live this way. On a recent trip to Geneva, I was gratified to observe that a nation can be prosperous and safe, even if their participation in the global proliferation of weaponry is more or less limited to pocket knives and the only place their troops have been deployed is to the Vatican.

I’m not suggesting that Switzerland is some kind of Alpine Shangri La. I know the Swiss are fallible and that Switzerland is imperfect: laissez faire banking laws have allowed Swiss financiers to profit from victims of the Holocaust; in one Swiss canton, women couldn’t vote in local elections until 1990. I don’t want the United States to become a large Switzerland, but the Swiss ability to thrive without war seems worthy of our consideration, if not outright emulation.

Perhaps the most instructive aspect of the Swiss ability to prosper without fostering martial aggression is that they haven’t always been so peaceable. In the seventeenth century, my wife’s Mennonite ancestors were forced to leave Switzerland in part because they were pacifists who refused to take part in the warrior culture shared by their neighbors in Zurich—but the Swiss have changed and we can too.

If we don’t change, we will find ourselves embroiled in an unending succession of tragically meaningless wars, and the violence by which we live our lives will haunt us until we are left, bloodied, broke, and demoralized, helplessly watching as the benefits of civilization pass us by.

Before we send our men and women in uniform off to fight another conflict—in Iran or Syria, for instance—I hope we will make an attempt to conquer and subdue the warrior instinct that has possessed our national character. Let us give peaceable living the opportunity to succeed where warfare has failed us.

13 thoughts on “A Warrior Nation

  1. A great general and president Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation that our greatest threat was the ” US industrial military complex”. He stated that they will have to create wars to keep in business. How true his warning has become.

  2. Ben,

    The WMD issue has become a handy straw man of critics. Would you please provide direct quotes in which president Bush or any administration official stated the sole reason for action was WMDs? The stated issue was the persistent violation U.N. Security Council resolutions, not WMDs. The well documented discovery of hundreds of new missiles with cyclosarin warheads, while not the presence of a robust ongoing WMD program, is beyond any nuance the presence of WMDs.

    Reports, allegations, of torture and other war crimes have sullied America’s reputation with those who’s agendas wish it to be sullied. Doesn’t innocent until proven guilty count for the U.S. and its service members?

    Switzerland has always maintained a robust military and ownership of personal firearms is common. War and violence have not followed. They maintained their legendary “neutrality” during WW2 by allowing NAZI forces to cross their borders and through banking services. Thus it could be suggested that by avoiding war Switzerland corrupted itself. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Given a choice between cowardice and violence, I would chose violence.”

    During the 60 years we have been funding weapons development, the U.S. has faced genuine threats. Perhaps you remember the U.S.S.R? The military aggressions of the WW2 Axis powers were encouraged by a neutral and militarily weak U.S., not caused by our possession of military might. Historically military weakness encourages aggression against the weak.

    If your case is strong, why must you resort to ad hominum attacks against the president, or any individual?

    No one seeks to avoid war as much as the “warriors” who have experienced it.

    Cheers,

    Randy Shadoe

  3. Thanks for the posts.

    Harry, I wonder if Eisenhower read Jung!

    Randy, a few thoughts.

    1. If you look back to the President’s SOTU address of 2003, you will remember that WMD were the primary reason given for invading Iraq. Since then other reasons have been talked about, none of which have, in my opinion, proved sufficient to excuse the war.

    2. Abu Ghraib is more than an allegation.

    3. When I suggest that the US could be more like Switzerland in its abstinence from aggressive warfare, my detractors only seem to be able to respond by pointing out Switzerland’s very real failings, none of which have anything to do with its refusal to have an aggressive military force.

    4. You’ll get no argument from me when you point out that we’ve faced threats in the past. However, Iraq was not really one of those threats.

    5. As to my comments about the Prez: when it comes to the war, I think a lot of folks feel hoodwinked, smooth-talked, talked out of the farm for a load of baloney. It may be less than kind, but the shyster language fits the way a lot of folks feel about W these days.

    6. You are right about warriors not wanting to return to war. With a few notable exceptions, the civilians who started this war were not experienced warriors. I whish they had been.

    Best,

    Ben

  4. I don’t like war and will refuse to go, however if Switzerland attacks us, I will reconsider. Ronn

  5. I don’t think it’s important if Ike read Jung or not… He was expressing his fears and those of many of others who should be concerned.
    Is it not possible to have “original thoughts”…even if one doesn’t know what some one else opined?

  6. Ike should have known better, although I suspect that those who decry military spending and the “military-industrial complex” the loudest don’t know better. But they should.

    In a technological age, a military-industrial complex is a given if a nation wishes to remain independent and reasonably free. The alternative is alignment with a strong, powerful and independent friend. Western Europe remained free of the embrace of the Russian bear, and Japan and Taiwan of Chinese hegemony, principally because of US military might.

    The problem with cutting a defense industry back to some mythical “national defense only” level is, there will be no such industry should one be needed — and at that point it will be too late to create a new one. The days of early ’42, when a Studebaker line could be shut down and six weeks alter, Shermans and Sheridans rolled off the line, or of late ’45, when the tank line could be shut down and six weeks later Studebaker Champions rolled off, are gone forever. And without a vigorous and powerful defense industry, the US as we know it may well be gone forever, too.

  7. Harry,

    I agree. In fact I doubt very much that Ike did read Jung. My comment was meant to demonstrate that great minds often do think alike.

    Best,

    Ben

  8. I wasn’t alive when Ike was President. I haven’t read a lot of Jung. I have never been to Switzerland. All I know is that Iraq is in a civil war that America has already lost. Say a prayer for peace.

    Thanks for reading,

    Jody

  9. Ben, a few of my thoughts.

    1. I look back to the President’s SOTU address of 2003, and read a totally different speech then you do. The quotes sir, the quotes. The “Bush lied” canard is dying on the horns of facts and transcripts.

    2. Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, there I have chanted it three times fast. It happened it was a disgraceful breakdown of military discipline. Yes, is more than an allegation. But it pales before the child rape and sexual slavery scandals of U.N. “peace keepers.” You and other critics, safe in warm homes, allude to myriad war crimes by Americans based upon thin to non-existent accusations.

    3. Switzerland’s abstinence from “aggressive warfare,” can also be described as complacent detachment and deliberate ignorance of, it not complicity in, crimes against humanity. History shows that proactive military action has saved more lives than any pacifist demonstration or diplomatic effort.

    4. “You’ll get no argument from me when you point out that we’ve faced threats in the past. However, Iraq was not really one of those threats.” Iraq was evading and corrupting the U.N. inspection process and then threw out the inspectors. The clear intention was to reestablish WMD programs. Iraq made war upon Iran and Kuwait, bombarded Israel with Scuds and threatened Saudi Arabia. The disruption of global oil supplies, the desire to wage war in a powder keg environment is a threat beyond any you acknowledge. The pressure was to end inspections and sanctions and allow a chronic aggressor to go about business as usual.

    5. As to your comments, “about the Prez,”: I am surprised and disappointed. Ad hominum attacks are just that, they are never justified. They are a sign of prejudice. They are a sign of partisan agenda. You cheapen your commentary and dishonor yourself by using them.

    6. You have no idea what “experienced warriors” would counsel. They most likely would have reflected upon how many human tragedies could have been avoided by prompt and decisive action, and urged a level of violence that would chill your soul.

    With deepest respect, but reluctant, sincere and humble disagreement,

    Randy

  10. Ben,

    Excuse me.

    P.S. To my previous comment. Your reply to my comment regarding, “For more than sixty years the American taxpayer has been subsidizing the creation of the deadliest military in human history. For more than a generation, our ability to kill has far exceeded the requirements of national self-defense, and periodically over the years we have been unable to resist the temptation to put the machinery of death to the test,” refers to Iraq exclusively. This is unresponsive. You comment makes no mention of Iraq, clearly calls into question the history of modern American military preparedness, and implies that preparedness leads to war. My reply was to assert that preparation prevents wars, and that we have and do face real threats beyond Iraq. “Si bis pacem para bellum.” If you want peace, prepare for war. You also Ignore that Switzerland, as well as many other nations, Sweden, Norway, for example, has and does maintain a robust military capability and yet has avoided war.

    Regards,

    Randy

  11. Ben,

    My attempt to post a reply to yours appears to have gotten lost.

    I shall reprise my comments.

    1. I look back to, reread the transcript of, the President’s SOTU address of 2003, and find none of the assertions you reference. I read a different speech.

    2. “Abu Ghraib is more than an allegation.” Yes, it is a scandalous example of failure of military discipline and oversight. It is chanted repeatedly by critics. You allude to much more and seek to tar America and her military action. These incidents pale beside the scandalous murder, child rape, sexual slavery, and other crimes of U.N. “peace keepers.” The incidents you allude to have been or are being dealt with by a fully functional system of justice.

    3.You miss or avoid my points. See the previous post.

    4. “You’ll get no argument from me when you point out that we’ve faced threats in the past. However, Iraq was not really one of those threats.” Your comment clearly questions the expense and wisdom of all of American preparations. Hitler was no real threat in 1926 as Germany systematically ignored and violated treaties. Millions of lives would have been saved by early intervention.

    5. As to your comments about,”the Prez,” there is no room for ad hominum attacks, slurs or bigotry in cogent discourse. You dishonor yourself, insult your readers, and cheapen your comments with such statements.

    6. You can not imagine what experienced warriors would have counseled. Their honest recommendations would most likely include a level of violence that would chill your soul. Veterans understand the need to strike decisively before the cost grows too great.

    With deepest respects, but regretful, sincere, and humble disagreement,

    Randy

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