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.