Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stephanie Dowrick challenges humanity's "Terrible Love of War"

Stephanie Dowrick considers James Hillman's A Terrible Love of War, a book as urgently needed today as it was a decade ago when first published. She also refers to Sebastian Junger's War, based on his experiences of fighting in Afghanistan, and - in a brief extract from her own explicitly peace-seeking Seeking the Sacred - Dowrick strongly protests the "terrible inevitability of war".
"We can," she writes, "we better."

James Hillman is a most usefully provocative analyst and commentator. A former Jungian analyst, a prolific, dedicated writer and thinker, his is a voice we can listen to with care. Agree with him; don't agree with him: that's almost irrelevant. What he can do is stir us to think. And we need that. Hillman is one of far too-few writers who genuinely understands from a Western perspective how vulnerable the "mind" is to social and political conditioning and how carelessly and unconsciously we tend to live out the most frightful messages and injunctions...all the while calling them "natural". (We call "natural" what is familiar to us; we also call it "normal", even when it is clearly harmful, unintelligent and desperately dangerous. War as a legitimised response to human problems is perhaps our starkest example of this.)

In his many books Hillman brings to our attention the truth that all our acts and actions arise from thought and imagination, springing to life as Athena did from the head of Zeus: seemingly fully formed. It is in our imagination that we conjure up our responses to the world: that we imagine our way into acts of beauty or love, of violence or terror.  It is in our imagination that we tell ourselves "This is all right," or "That is not." And act accordingly. We dream up; we dream down. Our moral compass depends not on our emotional intelligence only; it also depends on our gifts of empathic imagination, our willingness to care. We are what we think; the Buddha also told us this. Yet far too few Western thinkers think deeply and honestly and bravely about that, of all things.  

"Our modes of comprehension need a paradigm shift," writes Hillman. I read that line today with sorrow and even desperation because, as I write this, news of war is escalating. Deaths pile upon deaths: many of them children.  What's more, as I write this review in my comfortable office, in a place I am fully entitled to call "home", in a country I came to without questions or difficulties, asylum seekers seeking Australia - many of them fleeing war, death, terror - are being and will continue to be publicly treated as non-"persons" (referred to by our elected representatives not as men, women, children but as "persons", "illegals", "boat people" as though they had no identity but their hopeless, despised seeking). This too is a violence that terrifies.

Thanatos, god of war and death: still widely worshipped and adored
That we (humanity) imagine our way into vile acts as well as sublime ones is a theme developed with particular force in the terrifying A Terrible Love of War (terrifying because that "love" is so passionate, so defended, so applauded, so vastly and publicly funded with unspeakable amounts of money and unspeakable numbers of lives). Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has said, "The greatest harm has come from our own aggressive minds." But we are reluctant to understand the consequences of this and to interrogate those consequences with sufficient intelligence and subtlety that they might begin to lose their power. We are even more reluctant to recognize that we have the means, the grace, the ability to heal our minds...and to contribute to the healing of our world.

Hillman writes: Our civilian disdain and pacifist horror – all the legitimate and deep felt aversion to everything to do with the military and the warrior – must be set aside. This because the first principle of psychological method holds that any phenomenon to be understood must be sympathetically imagined. No syndrome can be truly dislodged from its cursed condition unless we first move imagination into its heart.

War is first of all a psychological task, perhaps first of all psychological tasks because it threatens your life and mind directly, and the existence of all living beings…

…The failure to understand may be because our imaginations are impaired.

Thanatos again, here as the "Angel of Death"
I regard Hillman's A Terrible Love of War as essential reading. This is not because I entirely agree with his thesis or with the pessimism of his conclusions. I do not believe war and innumerable acts of domestic and public violence are inevitable. I believe we can do better. I believe we must do better: that we can and must transcend those impulses to violence along with the persistent, socially conditioned delusion that rage, violence, intolerance of difference can bring peace and justice and happiness to our world. Who's to say which of us is right? Evidence is strong for Hillman's more pessimistic perspective; I disagree. And yet am grateful that he turned his immense intelligence and analytic power to this most urgent of topics. You, of course, will make up your own mind.

Stephanie Dowrick's call to the sacred.

"In my lifetime of peace there has been no peace for our global family."
The following passages are from my book, Seeking the Sacred. There I reflect upon the "religion of war" as well as religions' complicity in war with their fatal "intolerance of difference".  Looking more deeply, I reflect (and far more extensively) on reclaiming the sacred as the path to unity and peace.

From Seeking the Sacred:

“War is a lot of things,” writes Sebastian Junger in War, a book based on his experiences with American fighting forces in Afghanistan, “and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone ever engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it. It’s just not something that anyone wants to hear acknowledged.”

…Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, writes William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar,
With Atë by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.

Atë is the ancient Greek goddess who, mythology tells us, was exiled from heaven by her father, Zeus, the greatest of the gods. Possessed by rage and desolation Atë wanders the world causing whatever havoc she can, in part by treading on “the heads of mortals” rather than on the earth itself. (Her agonies are never “grounded”. They roar and flame in the “air” of her thinking and imagination.) In contemporary parlance we would say Atë’s head has been “done in” by her father’s betrayal. In retaliation she literalises this harm by “treading on the heads of mortals” and doing their heads in also (confusing them, blinding them to their sacred reality and potential, urging them to actions that mirror closely her own anguish).

Atë, of course, lives on. And continues to be worshipped. Whether or not we know her name, she exists as a profound archetype in the minds of millions of human beings, justifying the hell she causes by the hell she has experienced in ways that will be wearyingly familiar to any contemporary observer.
Written some years before Junger’s book, Hillman’s thesis [developed in A Terrible Love of War] in a strange way anticipates what Junger writes.  Humankind, Hillman asserts, loves war, is devoted to it, seeks it out, yearns for it and with immense fidelity and success brings it into existence.

 “During the five thousand six hundred years of written history,” writes Hillman, “fourteen thousand six hundred wars have been recorded. Two or three wars each year of human history.” What’s more, “…the turning points of Western civilization occur in battles and their ‘killing sprees’… the ultimate determination of historical fate depends on battle whose outcome…depends on an invisible genius, a leader, a hero, who, at a critical moment, or in prior indefatigable preparation, ‘saves the day’. In him a transcendent spirit is manifested. The battle and its personified epitome, this victor, this genius, become salvational representations in our secular history.”

Here we have “harm” running amok, ruling the consciousness of almost everyone it touches. Hillman also argues that, “When war clouds gather, religious belief electrifies the air”. Such “belief” may pertain to and be driven by religious faith in the conventional sense. It can also be and often is the “religion” of nationalism. Then it is a flag that becomes the sacred focus both of myth and adoration; then sacred ritual becomes the lavish display of military power with machines as music and uniforms as honoured vestments.

Thinking of war, and the hysteria that allows war and perpetuates it, it becomes obvious that religion and religious identity can evoke loyalties as divisive and ferocious as any other version of nationalistic or totalitarian thinking. Hillman again: “The single focus on One True God requires that belief be cohesive, organised…. [But] because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity, its psychopathology is intolerance of difference.”  

“Intolerance of difference” is deep in the human psyche. Religion is simply a great place and good reason to express this. We fear difference. We despise it. When we can, we crush it. When nations go to war to crush it, we use the phrase “war has broken out”. Yet what has really broken out is our own eagerness for war.  And our willingness to justify it.

With the weariness and stubbornness of a life-long pacifist, I would argue with all my heart as well as mind that there is no such thing as a “just war”, however eloquently Martin Luther or countless thinkers before or since have argued for it.  There may be “just” reasons for conflict, but war is never anything but a wholly unintelligent and morally indefensible response to the differences in perspective or action that bring conflict about. Unless one “believes” in the religion of war, war makes no sense. And the harm that war causes, generates and prolongs is unrelievedly tragic.

Worldwide spending on war and war readiness is greater than the sum needed for every human being on earth to have food, clean water and shelter and the chance to live in their homeland. Dr Thoraya Obaid, who is Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, has said, “It would cost the world less than two-and-a-half-day’s worth of military spending to save the lives of six million mothers, newborns and children every year.” Yet so ubiquitous and apparently persuasive is this religion of war that governments, academia and industry invest virtually nothing in investigating life giving rather than life-destroying means of resolving the inevitable conflicts there will always be between people.

In the world you and I inhabit war is “normal”. No, it is way bigger than “normal” suggests: it is thrilling, entrancing, collectivising and mythic. In battle, death itself becomes larger than life. It becomes a legend.

Weeks after I had written that paragraph I found and read this from Junger: “War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a 19-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of OK, war is life multiplied by some number no one has ever heard of. In some ways 20 minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else… Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.”

I was born after the end of the Second World War. Virtually every family I knew as I was growing up, including my own, had sacrificed young men to that War and lost peace and happiness because of those who returned but could not recover from it. During my childhood in safe, isolated New Zealand, farmers had a burst of wealth as they sold their wool to be made into uniforms for men fighting in the Korean War. As I became an adult, people in my own and older generations were protesting the Vietnam War. As I have discussed [earlier in Seeking the Sacred] in the section on identity, at the age of twenty I lived for some months in Israel, a nation that has rarely not been at some version of war, and a year or two later in a divided Berlin while the Cold War raged and the Vietnam War was lost.  During my later twenties and early thirties, I lived in Britain during the many years of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland (that spilled over also into Ireland more generally and sometimes, direly, into England, including London).

In my lifetime of peace there has been no peace for our global family....The seductive power of large-scale violence is immense. It focuses the mind. It makes the pulse race. It gives people something other than themselves in which to believe. It brings them together around a common cause. It simplifies life. It makes rage, prejudice and hatred reasonable. It excuses and makes possible many small, individual acts of violence. It clarifies whose side God is on. It puts evil at a distance and offers the illusion that it is easy to tell right from wrong.  It postpones boredom and trivia. It makes some individuals and corporations insanely rich. 

One last quote from Sebastian Junger: “There’s so much human energy involved [in war] – so much courage, so much honor, so much blood – you could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place.”

It was impossible for me (writing today, 31 July 2014) to leave this topic on that pessimistic note. In Seeking the Sacred I propose many positive ideas. Please join me meanwhile in this exquisite prayerful guidance, given to us by mystic and scholar Rabbi Kook.

Radiant is the World Soul, Full of splendour and beauty.
The pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light.

They do not complain of evil,
 but increase justice.

They do not complain of heresy,
 but increase faith.

They do not complain of ignorance,
 but increase wisdom.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, scholar, Russia (1865-1935)

We welcome your comments and engagement. Comments box is below. Please share. An additional review of Hillman's Terrible Love can be accessed via this LINK. The books mentioned in this article - as well as any others - can be bought through the bookstore links, above right. We appreciate the small % returned to our non-profit, non-income Book Club! Specific links (postage free in Australia) follow:
Seeking the Sacred 
To find an unabridged audio edition of Seeking the Sacred, read by Stephanie Dowrick and available in CDs or as MP3 download, please visit this LINK for Bolinda Audio.
Because this review includes an extract from Seeking the Sacred it remains copyrighted and we ask you to contact us for any re-use.
  Stephanie Dowrick will lead a service for peace for the world's children at Pitt Street Uniting Church, 264 Pitt Street, Sydney, on Sunday 17 August 2014 at 3pm. Musical direction, Trish Watts. All welcome.