Of War and Peace

Christmas truce 1914. “Enemy” soldiers playing soccer.

This is the season when we exchange wishes for peace—and yet we keep making war. Why?

Looking Across the Willamette

Every December some householder, up in the wooded hills on the other side of the Willamette River, lights an enormous peace sign. It must cover the entire side of their house. Sylvia and I can see it from our back window and find it much more pleasing than, say, all those inflatable Santas and Disney characters. It goes on after sunset every night, stays on for a few hours, lasts a few weeks, and then vanishes for another year, around the same time that everyone takes down their holiday decorations.

Looking Across the Potomac

2,817 miles away, on the other side of the Potomac River, Congress did what it does every year—it just passed the largest military budget in our history, which each year is larger than the year before. According to the National Priorities Project, “U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined.” The $858 billion total allocates lots of money for weapons of mass murder such as guided missiles and missile destroyers, fighter jets, and attack submarines.

Compare this to the $772 billion set aside for all health, education, and veterans’ programs combined. Speaking of which, shouldn’t the $303.8 billion allocated for veterans’ programs really be counted as part of our military expense? We wouldn’t have all those veterans to take care of if we didn’t have such a bloated war department.

Other costs of war are hidden as well. While the Defense Department’s budget includes the delivery systems of nuclear missiles (about $405 billion over the next 10 years), the cost of the missiles’ warheads (around $229 billion over 10 years or—a very rough estimate—$22.9 billion/year) comes from the Energy Department’s budget. This year the Energy Department will receive $48.2 billion in total. In other words, approximately 47.5% of its budget will be spent on nuclear warheads. This cost should also be included in the military budget, bringing it up to about $1.184 trillion.

Remembering the Christmas Truces

In December 1914, five months after the beginning of World War I, many soldiers entered into spontaneous truces. They frequently crossed the trenches and fraternized with each other, playing soccer in No Man’s Land, singing carols, exchanging news and gifts, and bartering for cigarettes. Their officers did not approve. According to historian Max Hastings, Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle complained of the “lamentable” desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace, and Victor d’Urbal, commander of the 10th Army, deplored the “unfortunate consequences” of men becoming “familiar with their neighbors opposite.”

In subsequent years commanders warned their troops not to participate in such truces, threatening them with prosecution for treason. The war went on for another four years, resulting in the deaths of 8,500,000 soldiers and 29,000,000 wounded or missing. An additional 13,000,000 civilians died as a result of starvation, exposure, the influenza pandemic spread by displacement, military encounters, and massacres.

Obedience Beyond the Military

Lately I’ve been wondering why so many are willing to kill and die for the greater glory of some sociopathic dictator. I still don’t know why, but it is clear that this phenomenon exists outside of a military context.

The Milgram studies come to mind. In 1961 social psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited subjects to act as “teachers” and administer electric shocks to another person, the “learner.” Dr. Milgram or another experimenter dressed in a white lab coat supervised the procedure, ordering the “teacher” to increase the voltage in response to incorrect answers—up to what would be a lethal dose. However, the shocks were fakes and the “learner” was an actor.

Before conducting the experiments, Milgram had polled psychology students and professors, who all predicted that somewhere between 1% and 3% of “teachers” would continue to follow orders when the “learner” complained of pain. In fact an average of 63% kept administering shocks, even up to the point when they thought they were killing the “learner.”

Milgram’s work has been replicated around the world, in studies conducted as recently as 2015, with similar results. Women are just as likely or even more likely than men to obey the experimenter’s orders.

A Fool and His Money…

And even if they aren’t taking up arms just yet, why are so many human beings willing to give what little they have to a con artist who is already wealthier than they could ever hope to be? I don’t understand this either. Do they so desperately long for a Big Daddy? Do they imagine that if they kiss his rear enough, some of his wealth and glory will rub off on their lips?

When Trump marketed digital images of himself as a superhero, cowboy, etc. for $99 apiece, all 45,000 sold out within a week. Those images were resold for up to $999, and then fell to their current “value” of $280. The original artwork was stolen, with Trump’s face photoshopped onto each image. No attribution was given and no royalties were paid to the artists.

These digital cards are sold on the internet just as cryptocurrencies are. In the tulipmania craze of 17th-century Holland, you might have lost money but at least you were left with a lovely flower. Tulips come up in our garden every year. They exist in the real, physical world, and are a lot prettier than The Former Guy’s ugly mug.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Tolstoy wrote “Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us.” And “…the aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft.” I can only agree.

A couple of Shakespeare’s phrases also come to mind. “What a piece of work is man!” Hamlet meant this in a positive way, but I’m more inclined to the modern, derogatory sense of the expression: Man—homo sapiens—sure is a piece of work. And as Cassius observes in Julius Caesar, “The fault…is not in our stars/But in ourselves…” My interpretation is that there is something defective in our species.

What can we do about it, if our DNA programs us to obedience, to turn over our lives and fortunes to narcissistic sociopaths? If 63% of us are so willing to obey, so willing to damage or kill people who never harmed them at the orders of those they perceive to be in authority, what can the 37% do? Can we do more than exchange the usual seasonal wishes for peace? Can we band together, to turn aside the nuclear fire that our mad rulers and their obsequious servants are likely to hurl down from the skies, a fire that will annihilate us all?

I leave you with one last quote, from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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