Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | February 23, 2009

Where War Lives

Way later than I should have been up last night, I finished reading Where War Lives by Paul Watson.  Watson is a Canadian journalist, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph I’m sure you’ll remember, of a U. S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993.  The book recounts how he came to be in that spot at that time and the effect having taken that photograph has had on him, through war zones in many other areas since.  In the beginning of his career, Watson views war and the constant risk of death as thrilling.  After all of the horrific scenes of butchery described throughout the book, at the end, he says the following:

The fundamental question for us all is as timeless as the primal urge to wage war itself: What evil do we commit against ourselves as we fight to defeat others?  War does not conquer evil.  They embrace each other.  If we’re fortunate, we may manage to wrestle war to our advantage.  But it cannot be a triumph.  It is always an admission of failure, an acceptance that we cannot do any better.  The most we can hope for from war is that we gain something in a Faustian bargain: Its odious barbarity gives us the strength to defeat our enemies, and all the while, it slowly sucks the humanity from our souls. (p. 335)

We need to expect more of ourselves, and especially, of our national government leaders.  Preschoolers are not allowed to fight over who sits where at circle time.  Where are the grown-ups who will stop the fighting between countries over who lives where?  Preschoolers are not allowed to have a second helping of snack unless there is enough for everyone to do so.  Where are the grown-ups who will stop the fighting between countries over limited resources?  Why do we demand better behavior from tiny children than we expect from those who are deemed the most capable leaders among us?  Aren’t we supposed to be more mature?  Do you think war is acceptable or necessary because the issues being fought about are of great importance?  No.  The greater the importance of the issue, the less reasonable it is to address by fighting about it.  An important issue requires careful thought and respectful negotiation to resolve. 

Watson then goes on to say:

Others have sought a better way than war, and rather than surrender to the primal urge for revenge sought to disarm it with forgiveness.  It happened in South Africa, which managed to avoid a civil war that many thought inevitable, by placing the need for reconciliation above the desire for punishment.  State torturers, death squad assassins, and terrorists gave detailed admissions of their crimes in public hearings, and then they asked for forgiveness.  Scenes of weeping perpetrators embracing their victims’ relatives helped heal a nation that is now a beacon of reconciliation in the world.  Smaller victories are being won every day by a movement called restorative justice, which recognizes that crimes are not just committed against individuals, but whole communities, and that offenders harm themselves as well as their victims.  When victims agree, mediators have brought them together with perpetrators in jail so that they can better understand the crime, and one another.  Some who have gone through the sessions speak of an almost miraculous transformation from visceral hatred to emancipating love.  (p. 335-336)

There are many examples of restorative justice at “The Forgiveness Project” (link also in the sidebar, under Inner Peace).  Please take the time to read a few.  Every one of them is empirical evidence that we, as whole societies, need to change our mindset of what justice really means, because only this approach to it will result in peace.

As a last thought for this post, each chapter of Where War Lives has at the beginning one quotation.  The one for the last chapter is this:

‘Between him who in battle has conquered thousands upon thousands of men and him who has conquered himself it is the latter who is the greater conquerer.’  The Buddha (p. 323)

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