May 26, 2006

War and Other Follies

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. - George Orwell
My post about the bombing massacre of Afghan villagers has set off a bit of flurry in the comment section. It's good that people are thinking about these things.

I'd like to step back a little from historical and political specifics and look at the general ethical issues around war, nationalism, projection of power (groping here for a value neutral word for imperialism), and violence by both state and non-state actors.

Buddhism is probably the most pacifistic of the major world religions (although it must be admitted that Jainism takes ahimsa or non-harming even further.) There is no teaching of "just war" to be found in the Buddha's teachings. On the contrary, war is ascribed to a foolish quest for "sensual desires" in the Mahadukkhakkhanda Sutta. (In other words, a theory of economic causation - control of land or resources) The ideal king, the mythical Wheel-Turning Monarch, conquers the whole world without violence.

Furthermore, the Buddha has said that "hatred is not overcome by hatred, hatred is only overcome by love, this is a law eternal." And the First Precept is to refrain from harming and killing. No exceptions are made as in some other moral codes which distinguish between lawful killing and murder.

And yet, you may say (and rightly so,) Buddhist kings and Buddhist states have gone to war and continue to do so. This doesn't negate in the least the moral principle, it simply shows that human beings of any faith often fall short of the highest ethical principles. There cannot be any holy wars in Buddhism. Although, alas, the Sinhalese have at times attempted to frame their perennial strife with the Tamils in almost those terms, this is a gross distortion of the teachings and doesn't negate the general principle. Scriptural justification for war can be found in the Old Testament and in the Koran but not in the Nikayas.

War can be defined as the organized application of violence by a state to impose it's will on another state or other organized groups (like a rebel movement.) War has a nasty way of inverting all our normal moral instincts. In war-time, hatred of the enemy is encouraged (see all the very nasty propaganda put out by all sides in WW2 for example,) murder and theft become legitimatized, as does rape in practise, although this is not advertised for home consumption. In war, the most bestial behaviour is praised as "noble and brave."

The longer a war goes on, the more the moral standing of the belligerents is brutalized. In 1940 the RAF avoided bombing targets in Germany that might damage private property. By 1945 they were ruthlessly fire-bombing whole cities. A dark moral abyss is entered where right and wrong are inverted. This moral blindness is so strong that even today, sixty years on, it is controversial to state the obvious and call the fire-bombing of Dresden an atrocity.

As Orwell noted, there is an overwhelming tendency not so much to justify the atrocities of one's own side but to overlook them. To take notice of them is "not supporting the troops" or "siding with the enemy." To state a simple point of fact can become politically charged. For example - to state that the United States of America is, at this present moment, the single biggest committer of war-crimes on the planet is plainly and simply an objective truth. But imagine the reaction when this is said. Some will try and justify Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, but more will simply deny that they ever really happened.

At the root of this moral blindness is what H.G.Wells way back in the early years of the last century called "the false god" of nationalism. Once a group of people identify themselves as a nation, and take the next step of identifying their nation as chosen or special or best then it is easy to justify attacks on lesser nations who are not chosen or special or best.

What is, after all, a nation? At the bottom it is nothing real, it is a mutually agreed convention. A mental formation in Buddhist language. I live near the Pigeon River. On the drive into Thunder Bay, the road runs along the banks for a space. The Pigeon happens to be the international boundary in this part of the world. Sometimes when I'm in a car with someone I'll casually point out that the other bank is Minnesota. It's odd how the viewers perception, his sanna, shifts. Canada and America exist only in the viewers mind. The earth and the river and the trees don't know which country they're in.

But this unreal mental convention is taken so seriously that people are willing to die, and to kill to defend it. On the road crossing over the Pigeon are two little shacks set up and manned by people whose work is to defend this imaginary line. And should you ignore this line, you do so at your own peril. An imaginary, unreal line, but one taken with the utmost seriousness.

Over this utterly imaginary phantasm of a nation is constructed an entity that has at least a social reality - the state. What at bottom is a state? It is a mutually agreed monopoly of violence. The Agganna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya relates a fascinating myth which is a somewhat Hobbesian version of the social contract -

Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying, and punishment. And they thought: "Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return we would grant him a share of the rice." So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.
For the parliament of Canada to be in session, the Royal Mace must be laid out on the table in the aisle. (Other countries have similar ritual fetish-objects) What is a Mace? It's a big heavy club designed to bash someone's skull in. It's presence symbolizes the power of the state embodied in parliament - the monopoly of violence. This is the meaning of sovreignity. In a state of nature, all beings are sovreign, i.e. free to indulge in violence. In a civil society, the right to inflict violence is limited to the agents of the state; i.e. the army and police. One of the words in Pali for royal authority is danda which literally means a stick.

It may be a practical compromise; there are immoral and amoral people about and it's not a bad idea to have a police force to protect the law-abiding. But let's not fetishize our mental and social constuctions. To worship either a nation or a state is deeply ignorant and idolatrous. Rite-and-ritual clinging. Rites and rituals may be socially and psychically useful at times, but to validate them as real is superstition. To die, or to kill, for them is plain madness.


Soen Joon Sunim said...

This is a concise and unambiguous statement of Buddhist morality: thank you, especially for grounding it clearly in the Suttas.

Phil said...

Well-written ethical review! I found the anti-war views I had formulated in the nineteen sixties reinforced recently by reading the book, WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, by Chris Hedges. Stories of experience as a war correspondent are intermixed with passages derived from his education in classical literature. The Buddhist heart sutra tenet regarding the voidness of wisdom notwithstanding, there is still someting to be learned from those multitudes of years of human cultural development.

e.m. said...

Yes indeed --but the other side of the Buddha's teachings on war are the repeated statements that warfare and conquest are inevitable. Kings will always try to conquer their neighboring kingdoms, they will always try to expand their power, territory, and wealth, diminishing their neighbors. Such wars are said to be meaningless, the cause of much misery, etc., but are simply the way of kings and kingship --a "way" that the Buddha renounced.

Theravada Buddhism is indeed an "anti-war" religion and philosophy, but it is not utopian. It presumes a perpetual dystopia, from which those seeking nibbana will always have to extricate themselves.

Too often I encounter "Westernized" Buddhist doctrinaires who want to delete one half of the argument and make the Buddha into a kind of ancient Thomas Moore; and, of course, Mahayana millenarianism carries all this off to another extreme conclusion.


e.m. said...

Charming point about danda, by the way --it is something similar to the etymology of "Fascist" from L. "Fasces", viz. the sticks/rods held by the ruling class in Rome (and left bound in a bundle outside of their meetings).

However, I should note that danda can also suggest a walking-stick, and some very non-violent characters are thus associated with it; it may be that some sense of the "authority" associated with words related to danda has to do with the wise old man and his walking stick, rather than the threat of the rod. Human nature being what it is, I rather doubt it.

stephen dewar said...


phil said...

"...the repeated statements that warfare and conquest are inevitable. ....
Theravada Buddhism.... ...presumes a perpetual dystopia, from which those seeking nibbana will always have to extricate themselves."

The unsatisfactoriness of samsara certainly impells Buddhists, but do they dwell in nibbana? Or do they wander the world? And in their wanderings are they well-advised to ignore previous travellers? And to leave the world less satisfactory than they found it?