Who Sits in the Chair? — — War and its Purpose
I am an artist. I am an engaged citizen. These two roles require that I ask fundamental questions of who we are, why we do what we do, and how it makes me feel. The big question on my mind today is the question of war.
As a human being, the act of killing another person — for almost any purpose — is repulsive. It is not something that I would ever want to do. But I am not a pacifist. If my back is against the wall, if it is kill or be killed, I would choose to fight.
But how do we know when a situation is do or die? This is the big question and it’s answered by who is sitting in the chair. In today’s world, in the aftermath of World War II, the global norm is that war is not justified unless it is provoked and necessary. The Iraq War was originally justified to the public as a response to 9/11 and because of a belief that Saddam Hussain was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. After reports found none of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi and that Saddam Hussain did not have possession of weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the war became hazy. It was based on spreading ideals of freedom and democracy — but that was no longer our backs to the wall. And so the Iraq war lost public support and now a clear majority call the war a mistake.
It was not always true that we accepted war only as a last resort. Even now, in practice and policy, the assumption that war should only be a last resort may not be true. However, after two bloody and devastating World Wars, it is a global consensus that at least at face value, this should be the norm. But as history goes, the views of war ranged from war being a national duty, a responsibility that we have the burden to undertake, the power lust of a single ruler, a religious duty, and many more. The famous story about the unification of Japan by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu tells the tale of these three rulers when asked what they would do if a caged bird does not sing.
Nobunaga says, “If the bird does not sing, kill it.”
Hideyoshi says, “If the bird does not sing, make it want to sing”.
Ieyasu says, “If the bird does not sing, wait.”
All three of these rulers were at one point Shogun of Japan and all three were involved in Japan’s unification. The bloody and fractious state of Japan at the time was filled with backstabbing, political alliances, and hundreds of states and clans. All three of these rulers were arguably necessary to unify Japan. Without Hideyoshi’s drive to conquer and kill anyone who opposed him, there may not have been another way to unite hundreds of clans. Without Hideyoshi’s political and diplomatic prowess, Japan may not have survived this unification. And without Ieyasu’s patience, the peace and country again may not have survived. While Japan was no Nazi Germany, there were still backs to the wall in a different way. Undoubtably, during this period, known as the Warring States Period, every ruler in Japan felt threatened as if their backs were to the wall.
So who decides when our backs are to the wall? The problem with war is that it always has to be sold to people. Soldiers must buy into the reason why they are fighting. Leaders must buy into the reason why they are spending money, time, and resources to go to war. The public must buy into why they have chosen, as a society, to support this war and whether or not to protest. It always has to be sold, but who is the seller?
The problem with war is that it always has to be sold to people.
In the U.S., we have a Commander-In-Chief. But it might not be so easy to point to that office as the seller, wars can often be inherited. President Obama’s war in Afghanistan was one he inherited from President Bush, and so it became his war. The President also only heads the office for between 4 and 8 years — the military organization however is much longer lasting. Policies and policy makers from George H. W. Bush influenced and continue to influence key policy decisions in today’s presidency. The Congressional majority also holds a sway on which military policies are the dominant ones. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was dismissed five months early by the Obama Administration and served later as the Secretary of Defense under Donald Trump. Party lines clearly have a big sway on who the policy makers are. And party lines are drawn in more than just the executive branch of government. So if I can’t point the finger at the President, I can’t point it at the military, I can’t point it at a political party, then whom do I say is the seller? Who is the one who sells us on these wars — who convinces us that a war is worth fighting?
Herodotus mentions a story leading to the first Persian War. Ambassadors from the Ionians who had led the Ionian revolt against Persia reached Sparta and Athens. Sparta was a monarchy and Athens was an early democracy. When the ambassador arrived at Sparta, the king was quick to turn him away within a day. The Spartan King knew that supporting the Ionians would put them at unnecessary great risk against the Persian Empire and despite praises from the ambassador of the king’s might, temptations of riches, and so on, the King had the wisdom to refuse to join the fight. When the same ambassador approached the Athenians, a government which should be wiser in making its decisions because it had many heads rather than just one coming together, the Athenians were easily tempted by promises of riches and political gain. So Athens, embodying the derisive term “democracy of the masses”, entered the conflict and in so doing brought about the deaths of thousands of Greeks when the Persians sought revenge in the following Persian Wars.
I mentioned early that I am an artist as well as an engaged citizen. Art informs my worldview and decisions. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones explored a central question, this idea of power — who sits on the throne? A riddle from the Master of Spies, Lord Varys, to Tyrion Lannister goes like this:
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’”
So who lives and who dies? You could say the sellsword would obey the king because of course he is his rightful ruler. You could also say the sellsword would obey the priest because of his piety for the gods. You could just as easily say the sellsword would obey the rich man because of a greed for riches. All these three men are supposedly in positions of power and status in society, but the sellsword is the one delivering the sentence he chooses. So the sellsword too has power. The answer to this riddle is that power resides where men believe it resides, no more and no less. As Tyrion Lannister says elsewhere in the books, “A very small man can cast a very large shadow”.
Now in a democratic society like we have in the United States, our individual beliefs are still important. But when it comes to decisions about war and use of the military, these decisions are made as a collective. Who that collective is, changes, and we do not always have control of that as a society or as individuals. So we come face to face with a cold fact that we cannot control the world. We cannot bend the world to act as we like and believe it should be. If I accept that as an individual, I can continue to look upon myself with integrity. Because I know that although I live in a society and nation which has made decisions to go to war with countries which inevitably caused deaths of many people, innocent and otherwise, I do not control events outside of myself. So my highest integrity is first and foremost to myself. And if I can uphold that, then I can better serve the society I live in.
But I ask myself, what if I were in that chair? What if I were the one who had to decide, do I use military force to contain Iran? Do I increase a military presence on the ground, barricades at sea, plan aggressive air, sea, and land strike policies in case of a wartime scenario with Iran? It may be necessary to protect people, both in the region and America from harm. As the world’s largest military and economic power, in a globalized world as well, America has a responsibility to help bring others up along with it. So what does that responsibility look like with military might?
I cannot give a dogmatic answer to those questions because to me, it would depend on the scenario at hand. As far as policy planning goes, it would do no harm to have a plan for an aggressive air, land, and sea policy in case it is needed. But it would also be important to have other policy options on hand as well and the best one for the moment can be implemented. I know this though, I would not choose to govern by fear. Using military as intimidation, a show of force, or a weapon of power will not solve any problems. An idea cannot be killed and with fear this idea will come to rule you.
An idea cannot be killed and with fear this idea will come to rule you.
War and the military must be used only as a last resort and never to dissuade others by fear. This is as far as I know, and if I were the man in the chair, my primary responsibility would be to inspire each and every person to believe that they themselves are worthy of that chair. Only then will there be no chair governing us all. And maybe then we can sit back into it with a cup of chai and relax. Until then, we must ask the question, critically, without fear, and with realization of our own worthiness, who sits in that chair?