The Stoned Cat
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The Stoned Cat

Is There a Solution to War?

A Quora response

In a war, are the soldiers on both sides typically good people with good intentions, but their leaders have tricked them into thinking that the other side is evil? If so, how can we make military forces worldwide recognize when they are being tricked?

Make War, Not Love

This is a very big question, one that our species will likely always be asking ourselves, so it demands a long answer.

To start with the first part of your question:

In a war, are the soldiers on both sides typically good people with good intentions?

I think it’s fairly understood that most people, soldiers or not, tend to lean towards doing good and living ethically if they’re raised in fairly normal circumstances. Most people generally want the same things: to love, to be loved, to look after their loved ones, to avoid suffering, to find purpose and meaning, and to be happy. The problem is that circumstances vary and these desires mean different things to different people. To answer your question properly we need to take a step back and understand something about human nature.

Our species, homo sapiens, has obviously been able to progress and achieve much more than any other species that has ever lived and died on Earth. Yuval Harari breaks this down in much more detail in his book Sapiens, but to give you a quick summary as to why this is, the key ability that separates us from our ape relatives is our ability to buy into and believe in collective myths of identity. By collective myths of identity I mean myths like countries, nations, nationalities, the value of money, races, etc.

If you think about this, a country doesn’t really exist outside of our collective belief that it does. We draw imaginary borders on maps and globes, keep little booklets with our picture that list our nationality, and draw flags with symbolic designs on them to represent a group of people who live in a certain geographic area under a certain set of rules (laws), and we come to recognize this group as a country or a nation. But it doesn’t really exist. We believe these myths not only on a cultural but individual level as well, all the way down to what your name is. Ask a random person the question “Who are you?” and they’re likely to respond with first their name, then maybe their profession, then maybe their age and gender, then nationality, etc. But again, none of these things really exist. We form our identity based on imagined concepts.

Our species’ ability to buy into cultural and individual myths is what allows us organize and work towards collective goals, and this is what truly separates us from the rest of nature. Remember this for later.

So let’s move to the second part of your question

Have their leaders tricked them into believing the other side is evil?

Well, again this is a multi-layered question and depends on circumstances, but in general the answer lies in why people go to war in the first place. There’s two oversimplified answers:

  1. You were either conscripted, or forced into military service by cultural pressures or economic hardship. In other words, you didn’t have a choice.
  2. You voluntarily enlisted because of bravado, nationalism, glory, the other side is evil, etc.

Now there’s no way to measure this with hard data, but my surface level understanding of history and the major wars leads me to believe that the vast majority of soldiers fall into the first category (even though a combination of both is probably very common). So the main problem here is that most soldiers in the wars throughout history either didn’t have a choice in the matter. And even when soldiers fall in the second category, they typically or care more about bravado, adventure, doing their part, etc. than ridding the world of an evil enemy.

White Feather Girls

Let’s take a few examples from history. The Great War is a classic example of a pointless war. In the UK, not only was there a draft with the Military Service Act in January 1916, but the government also employed incredibly devious tactics such as the White Feather campaign to publicly shame young men into signing up for military service. The White Feather Girls were attractive young women who would go around and pin white feathers on the lapels of young adolescent men as an act of public humiliation to get them to enlist.

I could go on and on with dozens of examples, but to conclude this section:

Most soldiers don’t go to war because they believe the enemy is evil. They go to war because they’re forced by either conscription or social pressures, or nationalism.

Let’s move on to the third and final part of your question:

How can we make military forces worldwide recognize when they are being tricked?

The problem is, at least once the war begins, most soldiers already know they’re being tricked. Take the Christmas Truce of 1914 during The Great War, in which soldiers from both sides laid down their weapons and held soccer matches, sang carols, exchanged gifts, smoke cigarettes, held joint memorial services for their dead, etc. These soldiers harbored no aggression against each other, and if anything probably felt they could very much relate to someone who was far from home, missed their loved ones, and didn’t know why they were fighting. Illusions of the other side being evil were completely shattered, yet, the very next day they went back to killing each other.

British and German soldiers on Christmas Day 1914

Why? Because they had no choice. The penalty for desertion in both armies was death. So you could either choose to die (dishonorably, I might add), or fight and maybe not die. Or at least die with a sense of honor. Once someone is in a war zone his or her chief motivation tends to be very simple: survive — which means killing the enemy before he kills you.

So really the only way to stop wars is to prevent soldiers from going to war in the first place. As we discussed previously, drafts make this very difficult, but it would be a lazy answer to your question if I ended it there.

So, what would it take for soldiers to refuse to fight even during a draft?

The answer comes back to what I stated before about believing in the myths that give us identity, because with identity we also become separated from one another into different categories. My country, your country. My religion, your religion. My culture, your culture. Us, them. When we spend our whole lives wrapped up in these myths it becomes extremely difficult to recognize them as such. A fish doesn’t know that it’s in water if it spends its entire life submerged.

So for me, the true answer to your question lies in dissolving the myths of nationalism and patriotism, and therefore the myths of us vs them, that are perpetuated by the press, state, and culture, and which ultimately drive societies to war. Since we’re biologically hardwired to believe these myths, breaking them down is a very tall task, but the first step is recognition. Once the myths behind a war reveal themselves, that war usually can’t be sustained.

Wars that lose their mythic stature for the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it is: organized murder. — War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges:

Take a step back and recognize that you are largely a product of a culture that is out of control. No one is really steering the ship — thousands of different forces are simply clashing together to drive what we call “progress”. The categories that we use to classify and label large groups of people aren’t real, therefore the vast majority of justifications that are given for going to war also aren’t real.

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it. — George Bernard Shaw

The above quote should be fairly self-evident, but can be incredibly hard to realize if you were raised swearing allegiance to a flag every day in elementary school.

If enough people understood that nationalism is mainly just an aftershock from our innate tribalistic tendencies, maybe then we would finally start to understand that war is like two branches of the same tree trying to kill each other.

But first you need to recognize the tree, and to do this you need to deconstruct nearly everything you’ve ever been taught to believe about life. Ask yourself who you really are, and see what you find. Are you an American? A German? A Spaniard? A European? Go deeper. You’re a sapien. You’re an average self-aware being that just wants to be happy.

We’re all different branches of the same tree. The goals we seek when we embrace the myths of war are never achieved.

Unfortunately, I’d say it’s very unlikely that we all eventually recognize this. War will be here until the end of our species, and it very well may be the end of our species.




Existential ramblings and introspective content.

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The Stoned Cat

The Stoned Cat

Navigating the strangeness of life.

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