Peace and War
Reflections One Year After the Invasion of Iraq

May 04

It is now more than a year since the US and the UK invaded Iraq. Most of the world (including the present writer on more than one occasion) told them not to. We said that the Americans were blindly walking into a quagmire, and they certainly have. We were doubtful about the promised democratic reforms and we see now in the gruesome pictures of Abu Ghraib the kind of democracy the US forces are bringing the Iraqis. We said that there would be a high toll of life, and we were right. Thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of Americans have met senseless death. We were wrong about one thing though. We thought the threat of weapons of mass destruction was overblown, and that the UN inspectors would find them. It turns out there weren't any to find.

I don't want to argue that this war was a horrible mistake, that shouldn't need arguing at this point. I want to address the more fundamental question of our attitude to war in general. Waging war is the most destructive, cruel and wasteful thing we do as a species. Reduced to essentials, it is the act of killing people and blowing things up to force somebody else to do what you want. War makers may spout high-flown rhetoric about "liberation" but the reality is always burned out towns, starving refugees and mangled bodies.

You'd think we would learn. It's been like that since Caesar's legions "pacified" Gaul. Indeed, four centuries before Caesar, the Buddha warned about the folly of war. "With sensuality for the reason, men taking swords and shields and buckling on bows and quivers, charge into battle massed in double array while arrows and spears are flying and swords are flashing; and there they are wounded by arrows and spears, and their heads are cut off by swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain." The weapons have gotten nastier, but the foolish game goes on. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that he put the root of war in sensuality. Gas for our SUV's and powerboats has to come from somewhere.)

Far from learning from their mistakes, Bush and Blair are both calling for the coalition to "stay the course." I can't help being reminded of another of the Buddha's teachings, a parable about the swineherd who gathered up some fresh cow-dung as food for his pigs, making a bundle to carry on his head. On his way back home it started to rain, the dung liquefied and he went on his way "bespattered and oozing to his fingertips." Village boys laughed at him, calling him mad, but he refused to drop his now worthless burden saying "You're the ones who are crazy! This stuff is food for my pigs!"

I am also reminded of Senator Aiken's words at a disturbingly similar historic juncture. When this anti-war senator was asked how the United States could get its troops out of Vietnam, he replied "in boats."

One of the reasons war is possible is the inability or unwillingness to see the common humanity in the so-called enemy. Before someone can be killed or brutalized, the aggressor must create a perception of them as less than fully human. They are not men and women, boys and girls. They are "gooks" or "hajjis." The Dalai Lama once gave a teaching that we should contemplate "This being is just like me. He wants happiness and doesn't want suffering." So simple, and yet why are so many unable to see it?

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