Monday, September 09, 2013

Peeling the War Onion

Peeling an onion gives you tears, especially if the onion is one of the northern types (which, in my opinion, are onions on steroids).  The trick is to have a few unlit matches between your teeth while you do it and to have the water running from the faucet.

The onion I was trying to peel over the weekend is a different type.  It's the War Onion:  The odd desire of human beings to go to war.  For note that even when a war seems unavoidable and a necessary evil, there's that desire, to show how tough a country is, to force "respect" from other countries, to worry about the "standing" of one's own country, to go rah-rah and to wave the flag.

That all these things crop up, even after we all know what killing is really like and what it results in (end of beings, enormous grief for the survivors, displacement, long-term mental suffering, physical destruction), there's still a sizable number of people who view it all almost as a football game or at least as a computer war game.

At the same time, I get why not all wars can be avoided, I get the political calculus and the fact that some types of wars are about whether those people survive or whether  "my" people survive.  An existential fight.  But most wars don't fit that bill.

So why can't we avoid wars better?

You might be astonished that Echidne,  who bills herself as a minor goddess, doesn't know the answer.  Duh.  But I think it's useful to take the War Onion apart, layer by layer.  It's more than peeling, of course, because you end up with nothing.  In some ways that's the real significance.

The top layer of the onion is always some recent horror, some recent insult, some difference of opinion, of religion, of values that appears not amenable to diplomacy.  Why it doesn't bend itself to diplomatic means may not always be that clear, but looking at the layer below that one gives us some answers, about the history of the events, about resource distribution between and inside countries, about bad leadership, evil dictators, past grudges, and so on.  A careful study of that history might tell us where things could have gone differently, but that careful study is often possible only many years after the events.

Move one more layer into the onion, and you might come to the resources, both the fight over new-found resources or the fight over very scarce resources.  Some of these fights are just about greed and dominance, some are about survival.  Many of the powder keg areas of the world have that underground rift, of insufficient resources or of resources others want, and that's why they are potential or actual places of war. 

The Israel-Palestine hostilities are about many things but among those are resources, access to water, access to fertile land.  Likewise, I was shocked to learn that Egypt doesn't have enough arable land to support its large farming population.  That fact explains much of the poverty in the country and explains one part of the current unrest.  And in Syria, lack of water is one of the reasons why the poorest farmers had to give up farming and move to cities where they create the suffering and marginalized population from which the rebel movement could do its recruiting.

The lack of resources is not enough for wars, but it may well be one of the necessary conditions for most wars.

Go one layer deeper, almost to the heart of the War Onion, and what do you see?  Perhaps some unpleasant aspects of human tribes.  The desire to divide people into "us" and "them", the desire to base that choice on religion, ethnicity or race.  It is not just a desire, of course, but a fact, in many cases.  Hence civil wars are not about brothers killing brothers, but about brothers of the "right' faith or ideology killing brothers of the "wrong" faith or ideology.

Whether this or the resource layer are deeper can be debated.  They interact.  Thus, if there is enough space, land, water and food, the "wrong" type of people can be endured, and to some extent propaganda can be used to raise the in-group/out-group emotions even when resources aren't that scarce.  Think of the Existential Threat propaganda, the use of the self-defense argument when it's clearly not applicable. 

I'm not sure where the quality of the leaders enters all this.  It matters, greatly.  A warlord will not work for peace, a dictator will not fix the resource scarcity of one part of the population,  the leader of the "free world" will try to manipulate what that world consists of.  And what those leaders care about, in terms of their private psychological makeups, matters also.

But in some ways I think the emptiness in the very middle of the War Onion is Mother Nature turning over in her sleep and scratching the itch caused by too many fleas in one area.  The system is out of balance, and something needs to be adjusted.  That this adjustment is horrible for most sentient beings is sad for them.  Still, it is one solution to the resource problem:  With fewer people the resources stretch better.

That is not intended as an actual description, not intended as implying that the planet thinks or acts in a conscious way, but a way to suggest that if we tended to the underlying problems perhaps we would have fewer wars, fewer acts of collective violence.  Among those underlying problems the climate change is a major one to work on, because without that work we are going to get worse resource shocks. 

If that was coupled with proper population levels?  More investment in knowledge and education, so that individuals learn ways to manage those in-group/out-group feelings?  More focus on equitable division of resources?  These are probably childish thoughts.