Peace Activists Must Emphasize the Important Link Between Wars Which Seek the Destruction of Others and Self-Destruction

Gaza 4

At a time when the threat of wars and invasions is increasing, the work of peace movement and peace activists has become more important than ever before, particularly in the most powerful and aggressive countries. One of the most effective ways of taking forward the message of peace in their societies is for them to establish the important linkage between destruction of others and self-destruction.

           Wars destroy not only the vanquished but also the victors, exploitation shatters not only the exploited but also the exploiters.

          The wealth obtained by a person or society cannot be separated from the methods used for obtaining this wealth. If the methods are unfair, if these involve the    unjust deprivation of others, then these methods also have in them the seeds of guilt that will prevent the person or the society from deriving real happiness on the basis of this wealth.

          The body and soul comprise one whole. One cannot be separated from the other. The material and spiritual aspects are closely related. The two cannot be separated. The tendency to curb one’s spiritual life and indulge in unjust acts to acquire wealth does not bring the expected happiness. The suppression of spiritual values (that is required to be able to commit injustice) creates distortions in those persons due to which they are denied even that happiness which many poor people can experience freely and in plenty.

          The persons who fill their coffers by inflicting injustice and cruelty on others have to live with a guilt complex that can destroy their peace. To get rid of this guilt they have to lower themselves to such a level of insensitivity that deprives them of simple yet precious joys, and distorts or destroys their close relationships as well.


          In ancient history the later stages of Roman Empire perhaps represent the peak of the tendency to deprive others for the pursuit of one’s pleasure. While a large number of slaves toiled in intolerably exploitative conditions, the Roman elites went to incredible extent in the pursuit of sensual pleasures. The ‘pleasures’ they sought grew increasingly distorted, culminating in the   monstrosity of gladiator fights. This was the time when the Roman Empire was at the peak of its power. Yet the life of the elite was completely hollow. While a part of their effort was concentrated on keeping a tight grip on their slaves (including brutally suppressing the revolts of the slaves such as the one led by Spartacus), so that they could have access to all the sensual pleasures without doing much work, this entire effort had created so many distortions in their life that they gradually failed to experience such happy experiences as come from genuinely warm human relationships. What is more, the seeds of destruction of their apparently invincible power were also sown in this trend of having an empire based on the exploitation of others.

          Present times also see the culmination of a much bigger, almost worldwide trend of imperialism that started about five hundred years back. The efforts of a relatively small number of people (the imperialists) to loot a much larger number of people (the colonised), to enslave them, caused famine and disease on a scale never seen before. This phase is still continuing.

          But the ruthless plundering of other people in the years of colonialism and slave-trade, and the persistence of this in our own times of neo-colonialism and ‘structural adjustments’ has not been without its baneful impact on the exploiters themselves. In fact in more ways than one, it can be seen that the economic deprivation seen in poor societies and the moral decay and social disintegration seen in the exploiter societies are the two sides of the same human tragedy. The basically exploitative attitude towards the colonised and all the cruelties that emanated from this attitude, was responsible to a large extent for creating a spiritual void among the people and leaders of the coloniser societies which was responsible for much of their distress.

          From the days of the slave-trades and the massacres of native Americans to the present day, even more destructive bombing of Vietnam and Iraq, what the history of the developed countries shows over the last almost 500 years is a constant willingness to use extremely cruel and unethical means to advance their economic and political interests. This willingness cannot be reconciled with what has to be spoken at the political platform, what has to be said in the church, what has to be taught in the schools, what has to be written in popular press. So there is an unavoidable tendency to speak lies whether at the level of politics, religion, education or mass media. The people of nations which have to constantly lie to themselves about their role in the world cannot avoid becoming the victims of a serious spiritual crisis.

          The group of people who exploit and plunder others for self-enrichment not only deprive others; in the process of plunder they also deprive themselves. They create within them a spiritual void that ruins their lives. This is true not only of the developed countries but also of the developing countries. The elites of the developing countries who plunder and exploit their own people also suffer a similar deprivation of their own spiritual life, manifesting in similar types of problems.

          The act of plunder and exploitation changes a person’s soul in such a way that he becomes incapable of feeling and experiencing many kinds of happiness. Such a person tries to isolate himself as much as possible from the suffering caused by his actions, seeking also the help of high technology for this purpose, but such efforts are self-defeating. The biggest tragedy of this deprivation is that the loss is generally not realised by those who experience it, hence proper corrective action is seldom taken (unless strong efforts are made to increase their awareness). In fact the persons (and society made up of such persons) passing through this phase of deprivation are generally quite heady and arrogant due to a wrong sense of their power and dominance. Relationships of exploitation therefore destroy not only the exploited but also the exploiters. However there is also hope as efforts to end the exploitative relationship will liberate not just the exploited but also the (former) exploiters.

          Exploitative acts create within many exploiters a certain guilt, a certain disquiet, a certain escapist trait to avoid facing the reality that adversely affects their life in several ways, including their relationships with their near and dear ones. The more they try to curb their sensitivity to the suffering of others, the more incapable they become of experiencing the finer aspects and sentiments of human life. Without realising this, they shut themselves off from some of the best experiences of human life and interactions. Their vision becomes narrow with the result that they cannot come to terms with the many finer dimensions of life. Their life becomes spiritually barren. They suffer but do not know why they suffer. The sense of arrogance and power on the one hand and the inability to make their life meaningful on the other reduces them to leading a life without purpose and meaning.

          Persons and societies who plunder others or try to inflict cruelties on others generally try to distance themselves from the suffering they cause. Historian Raul Hillberg has written in the context of the ‘holocaust’ which killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.

          “It must be kept in mind that most of the participants (of the holocaust) did not fire rifles at Jewish children or pour gas into gas chambers… Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, talked on telephone, and participated in conferences. They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desk.”

          Elaborating this theme further, Ravi Sundaram writes in his review article on Zygmunt Bauman’s book ‘Modernity and the Holocaust’. (Economic and Political Weekly, February 29, 1992).

          “The emergence of a complex division of labour under modern capitalism has meant that functional specialisation generates necessary remoteness of human agents from the end-product of their social action. In this context, the bureaucrat’s own action becomes an end in itself. Once so isolated from the consequences of action, the bureaucrat, untroubled by moral dilemmas, can pursue his allocated tasks.

          “The architects of the holocaust, the bombers of   Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the technocrats who designed the Vietnam War, could continue doing so without moral qualms precisely because of the social production of distance in modernity. This aspect is crucial in understanding technological evolution of the holocaust. In the early history of the holocaust, the victims were rounded up and machine-gunned at point-blank range. The administrator soon found this both primitive and inefficient and damaging to the soldier’s morale. Other techniques were sought which would preserve the optical distance between murderer and murdered. The result – the gas chamber, the perfect murdering machine. This reduced the role of the killer to that of the ‘sanitation officer’ who simply pressed the button which released the gas into the chamber filled with the hapless victims.”

          Apart from employing high-tech methods to widen the distance between the cruel action and the sufferings caused by these, the perpetrators of cruelties also try their best to manipulate the media. As the Pioneer reported (Jan 17, 1992)

          “The Reagan and Bush administrations have manipulated war coverage so drastically that the American public has a distorted picture of conflicts from Grenada to the Gulf, according to a study released by the Centre for Public Integrity. Curbs on the press are so extensive that White House and Defence Department leaders are violating the Pentagon’s own information guidelines, says the Centre, a non-profit organisation founded by former ABC and CBS television News Producer Charles Lewis to examine ethics-related issues in Washington.”

          But of course all these efforts do not really succeed in removing the impact of the actions of cruelty. One can turn one’s eyes from the suffering cause by cruel acts. One can convince, or force, the people around not to speak of the suffering and the cruel acts which caused it. But one cannot prevent the invisible yet inevitable shadows of guilt to become so imposing that they overwhelm the carefully cultivated outward appearance. These enter into the closest relationships, and even when one shuts the door to all relationships, the guilty person has to reckon with his own soul.

          By curbing dissent and controlling media, a guilty community can at best succeed in making the guilt more silent but thereby even more difficult to bear. The hypocrisy and double standards of such a society can badly shatter its own peace.

          Since the truth cannot be hidden for too long, there is an uneasy guilt and the accompanying sullenness eating the inners of the people who know, but will not admit. People cannot face the facts, they cannot face the reality of the real world. Since human beings cannot be made to live in two worlds constantly, gradually the same attitude to discard ethics and moral courage spreads also to domestic and personal issues.

          One attitude that prevailed in an earlier era of colonialism was for the imperialist powers to reach a certain level of understanding among themselves so as to be able to divide the colonies among themselves. However, since the seeds of greed and cruelty remained, it did not take long for the understanding to be replaced by mutually destructive and fierce competition which played an important role in starting the First World War.

          The First World War gave a clear idea of how destructive an all-out war in the twentieth century can prove. Meanwhile, their colonies were increasingly becoming restive and demanding freedom. Surely the only rational course for the European nations from a purely selfish point of view would have been to mend the mutual differences and   concentrate their energies on controlling the colonies. Much as they would have liked to do so, they could not do this. Their mutual hatred continued to grow and ultimately plunged the planet into II World War.

          Why did this happen, despite the fact that the European nations prided themselves in being the most civilised and educated? An important part of the answer, this part has also been the most neglected, is likely to be that the entirely unprincipled and unethical greed and cruelty which had gone into the plunder of colonies (and the natives of the new world) had created such a crises of spiritual values that attitudes like greed, hatred and cruelty could not be controlled within the most powerful nations even when it became most important to curb them for the protection of their own people. The uncontrolled fires of greed and cruelty which first consumed the people of the colonies and natives later consumed the exploiters themselves in two World Wars.

          The world has been changing so rapidly in recent years that no one can predict with certainty the fast changing relationships, alliances and hostilities. The friends of today can be the foes of tomorrow and vice-versa.

          What is much more important – and this will benefit all people of all nations, including the USA – is to look at the structural causes of war and tension and try to   remove these structural causes. If it is the industrial-military establishment of a few countries then let’s oppose it. If it is the basic attitude of greed, then let us try to fight this. But let us not run away from the basic issues. Remember, as long as the structural causes are not tackled, no one can be safe.

          To summarise then, to make this world safe and peaceful in the true sense of the word, the basic attitudes of greed, cruelty and exploitation –in turn located in relationships of dominance–have to be confronted and changed, instead of being hidden under hypocrisy, as these have the power to ultimately destroy not just the exploited, but also the exploiters.

          Even though the economic, the political, the social, the ecological crises in the world is accentuating at a very rapid pace, the world’s leaders by and large refuse to    acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the present-day world is structured and functions with all its emphasis on inequalities and dominance. If they talk of social justice at all, the suggestions they give are an insult to the basic changes that are needed.

           It is in this dismal situation that the above viewpoint – namely that social justice is essential to liberate not only the exploited but also the exploiters – should be seen. The increasing acceptance of this viewpoint, we believe, will help to create a public opinion that can pave the way for real changes. Explaining this relationship can be taken forward extensively in various societies, most importantly in the most powerful ones, giving examples from those contexts to which people can relate well. We feel that this is one of the most important ways in which the peace movement can go forward and engage the attention of more and more people.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and Man over Machine.

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