In Unmaking War Remaking Men, long-time feminist writer Kathleen Barry tackles that question. I'm deeply impressed by the book. (Phoenix Rising Press of Santa Rosa, 2011.)
Empathy is the basis of our shared human condition, Barry writes. If we see an accident in which someone is killed or about to be killed, we normally react with empathy. Some of us rush to try to save the person, and most others feel for the person and hope she will survive. If she doesn't, we grieve, at least briefly.
War is about snuffing out the capacity for empathy, both in those who do the killing and in their compatriots at home who become inured to hearing about it.
Almost all societies teach men that they are expendable, Barry says. From childhood, they are taught that they must be willing to let themselves die as well as kill in war. That is why boys are exposed to violence and hazing at an early age. That is why they are taught to suppress their feelings. They must be ready to have their capacity to think and feel for themselves extinguished, as much as possible, by the army or militia of their nation or group.
Barry points out that The 1949 Geneva Convention on on war violates the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration says that “everyone has that right to life, liberty and security of person.” But the Geneva Convention says that only those “persons taking no part in the hostilities . . . shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.” It is by no means true that nations adhere to that provision and treat persons taking no part in hostilities humanely. But even under the Geneva Convention, persons who take part in the hostilities are seen as having no human rights. Combatants are expendable, Barry notes. Men are taught to accept being expendable.
Men are taught that they must be expendable to protect women and children. But the brutalization soldiers and other combatants undergo both in training and in combat leads them to have hatred and contempt for the people who do not undergo the same brutalization. Combatants and future combatants have their identities stripped away as much as possible. They are taught to identify primarily with their own unit and to see civilians as feminized. Combatants are taught that they must accept being sacrificed.
They go through training killing targets that resemble human beings. When they make their first actual kill, other combatants pat them on the back and welcome them to the club to negate their natural feelings of guilt and shame.
Kathleen Barry has spent a great deal of time talking with veterans and reading their accounts of what war feels like. She respects the men who learn to empathize with the people they have made war against – an experience they often have after they come home, Barry says.
She tells about studies saying that only 20 percent of the U.S. soldiers in World War II actually fired their guns. After the military learned that, it worked hard to raise that ratio, and has raised it greatly through increased training in dehumanizing the people whom the soldiers are killing. The training also dehumanizes the soldiers by making their reactions automatic. The military developed sanitized language like “clearing” a house or an area, which means destroying it. Barry quotes soldiers who participated in night raids on homes in Afghanistan and Iraq as saying that they seldom found evidence that the homeowners actually had been attacking U.S. troops, but nonetheless the soldiers looted and destroyed the homes and often took away the men and boys and locked them up. Even when the soldiers found no evidence, they assumed that the homeowners were lying. The soldiers came to believe that all Iraqis or even all Arabs were liars.
Barry focuses especially on the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Her initial reaction to the horror of the September 11, 2001 attacks was, in addition to grief, a hope that Americans would then understand what it was like to be bombed and would empathize with all people in other countries who undergo bombing. I had hoped the same, as I wrote in “A World Where Justice Brings Peace” (September 11, 2001: Feminist Responses, edited by Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter, Spinifex Press, 2002) . Sadly, we were mistaken. President George W. Bush and other leaders instead immediately reacted with talk of revenge and retaliation against a nation that did not actually carry out the attack. And the American people accepted that response.
Perhaps after that it was easy, only a step to attacking a nation on the unproved claim that it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Barry describes Bush and Cheney as psychopathic leaders, and surely lying one's way into mass killing seems at least like sociopathic behavior. She points out the horror that at a 2004 Gridiron dinner Bush poked fun at his big lie about weapons of mass destruction, enacting a skit in which he looked under a piece of furniture in the Oval Office and said, “Those weapons of mass destruction must be here somewhere.” Then he looked to the corner of the room and said, “No weapons here.” Top reporters and editors howled with laughter.
That occasion is the only one in which Barry notes the media's part in the war. I understand that was not the focus of her book, but we should hold the media accountable for its role in accepting the nation's wars with scant and weak criticism.
Barry of course also sees Osama bin Laden as a psychopath. She deplores the fact that psychopathic leaders of one nation or group can lead to the rise of psychopathic leaders in opposing nations or groups. She is not a complete pacifist. She questions responding to attacks by waging war on whole nations rather than trying to target the individuals responsible.
She also questions definitions of terrorism that define as terrorist only subnational groups rather than nations. She says the U.S.-led killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis is terrorism. She deplores our reluctance to hold our leaders accountable for war crimes, for massive killing of civilians.
She also discusses the history of Israel and calls Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert war criminals for attacks that killed thousands of people in Lebanon. The response to Hizbollah kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in 2006 should not have been to kill thousands of people, she says. She charges Israeli leaders with manipulating the fear of Israelis traumatized by the Holocaust.
When she visited Ireland, a man who learned of her Irish background showed how deeply angry he was at the British for centuries of suppression and starvation the Irish had faced. He said the British are the cruelest people in the world, and certainly Britain has a great deal to answer for because of its policies of colonization. She realized how each people who has suffered feels that its own suffering is the worst and its own oppressor is the worst.
Barry writes about her own suffering as a rape victim to say how deep trauma is, and how isolating. She contends that it is mistaken to say the terrible suffering of any group – Jews in the Holocaust, Blacks subjected to slavery, Native Americans and Australian Aborigines exterminated – is the worst ever. They are all the worst, she says. We need to empathize with all suffering, not focus on our own to the point that we minimize the sufferings of others and might even perpetuate more suffering.
Barry says that core masculinity, masculinity in the sense of being taught not to feel, not to empathize, to try to become inured to the possibility of dying and killing, is causing devastation. She praises men, such as anti-war veterans, who try to work to change those patterns.
She also says that women also must stop accepting the idea that the men in their lives have to be sacrificed in war. She tells of Palestinian mothers of suicide bombers whom other Palestinians order to hide their grief over their sons' death because their sons are martyrs. That is similar to the story that all governments tell the families of dead soldiers: That they should be proud that their sons died.
Some veterans do not want to be thanked for what they have done, Barry says. Some find it terrible to be thanked for what they have had to do.
She finds it amazing, as I do, that Bush and Cheney and other leaders failed to see that invading and occupying countries would lead their peoples to fight back. Who could not understand that people who lost much of their electricity, clean water, and basic supplies for years on end, as Iraqis did, would be angry? Who could not understand that men whose homes were invaded would be humiliated and would join groups that fight against the country that did that to them? Who could fail to understand that the invasion of Iraq would displace millions of people and lead to more and more killing? Kathleen Barry understands that. I foresaw it. Why couldn't our elected officials?
Barry points out that women are in many ways victims of war. One in 10 Iraq women is a widow, most of them war widows, most of them living in poverty. Women in countries affected by war face rape by men in the invading army as well as men of their own nationality when the legal system breaks down. Large numbers of women in the U.S. military have been raped by their fellow soldiers who resent them for being there, thus taking away the significance of the sacrifice that is supposed to make a man a real man. And there is impunity for those rapes, merely a slap on the wrist in almost all cases.
Barry looked at Costa Rica, a country that has renounced war and has no military, to see whether the situation of women is better there. She learned that 50 percent of women have experienced violence from their families or loved ones. So she acknowledges that preparation to be expendable in war is not the only way of learning core masculinity, or learning to violently subordinate women. But she says that Costa Rica is trying, and cites a 1996 Costa Rican law saying that anyone who uses psychological or physical violence against a relative can be ejected from the home and barred from raising children. She says that at the time of her writing, there had been 7,000 actions involving domestic violence.
Barry says that soldiers should be trained to be more like firefighters. They should be trained to respond to a situation in the way that saves the most people and minimizes damage, not just to shoot anything that moves.
When, since World War II, has any war made a country a better place?
Barry said she initially had hopes for President Obama, and she does see him as better than the second President Bush. However, she was greatly disappointed that President Obama expanded the number of soldiers in Afghanistan. And I was greatly disappointed when he supported an attack on Libya. Can anyone honestly say that Libya is a better place since Qaddafi was overthrown? Why must we assume that dictators will be followed by democracy? It seems that seldom happens.
I agree with almost all of what Barry says. She strongly supports removing all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible. Polls say that is what most Iraqis have wanted for many years. Almost no one wants to live under occupation by another country.
I do want Americans to stop killing, as much as possible. But I question her belief that people in Afghanistan will be better off when American soldiers leave. I wonder when she says there are only a few hundred or a few thousand Taliban and they can't do much. I opposed the war in Afghanistan. I certainly don't think our country attacked Afghanistan to help the women. But I seriously doubt that women will be better off when U.S. troops leave. They would have been better off, certainly, if we had never interfered by supporting warlords and Islamists after the Russians occupied the country. We never should have been involved. All I can think to do is to support groups like Women for Afghan Women that, at great personal risk, provide shelters and lobby for legal changes. They face overwhelming opposition, and I think that even more women will die in the future. I don't believe things will be better for women in Afghanistan for a very long time.
Of course Barry's book was written before the Islamic State emerged. I could understand any government trying to stop that group, even though all the governments opposing it are themselves responsible for a great deal of suffering. I fear that George W. Bush's Iraq war so destabilized and devastated the area and angered so many people that the damage can never be undone.
Barry points out how horrifying the concept of preventative war is. She notes that the Geneva Conventions accept the idea of preemptive war if a nation is in immediate danger of attack, and she also accepts that. But preventative war, war simply to ensure that a nation that poses no immediate threat never will have the capacity to attack another, is a different matter entirely. That was Bush's justification in Iraq, and has been the justification for many other wars. The concept is dangerous and wrong, as Barry says.
She believes that the ultimate solution to war is the end of nation states and the creation of a truly multinational force to be used only in situations such as genocide. I admire her optimism. I wish that were possible, but I doubt it. I can't imagine any of the governments that have veto power in the United Nations supporting it. Putin's attacks on the Ukraine have only made it clearer that the nations with arms will never give them up. The U.S. and Russia will not significantly reduce their nuclear stockpiles. We can, should, and must work against war, but it is late in the game to end it. I hope that I am too pessimistic. I hope that she is right and the work of groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans Against War, Women in Black, and Code Pink is leading the way to a new world.
Kathleen Barry has spent much time and energy studying history and learning from people who have actually experienced war. I am grateful for her doing that painful work. I encourage people who read her book to also read Peggy Faw Gish's accounts of being a peace worker in Iraq: a Journey of Hope and Peace and Walking Through Fire: Iraqis' Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation, which I also reviewed in my blog (“The Heartbreak of Iraq and the Story of One Peace Worker,” 2/16/2015.)