Sunday, 9 December 2012

War, the escalation of conflict, and the role of personal responsibility ~ and a film review

The evening before last I watched the documentary "The man nobody knew: in search of my father, CIA spymaster, William Colby", a documentary created by his son, Carl Colby.  Actually I didn't watch the whole thing, having become too distressed by scenes of atrocities in Vietnam to watch anything further for the time being.  I switched it off mid-frame and set about getting supper, comforted myself in my quiet kitchen with soothing bedtime rituals. 

I slept with the light on being still too much more there than here, and woke up still awash with my thoughts about it.  There was so much to think about, I spent the rest of the day observing these thoughts making their way across the forefront of my mind.   

William Colby is quoted as having said that with regard to gathering intelligence (of the informational variety) it is a matter of listening rather than talking.  "I already know what I think", he said.  He pointed out that if you offer people a degree of help with ordinary practical matters such as health and security, they begin to trust you and will then tell you all manner of things without being asked.  He commented that the Vietnamese mostly knew what was going on.  The thing to do then was to sort out who the bad men were - and kill them.

That approach starts out so well, and so helpfully, and then erupts into brutality.  In my view the taking of life can very rarely be justified. 

I do believe in justice: 
I believe in restorative justice, in which those who harm are required to take palpable steps to correct the harm they have done, often by meeting with their victims.
I believe in rehabilitative justice: in which those who have caused trauma to others are assisted to look at and come to terms with their own trauma as well as that carried by those who are close to them.  Once they have done so it is my belief is that they will no longer be capable of wilfully inflicting suffering on others.  To simply incarcerate people, even kill them, is to ignore the root of the trouble, which is not likely to improve matters, rather the reverse.  There are a certainly a proportion of instances in which the confinement of wrong-doers is necessary to protect others, but that proportion may not be all that high. 

People who harm others while carrying the burden of their own trauma are a dangerous yet, for the most part, treatable part of any violent situation.

War drives everyone to extremes.  Others who get caught up in collective violence may have the simple driving need to feed themselves and their families; soldiering can provide a way of earning an income.   

At such times others act to maintain a semblance of normalcy while they can, and so do not oppose the obvious descent into wrong-doing and political malfunction, an abdication of social responsibility.

Then there are those who are fighting for ideals, for a better life, to oppose evil, for the greater good of their country, and so on.  

This is a dangerous quartet of attitudes.  

Footage in the documentary of bombing along riversides of rural Vietnam was horrifying, an unbelievable unleashing of violence and destruction with massive and mounting banks of fireballs along these belts of peaceful greenery and tiny villages.  Imagine being on the ground looking up.  Imagine being in your home or in your farmyard, or watching from across the fields.  The idea that any form of peace could be achieved by such terrifying acts is quite simply certifiably insane.  The only possible outcome is collective trauma, hatred and more violence.  

In my view we cannot harm others without harming ourselves.  Bearing this in mind it did not surprise me that most of the men who were interviewed in the film looked like animated corpses, but it added to my sense of horror of the whole thing.  And the image of Colby senior, himself, presides over the film, an unreadable mask.

Robert McNamara, another central character in the Vietnam war, made a documentary "The fog of war" which includes the lessons he had learnt from that situation and which he wanted to make known to others.  Years after the war had ended he went back and held talks with his former opponents.  In the course of those talks it rather shatteringly came to light that throughout the entire conflict each side had been ignorant of the others motivation and mindset: the North Vietnamese, only recently freed from French rule, were resisting what they perceived to be American colonisation, which they were determined to resist with every fibre they had, whereas the Americans were attempting to free Vietnam from the grip of communism, and to save other parts of South East Asia from the same threat...  There is a lot to be said for knowing your enemy.  

There were many influences and misfortunes that converged in that war but those who were harmed during the process have been left with that devastation, and those who were killed have gone forever.  What can we do about it?  

One thing we can all do is learn from past mistakes, which we don't seem to be successful at given the number of similar conflicts that continue to crop up and erupt around the world, and the impatience the general public seems to have with diplomatic solutions, which take time, and their widespread enthusiasm for sending weapons and soldiers 'to sort things out', which arguably takes longer and costs vastly more in every way you care to count.  This enthusiasm continues until it becomes financial as well as humanly ruinous at which point they advocate pulling and leaving the wreckage willy-nilly.  Participating in wars can be a very chancy business. 

On the other hand, I have great respect for peacekeeping forces, who help to restore law and order through providing structure and mentoring.  I know two men who have served in East Timor, one as a soldier and the other as a policeman - bravo!
From watching the documentary's war footage it struck me forcibly that the more we set ourselves up in opposition, the more we are likely to come to resemble those we are opposing: this is certainly the nature of warfare: both sides inflict severe and irreversible harm on the other.

In situations of mounting unrest something needs to be done, but what?

I found myself thinking about Cesar Millan's advice about the best way of responding to agitated dogs.  Dogs are instinctive, and in behavioural terms they, like humans, are pack animals.  Cesar constantly emphasises the importance of responding with calm and assertive energy.  (Note the click-through link to his article there.)  You have to feel it for it to work!  He says that if you respond with your own agitation this feeds the dog's unease, often an exhibition of fear and uncertainty rather than aggression.  Negative or harsh handling can escalate the dog's state and may cause it to attack, when all that is needed is communication through calm, assertive energy.

This principle is certainly helpful when responding to people who are uneasy or upset.  One sees this in the handling of crisis situations by emergency professionals: medical personnel, fire fighters and the police: when they are doing their work well we feel their confidence and skill, which helps us be calm.    

Reading the situation back from the other end of the telescope while still adhering to the same principles one can infer that the greatest of tyrants of any sort are in their secret hearts very fearful indeed, as shown by their craving for such excesses of power and displays of excessive force...  Therefore, handling them in the same way as Cesar handles his dogs may be the most effective approach.  While this suggestion may sound eccentric it may be one of the hidden keys which any of us can grasp and use at any time with good effect.  

Wars are the escalation of political and economic upheavals and the attendant jockeying for power.  Most people want more than anything to be able to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and to have a modicum of security and freedom.  In times of instability and potential loss most people opt for the easiest path, which is understandable.  Hence, the rallies and uprisings tend to include many young people.  

I am old enough to remember the Vietnam war and to have taken part in street protests calling for the withdrawal of New Zealand forces from it.  From memory, street marches were a Friday night thing to do - quite peaceful, but making determined statements.  I remember the surprise of the ending of that war, the news broadcasts, and stories of locals trying to climb over embassy walls in an attempt to find sanctuary from the change of regime.  I remember not knowing what to think.  I don't think many foresaw that particular scenario. 

In politically and economically stable times we most often simply pursue our own ends, so that the drift towards the curtailment of human rights, civil rights, and economic power-grabbing by stealth, can progress largely unchecked.  Our fears for the future and a degree of hiding our heads in the sand can also play a part in curbing the degree of attention we pay to troubling information.

However, faced with dangerous unrest in the East and economic decline in the West, we all need to be vigilant, well informed and be prepared to speak out - calmly and assertively.  In democracies, in theory at least, those in positions of political power are our servants.  If we trust them too much we give them room to do whatever they think they can get away with.  Or if we think they will do that anyway and nothing anyone says will make any difference, then we make that reality come true as a result of our own complacency.

If enough of us calmly and assertively seek out information and speak out from the position of authority that that gives us we can maintain the influence and control we should and indeed need to have.  Is anyone out there standing up for this challenge?  A few of you?  Oh good - that's a start!

Another way of handling our own fear and uncertainty about possible loss and deprivation now or at some future date, is to consider and work at developing skills that may help us get by: practising growing fruit and vegetables, for example, and learning how to manage better on less - which is what the At Home Chronicle is all about - all this can improve our security, our ability to fend for ourselves:
Our fears, whether real of imagined, can be helped by being addressed in practical ways.  Last night I dreamt that I had to be evacuated from my home due to some disaster or other.  I had three cats, and only two cages, and also I wasn't sure where their harnesses were.  I do have cat harnesses for just this contingency.  In my dream this was very stressful, so this morning I located the harnesses and gave each of my two cats a practice at wearing them which I hadn't done for ages.  I already knew I had the cat cages within easy reach, and enough food to pack in an emergency.  So regardless of whether my dreaming angst was or was not a related to a real life matter, responding to it in this direct practical way was soothing. 

Actually, I think that I was still upset from watching the film the night before.  Writing about it has also been helpful.  And so I pass these thoughts on to you for your interest, and perhaps they will usefully shine a light in a corner of your life.  

It's hard to believe that any one of us can exert any influence on a world so scarred and be-spattered with conflicts of all kinds.  

I choose to look at it as a matter of holding the faith - I believe in certain principles, some of which I've outlined here, and that's my chief responsibility, to be clear about them, and live them out as best I can.  That's my faith.  What other people do is their responsibility to their own faith if they have one.  I hope there are enough people willing to contribute to the wholeness of our individual and collective lives on this planet to hold the whole thing together, to help and to heal these terrible wounds.  I sit on the earth and place my hand on it in an act of faith, which is how I tell the Earth.  My other hand I raise to the sky, also an act of faith.  

~ Peace to you all. ~

I give full credit to Carl Colby, whose film motivated me to think about these matters in a fresh way and write this article, thank you Carl, the film is a very brave statement.

The link to further details about the film, if you missed it above, is here:
Other articles I've written on related topics can be found elsewhere in this Chronicle.  Here are links to three of them:
This related article is in 'Rushleigh ~ The Wasteland Chronicle':

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