So we’re at war again. Sort of. Tony’s got his gun. In 1965 it was Vietnam, 2001 Afghanistan, 2003 Iraq, now, effectively, the whole of the Middle East. The American president was reluctant, our Australian prime minister unseemingly avid. What better way to ginger up flagging post-budget support in the electorate than to bang the kettle drum? War is as old as history. As human as falling in love and cohabiting, fornicating or caring for our children. And, much to our shame, time and again, our penchant for killing our enemies has overshadowed all of these, as it is doing now.
Our enemy now is an idea, a dangerous one, it’s true. A band of fanatical guerrillas is fighting to turn the whole of the Arab world into a caliphate. Once the caliphate was a remarkably tolerant interlude in human history, where Muslims ruled but made peace with the many minorities in their midst, Jews and Kurds and Christians among them. Like ancient Rome, a prototype of multicultural (if imperfect) societies. But then a band of fanatics came to bring enlightenment, gleaming on the edge of their swords. This was the Christian crusade. The caliphate collapsed with Ferdinand and Isabella, who took over from the Moors and exiled the Jews from Spain. This was the beginning of the Inquisition. And so the history goes.
When the Ottomans took over the Arab world, once again different tribal loyalties were held in a kind of balance, the same kind of live-and-let-live equilibrium that Habsburg rule effected in Europe. The rise of the nation-state, the project of two bloody centuries, put paid to that, so much so that by the end of the Second World War ethnic nationalism was triumphant. There is a fateful tension operating here, and has done down through the centuries, the tension between the drive for nationalistic self-determination and the need for human societies to cooperate and then coalesce into ever larger polities. A tension, it seems, that can never be entirely resolved.
Hard to explain this to people who have been made fearful from reading the tabloids and relying on sensationalist commercial news exclusively, when our government and an acquiescent, ad-funded, Murdoch-owned media lead them to believe that Muslim Australians are the enemy, that Islam is a particularly bloodthirsty religion and an oppressive sharia law will be imposed on us if the thugs that calls themselves the Islamic State are allowed to prevail in Iraq and Syria. Hard to explain that in other times, other circumstances, the caliphate wasn’t such a bad idea. Or that Saudi Arabia beheads people willy-nilly, mostly for what we would consider petty crimes, and this is a regime we support. Or that the guerrilla fanatics who post videos of beheadings of Westerners may be doing so in order to provoke us into fighting, a combat they feel confident of winning, or at least will win them more recruits. Or why, when Western armies have never triumphed in such interventions, we’re so keen rush in again. Or to ask the deeper question, if killing civilians by airstrikes is any better, any more ‘civilised’, if our squeamishness has overcome our sense of proportion. But the bigger question, the biggest of big questions, is why we humans kill each other at all, and why the institution of war which permits us to do so with impunity has lasted so long.
In 2013 Anne Deveson published her memoir Waging Peace, in which she was brave enough to grapple with that very question. Born in Malaya when it was an English colony, she was living in England when the Germans bomb fell and returned to Malaya in time for the fall of Singapore. These childhood experiences, superimposed by later ones witnessing wars as a journalist, were the wellspring of her investigation. To boil down her arguments is to serve them unjustly, but it’s worth a try. Deveson charts the slow but appreciable ascent from barbarity that we humans have achieved through the widespread rejection of capital punishment and public executions, and through our greater awareness of the cost of war, both in human lives and the massive, intractable indebtedness they incur. A group of women scholars, guests on ABC RN’s Big Ideas, also make a very good case for our progress. Certain forms of war – land mines and chemical weapons, for instance – have become ‘delegitimised’. And they argue persuasively that, rather than our being innately bellicose, it takes a lot of time and coercion to make ordinary humans willing to kill.
Still, war persists. Arms are manufactured, and sold promiscuously. Governments routinely ignore huge anti-war protests. While in Western democracies armies are no longer conscripted, there’s an increasingly disproportionate toll on civilians in invaded countries – the so-called collateral damage. In terms of cost alone, militarism and its consequences make no sense whatsoever, unless we persist in calculating gross domestic product by including things like rebuilding bombed cities and broken bodies.
In terms of human suffering, the impact is incalculable, and is even more irrational. This is where the arguments about human nature or psychology come in. In her 1997 study Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich traces our embrace of war to our early hunter-gatherer ancestors’ fear of animal predators, and the need to act collectively for protection against them. Others, like the Jungian analyst James Hillman, maintain that because we are animals, our propensity towards violence as a species will always be with us. Yet inherent in this view is quite a low opinion of animals.
A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a Festival of Peace celebrating 90 years of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The topic was ‘Building a Culture of Peace’. Somehow, I bridled at this. Hmm, women and peace. It was all too simple, the easiest proposition: that if only women ruled the world, violence would cease, wars would be no more. Nor did I believe it, for women can be violent, and warriors as well. In any case what little we know about the very few true matriarchies that have existed is that they varied as much in this as they did in other things. I tried to think of some possible explanation for the persistence of such irrational and calamitous behaviour. Marxist ideas about competition for limited resources fed into my cerebration, but they too seemed sadly reductive. Then I hit on an idea, one that was fed by all the reading I’d done to prepare for my speech, but took a giant leap towards the planet.
My gestalt was that human bellicosity is driven by ecological as well as economic concerns, or perhaps it even goes deeper than that, and the ecological considerations actually take precedence over all the others. If planet Earth is one interconnected ecological system – Gaia, as James Woodlock has it – then we are inevitably part of it, members of the primate order, a small number of mammals in the vast panoply of living things, plant and animal, that make up the intricate biosphere of our planet. As Woodlock has proposed, and other biologists, Darwin included, appear to be in agreement, the multitudinous parts of this biosphere are held in a delicate balance and thus it can be envisaged as a highly complex organism itself, analogous to the human body or any other complex living organism. And if this is so, then anything that disturbs that balance is a danger to the planet as a whole.
It was the Leakeys, Richard and Mary, who proposed, after studying the remains of ancient hominoids in the Oldavai Gorge in what is now Tanzania, as well as the social organisation of the Kalahari bushmen, that violence as we know it never occurred among these people as long as their groups didn’t exceed some optimal number. The Leakeys put that number at 30. As we, the paradoxically named homo sapiens sapiens, grew in number and came to dominate all other species, the size of human societies increased as well, until now, in the 21st century, large urban settlements are rapidly becoming the norm, giving rise to all the social ills we have become accustomed to, including homicide and other forms of violence. And on the macrocosmic plane the rapidly increasing numbers of our species (7 billion today and an estimated 9 billion by the middle of the century) may be the trigger for the widespread, cataclysmic violence we know as war.
That war may have an ecological purpose, beyond human reckoning and will, scandalised the women I suggested it to that night. And because it was such a big idea (in the sense of its implications, not because I was the one putting it forward), I failed to emphasis the remedy, or indeed that there were remedies. If war is one important means by which the planet itself attempts to redress an imbalance, this being the increasing populations of humans which threaten other species and indeed the viability of our ecosphere, the obvious remedy is to do what we can to limit our numbers, rather than have the irrational within us do it for us. For in Jungian terms that irrationality, the capacity for horrific violence towards our fellow humans, is analogous to the ‘shadow’ that lies within each and everyone of us and can wreak untold damage to ourselves and others if left unacknowledged. So it may be that only once we accept that this brutal capacity is innate in our species (or in any comparable species that threatens the equilibrium in the biosphere) can we begin to do something about it.
So this is where women come in, and my abiding belief that women’s reproductive freedom is not only a basic human right for individual women, but an absolute necessity for human survival. How this flies in the face of so much of current doctrine is obvious, yet so many of our institutions stubbornly persist with policies at total odds with this necessity. Not only those like the Catholic Church or other religious sects that would limit women’s right to contraception or abortion, but the religion of exponential growth that informs the prevailing economic thinking, and leads governments to encourage women to have children. Moreover, studies have repeatedly shown that whenever women are educated they limit the number of their offspring, so equal educational opportunity must be a paramount goal. And again, wherever basic social services are lacking, most particularly those that address the needs of the aged, women are compelled to produce large families, and so the cycle continues. And as long as our economic policies create inequality, both within societies and between them, this seemingly ineluctable cycle of war and peace will be supported.For years we women have endured the patriarchal assumption that our struggles for equal rights and participation was a side issue, not the main game. But my bet is that, on the contrary, they lie at the very centre of any hope of peace, or the health of our precious planet.