One Shadow Side: the exhilaration of war

There is no defeating the shadow. We have to live with it. -Karl Marlantes

This post continues exploring some of the themes introduced in my last post, from which the above quote is also taken. So what is the shadow we have to live with, according to Marlantes?  Why does the shadow’s nature remain largely unknown, either by unconscious repression, deliberate suppression, or both? What are we afraid of? There are many aspects of course, but here’s an important one Marlantes says we’re reluctant to face.

The least acknowledged aspect of war, today, is how exhilarating it is. This aspect makes people very uncomfortable. Not only is it politically incorrect; it goes against the morality taught in our schools and churches. The hard truth is that ever since I can remember I have loved thinking about war—and I wasn’t the only one. I played it in the woods with my friends. I read about it, and people wrote what I read. I saw it in movies, and people filmed what I saw. As a college student I played strategy board games—and people designed and sold those games. In Vietnam there were times when I swelled with pride at the immense destruction I could deal out. There is a deep savage joy in destruction, a joy beyond ego enhancement. Maybe it is loss of ego. I’m told it’s the same for religious ecstasy. It’s the child toppling the tower of blocks he’s spent so much time carefully constructing. It’s the lighting of the huge bonfire, the demolition of a building, the shattering of a clay pigeon. It’s firecrackers and destruction derbies on the Fourth of July. Part of us loves to destroy. Nietzsche says, “I am by nature warlike. To attack is among my instincts.” (p. 62)

Different people fall along different parts of the spectrum, but Nietzsche’s remark applies to all of us, more or less. To attack is among our instincts, and for many of us this instinct for aggression is so disturbing that we’re reluctant even to acknowledge it. This reluctance is so prevalent among parents and dog owners that I used the phrase “reluctant masters” in the title of my book partly to indicate the resistance we feel to owning up to our responsibility to others over whom we’re in positions of authority. Partly we’re reluctant because we’re afraid of the shadow side, we’re afraid that embracing our authority will lead to abuses, we’re afraid that it will unleash our instinct to attack, especially when confronting behaviors that irritate us and that come from those weaker than us, as for example the spirited disobedience of dogs or children, or rogue countries.

Afraid of having our shadow side aroused, we may seek to avoid the spirited tug of war that training and education often involve. (I gloss spiritedness in the earlier post.) Then, instead of facing it and becoming skilled in dealing with it, we resort to various forms of evasion and denial. A perfect example of this from the dog training world is the popular ideology of the positive-only training camp. (What wishful thinking is at work when you imagine that with the right method and instruments all moments of conflict between master and dog or parent and child can be avoided. Alas, they can be avoided, but usually at the expense of the relationship.)

The good news for those who do begin facing the shadow side, however, is that while it cannot be defeated, it can be understood and even be made an ally: we don’t just have to live with it, we can live better with it above ground than we can with it lurking in our unconscious. Here’s how Marlantes begins unpacking it,

Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of Yeats, has the right answer. He says this [destructive] feeling is just the other face of creativity, in Jungian terms, the shadow side of creativity.” “The urge to destruction, like the urge to creation, is a defiance of limits; we transcend ourselves by refusing to accept completely anything that is human, and then indomitably we begin fabricating again.” What’s scary is that it is far easier to take the path of transcendence through destruction than to take the path of transcendence through creation. And the destructive path gets easier as technology improves, while positive creating, whether spiritual, artistic, or commercial, is just as hard as it ever was. (p. 63)

This sounds right to me. Since destruction is an easier path to transcendence than creation, that’s all the more reason to seek the wisdom Marlantes has to offer about how we can learn, as warriors and as a warring culture, to begin taking the higher road. The first step is to allow all of who we are to appear on the stage of consciousness.

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