It’s common to imagine that when we celebrate or party—indulge in too much food and drink, lose sleep, etc.—we’re enslaving our nobler spirits to our base bodily desires. But the opposite is often the case, as the crucible of war makes vividly, sadly clear.
Think about it. Other animals don’t deliberately act in ways that compromise their health. Lacking our spirit and consciousness, they cannot choose to sacrifice their body to these higher powers. This is also why only human beings can, in the absolute sense, sacrifice their lives to a cause, whether it be a friend, fellow marine, country, god, or principle. For only we recognize our mortality, so only we can know what it is we’re sacrificing. (That said, I argue in my book that dogs are capable of a degree of self-sacrifice, which is why we call some dogs faithful, noble, courageous, great-hearted; it’s also why the military at one time awarded some war dogs Silver Stars and Purple Hearts.)
We may sacrifice the body to the interests of consciousness for noble or ignoble reasons. This brings me to my second post on Karl Marlantes’ diagnosis of how we become inured to violence. (The first post is here.) In his book Marlantes describes some wonderful instances of noble sacrifice by warriors in combat. The partying I mentioned also has a noble aspect, inasmuch as it symbolizes our spirit’s transcendence of our animal body, our refusal to be tyrannized by the needs of the body, which thrives on habit, regular hours, sleep, good food, and naturally avoids intoxicants. The willingness to sacrifice these goods for the sake of, say, celebrating a marriage shows we care more for spiritual values than our bodies’ welfare.
Yet sacrificing the body is often ignoble, as when the partying becomes the rule of our lives, and we live habitually as overeaters, drunkards, gamblers, TV and internet addicts, power-grubbing executives, or status-hungry fame-and-riches seekers.
In the ignoble cases we’re sacrificing ourselves to what Marlantes calls the “needy ego.” When this neediness dominates—and in most human beings it usually does—it dulls our hearts and deadens our feelings, causing what Marlantes describes as a “short-circuiting of compassion.” Which brings us to violence. For as he puts it,
Even the motivation for inurement to violence is the same in war as in everyday life, that is, ego survival. We mistakenly assume that bodily survival has a higher precedence than ego survival. This is simply not generally true. Ego will happily destroy body for its own sake. Look at overweight executives headed for heart attacks on the way to getting their pictures in Fortune or anorexic models suffering slow starvation on their way to getting their pictures in Vogue. Protecting the ego is the general case.
In war, as in normal life, there are still far more cases where the body is not threatened but the ego is. For those in positions of authority, and farther from the action, ego survival is the key factor. If pilots begin to weep whenever they’re on a bombing run they might soon find that their proficiency would start to drop. Such pilots will hardly be the ones chosen to become squadron leaders. If becoming squadron leader is an ego need, then the ego will override the compassionate response. It’s no different for the lieutenant trying to become company commander, the colonel trying to make general, the White House staffer trying to get a cabinet post, and the politician trying to ensure reelection.
There’s much to reflect on in this paragraph, not least the truth that most people desire to be leaders not because they are strong, but because they are weak. (This is one reason why Socrates observes in the Republic that the very desire to rule is usually a sign that you’re not qualified.) Marlantes continues,
Since many people strive for positions of power as compensation for needy egos, it is hardly surprising that the corridors of power are filled with people for whom the compassionate responses will be short-circuited as a matter of course. War simply draws out in stark relief the immense power of our need to be accepted by our peers, which causes us to conform to society’s rules of conduct rather than respond with compassion. In so-called normal life we do these things every day, but we don’t see the results quite so clearly and therefore don’t relate to the remose. This is because no one grabs us by the scruffs of our necks and shoves our faces into the messes we’ve created while shoring up our images.
Finally, he describes the heart-breaking circumstances that led him to call in an artillery strike, on elephants:
I didn’t want to look soft or indecisive. This was my first patrol, my debut, my coming out. So I ended up looking totally soft and indecisive and said, “You sure it’s a legitimate target?” “Sure. We do it all the time. The gooks use them just like trucks.” And with that I said okay. My first mission in Vietnam was against an unseen “gook transportation unit”—a herd of elephants.
When the first shells came crashing in I heard the screams and the tearing and crashing of the brush by the maddened elephants. I called off the mission. I was so ashamed I didn’t even take the patrol into the draw to see the damage. In the intensity of war we see the ordinary evils driven by trivial causes, such as not wanting to look incompetent or soft, magnified into horrors, such as the wounding of innocent animals.
Enough said. The question is, “how do we mortals overcome this short-circuiting of compassion?”