The Ritualistic Method of Awakening Compassion (Inuring Ourselves to Violence, Ctd.)

This will likely be my final post on Marlantes’ exceptional book, What It Is Like to Go to War. (Here are the earlier posts in the series: first, second, thirdfourth, and fifth.) The most recent posts sketch how we inure ourselves to violence (here and here), and then consider a physical method for awakening compassion—for ending, as Marlantes puts it, the short-circuiting of compassion caused by inuring ourselves to violence. Now let’s turn to what he calls the “ritualistic method” for cultivating compassion.

Marlantes begins by saying that he was struck, when reading Greek and Celtic epics, “with how much time the ancient warriors spent in ritual.” Encounters with the enemy, deaths and burial, wins and losses, all are met with ritual. In contrast, the US military does not cultivate rituals that awaken compassion. Marlantes argues that “During combat tours time must be carved out in which to reflect. I wish that after each action the skipper could have drawn us all together, just us. In ten or fifteen minutes of solemn time we could have asked forgiveness and said good-bye to lost friends.”

He goes on in this vein, describing how ritual is most needed in those brief breathing spaces between the violent episodes of war:

Compassion must be elicited consciously in warfare. Our natural tendency is to think of the enemy as an animal inferior to us. This serves to help warriors accomplish very ugly tasks, but it brings on unnecessary suffering if not constantly checked. It takes time to respond with compasssion. During combat, when you are actually fighting, you have to use this time for saving your own life. Your already learned survival mechanisms will cut out the compassionate response and you’ll proceed to save your skin. But you don’t fight all the time in a combat zone. You don’t even fight all the time in an actual battle. There is time to be snatched, but unfortunately the way we go about fighting now is that you are most likely to get another sensory input of violence, and you have to short-circuit the resonse to that, before you’ve unblocked the previous delayed response. Do this enough and the circuitry gets jammed completely and you become inured to violence as long as more violence keeps happening.

Marlantes offers suggestions about the timing and content of ritual in the context of war. He asks, “Why don’t we bury our enemies with ceremony?” and answers that we should.

Even if the graves are dug with bulldozers, the people who killed these people should file by and throw a handful of dirt on the bodies. They or the leaders should say a prayer, out loud, thanking these dead on both sides for their fully played part in this mysterious drama. We should allow people to curse the dead for murdering their friends, and then, if the younger ones can’t, the older ones, officers and NCOs, should be trained in conducting the rituals of forgiveness and healing.”

You can see aspects of the physical method of awakening compassion folded into the ritualistic method. Marlantes relates a telling incident

when some of the kids in my platoon cut off the ears of some enemies we’d killed and pinned them onto their brush hats and helmets. I punished the kids who did this by making them bury the bodies. During the burial, which I assumed to be a totally mechanical task, two of the kids started crying.

Mission accomplished. For those who fear that rituals that awaken compassion will “undermine the killer instincts of the troops”, Marlantes replies: “Well, if the war is a stupid one it probably will. If it’s not, I wouldn’t worry.” Amazing how a little reflection dispenses with a lot of nonsense.

Enough. I’m tempted to keep posting about the book, as I’ve only touched on a few of its marvelous aspects. The last chapter is a brilliant reflection on how as a society we can improve our way of being towards war, and I’m sorely tempted . . . but I won’t try my readers’ patience further, nor do I want to reprint his book here! Suffice it to say that I recommend it to all thoughtful readers.

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