War is a Failure of Imagination

I’ve been reading St. Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, not because I’m a Catholic but because I’m always looking for perspectives on how to lead a meaningful life. She was a mystic with a lot to say on the subject and she had a lively mind. She didn’t put it exactly this way, but reading her book gave rise to one of my own, perennial themes: if there is no eternal soul, physical existence is merely a brief, trivial moment in time. If there is an eternal soul, physical existence is still merely a brief, trivial moment in time.

In other words, whether part of us lives forever or all of us dies tomorrow, whether the most meaningful emphasis falls on “this life only” or on “life after death,” makes little difference to the fact that we’re here right now and have to lead our small lives, such as they are. Earthly life will be relatively short, either way. So it should mean something in itself, as itself.

Of course, St. Teresa believed in an immortal soul, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. But we don’t have to believe in all those things to see the wisdom here. The question that arises is far older than the Catholic Church of St. Teresa: “How do you want to spend your brief time on earth?” which is another form of “What is good?”

It’s a useful thing to ask, whether you’re a postmodern reductive materialist, a 16th century Christian mystic, or somewhere between those extremes. Maybe it’s the ultimate question one could ever ask. And for most of us, the answer will be personal. The good life for me may not be (probably shouldn’t be) the good life for you. Conversely, most of us will agree that certain life experiences are definitely not good and to be avoided whenever possible.

We may agree more on what we want to avoid. That might be due to some shared Pleasure-Principal bias—avoiding pain usually seems more compelling than seeking pleasure. But it could also be that there are simply more things we’d commonly like to escape than experience as a members of the same species. War is undoubtedly one of those things. 

Adrienne Rich described war as a failure of imagination: “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” It’s the failure to imagine and pursue better options. And there are always better options.

War seems like an extreme form of cultural and psychological dysfunction, one of the foremost things people would like to miss, along with terminal illness, poverty, public disgrace, imprisonment, and loss of career. Yet all these things exist and are experienced by large numbers of people every day. There is always someone at war, just as there is always someone dying or becoming destitute or being put behind bars. We just hope it isn’t us.

Inevitably, sometimes it is—probably through no fault of our own. There is the stereotype of the naïve youth, who enlists out of idealism, because he thinks war will be heroic and exciting, or because he wants to prove himself. Still, the vast majority of people aren’t that daft. Most of us carry a deep instinctual knowledge that armed conflict is bad for one’s health and that the promises governments make when sending you to war become rather empty when you catch a bullet.

But let’s also try to be as honest as we can be: sometimes you have to go to war. That’s when it’s particularly tragic—when someone else’s failure of imagination means you have no choice, when your country is being invaded, when it’s a fight for survival. That’s how it seems to be in the Ukraine right now. Putin has said the Ukrainian citizenry won’t be harmed, but don’t you believe it.  He is not a world leader known for honesty.

Aside from the inevitable collateral damage and death that comes standard with explosions and chunks of metal being shot through the air, there’s the rumour of political kill lists and the Russian army’s need to suppress (essentially to hold hostage) an unwilling Ukrainian population. There will be domestic insurgency. There will be terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare. There will be disappearances and injustices and crimes against humanity. Sadly, these are the unavoidable adjuncts to acts of military conquest.  They are part of its grand failure, the slow-rolling catastrophe that always characterizes war.

No one in the world is buying what Putin’s selling. He’s chosen a Hitlerian Anschluss, the annexation of a sovereign democratic state under false pretenses.  It will become a legacy of self-destruction for him and a cause of lasting suffering for his own people as well.  Putin will never be free of the infamy that comes from playing the brutal adventurer.  And the world will despise him for it forever.