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.

Reading the News with a Gelid Eye

Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That’s the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don’t remember. That’s the second thing they teach you.
— Ronin (1998)

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what? For all intents and purposes, it’s a duck. Constructively, it should be treated like one. We don’t have to ask if something’s really going on or if someone’s really behaving a certain way or if some horrific event is really happening according to plan and it’s all fine so just relax. We don’t have to probe for sincerity and reasonability. We only have to accept one truth: people hide, lie, and attempt to cover their horrific mistakes.

The truth gets obscured behind spin. Sometimes, people get killed. Sometimes, they disappear. Sometimes, Jimmy Hoffa gets buried under the 18th hole of a Florida golf course. It comes out years later, but by then, everybody just shrugs. Some things are so well concealed that we’ll never figure them out. And sometimes it’s better not to know.

We don’t have to waste time and energy speculating and trying to sift truth from falsity. All we have to do is look at intended and actual outcomes. If your partner comes home smelling like a strange cologne, you don’t have to ask whether she’s cheating or whether some bizarre twist of fate led to her getting sprayed with random eau de toilette on her way to the metroYou only need to note the instance and keep your eyes (and nostrils) open. If it happens a second time, it’s a case of “fool me twice, shame on me.” But let’s be honest: you already knew from the beginning.

It’s the same with political events. If it looks like someone’s lying or prevaricating or taking some other sort of evasive action, you don’t need to engage with the reasonability of their countermeasures. You only need to ask two questions: what does it look like on the surface? And who stands to benefit? Note the instance. Keep your eyes (and nostrils) open.

If you do this, fake news has no power over you. Fake news is momentary lying and you don’t care about the lies of the moment. You only care about what you see over and over, which fake news cannot affect as easily or as consistently. Note that the accusation of “Fake news!” is also a form of media gaslighting and damage control. Whenever you notice people screaming that, look at them more critically than before.

But we don’t need to dwell on the concept of fake news. We only need “news” and a bit of critical thinking. Here’s an example from the Vietnam era (since Saigon just fell all over again): “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” a statement most commonly attributed to journalist, Peter Arnett.

  • What you should take away from this statement: the village is (probably) destroyed.
  • What you should disregard: “We had to” (abdication of responsibility for the decision) and “in order to save it” (moral justification).

Responsibility shifting and self-justification on moral grounds are classic rhetorical countermeasures when large groups of people have been or stand to be murdered for the sake of someone’s re-election strategy or financial profile.

Don’t you believe it. Read the news, but read for that nugget of information embedded in the spin. Just remember: ask what it looks like on the surface and ask who stands to benefit from it. Then disregard everything but what might be the facts. You don’t have to be a detective. You merely have to see the duck flapping away.

Regarding the Phenomenon of Political Lying

With idle tales this fills our empty ears;
The next reports what from the first he hears;
The rolling fictions grow in strength and size,
Each author adding to the former lies.
Here vain credulity, with new desires,
Leads us astray, and groundless joy inspires;
The dubious whispers, tumults fresh designed,
And chilling fears astound the anxious mind.

— Ovid, Metamorphoses, XII 56-61

(Trans. Jonathan Swift, for his essay, “Political Lying,” 1710)