He was a man who would kill and maim innocent children and civilians if he was told to do so by his leaders … Who would boldly face certain death for his beliefs … Who believed that death and destruction solved problems … Who believed in retaliating violently, and avenging losses … Who would kill anyone he was told was a threat to his safety, home, land, family, traditions and beliefs … Who would kill and die anywhere in the world to further his people’s interests, and to spread their ways around the world ….
He was a man who thought terror a reasonable means of achieving political, social and economic goals.
He was also a U.S. Army career officer, a highly decorated war hero, attorney, horseman, poet, woodsman, musician, scratch-handicap golfer, linguist, historian, and gentle, patriotic, idealistic, loving son, husband, brother, friend … father.
With such an admirable, lovable person in my family, how could I ever come to see soldiers in any way similar to terrorists, when they seem so completely different to everyone else?
True, both soldiers and terrorists deal in violence and death. But surely a righteous cause justifies a violent means? So, are terrorists ever right? Are soldiers often wrong? Is it possible that the problem is violence itself?
What could soldiers and terrorists possibly have in common?
Both soldiers and terrorists are often idealistic (or religious) youth, drawn to the disciplined, hard, masculine life and camaraderie of like-minded patriotic friends who share their desire to contribute to a better world. Soldiers and terrorists alike hope they won’t have to kill or be killed, and certainly not maimed, tortured or imprisoned, but yearn instead to do some good, to see the world, make a living, and maybe get in on some of the action they’ve seen in the movies.
Soldiers and terrorists often join up because they haven’t found alternative work they feel as passionate about. Both soldiers and terrorists often feel angry about the way the world is, and about their own lives, too. They feel their backs are against the wall, it’s someone else’s fault, and blood must be shed to right the wrongs.
Both soldiers and terrorists are fiercely loyal to armed forces of sorts, especially to their esteemed leaders and fellow-travelers. Soldiers take pride in being part of thrilling national armies; terrorists take equal pride in being part of glorious insurgencies against tyrannies or foreign invasions. Soldiers everywhere fight for governments they look up to and trust. Terrorists fight against governments they consider oppressive, illegitimate, unfair or unrepresentative. Both soldiers and terrorists, however, believe that what they’ve learned from their culture is true; both also believe they are right.
Statesmen put their faith in negotiation, believing that even infinite diplomacy is ultimately more effective, humane, lasting, ethical—and less costly, in every sense—than recurrent, endless escalations of violence which create new problems for future generations while leaving old ones unresolved. Seasoned diplomats resign themselves to accepting that a certain amount of horrific injustice will unavoidably be inflicted upon even the just. Nevertheless, they resist threatening more violence, or using past injustices to argue for adding to the total sum of injustice.
Soldiers and terrorists, on the other hand, trust that somehow their violent acts will alleviate conflicts, solve problems, and create lasting peace. Soldiers and terrorists alike count on charismatic political leaders who often possess dubious legitimacy and logic, unreliable integrity, small abilities and selfish hidden agendas. Soldiers and terrorists nevertheless count on such fallible leaders to negotiate for them, and to tell them when their approaches to political change (peaceful protest, diplomacy, cooperative organizing, and other tedious and deliberate efforts within “the system”) seem not to be “working.” Both soldiers and terrorists believe their decisions to use violence are moral, since they’re following orders from a higher, more knowledgeable authority.
Many youthful idealists sign up for soldiering and terrorizing because they find action more comfortable than talk. Compared with diplomats and statesmen who’ve spent lifetimes acquiring subtle understandings of regional issues, history, culture, conflicts old and new, trade, treaties, protocol, language, negotiation and communication, soldiers and terrorists (and politicians) often have short fuses, and limited, black-or-white/right-or-wrong views on political realities and options.
One reason so many young men (and women) are enlisted to die in terrorist violence and war is that those with more life experience are less likely to jump in to violence as wholeheartedly and innocently as the more easily-persuaded young.
Soldiers and terrorists alike, in a sad, special sense, are defeatists; they’ve chosen their careers because they are philosophically prepared to turn to violence at a moment’s notice, whenever politics-as-usual is declared to be insufficient to insure their group’s safety or to protect or promote their interests. Although both soldiers and terrorists are often religious, they both reject, as unrealistic, too-difficult and “vague,” the universal teachings of religious faiths everywhere: treat others as you would wish to be treated, love thy neighbor as thyself, be meek and mild, thou shalt not kill, blessed are the peacemakers, be as gentle as doves, forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, do unto others as you would have them do to you….
When urgently exhorted to war or to terrorist action by demagogues and impatient, opportunistic leaders, inexperienced soldiers and terrorists often turn too quickly toward alpha-male, testosterone-based, kill-or-be-killed, survival-of-the-fittest solutions. They and their less-experienced leaders find protracted negotiating an effeminate sign of weakness, a waste of time, preferring instead to rely upon immediate, power-based solutions such as lethal weaponry and overwhelming force.
When soldiers and terrorists see trouble coming, they are trained to shoot, not talk, to prevail and overpower, to shock and awe, never give a inch, and never show weakness. They look for advantage, not fairness; dominance, not equality. They see enemies, not future allies, and react to fear by inducing more fear in their foes.
Of course, both soldiers and terrorists alike invariably fervently believe that they are the good guys, “our” guys in the white hats—valiant saviours, protectors—while the evil ones opposing them are the bad guys in the black hats, the “enemy”—blood-thirsty, soulless, unfeeling, vicious, ignorant, faithless, cowardly, stupid, inhuman.
Sadly, both soldiers and terrorists believe in and contribute to the widely-accepted cultural notion that their violent roles are necessary and useful ones that will make an overall positive difference, at least for their side. Both soldiers and terrorists justify the chaos they leave behind them—the blighted lives, shattered dreams and pointless, gruesome deaths of civilians and combatants on both sides, the wanton killing of innocents from accidents, starvation, disease, economic disruption, and conventional and nuclear bombs—by blaming the stupidity, intransigence, and cruelty of their enemies, or by chalking up their own abhorrent results to “necessary collateral damage”—morally virtuous, because essential to a worthy cause.
Both soldiers and terrorists believe that violence saved “us” in the past and will save “us” again in the future—forgetting that only living victors get to write the history books, and that alternative non-violent solutions have never been given anything like a fair trial, have never received anything like equivalent consideration and financial and leadership support.
Both soldiers and terrorists choose any time, place or method necessary to defeat their enemies and win their wars, maximizing strategic, economic and political advantages, and minimizing losses. Both soldiers and terrorists believe that any means, however cruel and unfair, are justified by their own often changing noble ends and causes.
Older, battle-weary soldiers and terrorists gradually lose their faith in violent solutions, bitterly shutting down their sad memories. A few hold onto their past convictions even more strongly, angrily defending them. Many keep right on walking the lonely paths they’ve carved out. A gutsy few manage the difficult shift to exploring new kinds of civilian or military contributions.
Ninety percent of the victims of both terrorism and war are civilians….
It is difficult indeed to change the way one has traditionally seen soldiers and terrorists, to reverse millennia of cultural conditioning, to come around instead to recognizing that both soldiers and terrorists began as well-meaning, misguided victims themselves, brainwashed into analogous goals, methods and results which both later find repugnant, impossible to live with and to explain.
Every mother’s son, every child’s father, every lover’s darling, every beloved brother and friend, whether soldier or terrorist, was born to be a giving, kind, tender and beautiful good soul, the person we love and know them to be.
The only difference between our soldiers and their terrorists (and soldiers) is that the ones we love use violence for our side, to defend and further our interests, while the ones we hate use violence to fight for their side. Without a doubt, both ours and theirs, soldiers and terrorists alike, resort to unspeakably appalling violent solutions to achieve political, social and economic goals.
My gentle father would, I think, have been proud to honor the selfless sacrifices of all our courageous and well-intentioned dead and maimed, past and present … all our brave revolutionary sons and daughters … all our uprising slaves and civil war champions on both sides … in fact, all courageous soldiers and veterans and impassioned idealists everywhere, from every time and place … and all their victims, with this request:
May we reconsider whether we wish to repeat the violent mistakes of the past. May we recognize that there are as many ways to live in this world as there are people who live in it. May we accept that people everywhere want the same thing—to live out their lives in peace. May we all work non-violently to understand and serve the priorities of others everywhere who are different from us. May we learn the thousand and one non-violent ways to resolve conflicts….
Life on earth is at stake.
I think my father would have been proud to see today’s soldiers and terrorists put down their weapons and become non-violent warriors fighting this century’s magnificent battles by protecting people everywhere from the ravages of disease, injustice, hopelessness, hunger, greed, environmental degradation, natural disasters, ignorance, addiction, prejudice, nuclear proliferation, crime, poverty, war, terrorism, and yes, violence itself. I think my father would have saluted their expanded allegiance and heartfelt pledge, to protect, respect, and support, with their lives, and not only their deaths, human life everywhere.
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