What is the appeal of war? Best-selling author Karen Armstrong, in a new book, attempts to answer this question. As might be expected from a former nun, she concludes that faith is not responsible for our violent nature. The prospect of killing, she argues, is a substitute for faith, not a complement. These, however, are my words: the vocabulary of an economist. Ms Armstrong uses different words to express the same idea.
I truly hope that violence and faith are substitutes, but doubt they are. In these difficult times, I would welcome more religious ritual and less violent conflict.
The prospect of killing may stir our empathy, but in the very acts of hunting, raiding, and battling, this same seat of emotions is awash in serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of ecstasy that we associate with some forms of spiritual experience. So it happened that these violent pursuits came to be perceived as sacred activities, however bizarre that may seem to our understanding of religion. People, especially men, experienced a strong bond with their fellow warriors, a heady feeling of altruism at putting their lives at risk for others and of being more fully alive. This response to violence persists in our nature. The New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has aptly described war as ‘a force that gives us meaning’. [….]
The warrior, therefore, experiences in battle the transcendence that others find in ritual, sometimes to pathological effect. Psychiatrists who treat war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have noted that in the destruction of other people, soldiers can experience a self-affirmation that is almost erotic. Yet afterward, as they struggle to disentangle their emotions of pity and ruthlessness, PTSD sufferers may find themselves unable to function as coherent human beings. One Vietnam veteran described a photograph of himself holding two severed heads by the hair; the war, he said, was “hell,” a place where “crazy was natural” and everything “out of control,” but, he concluded:
The worst thing I can say about myself is that while I was there I was so alive. I loved it the way you can like an adrenaline high, the way you can love your friends, your tight buddies. So unreal and the realest thing that ever happened …. And maybe the worst thing for me now is living in peacetime without a possibility of that high again. I hate what that high was about but I loved that high.
“Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent,” Hedges explains. “Trivia dominates our conversation and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.” One of the many, intertwined motives driving men to the battlefield has been the tedium and pointlessness of ordinary domestic existence. The same hunger for intensity would compel others to become monks and ascetics.
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
HT Delancey Place.