Compassion: the First Casualty of War
It has often been said that "truth is the first casualty of war." But there is another immediate casualty -compassion. In fact, compassion may even be the first casualty. Once the war machine has geared up, the propaganda disseminated, hatred of an enemy proclaimed, a culture of malice becomes a necessary ingredient. The enemy must be portrayed as a monster of inhumanity, as an Other with no legitimate grievances, as a dark irrational object that must be destroyed.
Hatred cannot ask the following questions. Why are they the way they are? What social conditions and circumstances are they responding to? Have we done anything that would explain their negative or hostile behavior toward us? These types of questions are forbidden once malice has taken over and compassion has been thrown out the window. Necessarily, truth goes out with it. I got a first-hand lesson in the spring of 2003 during a visit to New England.
Friends I grew up with and went to high school with were enthused about the war against Iraq. Knowing I was against the war, they taunted and provoked me. When I asked them if they cared that innocent civilians were being killed, one of them laughed and mocked me, asking "who cares about a bunch of "ragheads?"The truth was irrelevant - we had to kill the Arab ragheads.
Hatred of the "ragheads" seemed more important to him than the truth of whether Iraq actually posed a threat to America or had WMDs, or had anything to do with 9/11. All Iraqis were racially characterized and all had to pay collectively for the crimes of Saddam Hussein even if such collective punishment is in violation of the Geneva Accords. So far, because greed for oil and malice has indeed triumphed, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed and millions turned into refugees. Over four thousand Americans have also been killed, and the economic impact on American society has been devastating. And the war goes on and on.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the war on Iraq, recently sounded another war cry on the morning of the Pennsylvania primary when she bragged to the world that she would nuke Iran if it attacked Israel. This statement of an acceptable genocide was treated with reverence by the media, even though it is far worse than anything ever uttered by the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Hillary Clinton was clearly pandering to the paranoia of pro-Israeli voters in the American 2008 elections.
But what she said was objectively horrible - that she was willing to nuke over 70 million Iranians to protect Israel, even if most of them had no impact or say on Iranian policy. Ironically, it came in the context of numerous US and Israeli threats to launch a pre-emptive militarily attack on Iran should it try to obtain nuclear weapons. This is surely a road to madness.
Israel, which has a significant modern nuclear arsenal and superior conventional weapons systems and air power, obviously wants to maintain its nuclear monopoly and has opposed Iranian proposals for a "nuclear free Middle East." Iran knows it would be suicidal to attack Israel and has not attacked another country in the modern period, although it did defend itself when it was attacked by Iraq in the 1980s.
Yet these facts are irrelevant to Hillary Clinton. Her malice is obviously what triumphed. Once she demonized the Iranian "Other," no level of violence could be ruled out. Under no circumstances could I vote for the mad bomber Hillary Clinton as President. She is obviously too desperately hungry for power and will say anything to get elected.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that compassion was the highest human virtue, and humanity's greatest mystery. Compassion, Schopenhauer wrote, is "the sole source of disinterested actions and hence the true basis of morality." Compassion overrides odious and arrogant self-assertion and fosters self reflection -what would I do, how would I behave if I was in their shoes? Is the Other's behavior understandable given the circumstances? Should I intervene to help them, to alleviate their suffering? Should I protest those responsible for the unnecessary suffering? So speaks compassion. It is the opposite of malice which is based upon the desire to do harm to others.
Compassion is a form of wisdom that requires us to look outside the narrow shell of our self, our gender, our group, our tribe, our religion, our ethnicity, our race, our nation state, our civilization. It is a form of wisdom that tries to understand and alleviate the sufferings of others who are different. It is an antidote to boundless egotism, anger, and hatred. It involves a different type of enlightenment than the cold western enlightenment based on science, rationality, knowledge, and technology. Compassion is different from pity, since the latter is condescending and further diminishes the suffering victim.
I see very little genuine compassion for others expressed in America's ruling strata or in the mass media. They are blinded by their craving for power, money, and oil. For many in the third world, America is "the land of no Buddha" in as much as it deliberately pursues policies that starve and harm others. Under American supported neoliberal economic policies, the gap between the rich and poor is growing as is hunger and poverty at home and abroad. We are creating, as author Mike Davis argues. A PLANET OF SLUMS where the oppressed and impoverished live in misery in the shadow lands of the American empire. This is why President Chavez of Venezuela is viewed as such a threat by American elites- he is practicing a politics of compassion by redistributing some of Venezuela's oil wealth to help the poor.
We see little commentary in our mass media of the innocent Iraqis that have lost their houses or their lives as a result of the American Crusade and occupation. Many Americans just refuse to examine the violence or suffering brought about by the policies of their own government. This was true in the Vietnam era when it was rare to hear any concern expressed for the millions of Vietnamese who were being bombed and pummeled by American B-52's. I saw more compassion expressed for animals then I did for the burned human victims of napalm. Animals certainly deserve compassion, but so do humans even if our greatest danger comes from other humans.
While it may be true that most human beings in most societies are a mixture of egoism, malice and compassion, I have met many dedicated people in the peace movement and other oppositional social movements in America that display genuine compassion that goes beyond caring for one's own little corner of the social world. They are people who are trying to change society for the better, who are protesting the bombings, the torture, the occupations, the rendition programs, and opposing the general drift of American society towards authoritarian rule, militarism and war. And they often do it while making sacrifices in their personal lives. They represent a hope for humanity, a compassionate and peaceful humanity that is still waiting to be born.
Aggressive war, as we see in Iraq, is the antithesis of compassion and truth -it requires lies, acts of revenge and hatred to continue. It is a true crime against humanity. Certainly, it is important to analyze the structural, political, ideological, and sociological tendencies that gave rise to it. Yet without compassion for the suffering of others, especially those others who are different from us, it is unlikely that anyone will ever raise a finger or take a risk to stop it.