In this essay exploring the reality of war, West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran Paul K. Chappell (author of Will War Ever End?, The End of War, and Peaceful Revolution) critiques the unrealistic depictions of war, violence, and trauma in the best-selling book The Hunger Games.
Author’s Note: I wrote this because the first book in The Hunger Games series has become required reading in many schools. When students are required to read a book for a class they have a reasonable expectation of being educated, but The Hunger Games portrays serious subjects such as war, violence, and trauma in very unrealistic ways. I hope the following will encourage critical thinking, promote discussion, and help people better understand war. I dedicate this to the veterans whose psychological wounds are misunderstood because of unrealistic media depictions of war, violence, and trauma.
Imagine yourself sitting in a doctor’s office. Looking at you remorsefully, the doctor says you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and there is only a four percent chance you will be alive in two weeks. Even worse, he informs you that your death will be incredibly painful. The illness kills most people by violently rupturing one or more of their internal organs, causing them to bleed to death. As if the situation could not get any worse, he then says you must be quarantined in a government laboratory. You will be prevented from communicating with your friends and family members in any way as you lie on your deathbed. You will be forced to face death alone.
How do you think most people would react upon hearing this grim news? And how do you think most people would feel while lying on their deathbed alone, afraid, and on the verge of suffering an extremely painful death? Could you imagine some people having panic attacks, nervous breakdowns, and other severe psychological issues?
The scenario I just described is very similar to the situation twenty-four children must face in the science fiction series The Hunger Games written by Suzanne Collins. In the first book (and film) of the series, twenty-four children from the ages of twelve to eighteen are chosen to compete in a fight to the death called “the hunger games,” where they must kill each other with bows and arrows, swords, knives, and other close-range weapons until one person is left standing. Most of the children are selected at random through a kind of lottery, while a few volunteer. Like the terminal illness scenario, each child has only a four percent chance of surviving (1), dying will be extremely painful, and they will be forbidden from seeing their friends and family members while facing death.
If twenty-four children from the ages of twelve to eighteen were told they had a terminal illness – giving them a ninety-six percent chance of dying an extremely painful death in the next two weeks – and then prevented from seeing their friends and family members, do you think many of the children would suffer from panic attacks, nervous breakdowns, and other severe psychological issues? If so, isn’t it odd that not a single child in the first book of The Hunger Games serieshas a mental meltdown when their situation is in fact worse (for reasons I will explain later)than the terminal illness scenario?
There is a common myth in our society that human beings are naturally violent. In my books I write about the abundant evidence that refutes this myth, and although I cannot offer all the evidence in this short essay, I will share a few examples later on. As a result of this myth, many believe if you simply tell people to kill each other, their natural violent urges will take over and they will massacre each other rather easily. We can see this myth in The Hunger Games, because most of the twenty-four children are given only three days of combat training (a few have been training throughout their lives, which I will discuss later), yet despite this extremely minimal training the children are able to function well in a situation that requires them to kill or be killed. But is a three-day session of combat training enough to prepare people for the trauma of war? During World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, American soldiers who were not children but grown men were given months of combat training (and in some cases years if they were in the regular army). Yet despite this, more American soldiers were pulled off the front lines due to psychological trauma than were killed during the wars.
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is a former West Point professor and Army Ranger who has written extensively about combat. He also trains military and law enforcement personnel throughout the country. Grossman’s in-depth research shows that the human mind, rather than the body, is actually the weakest link in war, because in combat our mind is more vulnerable to collapse than our body. Explaining how this can affect soldiers in war, Grossman tells us:
Lieutenant Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, an army psychiatrist who is the director of the Army Surgeon General’s office for behavioral health, tells us: “In the first months of the Korean conflict, from June to September 1950, both the physical and psychological travails were overwhelming. Many of the soldiers were initially pulled from easy occupation duty in Japan, with inadequate uniforms (including winter clothes), arms, or training. The rate of psychological casualties was extraordinarily high, 250 per thousand per year.” (3)
Steve Bentley, Chairman of the Vietnam Veterans of America PTSD and Substance Abuse Committee, describes some of the ways war trauma can affect people’s behavior: “During the siege of Gibraltar in 1727, a soldier who was part of the defense of the city kept a diary. In it, there is mention of incidents in which soldiers killed or wounded themselves. He also describes a state of extreme physical fatigue which had caused soldiers to lose their ability to understand or process even the simplest instructions. In this state, the soldiers would refuse to eat, drink, work, or fight in defense of the city, even though they would be repeatedly whipped for not doing so.” (4)
All people in combat are vulnerable to psychological collapse, especially if the combat is intense and extended over a long period of time. Roy Swank and Walter Marchand, who both served as medical doctors in the military during World War II, conducted a study during the war that concluded ninety-eight percent of soldiers became psychological casualties after sixty days of sustained day and night combat. According to their study on combat trauma, the two percent who were not driven insane by war seem to have already been insane. Swank and Marchand said, “All normal men eventually suffer combat exhaustion [also known as “post traumatic stress disorder”] in prolonged continuous and severe combat. The exception to this rule are psychotic soldiers, and a number of examples of this have been observed.” (5)
Of course, the children in The Hunger Games are not being subjected to sixty days and longer of continuous combat, so one might assume they would be less likely to suffer from psychological collapse. But there are many reasons why they would be far more vulnerable to having a mental breakdown than soldiers experiencing prolonged combat in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. There are three protective methods that can fortify the minds of soldiers in combat, making them less likely to suffer from a mental breakdown. But the children in The Hunger Games do not have any of these protective methods to guard their minds against the enormous psychological stress of war.
THE THREE PROTECTIVE METHODS
The first protective method that can fortify the minds of soldiers in combat is havingreliable comrades. Although soldiers sent to war are taken away from their families, effective military units compensate for this by transforming their soldiers into a tightly bonded family unit. Jonathan Shay, the 2009 Omar Bradley Chair of Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College and a MacArthur Fellow, is a clinical psychiatrist who has dedicated his life to helping traumatized veterans. The author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, from 1999 to 2000 he also performed the Commandant of the Marine Corps Trust Study. In it he says: “Of all groups in America today, military people have the greatest right to, and will benefit most, if they reclaim the word ‘love’ as a part of what they are and what they do… Bluntly put: The result of creating well-trained, well-led, cohesive units is – love. These Marines are ‘tight.’ They regard each other – as explained in Aristotle’s discussion of philía, love – as ‘another myself’ … The importance of mutual love in military units is no sentimental claptrap – it goes to the heart of the indispensible military virtue, courage… As von Clausewitz pointed out almost two centuries ago, fear is the main viscous medium that the Marine must struggle through… the urge to protect comrades directly reduces psychological and physiological fear, which frees the Marine’s cognitive and motivational resources to perform military tasks… The fictional Spartan NCO [non-commissioned officer] named Dienikes, in the acclaimed novel Gates of Fire, puts it very compactly: ‘The opposite of fear… is love.’” (6)
When you can trust your comrades with your life, the benefits are enormous. Not only do you feel more secure when someone is protecting your back, but the urge to protect comrades can make you less concerned about your personal safety. To better understand this, imagine if a massive vicious dog were running toward you. You would probably have a strong urge to get away as fast as you can by running, climbing a tree, or retreating to a safe place. Now imagine if a massive vicious dog were running toward someone you cared deeply about such as your child, sibling, parent, or close friend. You would probably have a strong urge to run as fast as you can toward the dog and your loved one, disregarding your personal safety to protect the person you care about. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said in the sixth century BC, “By being loving, we are capable of being brave.” (7) And as the Greek philosopher Onasander said in the first century AD, soldiers fight best when “brother is in rank beside brother, friend beside friend…” (8)
When soldiers love each other as friends, brothers, and comrades, they often behave courageously. This can be seen when Epaminondas – a Greek soldier from Thebes – fought with the Spartans against the Arcadians. Epaminondas later became a powerful Theban politician and general who defeated the Spartans in two decisive battles after they tried to invade Thebes. The historian Plutarch describes how Epaminondas, as a young soldier fighting with the Spartans, risked his life to save his wounded friend Pelopidas: “Pelopidas, after receiving seven wounds in front, sank down upon a great heap of friends and enemies who lay dead together; but Epaminondas, although he thought him lifeless, stood forth to defend his body… and fought desperately, single-handed against many, determined to die rather than leave Pelopidas lying there. And now he too was in a sorry plight, having been wounded in the breast with a spear and in the arm with a sword, when Agesipolis the Spartan king came to his aid from the other wing, and when all hope was lost, saved them both.” (9)
Contrary to popular myths, the gladiators in Rome often fought in teams rather than alone (because people fight more courageously with a comrade by their side), and usually did not fight to the death. According to scientist Karl Kruszelnicki, “The [gladiator] bouts were definitely not undisciplined free-for-alls. The gladiators were carefully matched in pairs… taking into account the attack and defense weapons they carried, and the strength and skill of each individual… Like modern Western boxers who observe the Marquis of Queensbury rules, gladiators had their own very brutal and very strict rules, which two referees would enforce… Gladiator bouts were more like a sophisticated entertainment version of martial arts. They were closer to modern, choreographed TV wrestling, than wild melees… There are many references to the gladiators being trained to subdue, not kill, their opponent. The bout had to end in a decisive outcome, but defeat through death was rare. More likely was defeat through injuries or exhaustion.” (10)
The gravestone of the famous gladiator Flamma (which means “Flame” in Latin) states he had twenty-five victories, nine draws, and four losses. (11) With such a high number of draws and losses, it is obvious the gladiators often did not fight to the death. In The Hunger Games the children have a ninety-six percent chance of being killed, but historical records indicate the gladiators in Rome had a much lower chance of being killed in combat. Stephen Dyson, the former president of the Archaeological Institute of America, explains, “Since gladiators were fairly expensive to maintain and train, economically it doesn’t make much sense for them to have been killed off intentionally on a regular basis.” (12) Nevertheless, fighting in the arena was still dangerous and some gladiators chose to commit suicide instead. Historian Stephen Wisdom tells us, “One Germanic gladiator choked himself to death by ramming the ancient sponge equivalent of toilet paper down his throat. Symmachus, a wealthy pagan politician eager to win votes by [hosting] a games, mentions the 29 Frankish prisoners he purchased, who strangled each other rather than fight in the arena. The last remaining fighter smashed his head against the wall until he died.” (13)
Unlike many soldiers in war and gladiators fighting in the arena, the children in The Hunger Games do not have reliable comrades they can trust with their lives, making them far more vulnerable to panic and psychological collapse. Near the end of the competition a new rule is passed that allows children from the same district to fight and win as a team, but since most of the children are dead at that point only four are able to take advantage of the opportunity. Some of the children in The Hunger Games form temporary alliances with each other, but since there can be only one survivor, the children realize they must eventually kill their comrades or be killed by them. There is no real trust between them, and military history shows that when soldiers cannot trust their comrades, it actually increases rather than decreases their psychological stress. It’s bad enough having to worry about being killed by the enemy in front of you, but having to also worry about your comrades standing to your left and right killing you can push your mind to the breaking point.
The second protective method that can fortify the minds of soldiers in combat is having reliable leaders. If you were sent to war, but felt that your military commanders cared more about your safety than their own and would even risk their lives to protect yours, wouldn’t that make you feel more secure? And if your military commanders were brilliant strategists and tacticians who had the skills to keep you alive, this would further reduce psychological stress and the urge to panic.
The children in The Hunger Games know they only have a four percent chance of surviving since only one out of the twenty-four will be alive at the end. But effective military commanders can convince the soldiers fighting for them that their chances of surviving are very high. In ancient warfare the purpose of a battle was to force the other side to retreat, and the majority of casualties were inflicted when the soldiers on one side turned their backs to flee and were run down by the pursuing army. As long as you did not lose a decisive battle, most of your soldiers would survive in combat.
Hannibal, a North African commander of a mercenary army, spent fifteen years in Italy terrorizing the Roman Republic during the fourth century BC, but he lost less than fifteen percent of his soldiers in combat while in Italy because he never lost a decisive battle. And Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire while losing less than ten percent of his soldiers in combat because during his early military campaigns he also did not lose a decisive battle. Furthermore, Alexander and Hannibal inspired their soldiers by fighting at the most dangerous point on the battlefield. Alexander was wounded eight times in combat, and the Roman historian Livy tells us that Hannibal was “the first to enter battle [and] the last to leave once battle was joined.” (14) The children in The Hunger Games do not have reliable leaders to inspire, protect, and guide them, making the children far more vulnerable to panic and psychological collapse.
The third protective method that can fortify the minds of soldiers in combat is having reliable and realistic training. This kind of training relies heavily on repetition, such as shooting a target shaped like a human being over and over again. This not only helps people overcome their aversion to killing another human being by desensitizing them, it also enables them to develop new “automatic reflexes” such as quickly aiming a rifle and pulling the trigger the moment anything shaped like a human appears in the distance. For training to be reliable and realistic, it also has to be challenging and cover a variety of potential scenarios. Most of the children in The Hunger Games are given only three days of combat training, but a person cannot get reliable and realistic training in three days. Around six of the twenty-four children in The Hunger Games have been training for most of their lives, but their training pales in comparison to the Spartans, who were among the most highly trained soldiers in human history.
Spartan boys left home at age seven to begin military training, and they served in the military from ages twenty to sixty. (15) An average thirty-year-old Spartan soldier had more than a decade of combat training and military experience over the most experienced child in The Hunger Games. Despite their extreme training, however, even the Spartans sometimes panicked in combat. In The Hunger Games some of the children make a calculated decision to retreat into the woods and hide as part of their strategy, and in the film one child screams and seems to freeze in fear before being killed. But unlike the children in The Hunger Games – who always seem to be in complete control of their mental faculties in combat (16) – the Spartans retreated on numerous occasions (even when they outnumbered their opponents) due to uncontrollable terror.
During the Battle of Thermopylae when three hundred Spartans and their allies defended a narrow pass against an invading Persian army, the Spartans did not retreat and died to the last man. But this is extremely rare and one reason why the Battle of Thermopylae is so greatly admired and celebrated around the world. Less than one percent of battles in history ended with the losing side dying to the last man. Usually the battle ended when one side panicked and retreated. At the height of their military power, the Spartans retreated in three battles against Thebes – a rival Greek city-state. In the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BC, the Greek historian Plutarch tells us that a Spartan army numbering between 1000 and 1800 soldiers attacked a small Theban army of only three hundred. (17) Although the Spartan army greatly outnumbered the Thebans, the Theban soldiers made the Spartans panic and retreat.
A friend once asked me, “But how were ancient armies able to make their opponents panic?” I replied, “Well… they made their opponents panic by trying to kill them. When you try to stab people to death it tends to freak them out.” The greatest problem of every army in history has been this: when a battle begins, how do you stop soldiers from running away? Where our fight-or-flight response is concerned, the vast majority of people prefer to run when a sword is wielded against them, a spear is thrust in their direction, a bullet flies over their head, or a bomb explodes in their vicinity. People often compare chess to war, but there is a major difference. Imagine playing chess and seeing your pieces run off the board. Imagine your pawns moving backwards and your knights being so filled with fear they refuse to do what you tell them. Then chess would more accurately reflect the reality of war.
Many mythological stories are metaphorical interpretations of reality, and the reality of war is reflected in the story of Ares – the Greek god of war. According to Greek mythology, Ares was a destroyer of cities who went into battle with his brutal sons Deimos and Phobos standing beside him. (18) Deimos was the god of fear. Phobos was the god of panic and retreat. Deimos and Phobos were ruthless twins who could break the strongest battle formations by causing the bravest soldiers to panic and flee in fear. In the Iliad, Homer says, “Murderous Ares, his good son Panic [Phobos] stalking beside him, tough, fearless, striking terror in even the combat-hardened veteran… they turn deaf ears to the prayers of both sides at once, handing glory to either side they choose.” (19)
Ares and his twin sons are metaphors for the reality of war, and the Greek poet Hesiod described these metaphors in vivid detail. According to Hesiod, one of the images engraved on the mythical shield of Hercules was Deimos, the god of fear, who had “eyes that glowed with fire. His mouth was full of teeth in a white row, fearful and daunting…” (20) Other images engraved on the shield of Hercules included “deadly Ares [who] held a spear in his hands and was urging on the footmen: he was red with blood as if he were slaying living men, and he stood in his chariot. Beside him stood [Deimos] and [Phobos], eager to plunge amidst the fighting men…” (21) The ancient Greeks knew that fear and panic are inseparable features of war, just as Deimos (Fear) and Phobos (Panic) are inseparable sons of Ares. Even modern astronomy acknowledges the inseparable link between war, fear, and panic. The god of war Ares played a major role in Roman mythology, but the Romans called him Mars. The planet Mars has two moons, which the American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered in 1877. Following the advice of scientist Henry Madan, he named the moons Deimos and Phobos.
As mere mortals, not even the Spartans were immune to the power of Deimos and Phobos, succumbing numerous times to the fear and panic these mythological gods represented. After making the Spartans retreat during the Battle of Tegyra, the Thebans also made the Spartans retreat during the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, even though the Spartan army again outnumbered the Thebans. And the Spartans retreated yet again during the Battle of Mantinea in 362 BC, when the Theban politician and general Epaminondas, who was now fifty-six years old, charged the Spartan army with a small group of his best soldiers. The Greek historian Diodorus described what happened: “After the battle had continued long, and none were able to judge who would be the conquerors, Epaminondas … resolved to decide the matter, with the hazard of his own life. To that end taking a choice band of the most able men he had with him, and, drawing them up in close order, he forthwith charged at the head of them, and was the first that cast his javelin, and killed the [Spartan] general, and then broke into the midst of his enemies… The fame of Epaminondas, and the strength of [the soldiers] he then had with him, struck such a terror into the [Spartans], that they turned their backs, and began to make way.” (22)
What happened next reveals how ferociously people will fight to protect a wounded comrade. As Epaminondas and his soldiers pursued the retreating Spartans, he was seriously wounded when a javelin struck him in the chest. The Spartans tried to capture him, but the Theban soldiers fought furiously to protect him, again forcing the Spartans to retreat. The Thebans pulled Epaminondas to safety, and he died from his chest wound soon after the battle ended. When Epaminondas and his soldiers defeated the Spartans, they demonstrated the power of having reliable comrades willing to die for each other, reliable leaders willing to sacrifice for their subordinates, and reliable and realistic training. Military history shows that sane soldiers are never completely immune to fear, panic, or the mental breakdowns that can result from combat, but the more we can trust our comrades, leaders, and training, the less likely we are to suffer the wrath of Deimos and Phobos.
It might seem unrealistic for a fifty-six-year-old man such as Epaminondas to fight on the front lines in war, or for the Spartan soldiers to serve in the military until age sixty, but it is far more realistic than twelve and thirteen-year-old children fighting with bladed weapons in The Hunger Games. Tragically, child soldiers have become common during the age of rifles and machine guns, but ancient armies did not use child soldiers because it would have been completely impractical. Children do not have the upper body strength necessary to effectively wield a sword and shield, let alone carry heavy armor. A man in his fifties if he was well trained and in good shape could wield a bladed weapon with the strength necessary to kill an armored opponent. Lack of upper body strength is also a reason women were not recruited to fight in ancient armies, unlike today, when a woman can use a seven-pound rifle to kill a much larger and stronger man. I met countless women in the army who possess a strong warrior spirit. And when we look at the many women serving in modern militaries around the world today, we realize that lack of upper body strength, not lack of a strong warrior spirit, was one reason (23) women did not fight in ancient wars.
Although the children in The Hunger Games do not have to wear heavy armor, in a sword fight a muscular eighteen-year-old boy weighing over two hundred pounds is going to have a significant advantage over a twelve-year-old boy or girl weighing less than ninety pounds. The Hunger Games character Cato, a very athletic older boy who has been training in combat since his early childhood, would also be much faster than the younger children. So the truth is that some of the children would have much less than a four percent chance of surviving, yet despite the near certainty of a violent death none of them are shown having mental breakdowns. Isn’t that odd?
In addition to the high probability of dying alone away from loved ones, along with their lack of reliable comrades, lack of reliable leadership, and lack of reliable and realistic training, many of the children in The Hunger Games would have had mental breakdowns because of other reasons. One reason is because close-range fighting with bladed weapons is the most terrifying form of combat. Another reason is because the human brain does not fully develop until we are in our twenties, making children more vulnerable to trauma and psychological stress than adults. The average age of an American soldier in World War II was twenty-six, whereas the children chosen to fight to the death in The Hunger Games are from the ages of twelve to eighteen. Psychiatrist Bruce Perry says, “Unfortunately, the prevailing view of children and trauma … that persists to a large degree to this day – is that ‘children are resilient.’ If anything, children are more vulnerable to trauma than adults.” (24) Another reason is because instead of being naturally violent, we actually have a phobia of human aggression and violence when it is up close and personal.
THE UNIVERSAL HUMAN PHOBIA
Although a small percentage of people are afraid of snakes, spiders, and heights, around ninety-eight percent will have a phobic-level reaction to human aggression. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman calls this the universal human phobia. In fact, this is one reason fear of public speaking is so common: we might say something that evokes an audience’s aggression. What if the worst-case scenario happens and the audience shouts at us angrily or laughs cruelly at our expense?
The word “phobia” derives from Phobos who I mentioned earlier, the Greek god of panic and retreat, who caused men in combat to flee in terror. In Greek mythology Phobos is a metaphor for the universal human phobia; the ancient Greeks knew that nothing fills us with more panic than an aggressive human being trying desperately to hurt us. Fear of human aggression can be even more terrifying than fear of death. For example, every year hundreds of thousands die from the effects of smoking, but every day millions of people smoke without worrying. Every year tens of thousands die in car accidents, but every day millions of people drive casually to work. But a few murders by a serial killer will cause a city to go on alert, striking terror in many of its citizens. One terrorist attack in America created so much fear that our country has never been the same since.
What makes terrorism so dangerous is not the terrorist act itself, but our reaction to it. If Osama bin Laden had asked us to betray our democratic ideals by sanctioning torture, spying on U.S. citizens, and infringing on our civil liberties, we would never have agreed. But by attacking us on 9/11, many Americans willingly betrayed our democratic ideals because Osama bin Laden ignited the universal human phobia. Why is the universal human phobia so frightening? Why is our reaction to terrorism often more dangerous than the terrorist act?
Grossman asks us to consider two scenarios. Imagine that a tornado knocks down your house, destroys everything you own, and causes injuries severe enough to put you and your family in the hospital. Next imagine that a gang breaks into your house, beats you and your family so badly that you all end up in the hospital, and then burns down your house. In both cases the result – your house and possessions being destroyed and your family being in the hospital – is the same, but which scenario is more traumatic?
Is it more traumatic to fall off a bicycle and break your leg, or for a group of attackers to hold you down and break your leg with a baseball bat? In both cases the result – a broken leg – is the same, but which scenario is more traumatic? Obviously, when people hurt us the trauma is much more severe. But why? In his book On Killing Grossman explains: ‘The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R), the bible of psychology, states that in post-traumatic stress disorders ‘the disorder is apparently more severe and longer lasting when the stressor is of human design.’ We want desperately to be liked, loved, and in control of our lives; and intentional, overt, human hostility and aggression—more than anything else in life—assaults our self-image, our sense of control, our sense of the world as a meaningful and comprehensible place, and ultimately, our mental and physical health. The ultimate fear and horror in most modern lives is to be raped or beaten, to be physically degraded in front of our loved ones, to have our family harmed and the sanctity of our homes invaded by aggressive and hateful intruders. Death and debilitation by disease or accident are statistically far more likely to occur than death and debilitation by malicious action, but the statistics do not calm our basically irrational fears… In rape the psychological harm usually far exceeds the physical injury… far more damaging is the impotence, shock, and horror in being so hated and despised as to be debased and abused by a fellow human being.” (25)
If human beings are naturally violent, why do so many people have a phobia of human aggression? If we are naturally violent, why is war one of the most traumatizing things a human being can experience, and why does war drive so many people insane? If we were naturally violent, wouldn’t people go to war and become more mentally healthy? If we were naturally violent, why did the U.S. Army implement combat rotations after World War II so that soldiers could recuperate psychologically, and why did the military change combat operations and training in an attempt to reduce psychological trauma? Although human beings are notnaturally violent, we can certainly become violent through conditioning. In my books I describe the many ways people can be conditioned to be violent, and the situations that compel people to resort to violence. Just as doctors who promote health must study and understand illness, if we want to promote a safer and more peaceful world we must study and understand violence.
HEROES NEVER WET THEIR PANTS AND OTHER MYTHS
Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes had a negative view of human nature, leading many people to believe we are natural killers. Because of Hobbes, many people assume human beings in the “state of nature” were clubbing each other over the head in a violent free-for-all. Hobbes said that early humans were “in that condition which is called War; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man… where every man is Enemy to every man… and the life of man, solitary [emphasis added], poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (26) But military history shows that when untrained human beings must face lethal combat alone as solitary individuals they usually fall apart mentally. Consequently, Hobbes’ view of human nature is not only negative but unrealistic, because he did not study military history, human psychology, or anthropology (Douglas Fry’s book Beyond War offers thorough anthropological evidence that early humans rarely killed each other).
In addition to countering the myth that human beings are naturally violent, I am writing about The Hunger Games and contrasting it with the reality of war for several other reasons. One reason is because a seventh-grade teacher told me her students were reading the first book in The Hunger Games series in class and asked me to provide some thoughts that could sharpen their critical thinking skills. Furthermore, The Hunger Games is now being used as required reading in many middle and high school classes around the country. This got my attention, because when students are required to read a book in school they have a reasonable expectation of being educated. If students are reading a book in school that grossly misrepresents very serious issues such as war, violence, and trauma, it is the responsibility not only of teachers but citizens as a whole to provide the students with accurate information, because the fate and survival of our country and planet depend on an educated and informed population.
But can inaccurate depictions of war, violence, and trauma really cause any harm, or are these misrepresentations mostly harmless? War, violence, and trauma destroy millions of lives, and whenever serious issues that destroy so many lives are depicted in inaccurate ways that neglect their real psychological harm, the results can be damaging. What if serious issues such as racism, sexism, drug addiction, rape, and slavery were depicted in grossly inaccurate ways that neglected their real psychological harm? And what if these misrepresentations were then brought into a classroom where students have a reasonable expectation of being educated?
A major problem with inaccurately depicting violence is that these misrepresentations tend to glamorize violence, war, and killing. Lieutenant Colonel Grossman tells us: “The American Soldier, the official study of the performance of U.S. troops in World War II, tells of one survey in which a quarter of all U.S. soldiers in World War II admitted that they had lost control of their bladders, and an eighth of them admitted to defecating in their pants. If we look only at the individuals at the ‘tip of the spear’ and factor out those who did not experience intense combat, we can estimate that approximately 50 percent of those who did see intense combat admitted they had wet their pants and nearly 25 percent admitted they had messed themselves. Those are the ones who admitted it, so the actual number is probably higher, though we cannot know by how much. One veteran told me, ‘Hell, Colonel, all that proves is that three out of four were damned liars!’ That is probably unfair and inaccurate, but the reality is that the humiliation and social stigma associated with ‘crapping yourself’ probably results in many individuals being unwilling to admit the truth. ‘I will go see a war movie,’ said one Vietnam veteran, ‘when the main character is shown shitting his pants in the battle scene.’ Have you ever seen a movie that depicted a soldier defecating in his drawers in combat?” (27)
Think about it. Have you ever seen an action movie where the hero urinates or defecates in his pants? Ever? The first book in The Hunger Games series also heavily distorts the reality of war trauma – commonly referred to as post traumatic stress disorder. Many people think war trauma only takes effect after combat, not realizing that soldiers can collapse mentally during combat. The main character in The Hunger Games goes through therapy in the later books, but children reading the first book are given the unrealistic impression that our minds are virtually immune to trauma during combat. I have not read the other books, and I am focusing only on the first book because it is the one most commonly used in schools. Too often war trauma is either presented in a shallow way (as it is in the first book of The Hunger Games series), or veterans are stereotyped as being “damaged goods.” Both misrepresentations are inaccurate and dangerous. The most common features of serious war trauma are a chronic sense of meaninglessness, losing the will to live, mental breakdowns, an inability to trust that leads to self-destructive behavior, and going berserk. Jonathan Shay calls going berserk “the most important and distinctive element of combat trauma,” (28) and it can cause people to mutilate corpses and commit other atrocities.
If teachers do not give their students accurate information about war, violence, and trauma, some of the students reading The Hunger Games in school may think, “None of the children in The Hunger Games have mental breakdowns in combat, so I don’t see why soldiers in war have so many problems.” The situation in The Hunger Games is so extreme that at least some of the children would experience serious war trauma and have mental breakdowns during or even prior to the battle. In the Iliad, composed by Homer around three thousand years ago, the highly trained Greek warrior Achilles suffers from serious war trauma during the war. (29) Jonathan Shay explains: “Profound grief and suicidal longing take hold of Achilles; he feels that he is already dead; he is tortured by guilt and the conviction that he should have died rather than his friend; he renounces all desire to return home alive; he goes berserk and commits atrocities against the living and the dead. This is the story of Achilles in the Iliad.” (30)
It might seem like the children in The Hunger Games do not break down mentally because they still have a miniscule chance of surviving if they take the right actions, and unlike the terminal illness scenario, this gives them some control over their fate. But military history shows that when soldiers have a miniscule chance of surviving they are more likely to lose the will to live and become suicidal. This is why it is so important for military commanders to encourage their soldiers, give them hope, and maintain high morale. Most human beings want to have a reasonable level of control over their lives, and losing almost complete control can cause some people to believe the only control they have left is the decision to take their own lives.
When soldiers have almost no chance of surviving and are pushed to the breaking point they can also go berserk. This is why Sun Tzu – who wrote The Art of War over two thousand years ago – advised military commanders to never trap their opponents into a corner, but to always give them an escape route because berserking soldiers are extremely dangerous. There is no indication in the first book of The Hunger Games series that any of the characters go berserk, because they always seem to act rationally. Common characteristics of berserker rage are suicidal behavior (because the person going berserk feels invincible), a severe lack of self-control that resembles intoxication, and the mutilation of corpses. The author makes a vague reference to participants in past events eating each other’s hearts, but it is unclear whether this is a reference to berserker rage.
When books are used in schools they must be held to a higher standard. To Kill a Mockingbird is taught in schools because it provides an accurate commentary on racism, but what if the book instead grossly misrepresented the harm caused by racism and segregation? Violence has become so normalized and glamorized in our society that depictions of violence are rarely assessed for their accuracy, but when the United States is involved in multiple wars overseas and American soldiers are returning home with physical and psychological wounds, we must seriously question what students are being taught about war, violence, and trauma.
Several people have suggested to me that the first book does in fact teach students about war, violence, and trauma, because the “hunger games veteran” Haymitch – who won the competition when he was younger and serves as a mentor to the main character – is an alcoholic. But if he really has war trauma, why is his alcoholism always portrayed in a comical and harmless way in the first book? Haymitch seems like the stereotypical “alcoholic war veteran,” except that his drunken antics come across as clownish. My father had severe war trauma from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and his violent rages were truly terrifying. If Haymitch is supposed to represent the effects of war trauma, students who read the book in school are given the impression that war trauma looks funny, rather than frightening.
People have also suggested to me that Haymitch is less affected by war trauma because he – like most of the other competitors in The Hunger Games – came from poverty. But do the poor value their lives less than the rich? My father, who was half white and half black, grew up under segregation in the South during the Great Depression. Many of the World War II and Korean War veterans also lived in poverty during the Great Depression. And soldiers throughout history did not have the luxuries we enjoy in the twenty-first century, while many were poor. So military history gives us overwhelming evidence that coming from poverty does not make people immune to war trauma.
Perhaps The Hunger Games is a blessing in disguise, because it can give students an opportunity to think critically and discuss serious issues such as war, violence, and trauma. The Hunger Games also has several noble themes and offers some useful critiques on society. I am not analyzing the writing quality, character development, or any part of the book other than its depiction of violence – one of its central themes. I don’t think Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, had any bad intentions or intentionally misrepresented war, violence, and trauma. There are many reasons to believe she tried to make the book as serious and realistic as possible. For example, she describes injuries in gory detail, and she explains physical adversities such as thirst and hunger with impressive thoroughness. But like many people in our society who have been misled by the myths of war, she has emphasized the physical adversity of war but greatly underestimated the psychological adversity. Inaccurate depictions of violence have been around for a long time, but The Hunger Games is unique because it distorts the psychological reality of war, violence, and trauma more than any book I have ever seen used in school.
For example, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been around for over fifty years, and although it glosses over many aspects of war, it portrays war and violence far more realistically than The Hunger Games. In The Lord of the Rings, the ability of soldiers to fight courageously is more believable because they have reliable comrades, reliable leaders, and have had military training. Furthermore, killing monsters that don’t look like us is less psychologically stressful than killing our own species, and this is why war propaganda often portrays the enemy as inhuman monsters. And although the hobbits aren’t highly trained in combat, their ability to fight ferociously is believable because they are trying to protect their friends who are in immediate danger. I am certainly not saying The Lord of the Rings portrays war or trauma accurately. Instead, I am saying The Hunger Games is unique, because it is far more unrealistic than The Lord of the Rings and many other violent depictions in the past.
The Hunger Games is also unique because it is being taught in schools during a critical time in history when the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons makes war a threat to human survival. During this critical time in history it has never been more important for people to understand the reality of war.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul K. Chappell graduated from West Point in 2002. He served in the army for seven years, was deployed to Baghdad in 2006, and left active duty in November 2009 as a Captain. He is the author of Will War Ever End?, The End of War, Peaceful Revolution, and The Art of Waging Peace (publication date: March 2014). He lives in Santa Barbara, California, where he is serving as the Peace Leadership Director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and he speaks throughout the country to colleges, high schools, veterans groups, churches, and activist organizations. His website is www.peacefulrevolution.com.
1. They actually have a 4.16 percent chance of surviving, but I am rounding the number to the nearest whole percentage.
2. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen, On Combat (Milstadt, IL: Warrior Science Publications, 2008), 12.
3. Lt. Col. Elspeth Ritchie, “Psychiatry in the Korean War: Perils, PIES, and Prisoners of War.” Military Medicine. Vol. 167. November 2002, 898.
4. Steve Bentley, “A Short History of PTSD.” The VVA Veteran, January 1991.
5. Roy L. Swank and Walter E. Marchand, “Combat Neuroses: Development of Combat Exhaustion.” American Medical Association: Archives of Nuerology and Psychiatry, 1946, 243.
6. Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps Trust Study – Final Report, Appendix E: Cohesion Essay, 2000.
7. Lao Tzu, Tao de Ching.
8.Victor Hansen, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 209.
9. Plutarch, Plutarch Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1917), 351.
10. Karl Kruszelnicki, “Gladiator Myths”, ABC Science, http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2007/09/20/2038358.htm
11. Stephen Wisdom, Gladiators (Oxford U.K., Osprey Publishing, 2001), 47.
12. Jennifer Viegas, “Gladiator Truths Counter Movie Myths,” Discovery Channel, http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/06/26/gladiator_arc_02.html?category=animals&guid=20070626100030
13. Stephen Wisdom, Gladiators (Oxford U.K., Osprey Publishing, 2001), 44.
14. Livy, Hannibal’s War, trans. J.C. Yardley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5.
15. Thomas F.X. Noble, Western Civilization: Beyond Boundaries, 5th. Ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 66.
16. It is eerie how rarely the characters in the first book feel fear. The closest any character comes to losing his or her mental faculties is Clove right before Thresh kills her. At first it seems like her ability to think is being overwhelmed by fear and shock, but she still has enough wits to lie to Thresh by telling him she didn’t kill Rue, and when he doesn’t believe her she does the next logical thing by calling for help. She still seems rational and calculating, unlike soldiers who have mental breakdowns in war. During World War II Swank and Marchand witnessed many soldiers suffering from “combat exhaustion” who “ran around wildly, even toward the enemy’s line or the artillery impact area. Some fell to the ground, clawing the earth, or, finding a slit trench, remained there, crying and trembling, impossible to control.”
17. Plutarch, “Pelopidas,” trans. John Dryden, The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/pelopida.html
18. Theoi Greek Mythology, “Deimos and Phobos”, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Deimos.html
19. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 351.
20. Hesiod, The Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Heracles, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White (Lawrence, KS: Digireads, 2009), 61.
21. Ibid, 62.
22.Diodorus, The Fragments of Diodorus, trans. G. Booth (London: W. McDowall, 1814), 68.
23. The oppression of women also prevented them from serving in the military. Today there are still oppressive societies where women cannot serve in the military.
24. Bruce Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 38.
25. Dave Grossman, On Killing (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995), 77.
26. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Digireads: 1st Touchstone Edition, 2004), 56.
27. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen, On Combat (Milstadt, IL: Warrior Science Publications, 2008), 9, 10.
28. Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 76.
29. Part of Achilles’ war trauma is the death of his friend Patroclus. When soldiers love their comrades, the downside is that the death of those comrades can cause serious trauma.
30. Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), xxi.
Paul Chappell was born in 1980 and raised in Alabama, the son of a Korean mother and a half-white, half–African American father who’d served in Korea and Vietnam. Though Chappell had seen how his father was troubled by his war experiences, he chose to pursue a military career himself, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2002 and serving in Iraq as an army captain in 2006 and 2007. But even as he signed up for a tour of duty, Chappell was starting to doubt that war was ever going to bring peace in the Middle East, or anywhere else.
A year later, while still an active-duty officer, he published his first book, Will War Ever End? A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century. “I am twenty-eight years old,” he writes, “and I have been obsessed with the problem of war for most of my life.” He went on to write The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet, and Our Future. Both books are written in a direct, accessible style that avoids blaming the Left or the Right, and his arguments for peace have appealed to people of all political persuasions.
Chappell now works at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and travels the country talking about the necessity of ending war and “waging peace.” He has a website (www.paulkchappell.com) and is involved with the American Unity Project (www.americanunityproject.com), which features a free online series of documentaries about waging peace. He also trains peace activists — a pursuit he believes should be undertaken with at least as much forethought and strategy as training soldiers for war. He emphasizes that activists must learn to be persuasive, to control their emotions, and to empathize with their opponents. Finally they must take their calling seriously — as seriously as soldiers going into battle. InThe End of War, Chappell quotes civil-rights activist Bernard Lafayette: “Nonviolence means fighting back, but you are fighting back with another purpose and other weapons. Number one, your fight is to win that person over.”
Chappell teaches through example. I met him at a weekly peace vigil on a downtown Santa Barbara, California, street corner, where he demonstrated how to engage even strident opponents with empathy and respect. I had lost patience with one such person after ten minutes of unproductive dialogue. Then Chappell showed up. He respectfully engaged my critic for a full forty-five minutes. Their conversation ended with the man thanking Chappell for listening to him and accepting a copy of The End of War. A few weeks later Chappell ran into the man and learned that he had read the book and had changed his mind about war as a means of ending terrorism.
Goodman: Your father was traumatized by his experiences in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Given that knowledge, why did you pursue a career in the military?
Chappell: Growing up, I was taught that you must wage war to end war. Comic books, action movies, video games, politicians — all said that if you wanted to make the world safe, you needed to use violence to defeat the bad guys. War was presented to me as the price you had to pay for peace, and I thought that peace was a goal worth fighting for.
My father didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, but I do remember him telling me about the suffering children he saw during the Korean War. The message I got was that if soldiers had to be traumatized to save children in Korea, or to save the Jews in Europe, or to protect innocents elsewhere, that’s a sacrifice they were prepared to make. I saw soldiers as people who are willing to give their lives in order to protect others.
I think a lot of people join the military believing they’re going to make the world safer. In the abstract the idea makes sense, because if you had a murderer in your home, of course you’d want an armed police officer there to protect you. But war is a completely different matter. It creates massive casualties — mostly civilian. It wasn’t until I got to West Point that I learned war isn’t the best way to make the world safe.
Goodman: This is something they taught you at West Point?
Chappell: Yes, West Point teaches that war is so dangerous, it should be used only as a last resort. I learned that the United States needs to rely more on diplomacy; that politicians don’t understand war and are too quick to use it as a means of conflict resolution. West Point also teaches that if you want to understand war, you have to understand its limitations and unpredictability. World War I and World War II both started out as limited conflicts and grew into global blood baths. War is like a natural disaster. You can’t control it.
Propaganda has made the word war synonymous with security, but in fact peace is synonymous with security. In the twenty-first century war actually makes us less secure. The United States has military bases in about 150 countries; we spend more on war than the rest of the world combined; we have the most powerful military in human history; and we’re some of the most terrified people on the planet. War and military occupation haven’t made us more secure. They’ve made us more hated in many parts of the world.
Goodman: Some say we’re hated because we’re free.
Chappell: If that’s the case, then how come the terrorists aren’t attacking the many other free countries around the world that don’t have soldiers deployed in the Middle East? How come they’re focusing so much on us and, to some extent, our NATO allies? Look who Osama bin Laden was fighting before he fought us: the Soviets. They weren’t free. Moreover, when bin Laden was our ally, he apparently didn’t care that we were free.
Another factor to consider is that wars are now fought on CNN, Fox News, Al Jazeera, and the Internet as much as they’re fought on the battlefield. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that the future of war is about perception, and that how we are perceived in the Middle East is vital to American security. It’s just common sense that the more we are in the news for invading Muslim countries, the less safe we are, because terrorism is not a government we can overthrow or a country we can occupy. Terrorism is an idea, a way of thinking. A terrorist can plan an attack from New York or San Francisco or Miami. Terrorism is a transnational criminal organization, and you cannot defeat it by invading a country. In fact, when you invade countries, you make the problem worse, because you kill civilians and create more resentment, more hatred, more enemies. I am increasingly of the mind that there are always preferable alternatives to war. Even if war could be justified, it’s just not effective.
Goodman: Why do politicians miss this point?
Chappell: When you have the strongest military in history, you want to use it. That’s our country’s strength, and people tend to rely on their strengths. Diplomacy puts us on more of an equal footing with other countries, and we don’t want to give up our advantage. Another reason is that there’s so much money to be made from war. In wartime the few make huge profits at the expense of the many. Major General Smedley Butler, a veteran of World War I, said, “War is a racket. It always has been. . . . It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.”
Goodman: But don’t we all benefit from our military securing the world’s resources?
Chappell: I’m not sure that the Iraq War is just about oil, but I think most people will agree that if there were not a single drop of oil in the Middle East, we would not be over there. It’s a strategic economic interest, but only a very small group of people benefit from it.
It’s not about Americans having access to oil. The primary reason we want to control the oil tap in Iraq is because we know that China, Russia, India, and other emerging industrialized nations need oil, and we want to be the ones who sell it to them. The problem is how much these wars cost. Consider what President Eisenhower said about all the other things we could invest in — schools, hospitals, highways, houses, food — if we weren’t spending so much money on the war machine, and you realize that the majority of the population is hurt by war. General Douglas MacArthur said that if humanity abolished war, the money could be used to wipe poverty from the face of the earth and produce a wave of economic prosperity around the world.
It’s not just the ones who go into battle who are harmed. We’re all hurt by mounting national debt and lack of funding for social programs and infrastructure, while most of the people who benefit from military buildups are already rich. You and I are not getting rich off the war in Iraq.
Goodman: You’ve said that the military is a “socialist” organization. How so?
Chappell: The military gives you three meals a day, pays for your healthcare and your college, and even pays for your housing. On an army field exercise, the highest-ranking soldiers eat last, and the lowest-ranking soldiers eat first. Leaders are supposed to sacrifice for their subordinates. In civilian society we’re told that the only thing that makes people work hard is the profit motive. The army’s philosophy is that you can get people to work hard based on the ideals of selflessness, sacrifice, and service. It demonstrates that people will even sacrifice their lives for the sake of others. The military also has a motto: “Never leave a fallen comrade.”
If I said to most Americans that we should have a society that gives everyone three meals a day, shelter, healthcare, and a college education, and that it should be based on selflessness, sacrifice, and service rather than greed, they’d say, “That’s socialism.” But that’s the U.S. military. A lot of conservative Republicans who think socialism is the ultimate evil admire the military.
Goodman: What do they say when you point out to them that the military is socialist?
Chappell: I don’t usually use the word socialist with them. When I try to persuade people that America should have universal healthcare, I say, “You know, in the military we have universal healthcare, and the military believes that you should never leave a fallen comrade behind. You take care of everyone.” They usually agree that this makes sense.
Goodman: When did this idea first occur to you?
Chappell: When I was at West Point. I don’t think I really knew what socialism was at that point, but I knew that West Point was different from how I’d grown up. You have a sense in America that you’re all alone. It’s survival of the fittest. But at West Point they have a saying: “Cooperate and graduate.” Your classmates will tutor you in chemistry, physics, calculus — whatever you need. If anyone fails a class because of not understanding the material, his or her fellow students are partly responsible, because they didn’t aid a classmate who needed help. Every professor has to give you his or her home phone number and allot two hours a day to additional instruction for any students who need it. So you feel as if people care about you. There’s a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. Your classmates aren’t trying to get a better grade than everyone else; they’ll actually help you excel and graduate.
I am not saying that the military is a utopia — far from it. The military as an institution has a lot of things wrong with it, but it also has some admirable characteristics.
Goodman: After you graduated from West Point, were you initially happy to be sent to Iraq? When did you really start to change your mind about the war?
Chappell: A lot of my friends at West Point were reading Noam Chomsky’s and Howard Zinn’s critiques of American foreign policy, and that’s what started to change my mind. In 2006, while I was stationed in Iraq, West Point invited Chomsky to give a lecture about whether the war in Iraq was a “just war.” I’d never believed that the war in Iraq was just. It violated international law, the United Nations Charter, and the Nuremberg Principles. It also violated the U.S. Constitution, which says that treaties are the supreme law of the land. I did see the war in Afghanistan as a necessary evil — at least, initially. As I studied Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., however, I learned that waging peace is similar to preventive medicine: a more effective healing method than the drastic step of war.
Goodman: It’s surprising to me that West Point has students critically analyze current military conflicts. How can soldiers risk their lives or kill people if they think the conflict they’re engaged in is wrong?
Chappell: Soldiers are always supposed to be thinking. That’s what West Point teaches its cadets, who are officers in training. You’re supposed to question the orders you’re given, to see whether they conform to the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war. Nevertheless it can be difficult to go against your fellow soldiers. Take the example of Hugh Thompson Jr., the U.S. helicopter pilot who tried to rescue Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai Massacre, in which hundreds of unarmed women, children, and elderly men were killed by U.S. soldiers. He told his machine-gunner to open fire on the Americans if they shot at the people he was trying to save. He was given the Soldier’s Medal and brought to West Point to lecture, as a way of saying, “Do the right thing.” But that was about thirty years after the fact. For the first twenty years or so he was an outcast. He received death threats from people in the military. So really the message was “Do the right thing, and in twenty or thirty years people might appreciate it.”
Goodman: You actually volunteered to deploy in Iraq in 2006.
Chappell: Yes, the mission I volunteered for was to install a new system called “Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar.” A mortar is a projectile bomb launched from an upright tube. The radar system would detect incoming rockets or mortars, and machine guns would shoot the explosives down in midflight. So it was a defensive role. If I did my job properly, fewer people would be killed.
The way I rationalized my choice was that Gandhi had volunteered as a medic in the Boer War and the Zulu War. He didn’t believe in violence, but if these wars were going to happen, he thought he should do what he could to minimize the loss of life. I don’t know if I made the right decision, but that was the way I thought about it at the time.
Goodman: Were you ever in a situation where you felt that your values were compromised?
Chappell: No, the biggest dangers I faced were mortar attacks, IEDs [improvised explosive devices] while we were traveling from base to base, and sniper fire while we were installing the radar on the perimeter of the bases. I worked closely with a small team of soldiers, and unfortunately one of them was killed by a sniper not long after I left Iraq.
I have a good friend who changed his job in the army from being a shooter to explosive-ordnance disposal — disarming bombs, like the soldiers in the movie The Hurt Locker. He wanted a role that was more defensive; he didn’t want to kill anybody. You might ask why he didn’t leave the military if he was opposed to fighting, but in his position is he any more culpable than the rest of us who are paying taxes that support the war? Not many Americans are willing to risk going to prison to voice their opposition.
Goodman: You said you originally thought the war in Afghanistan was justified.
Chappell: At the time I thought some wars might be necessary, and I thought that the Taliban were training terrorists. I didn’t understand the nature of terrorism then as well as I do now. Terrorism is an ideology, a way of thinking. To fight it, we need to change U.S. foreign policy. Eisenhower, the first president to identify Middle Eastern unrest as a threat to the United States, said that the reason people in the Middle East hate us is that we suppress freedom there. We support dictatorships. We prevent democratic progress, which is the opposite of what we say we’re doing. We have to practice what we preach, which means we can’t talk about human rights and also support dictators.
The seed of terrorism grows in the soil of hopelessness, depression, and fear; of poverty, hunger, and injustice. Killing civilians and occupying countries only exacerbate terrorism. Even the middle-class or affluent terrorists feel oppressed and estranged from their native culture. We need to fight terrorism the way we go after the Mafia: break up their networks, attack their funding, arrest the leaders, put them on trial, and send them to prison.
Imagine if America’s reputation around the world were strictly for providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief; if, whenever there was a disaster, the Americans came, helped, and left. Then, if terrorists attacked the U.S., world opinion would be on our side. We wouldn’t have to defend ourselves against terrorists; the rest of the world would do it for us.
Another big problem with the war in Afghanistan is that the Karzai government is corrupt, because any government that cooperates with an occupying foreign power is always going to be corrupt. Think of the Indians who cooperated with the British. Think of the French who cooperated with the Germans. The Karzai government is notoriously full of warlords and drug lords. Many Afghans prefer the Taliban — that’s how bad it is. Marine lieutenant colonel Christian Cabaniss, interviewed on 60 Minutes last year, said that if you kill a thousand Taliban and two civilians, it’s a loss. General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said the same. That was the whole point of the counterinsurgency doctrine: to avoid killing civilians, because it creates more insurgents. But when you realize that most of the people killed in modern war are civilians, you see that we’re fighting a losing battle.
One thing I learned at West Point is that in order to think strategically, you must be able to see the world from your opponent’s point of view. And from the point of view of the average Afghan, the U.S. military is there to keep a corrupt government in power. Many don’t see us as peacekeepers.
Goodman: What about in the capital, Kabul? The nongovernmental aid organizations there seem to value our presence.
Chappell: We are providing some security in the cities, but Afghanistan is predominantly a rural country. If you don’t win the hearts and minds of the rural population, you can’t win over the Afghan people. The Taliban have a lot of influence in the vast rural areas, which are more difficult for American forces to occupy and control.
Goodman: What will happen to the rights of Afghan women if we leave the country to the Taliban?
Chappell: I think we have to look at why the Taliban came to power in the first place. After the Soviets left, the warlords took over, and many of them were raping women and pillaging villages. The Taliban gained support by stopping the rapes. The leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, reportedly led his soldiers in the rescue of two girls who had been kidnapped and raped by a warlord. So if you’re a villager, and you have to choose between your daughter not being able to go to school and your daughter being raped by a warlord, which is the better alternative? It’s not that the people want the Taliban. They just fear the warlords more. Now the Karzai government is treating segments of the population so badly that it is making the Taliban look like a better alternative. Moreover, the Karzai government is no champion of women’s rights.
Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, went to Afghanistan in the 1990s and asked the people what they wanted, and their reply was schools, especially for their daughters. He says that if you educate Afghan girls to fifth grade, three things will happen: birthrates and infant-mortality rates will drop; the quality of village life will improve; and mothers will say no when their sons ask for permission to make jihad, or holy war.
Americans have a difficult time imagining ways of solving problems that don’t involve bombing. That is why many countries question whether our intentions are truly to promote liberty, human rights, and women’s rights, or whether our motivations are imperialistic in nature. If we are occupying Afghanistan to liberate women, for example, how do we explain our close alliance with the Saudi Arabian government, which oppresses women? Other countries notice that when governments cooperate with us and give us access to their oil, we couldn’t care less about their human-rights records, and that makes us look like hypocrites. Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes he committed while he was our ally. We actually increased our support for him after he committed those crimes. The only way our actions appear consistent is if you assume our foreign policy is about protecting our own economic interests.
We need to fight terrorism the way we go after the Mafia: break up their networks, attack their funding, arrest the leaders, put them on trial, and send them to prison.
Imagine if America’s reputation around the world were strictly for providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief; if, whenever there was a disaster, the Americans came, helped, and left. Then, if terrorists attacked the U.S., world opinion would be on our side.
Goodman: Do you have a suggested solution in Afghanistan?
Chappell: There are a lot of them. It’s like Howard Zinn said: “Between war and passivity there are a thousand possibilities.” We don’t have to occupy a country militarily for it to achieve democratic progress. We could support democratic institutions within the country. There are people within Afghanistan who want democracy, who want women’s rights. We could provide support to those people — not in the form of guns and bombs and weaponry, but through constructive aid.
Human beings aren’t naturally violent. We’re told that human nature is the reason for war, but the way I see it, military history shows how nonviolent we are.
Goodman: What do you mean?
Chappell: If you want to know whether our instincts are geared more toward love or toward hatred, you just have to look at war propaganda. In every culture the warmongers tell us that we have to protect our families, our freedom, and our way of life from evil people in some foreign land who want to take all of that away. War propaganda manipulates our most powerful instincts: love of family, love of freedom, and the desire to help others — even our enemies. The Roman emperor said he was liberating the poor barbarians, who didn’t have Roman civilization or wisdom. Mao Tse-tung said he was liberating the Tibetans from the dictator known as the Dalai Lama. The colonial powers in Europe were trying to liberate Africans, who were living in “darkness,” and bring them civilization and Christianity. We’re trying to liberate the Iraqi people and Afghan women. Wars are always about liberating people and self-defense. There has never been a war in history where the invaders openly said, “We’re going to war for the money.”
Also, war propaganda never portrays the soldiers on the other side as human. It hides the fact that we’re killing other human beings. We’re killing monsters; we’re killing cockroaches; we’re killing subhumans — “gooks,” “Japs,” “krauts,” and “Commies.” If we were naturally violent, our leaders could just say, “I’m going to give you a chance to kill people. I’ll even pay you!” I’ve never seen a military-recruiting commercial that even mentions killing people. They say, “Join the army and go to college,” “serve your country,” “be all that you can be.” Join the navy and “accelerate your life,” or the air force and “aim high.” You never see a commercial that says, “Join the army and kill people just like you.”
Goodman: Will we ever stop getting fooled by the propaganda?
Chappell: I think so. Look at Europe. For five hundred years Europe was the bloodiest place on earth. That’s why Europeans were able to conquer almost every continent: the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia. The Europeans waged so much war among themselves, they made warfare into a science. When they went abroad, other cultures couldn’t compete with European armies, who’d been practicing for five hundred years.
But now look at Western Europe. Can you even imagine the Germans fighting the British, or the British fighting the Italians? If the leader of Germany said, “We have to attack France,” Germans would say, “Wait a minute. We’ve heard this before.”
Even in America people have learned. Which politicians most wanted to abolish the draft? It was the warmongers. They knew that as long as we had a draft, it would be difficult to get Americans to go to war. Do you think we would have gone to war in Iraq if they were taking middle-class kids out of college to topple Saddam Hussein? There would have been more-massive protests.
So Americans did learn after Vietnam, but the warmongers learned too. They got rid of the draft. They changed the rules for the media so that reporters have to be “embedded” with a military unit, which lets the military control the information. They also launched a propaganda campaign about “supporting the troops,” so if you’re against the war, it looks like you’re against the troops. Still, it took an extraordinary incident like 9/11 to get the populace behind the plan to invade Iraq. So we do learn; but they learn too.
Goodman: The case could be made that we are now killing more people than ever, and we’re even less aware of it.
Chappell: But there is progress if you look at the fact that there are entire regions and even continents now — South America, Western Europe, North America — where there are no armed conflicts between countries. Costa Rica doesn’t even have an army. It feels secure without one because, although there have been civil wars, there hasn’t been much warfare between nations in Central or South America. Think how ridiculous it would be for us to go to war with Canada or Mexico. But that’s not how neighboring countries used to think.
It’s true, though, that in some ways things seem to have gotten worse.
Goodman: Yes, we’ve outsourced the fighting to mercenaries and military contractors.
Chappell: Good point. Many people believe that shrinking the military is the key to ending war, but as the military decreases in size, the numbers of contractors and corporate armies increase. There are corporations that want the military to become privatized. Today we have more contractors than soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the American military, which is subservient to civilian authority, corporate armies are answerable only to their shareholders. Also, while the nation suffers from prolonged wars, the corporate armies profit.
Goodman:Tell me about the distinction you make between rage and fury.
Chappell: Fury is a rush of adrenaline combined with concern for the safety and well-being of a loved one, so you act to prevent harm. Rage is a rush of adrenaline combined with anger and hatred, so you act to inflict harm. For example: My martial-arts training partner was out with a friend who was attacked by a stranger. My training partner experienced fury and put the attacker in a submission hold, harming him as little as possible while stopping the attack. Rage typically escalates the violence. It is more concerned with inflicting harm on the person who committed the offense. If my training partner had been motivated by rage, he probably would have killed the attacker.
Goodman: In Will War Ever End? you write that a lot of so-called aggressive behavior is actually defensive.
Chappell: Right. The same way a rattlesnake shakes its tail, or a gorilla beats his chest, or a dog growls, most aggressive behavior comes from fear and is meant to prevent additional violence by scaring a potential attacker. The most insecure people are the most aggressive. Men will yell at each other, get in each other’s face, even push their opponent away. It looks and sounds violent, but it’s actually posturing intended to scare the other man off. Unfortunately when nations posture aggressively, there’s nowhere for them to run.
In every culture the warmongers tell us that we have to protect our families, our freedom, and our way of life from evil people in some foreign land who want to take all of that away. War propaganda manipulates our most powerful instincts: love of family, love of freedom, and the desire to help others.
Goodman: Does it seem to you that American culture is growing increasingly violent, from video games to music lyrics to crime rates to our military budget, which now accounts for as much as fifty-three cents of every tax dollar?
Chappell: I think there are two things going on. In his book On Killing, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman points out that throughout most of human history people had to face and acknowledge death. They saw their loved ones die; they buried the bodies; they killed the food they ate. We live in a society that has been sanitized to the point that most people have never seen a dead body, and if they have, it’s been in a funeral home, where it’s been made to look as if it were still alive. Grossman theorizes that, just as the repression of sex in the Victorian Era led to an increase in sexual fetishes, the repression of death in our culture has led to violence fetishes. Never seeing death causes us to be fascinated with images of it in movies, on television, and in video games. At the same time, we fear and deny death: we don’t want to get old; we don’t even want to look old; we pretend that we will live forever. Whenever you repress a natural part of life, strange behaviors emerge.
The murder rate in the U.S. has gone down since 1900, but Grossman says what you really need to look at is the aggravated-assault rate, which is the rate at which people try to kill each other. In 1900 there were fewer roads, no motorized ambulances, few telephones, and no antibiotics, so deaths from aggravated assaults were much higher than they are now. Today the aggravated-assault rate is five or six times what it was in 1900, but most aggravated-assault victims survive. If we had the same limited lifesaving abilities today as we did in 1900, our murder rate would be far higher now than it was then.
Grossman also finds a distinct correlation between violent media and violent crime. For example, during World War II only 15–20 percent of combat soldiers who had a chance to shoot at the enemy actually fired. During the Korean War that went up to 55 percent. During the Vietnam War it went up to 90–95 percent. Today it’s nearly 100 percent. The primary reason the number went up so dramatically is that the military added desensitization and conditioning techniques to its training. During World War II soldiers were trained to shoot at a round bull’s-eye. When they had to shoot at a human being in combat, they often couldn’t bring themselves to fire their weapons. During the Vietnam War soldiers were trained to fire at targets shaped like human beings. Violent video games offer countless lifelike depictions of human beings for players to shoot, breaking down the mental barriers that make it difficult for most of us to kill another person. If shooting a silhouette shaped like a human being increased firing during the Vietnam War, think about the effect of killing photo-realistic human beings who bleed, scream, and writhe on screen when they die. When people say that violent video games don’t train us to kill, they are showing how little they know about military training.
The military’s training is actually less extreme than violent media. America’s Army, a video game made by the army as a recruiting tool, is less violent than such popular video games as Modern Warfare 2. In the original America’s Army game if you fire your weapon when you aren’t supposed to, you end up in jail, and the game is over. In Modern Warfare 2 there is a part of the game where you are encouraged to execute a crowd of civilians. There is an option to skip that segment, but if you do, you miss an integral part of the plot. Some violent video games reward you for shooting your weapon recklessly. Warlords have used these video games to train child soldiers to terrorize and massacre civilian populations. This doesn’t mean that violent video games will lead everyone who plays them to massacre civilians, but playing them makes it easier for us to kill.
We’re biologically hard-wired to stare at violence: it’s a threat; it demands our attention. Just as we’d stare at a bear that came into the room, we stare at violence when it occurs — not just for immediate protection, but to gather survival data. One reason little kids will come running to see a fight is because, on a subconscious level, they want to know what to do if they’re ever in that situation.
Goodman:A lot of times they’re not just staring. They’re cheering.
Chappell: It depends. Some kids are horrified when they see a fight. Some will try to break it up. But we do live in a society where people cheer for the side they want to win. If you’ve watched boxing or action movies or wrestling, you’ve been conditioned to cheer. And what if a kid is standing up to a bully? We all cheer for the underdog.
In On Killing Grossman says that human-on-human violence is the universal human phobia. Not everyone is afraid of snakes or spiders or heights, but 98 percent of people are afraid of being attacked by another human. Every year tens of thousands of people are killed in car accidents; yet every day tens of millions of people casually drive to work. Every year hundreds of thousands of people die from smoking; yet every day millions of people smoke. But if a serial killer kills two people, the whole town goes on alert. One terrorist attack, and the entire country freaks out.
What makes terrorism so dangerous is that it triggers this universal human phobia. We end up doing far more harm to ourselves in reaction to the threat of terrorism than the terrorists could ever do. If Osama bin Laden had told us to give up our values, betray our principles, curtail our civil liberties, spy on our own people, torture captives, and escalate our national debt, we never would have done it. But by attacking us, he got us to do all those things willingly.
Goodman: As a parent of sons, I heard that if I didn’t let my boys play with toy guns, they would just make guns out of sticks. Is this not an indication that violence is in our genes?
Chappell: We need to look at the difference between violence and play. In play as soon as someone gets hurt, the game stops. When two puppies are biting each other, and one puppy yelps in pain, the play stops. If two boys are playing swords with sticks and one boy gets hurt, the play stops. The intention of violence is to inflict pain; you want to hurt people. The intention of play is to have fun, practice hand-eye coordination, test your strength against your peers, bond socially, and so on. Play is crucial, not just for humans but for all mammals. Nearly all young mammals like to wrestle. It builds muscular strength and the connections in your brain that govern motor control and balance. But it has nothing to do with violence.
Goodman: So how can we wage peace?
Chappell: First we have to challenge the myths that support the institution of war. It can be done. Look at slavery. It was a global institution that had been around since the beginning of recorded history. It’s in the Bible. Every country had some form of it. It built the economies of most of them. What made people believe it was possible to abolish state-sanctioned slavery? Did all these slave owners suddenly look in the mirror and realize they were bad people? No, slavery was rationalized through a myth that said it was in the nature of some races, or certain subgroups of races, to be slaves. Today if I said, “White people yearn for freedom, but black people don’t,” you’d think I was crazy, but that’s what people used to believe: A cat’s happy being a cat; a dog’s happy being a dog; a slave is happy being a slave. And just as I’m a kind master of my sheep and my horse and my dog, I’m a kind master of my slave. To let my slaves go would be morally irresponsible, just like letting my sheep go. They would die! They need my protection.
Then, during the eighteenth century, some thinkers put forth the idea that all humans yearn for freedom. Further, it was recognized that you have to use harsh methods to suppress people’s yearning for freedom. After that, we had the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and slave revolts around the world. People started to realize it wasn’t a part of some people’s nature to want to be slaves.
Now many of us believe the myth that human beings are naturally violent, so war is inevitable. Look at who benefits from that myth. If human beings are naturally violent, politicians can’t be held responsible for making war; they’re just trying to protect us from the violent people all over the planet. Weapons makers can’t be held responsible; they’re just trying to help us defend ourselves. But in truth humans aren’t naturally violent, so we’re all responsible. War is a choice. General Omar Bradley, a veteran of World War II, said, “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them must share in the guilt for the dead.”
There have been grassroots campaigns to end slavery, to end apartheid, to secure the rights of women and workers, to save the whales, to save the planet, but there has never been a grassroots campaign to go to war against people in a distant land. War always comes from the top down. The people are typically reluctant to go to war, and the government has to use propaganda or force to get them to go.
Goodman:What about the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or the war between the Serbs and the Croats? Aren’t those grassroots-inspired wars?
Chappell: The American Revolution was designed and initiated by the wealthy elites. Most Americans had nothing to gain from it. Well into the 1800s the only Americans who could vote were white male landowners. Poor white people couldn’t vote. African Americans couldn’t vote. Women couldn’t vote. Westward expansion was also driven by the government. Where civil wars and genocide are concerned, author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has said that genocide is always political. There is a myth that genocide erupts spontaneously from the masses, but in reality it is always planned, political in nature, and manufactured by politicians and leaders.
Goodman: So how can we end war?
Chappell: As I said, the first step is to challenge the underlying myths that perpetuate war. War comes from the human mind, from how people think. That’s what we have to change.
Goodman: But the people who wage war have convinced themselves of its necessity.
Chappell:They’ve decided that war is their best option, but if you give them a more appealing one, they’ll switch. The problem with the peace movement is that it doesn’t give people better alternatives to fight terrorism and keep the world secure.
Goodman: In a world of increasingly scarce resources, what’s to keep Americans from thinking it’s justifiable to use military power to ensure our access to resources, and the rest of the world be damned?
Chappell: That strategy is like the Chinese finger trap: the harder you pull, the tighter it gets. The more you care only about yourself, the more you undermine your own position. Look at the organs of the body: The brain, the heart, and the kidneys don’t work only for their own health but for the health of the body. They have to be selfless to some extent, or they’ll kill the body — and themselves along with it. The more we can protect and secure the safety and freedom of other countries, the better we can protect our own. If we think only of our own self-interest, we are going to destroy the planet and our country along with it.
Two hundred years ago people in this country didn’t identify themselves as Americans first. They identified as Virginians, Georgians, or New Yorkers. Now everyone is an American first and a New Yorker or a Virginian second. It’s just another small leap to identify oneself as a citizen of the planet first and an American second. And when we make that leap, it will change how we interact with other countries.
Goodman:Peace activists are often accused of being unpatriotic, of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Chappell: But patriotism is at the heart of the peace movement. It’s based on love of country — not blind love, but love that works to make our country as good as it can be. If you love your child, you don’t let that child lie and steal and abuse other people; you correct him or her. If you love your country, you try to correct it when it goes off course. There are peace activists who say they hate America, who burn the flag, but that’s typically because they are angry and hurt at what America is doing. I tell those activists that such behavior is counterproductive; it turns people against them. I’ve seen protests that made me not want to be a peace activist. They were poorly planned, hateful circuses.
Goodman: What does an effective protest look like?
Chappell: The message is clear, and the action is well thought out, peaceful, and orderly. Peace activist Colman McCarthy told me, “I like to dress like a conservative and talk like an anarchist.” If we care about reaching the people who disagree with us, we have to look more like them. The liberals are already with us.
We also have to offer real hope, real solutions. Burning the American flag — what’s the point of that? I don’t see the American flag as a holy symbol, but burning it doesn’t bring mainstream people over to our side. It just alienates them.
Never seeing death causes us to be fascinated with images of it in movies, on television, and in video games. At the same time, we fear and deny death: we don’t want to get old; we don’t even want to look old; we pretend that we will live forever.
Goodman: You said that people who burn the flag are angry at America. What should war protesters do with their anger?
Chappell: Find a way to channel it away from bitterness and into constructive action. Most peace activists are middle-class citizens who aren’t living under the yoke of oppression. We should be able to control our anger. Look at Gandhi: He lived under British oppression. He was attacked on numerous occasions, received death threats, and spent about seven years in jail. Yet he didn’t burn the British flag. He considered himself a British citizen and said that what he was doing was for the well-being of Great Britain as well as the Indian people. Martin Luther King Jr. lived under segregation. Someone bombed his house. He was arrested multiple times and received daily death threats. But he wasn’t bitter. Can you imagine Martin Luther King Jr. burning the American flag? If these leaders could go through all they went through and not become bitter, then I think war protesters can muster up a little more fortitude and resilience.
Goodman: But aren’t you angry on behalf of the millions of people around the world who have been killed in our name? Aren’t you angry about the villages that have been napalmed, the jungles defoliated, the cities incinerated, the innocents massacred?
Chappell: I am indeed outraged by these things, but I think outrage is different from anger. What do Buddha, Jesus, Sun Tzu, Seneca, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, martial-arts philosophy, and West Point have in common? They all taught me that anger is dangerous. Outrage is my conscience saying, This is wrong! When outrage is not supported by a foundation of patience and empathy for all sides, it quickly descends into yelling, resentment, and a shutting down of reason, which doesn’t effectively advance the cause of peace. We can spark people’s outrage without inciting their anger. So, yes, let’s all be outraged by these things, but let’s channel our outrage into productive action.
The way you get rid of anger is through understanding. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of Compassionate Listening, said, “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.” The reason I’m not angry at conservatives is because I’ve lived my whole life around them and don’t see them as bad people. They are not the enemy. My opponents are ignorance, greed, and hatred, which seem to have taken these people hostage.
Goodman: How do you convince people who are unapologetically greedy, who want what they want regardless of how it affects anyone else?
Chappell: Appreciation is the cure for greed. Greed is a painful way to live, because you’re never satisfied. It’s psychologically exhausting. But some people are taught that greed will make them happy; that if they just had a new car, a bigger house, or another face-lift, they’d be happy. The problem is that greed never ends.
Another myth is that human beings are naturally selfish. Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, and John Nash, the scientist depicted in A Beautiful Mind, both postulated that allowing people to exercise their natural selfishness and greed would create the best possible society. But later in life Nash retracted his theory, which he’d promulgated while he was an untreated paranoid schizophrenic. In the BBC documentary The Trap, filmed after his condition had improved, Nash said he’d been mistaken. The same documentary showed research that only two groups of people consistently make decisions in a self-interested way: psychopaths and economists. [Laughs.]
Goodman: How would you design a peace strategy for the U.S.?
Chappell: Long-lasting social change has to come from changing the way people think. So I would challenge the myths that support war, and I’d explain that the economy is unstable because of war; the jobless rate is so high because of war; there’s no money for cities or states or education because of war. In other words, I would make the costs of war immediate and apparent to citizens, while showing that war doesn’t make us safe. Because when people believe that war protects their freedom, families, and way of life, they are willing to pay any price.
Goodman: What about tax resistance as a strategy for opposition?
Chappell: The problem is that people will say, “Are you really that opposed to the war, or do you just not want to pay taxes?” They asked the same question of conscientious objectors: Were they really opposed to the war, or were they just afraid of getting shot? When people can’t prove their true motivations, their actions lose impact. That’s why it’s so effective when veterans speak out against war, because people know they aren’t afraid to fight.
Goodman: Couldn’t refusal to pay taxes apply a “submission hold,” similar to Gandhi’s refusal to buy British goods or his famous Salt March?
Chappell: Perhaps, if enough people did it. Gandhi’s Salt March worked because it challenged such an outrageous law — preventing people from harvesting salt from the ocean — that the injustice was instantly grasped by millions. Did Great Britain own the oceans? Of course not. Gandhi carefully chose the right battle.
Goodman: What kind of training do you give peace activists?
Chappell: How to remain calm is important. And the key to remaining calm is to have empathy for your opponent. The more I empathize with you, the harder it is for me to get angry at you. If you get angry at me, I don’t respond in kind, because I see how you are suffering. It takes years of practice — and getting tired of being angry — to master it, but it’s such an important skill to have. Without empathy it’s easy to become bitter and cynical.
Goodman: I have trouble identifying with the suffering of wealthy, white Americans who have more than anyone else on the planet and are fighting for their right to impose their will on the rest of the world. Sometimes I want to strangle them.
Chappell:[Laughs.] It is outrageous! But here’s the thing: if you’d been born into their circumstances and had their life experiences, you’d probably be just like them. So what happened to them to make them like that? In the army there’s a saying: “If someone goes wrong, you have to examine their training.” So what did society and the educational system and these people’s parents teach them that made them like that? It’s easy to empathize with our friends, but the real test is to empathize with those we feel deserve our compassion the least.
Goodman:It’s easy to empathize with the oppressed. It’s hard to empathize with oppressors.
Chappell: I think being an oppressor is another kind of oppression. Mother Teresa called this the “poverty of spirit,” the “poverty of lack of love.” She said that there was no sickness in the world greater than that one.
Goodman:Yes, ultimately, but most political debate is not going to reveal the personal scars and wounds that are causing them to oppress others.
Chappell: I try to imagine them as children, before they became the way they are. I imagine them as three-year-olds. It’s hard for me to hate even a horribly misguided three-year-old. I firmly believe that people can change, even when the chance of change is small. Also, you don’t have to convince every single person for dramatic change to occur; you just have to convince enough people.
Goodman: I believe that too, but I think it will have to be life experiences that turn them around — not a conversation.
Chappell:A conversation can plant the seed. The right conversation creates tension in a person’s mind, which can initiate change. Don’t discount one-on-one efforts.
Goodman:What other skills do peace activists need besides the ability to remain calm?
Chappell: We need training in how to be persuasive and in understanding other people’s worldviews, because if you attack someone’s worldview, they are likely to react as if you are attacking them physically. It’s part of who they are. When Martin Luther King Jr. challenged segregation, he was challenging everything that white Southerners believed: that black people were inferior; that racial harmony was impossible; that segregation was the only way the races could live peaceably together. So King took an innovative approach: he tied his ideas to his opponents’ existing worldview by likening black Americans’ fight for civil rights to the Hebrews’ struggle for freedom from oppression in Egypt. This made the challenge to segregation less threatening. King also reminded Americans what the Declaration of Independence says: that “all men are created equal.”
We need to learn to tie a new idea to a familiar one so that it becomes less threatening. For example, in the healthcare debate some people on the Left said, “We should be more like Canada.” But most Americans don’t know much about Canada. Maybe they don’t want to be like Canada. So when I talk to conservatives about healthcare, I talk to them about Jesus and the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan helped the stranger; he paid for his medical bills. I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus treated preexisting conditions.” Jesus told his disciples to “go and do likewise.”
When I’m talking about ending war, I quote Eisenhower or MacArthur, or I reference what I learned at West Point, because those are people and institutions that conservatives respect. For them to call me “crazy” would be like saying that Eisenhower and West Point are crazy. By quoting someone they trust, I’m also trying to circumvent their fear. The difference between manipulation and persuasion is that manipulation uses fear, which clouds the mind. It’s difficult to think clearly when you’re afraid. Persuasion appeals to people’s reason, understanding, compassion, and conscience. If I’m trying to persuade you, I want you to be calm, rational. I want to give you all the evidence so that you can make the right decision.
Goodman: What do you say to people who consider peace a noble but naive ideal?
Chappell: Anyone who thinks ending war is naive hasn’t put enough thought into it. What’s naive is to think that wars can continue and humanity will survive. It’s naive to think the planet is a limitless resource. It’s naive to think that we can create ever more powerful means of killing each other and not destroy the planet.
Goodman: Still, we seem to be firmly in the grasp of the military-industrial complex. Can we really free ourselves?
Chappell:Think about the civil-rights movement. At that time the people who maintained segregation controlled the government, the news media, the universities, the military, and most of the money. What did the activists have? The truth. We now acknowledge that African Americans are not inferior to whites; that racial harmony is possible; that it’s unnatural to keep black and white people separate. It was the same with the women’s-suffrage movement: Women were denied the right to vote because they were thought to be intellectually inferior to men. And men controlled the government, the media, the military, and most of the money. But truth was on the side of the women’s movement.
How will we win? We have the truth.
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Leslee Goodman is a freelance writer, an artist, and a consultant to nonprofits. She divides her time between Washington State’s Methow Valley and Santa Barbara, California.More From This Contributor ▸