One—The Imagine Fallacy
John Lennon’s dream was a world without war and his roadmap to such an achievement was best summarized in the song Imagine. I can’t recite the lyrics without crossing the boundaries of fair use, and I don’t feel like being sued by Yoko Ono. But I’m sure you’ve all heard it enough times that it’s already an earworm in your head as I’m reading this. At any rate, permit me to summarize.
If we no longer had religion to fight over, there would be no war.
If we no longer had countries to fight over, there would be no war.
If we no longer had possessions to fight over, there would be no war.
John Lennon had two sons, but they were born to two different women and raised on two different continents. Had they been closer in age and raised together, he would perhaps have realized the futility of these notions.
Because sooner or later, the two brothers would fight over something. Perhaps a certain toy that they both wanted. Suppose it was a boat. By his logic, the way to end the conflict would be to take away the boat so there would be nothing left to fight over. But they would only move on to the Tinkertoy set and start fighting over that. Take away the Tinkertoy set and they’d squabble over the fire truck. Remove every single one of the toys, and the conflict would shift to a question of who was touching who.
The Imagine ideal, no matter how beautifully presented, no matter how much it makes you want to believe in something greater than ourselves, simply won’t work. Because taking away the object of contention from the smallest conflict to the most brutal wars is solving only part of the problem.
Two—The Us and the Them
We are wired for conflict. It served our ancestors well as they hunted for food for the tribe. It perhaps served our ancestors not so well when tribes competed for the same hunting ground and blood would be spilled to claim a territory. We’re still wired to define in-groups and out-groups in competition to one another. Liberal versus conservative, Crips versus Bloods, Georgia Tech versus UGA, intown versus suburban, the New York Yankees versus everyone else and so on. In simplest terms, Us versus Them.
In war, Us versus Them goes to its greatest extremes. Them can be Them for any number of reasons. To borrow the examples from Imagine, Them can be a different religion, Them can be a different country or Them can be those who have something that the Us wants.
In war, Them is not merely a rival—Them is not human. Them is the other, the alien, the monster, the demon. Them can be robbed, raped, enslaved and of course killed because Them doesn’t count as actual people. The world is done a favor by eliminating Them. The fight is driven by the fear that if Them were to prevail, the human race of Us would be annihilated. Thus blood is spilled by the millions of lives until exhaustion leads to surrender.
And yet Them is not an absolute. Like race and gender, Them is a construct that is subject to alteration. In the same way that the Irish went from nonwhite to white, Them can become Us and Us can become Them. In the period of the Civil War, the Us of the United States was shattered into the two Thems of the Union and Confederate forces. At the end of the war, the two Thems resumed being an Us, or a sort of an Us that still has rivalries, but with far less bloodshed involved.
What we need to bring an end to war is not to eliminate the differences between ourselves so that there will be nothing to fight over. The key is to eliminate the concept of Them as an inhuman other deserving of slaughter, so that there will be no one to fight against.
Three—The View From an Elevated Place
I once went to Pienza, Italy with my family and stayed in a bed and breakfast that had a rooftop platform where we would go to drink wine and watch the sunset. Pienza is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it was a Renaissance urban renewal project put together by Pope Pius the Second. The cathedral there was celebrating its 550th anniversary.
One night, we noticed a glow of a large television coming from one of the windows that we could see from our rooftop vantage point. There was a soccer game between Italy and England that night and it seemed everybody around us was glued to it. When a certain play went in Italy’s favor, a roar went up throughout the entire town, loud enough to be literally heard from the rooftops.
As the game went on, it occurred to me that not even a century ago, Italy and England were fighting one another in one of the most brutal wars in human history—a war where the logical and horrifying conclusion of Themness was reached in the concentration camps. The gate to Pienza had been damaged during that war. Before that, the cathedral had no doubt stood through many other conflicts between those nations in its five and a half centuries. And now they were duking it out on a soccer field instead of a battlefield.
I used to hate sports. But after that night, I discovered I didn’t mind them at all. We are wired for conflict, but those conflicts don’t have to end in blood. They can end in sweaty handshakes. They can end with the Them of opposing teams reverting to the Us of the league that they play in.
Despite what John Lennon sings, and how movingly he sings it, the end of war will not come with the end of religion, the end of countries or the end of private property. It will come when a critical mass of humanity accepts and practices this essential truth—
There is no Them. There is only Us.