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War: A Vietnam Memoir

Larry Dossey, MD

Time is running short. Other Vietnam's are lurking. - Harry A. Wilmer


"The goal of the military in war is simple," says a friend of mine who has worked at the Pentagon, "?killing people and breaking things." In addition to being killed, people are among the "things" in war that get broken. This explains in a nutshell why war is and always has been a health issue, and why I believe it is an appropriate concern for a journal devoted to health.
Many of the events that follow are exquisitely personal. They happened to me 30 years ago and I have never before published anything about them. Eight years ago I tried doing so in a book, but my publisher rejected the material because it was "too graphic."
One reason I have decided to write about these events in Alternative Therapies is the support I feel from the readers of this journal. For that I am grateful.

In the alchemy of men's souls, almost all the noble attributes - courage, honor, love, hope, faith, duty and loyalty? can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us. Thus the survival of the species may depend on the ability to foster a boundless capacity for compassion. - Eric Hoffer

I volunteered to serve in Vietnam in 1969, fresh out of my internship. There was nothing noble in my decision. All young physicians were being drafted at the time, and I figured I had a better shot at a decent assignment if I joined up. My strategy didn't work.
In the 6-week period of officer training prior to leaving for Vietnam, my cynical attitude toward the military hardened as I was exposed to a series of career officers assigned to indoctrinate us in our new roles as Army physicians. I was appalled by their cheerful enthusiasm. I considered myself wiser than they, because I could see the insanity of war and they could not. I made a solemn vow that I would never, under any circumstance, take undue risks should I find myself in a hazardous situation in Vietnam. I considered the risk of danger unlikely, however, because my chances of being assigned to a medical facility in a safe zone, I thought, were quite good.
Again my calculations failed. I was assigned as a battalion surgeon?an inflated title?to a mechanized infantry battalion attached to an airborne brigade of paratroopers. I was shocked to discover that positions like this actually existed for physicians. I was issued an M-16 rifle, a .45 pistol, a bandolier for extra ammunition clips, a combat knife, and a flak jacket, which was a Kevlar vest that repelled bullets and shrapnel?all of which, in addition to a small medical aid bag I put together, would become my constant companions for the following year.
Again the unexpected happened. After only a few days on the front lines I began renouncing all my previous resolutions and started actually to court danger. I began volunteering for combat patrols and assault missions, and for paratrooper "jump" school. As I increasingly identified with my new role, I seriously considered asking for reassignment to the Army's Officer Candidate School back in the States, so I could return to Vietnam with my own infantry company to command. When, after 6 months of hazardous duty, it came time for me to rotate to a safe assignment at a rear hospital, I declined the opportunity and elected to stay in the field with the casualties and carnage for an additional 6 months?in spite of the fact that by then I knew the war was insane. But, in a way, so was 1.

Vietnam, II Corp. Landing Zone English, 1969. I reach the remote outpost in time to see the crew of the disabled armored personnel carrier (APC) walking away from it. They are sullen and splattered with blood. I notice that the tanklike vehicle has a hole in its side, made by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Where did all the blood come from? I climb atop the APC, drop down through the open hatch into the claustrophobic chamber, and find myself sitting next to a young soldier. He has no head. I peer into the base of his skull?an empty, bone-white bowl that previously contained a brain. Looking around, I see the man's missing brain tissue stuck on every wall of the APC. His head suffered a direct hit from the rocket, and they both exploded.
His insignia tells me he is a sergeant. His hands are folded limply in his lap, as if he is meditating. I notice a bulge in the breast pocket of his uniform. I unbutton it and remove his wallet, which is stuffed with photographs of his pretty wife and two beaming children. The oldest child is a little girl in pigtails and braces. In the picture she towers over her brother and holds his hand.
I respectfully replace the sergeant's wallet. Then I lean against my headless comrade, shoulder to shoulder, and begin to cry. It's been almost a year since I arrived in Vietnam, and I am tired of the carnage?physically, emotionally, spiritually. The countless, blood-soaked soldiers I have patched up and resuscitated before sending them back to the MASH-type hospitals; the days spent in Vietnamese hamlets treating malaria, tuberculosis, and exotic diseases I could only guess at: the lucky misses during mortar bombardments; 200+ hours spent in helicopters, and the near-crashes?the surreal chaos replays itself as tears flow.
"Doc! What the hell is taking you so long?" One of my medics is concerned about what is going on inside the APC. I am needed elsewhere. I stifle my emotions and stuff them into some part of my mind I've learned to keep handy for occasions like this. I'm responsible for a thousand men; emotional control is everything.
With an inversion of rank I salute my dead comrade and say good-bye. I make sure his pocket is fastened securely, so his wallet won't be lost on his way to the body bag.

I look back in amazement at those months in Vietnam. I still find it difficult to believe that I not only participated in the war, but did so with enthusiasm. I considered myself immune to being caught up in soldiering, but before long I was taking pride in the behaviors I had repudiated earlier. I became part of a group of men trying to survive while they did their duty, and I would have given my life and taken any risk whatever, as I did many times, to help them succeed. They knew there were no limits to my devotion to them. and they responded to me in the same way. This unconditional mutual support explained why. for example, during a combat assault mission an 18-year-old soldier once ran across a rice paddy, braving enemy fire, to hand me a Coke.
Along with the dangers came the wildest sensations and most paradoxical satisfactions I have ever known. There are simply no comparisons to the emotions of war. Warriors know this, and this realization accounts in no small measure for the silent understandings that bind them.
I've long since ceased looking for rational explanations for these experiences, because there are none. The brute fact is this: the tug of war is one of the most irresistible forces humans ever encounter, a power capable of shredding any process of reasoning thrown up against it. To complicate matters, war, for all its horrors, is always studded with a profusion of virtues?not just sacrifice and heroism, which are predictable, but also love and compassion, which are not. If war brings out the worst in humans, it also elicits the best. War is the preeminent human activity in which the beastly and the divine reveal themselves side by side, in the same person.
As a result of my experiences in Vietnam. I believe that no one is safe from the seductions of war. It I, against the backdrop of antipathy and disgust for war, can embrace it, hunger for it, love it, then perhaps no one is immune to its attractions. I wish my experience were unique, but unfortunately it is all too common and is part of the reason why wars endure.



I fell under the spell of war as a consequence of unconscious forces I did not comprehend and therefore could not control. The psychological forces compelling people to go to war constitute a universal pattern in the mind that appears across cultures and through time?what psychologist C. G. Jung called an archetype. These unacknowledged factors are part of what Jung called the shadow, the part of the psyche that contains all the unlovely, unacceptable traits we reject at a conscious level.
The most significant event in modern history forcing us to confront our individual and collective shadow was probably the Vietnam War. Harry A. Wilmer,' president of the Institute for the Humanities in Salado, Tex, is a psychiatrist and researcher who is an expert in treating Vietnam veterans suffering from psychological trauma. He states: "Until Vietnam, Americans were content to see the shadow and evil only in their enemies. But with the Vietnam experience, the media?and the living-room video-war ... changed that. Suddenly technology not only let us see the close-up horror of war but also let us see it as it was happening. That has never happened before in the history of the world.


The psyche is ingenious and will go to any length to avoid confronting its dark side. This frequently involves attributing to someone else the sordid traits we sense in ourselves?a psychological defense mechanism called projection. Following Vietnam, the most dramatic case of projection involved Lieutenant William Calley, who was court-martialed and found guilty of perpetrating the atrocities at My Lai. Calleys conviction made it possible for us to say that it's didn't murder Vietnamese women and children, but he and soldiers like him did. We essentially accused thousands of US soldiers of Calleys crimes?warriors like Tom, who was one of the returning veterans treated by Wilmer
Tom prided himself on being a grunt (foot soldier) who managed to survive twenty-six months in Vietnam. He had survived the thick of battle, including the Tet Offensive at Hue, which was captured by Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops. Tom told Wilmer that, when he landed at National Airport in Washington, D.C., "a lady came up to me and called me 'a murderer,' and hit me in the face with her purse. I said, 'Shit! This is what I came home to?' I went and got a drink. I didn't want to come home if this was how it was gonna be."
Another of Wilmers patients was Cervando: "Cervando was a tough, ex-Marine who came back with a drawer full of medals. In an interview he said to Wilmer, 'Look around you. There are still people who are ashamed to say, "I'm a Vietnam veteran cause I'm scared that people won't talk to me." I've been insulted. "Sir. were you one of [those] butchers over there? Did you enjoy killing babies and people?Mike, another of Wilmers patients, arrived in the United States wounded, frightened, and feeling guilty for having survived when his buddies had been killed, but happy nonetheless to be home. He said: "I arrived at the San Francisco airport and went to a bar. The people at the bar said, 'Well, what are you doing here? You're crazy. Why don't you get the hell out of here?' It seemed to me that the media had depicted us as being crazy and when I left the service I considered myself normal. I just wanted to get out. I did my thing, and now leave me alone.
Eric, a returning veteran who lost his foot in an explosion, experienced shame so oppressive that he lied about his wounds: "When they used to say to me, 'Hey were you in Vietnam?' or 'What happened to your leg?' I'd say I had a car accident so I didn't have to bring it up.


My return flight from Vietnam landed in Seattle, Wash, in the early morning hours. As my buddies and I exited the plane, there was no joy among us. Neither were there any welcoming committees or yellow ribbons that would festoon every town in America when the Gulf War veterans returned a generation later. As I set foot on American soil, I actually felt as if I were entering hostile territory, a feeling I knew well enough after a year in the bush. I had calculated my return for weeks. Before leaving Vietnam, I had managed to acquire some civilian clothes.
My first act in the Seattle airport was to duck into a restroom, strip off my jungle fatigues and combat boots, stuff them in a garbage can, and don the cheap civilian clothes before catching the connecting flight home. I knew that a peace march was scheduled to convene in Washington, DC, in a few days, and that anti-war sentiment was at a-fever pitch. I simply could not tolerate the prospect of being ridiculed, and I was not confident that I could control my rage if someone made a cynical remark to me. Maybe ditching the combat garb would help. I remember feeling numb as I walked out of the men's room with my new identity. Like Tom. Cervando, and Mike, I wanted to hide away somewhere.
Wilmer, summarizing how Americans projected their guilt onto returning Vietnam veterans, spoke for how I felt: "I need not repeat the endless shameful ways in which many veterans were 'welcomed' by being spit on and humiliated, stereotyped as losers, baby killers, dope fiends, and walking time bombs.""""""""
Americans don't have a monopoly on the shabby treatment of returning soldiers. The Russians also treated their Afghanistan war veterans with disrespect. On May 9, 1990, the veterans were left out of the parade in Moscow celebrating the 45th anniversary of the World War II victory over Germany. While the festivities were in progress, the Afghanistan veterans gathered in Gorky Park to celebrate "nothing more than survival."


The integration of good and evil is the only way to heal the nightmare. That is what the transpersonal psyche is trying to do in dreams of Vietnam. ?Harry A. Wilmer

On returning from Vietnam, I reentered medical training and completed a residency in internal medicine. But at night the war was always close at hand. It dogged me in the form of a horrifying nightmare that recurred for almost 20 years.

An emergency radio call: A patrol has just been ambushed and has taken casualties. I run for the medevac chopper and scramble inside as it lifts oft' in a cloud of red dust. In minutes we are over the ambush site and the helicopter lands in the jungle clearing. The smell of gunfire is still in the air. On the ground are three young men who are not moving. I quickly examine them and discover that two are dead. The third soldier is alive but is ashen, clammy, and barely conscious. I can find only a single wound?a tiny dot of red over his heart, the signature of shrapnel. Has it punctured his pleura, lung, pericardium, or heart? Wasting no time, we load the young man onto the helicopter. He loses consciousness. I have no blood, intravenous fluids, or chest tubes, and I begin manual resuscitation to keep him alive. As we skim the jungle canopy en route to the evacuation hospital. I am furious that this stalwart young soldier is dying from such an insignificant-appearing wound.
We land on the helipad and two waiting medics load the young soldier onto a stretcher and dash for the receiving area. I follow but am stopped at the entry by a fellow captain who also is a physician. His pristine, starched uniform is a dramatic contrast to mine. He is gesticulating in uncontrolled anger. "You cannot come inside this hospital!" he fumes. I don't understand; I'm a doctor and the soldier is my patient. I have kept him alive. "Look at you!" he sneers, pointing to my uniform, which is covered with blood and the red dirt of Vietnam. My rifle and medical aid are slung over my shoulder and a .45 is at my waist. "You're armed! This is a hospital! We don't allow weapons and filth here!" Suddenly a group of medics surround me and try to hustle me away, as if I am a criminal. I resist but am overcome. After they strip me of my rifle, pistol, and aid bag, they hurl me into the dirt. I look beyond them and see the young soldier, my patient, disappearing on a gurney down a hallway. I must get to him and help him! I try to rise but the burly medics overpower me again. "You don't belong here!" the arrogant physician screams. "Get out!" Now I see that the entry to the hospital is barred. My weapons are locked inside and I cannot reach them.
Realizing I have nothing with which to defend myself, I feel helpless and begin to panic. The helicopter is waiting, its motor still running, and I climb inside. I am enraged at the physician who has just insisted that the war be aseptic and tidy. I realize he is typical of many of the hospital-based physicians I have met, who, in spite of their safe assignments and comfortable quarters, spend their time complaining about their careers being interrupted and the indignities they are enduring. They have no idea what things are like for the "grunts." the real warriors, or for the medics and battalion surgeons who try to keep them alive. As we head back into the jungle, I have a morbid sense of dread.
Up to this point in the dream, the events were factual; the patient was real and I had, in fact, been barred and disarmed at a MASH-type evacuation hospital on transferring wounded soldiers there by helicopter. But then the dream took a monstrous turn.
On the way back to the fire base where my aid station is located, my helicopter is shot down. The crew is wounded but I am unhurt. They are crying out for help, but I have no supplies. The Vietcong are closing in on the downed chopper; I can hear them moving closer through the jungle. I realize we will be captured, tortured, killed, and mutilated. Instinctively I reach for my weapons, not remembering I have none. The worst possible thing has happened: I have become totally defenseless. Waiting for the end, I awaken in terror.
Year after year the nightmare continued. In an attempt to shut it out, I avoided anything that reminded me of Vietnam. I refused to see movies about the war, I shunned books written about it, and I never talked about my experiences with anyone, including my wife. Vietnam was a closed subject that belonged to the past. Besides, I considered my demons my own, and could not see the point in unleashing them on anyone else. My approach did not work. Trying to keep the lid on my psyche was like trying to hold back the sea. The nightmare would always recur, each time as terrifying as before. A resolution occurred in a quite unexpected way.
Eighteen years after my return from Vietnam, I was traveling with my wife, Barbie, in New Mexico. We were visiting Santa Fe, staying in La Fonda, a beautiful, historic hotel on the plaza. It was late at night and I was exhausted. Wanting some mindless diversion, I turned on the television and sank into bed. A made-for-TV drama about Vietnam was on. Before I could change the channel, which was my habitual way of dealing with anything related to the war, I realized that the events being portrayed on television were a reenactment of my nightmare?a downed helicopter, wounded soldiers, and the approaching enemy. I was mesmerized. The television drama became as real as the dream, and I found myself entering it fully. But instead of feeling panic and terror as in the nightmare, I began to weep. Soon I found myself sobbing uncontrollably?rivers of tears, sobs that shook the bed. Some of the television soldiers actually resembled some of my previous comrades. The thing that impressed me most was their innocence. They seemed so young?children, almost?and the compassion I felt for them was beyond description. When the program ended my sobbing continued. I simply could not stop. I was now in Vietnam, and for the first time in nearly 20 years I allowed my imagination to reengage the buried memories. The lid was completely off my psyche, and the repressed, painful events came spilling out unopposed. I made no attempt to monitor or censor anything. Hours later, after soaking every towel in the bathroom, my tears finally ceased.
Exhausted yet immensely peaceful, I left the hotel room and went for a walk. It was early morning and the stars were fading. In the east, blood-red streaks announced the dawn, a symbol of an ending and a new beginning. The nightmare has never returned.




Forget about great white sharks and killer bees. We have most to fear from our own species...The recorded history of eleven European countries during the last 1,025 years shows that they were engaged on average in some kind of military action forty-seven percent of the time, or about one year in every two. The lowest scorer has been Germany with twenty-eight percent, and the highest Spain with a massive sixty-seven percent, waging war in two out of every three years throughout the last millennium. One study covering just the twentieth century shows that an average of three high-fatality struggles have been in action somewhere in the world at any moment since 1900, leading that researcher to conclude that such conflict is "a routine, typical, and thus in fact normal, human activity.
Conflict is easy to understand. It is peace that needs explaining. ?Lyall Watson

War behaves like an infection. Some societies seem to be relatively immune to being infected by the "microbe" of war, whereas others have little resistance and are always falling prey. In her brilliant book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, biologist and author Barbara Ehrenreich' suggests that following an outbreak war is "capable of encysting itself for generations, if necessary, within the human soul," breaking out unpredictably at a later time. Unlike a disease such as measles or chicken pox, infection by war does not result in permanent immunity. If anything, war seems to destroy a society's immune system against armed conflict. After a nation goes to war, it tends to go to war repeatedly. Has there ever been a nation that has engaged in only one war?

If the inoculum is great enough, war can infect any state. The infection may begin as an insult to national pride, economic oppression, or actual invasion. Once the initial provocation has occurred, war can spread from country to country, not unlike the self-replication and propagation of a living organism.
The microbe of war is apparently becoming more virulent. As evidence, the 20th century has produced 75% of all the war deaths inflicted since the rise of Rome.'' As in infectious diseases, "?he greatest number of casualties includes the weakest and most vulnerable: 90% of the deaths in modem conflicts are noncombatants including the aged, women, and children." Like many infections, war increases one's susceptibility to other diseases. In Rwanda, cholera killed up to 45000 people in only a few weeks in 1994?one of the most intense, lethal epidemics ever recorded."
A variety of opportunistic "infections" accompany war, as they do many infectious diseases. Consider, for example, the following:

  •  the 100 million land mines that currently lie in wait in 64 nations
  • the 2.2 billion hectares of forest and farms that were denuded in Vietnam from land-clearing, napalm, and defoliation with 72 million liters of herbicides * the toxic wastes that result from weapons production and testing, including fuels, paints, solvents, phenols, acids, alkalines, propellants, and explosives
  • the high rates of cancer around Hanford Reservation, Wash; Rocky Flats, Colo: and Oak Ridge, Tenn
  • the 4500 contaminated Department of Energy sites in the United States
  • the long-term cognitive and developmental deficits and malnutrition that affect the 17 million children who have lost their homes as a result of war"


There is a capacity of virtue in us, and there k a capacity of vice to make your blood creep.
?Ralph Waldo Emerson'
There are 2 major theories about why we go to war: (1) war is a method by which humans seek to advance their collective political and economic interests and improve their lives, and (2) war stems from subrational drives similar to those that lead individuals to commit violent crimes?drives that may be biological.^""' The first reason goes virtually uncontested. "There is no doubt," Ehrenreich"""' states, "... that wars are designed, at least ostensibly, to secure necessaries like land or oil or geopolitical advantage.'"
Is war "biological"? Anyone who is willing unobtrusively to observe nature might think so. Naturalist John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War," describes his observations at a stock pond on a high-desert mesa in northern New Mexico following a summer thunderstorm:
Hours after the water is impounded, mosquitoes and other bugs are running rampant. I begin to see the splash rings of insects being born. It isn't long before green darning needles zip over the muddy pond, chased by aggressive blue and gray dragonflies. Tiny things grab each other, kick and fuss, chew and dismember, eat, digest, and defecate, and then look around hungrily to see if there's anybody they missed: life, elucidated by unending holocaust; the natural world as total war!"
It seems as if the Marquis de Sade" (1740-1814) may have been correct when he said, "Who else but Nature whispers to us of personal hatreds, vengeances, wars, in fact all the everlasting motives for murder?... (l]t is impossible for murder ever to outrage Nature." Is this our inheritance? Are we driven to war by thought processes dictated ultimately by our DNA? "There is no straightforward biological calculation that could lead a man to kill himself in war," Ehrenreich" asserts:
The "rational" argument for sacrificing oneself in combat is that doing so promotes the survival of one's kin and therefore genetic material similar to ones own?selfishness disguised as altruism. Perhaps this might apply to situations in which warriors died fighting for their immediate family or clan, but it is a stretch to suppose this sort of reasoning applies to the huge, "genetically polyglot" armies of both ancient and modern states.
Even so, the theory that human violence has biological roots is immensely influential, with a great deal of evidence in its favor. The question, it seems, is not whether we have biological inclinations to harm others, but how deep these roots go.
If our genes compel us toward war, we might expect forms of violence that accompany war to be embedded in nature. An example is rape.
Copulation by force is so common in nature that one might wonder whether it is the norm. The male scorpion fly is a master rapist. He will lie in wait for an unwary female and, as she passes, lash out with his flexible abdomen and grasp her leg or wing. Although she escapes most of the time, she is not always successful and is forced to yield to copulation.^ Aggravated sexual assault and gang rape are common among mallard ducks; occasionally the female is attacked so persistently she drowns in the process." Man-eating male blue sharks make injurious attacks on their own females and seem unable to mate without doing so." Rape is a commonplace pattern of behavior in many insects, frogs, and turtles, and homosexual rape is seen in some parasitic worms."
In spite of the fact that rape is unquestionably ubiquitous in nature, it seems animalistic, beastly, "other." On the human level, rape and pillage are something the evil enemy does. When Japanese forces captured the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937, more than 20000 women were sexually tortured and murdered in a month?the "Rape of Nanjing."" In 1943 Moroccan mercenaries fighting with the French were allowed to rape their way through tens of thousands of Italian women."' "Our boys" never do such things, of course. But in the spring of 1945, when Berlin was liberated, Allied troops "took leave of the war and of their senses, raping hundreds of thousands of German women, included among whom were victims of Nazi concentration camps."



As people are being sucked into the black hole of war, they often become excited. In the days preceding World War I, hardly anyone could resist the attractions of the approaching conflict.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Germany's great poet, wrote a series of poems extolling war; Anatole France, though 70 years old, offered to volunteer; Isadora Duncan described being "all flame and fire" about the war. Feminists such as England's Isabella Pankhurst set aside the struggle for suffrage to support the war effort. Even the young Gandhi recruited Indians to join the British army. Arnold J. Toynbee, the British historian, was caught up in the frenzy and produced several volumes of "atrocity propaganda" as his contribution to the war effort.
The case of Sigmund Freud is particularly interesting. Like most people, he was swept up in the excitement of the war and for a while gave "all his libido to Austria-Hungary.... unable for weeks to work or think of anything else, Freud was eventually led to conclude that there is some dark flaw in the human psyche, a perverse desire to destroy, countering Eros and the will to live."^' But if Freud really comprehended the power of the unconscious, why was he so powerless before his own? Ehrenreich concludes that in his analysis of war, Freud had a blind spot. According to Ehrenreich,"""' Freud "failed to reflect on his own enthusiasm; otherwise he would never have hypothesized that men are driven to war by some cruel and murderous instinct."
By the time war in Europe ended in 1918, it had cost approximately 12 million military lives and resulted in 20 million civilian casualties. But in 1914 no one could comprehend the magnitude of the coming slaughter. In England, "the imperial war image was thrust on the young through cigarette cards, jigsaws, music-hall songs, board games, biscuit tins, lantern slides and picture postcards: 'Women of Britain Say Go.'" Although a few groups such as the Peacettes dissented, few listened to the message in their tracts that "the good soldier is a heartless soul-less, murderous machine.""
Amid the frenzy, no one could believe that their enchantment with the approaching conflict could possibly be due to a raw instinct to kill their fellow human beings. They preferred, rather, to describe their justifications in terms of the noblest feelings humans can experience?heroism, commitment to a worthy cause, comradeship, patriotism, selflessness, and sacrifice? the same reasons we give today.
No one seems immune to being drawn into war. Consider the Sernai Senoi people of the rain forest of the Malay peninsula, one of the most peaceful tribes known. There are approximately 13000 of them, and they appear never to kill each other. "We never get angry," they say?meaning, rather, that they have found ways of channeling anger into nonviolent forms of behavior. Violence horrifies them, is unthinkable, and apparently never happens. They have no need of a court system or police force. No single instance of murder, attempted murder, or even injury by a Sernai has ever come to the attention of the Malaysian authorities.
Yet when the Sernai were conscripted into the British Army to deal with Communist insurgents during uprisings in the early 1950s, the Sernai were overcome by a kind of insanity they called "blood drunkenness." "We killed, killed, killed," they explained later. "Truly we were drunk with blood." One Sernai even told how he drank the blood of a man he had just killed. When the peninsular uprisings were over, the Sernai returned to their communities as gentle and nonaggressive as before, as if nothing had happened."


I can affirm from personal experience that the thrill of war is like no other. This peculiar state of awareness has been described as "ecstasy"; an "altered state of consciousness"; "one of humankind's great natural 'highs'"; "social intoxication, the feeling on the part of the individual of being a part of a [greater] body"; "the sense of self-loss, ... of merger into some greater whole"; the satisfaction of the same psychological needs met by "love, religion, intoxication, art"; and "a sense of transcendent purposefulness.
Why do we experience war in this way? Ehrenreich offers a fascinating hypothesis. A key to her thesis is that war, over the course of human history, has become invested with a deep sense of religious significance. To associate war with religion is to regard it as a sacrament?a holy ritual?and to experience the "spiritual high" that accompanies the sacred. Uniting war and religion also makes possible a justification for killing and for abandoning ethical and moral norms. "It is the religiosity of war, above all, that makes it so impervious to moral rebuke," Ehrenreich""'"' states.
What actually constituted the connection between war and religion? Ehrenreich finds the link in the ancient ritual of blood sacrifice. Throughout history, even in times of peace, the religions of traditional cultures have often been knee-deep in the bloody business of killing both animals and humans dedicated to their gods. Over time, murder and the shedding of blood have come to lie at the very core of what humans consider religious and sacred.
Conventional explanations indicate otherwise. Human violence is best explained, it is claimed, as a result of our long history as hunters and killers of animals for food. As a result, we have become "natural born killers." Unable to shed our old drives, we carried these habits over into the era of herding and farming. As the hunting of wild beasts for food became less necessary, a new form of "hunting" arose?preying on other peoples' herds or the grain in their village fortresses. The name for this new form of hunting was war. Because the old type of hunting had been considered a sacred endeavor, war came to be sacralized as well.
But why did humans find the practice of blood sacrifice attractive in the first place? Ehrenreich believes the ritual was rooted in the 2.5 million years during which early humans lived in small hunting bands. Evidence suggests that during this period humans were not skilled predators, but were mercilessly preyed upon. Only in the "last thousand or so generations" did we gain the skill and cunning required to make the transition from prey to that of self-confident predator. This transition as a species, Ehrenreich maintains, has been almost entirely repressed, because it is much more flattering to believe that we have always been atop the food chain. But we have only "recently" learned "not to cower at every sound in the night." the gradual transformation from prey to predator was of unimaginable importance, and it required rituals to honor it:

Rituals of blood sacrifice both celebrate and terrifyingly reenact the human transition from prey to predator, and so, I ... argue, does war. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of wars that are undertaken for the stated purpose of initiating young men into the male warrior-predator role?a not uncommon occurrence in traditional cultures. But more important, the anxiety and ultimate thrill of the prey-to-predator transition color the feelings we bring to all wars. and infuse them, at least for some of the participants, some of the time, with feelings powerful and uplifting enough to be experienced as "religious."
In this view, then, war is the response to the ancestral urge of blood sacrifice, which developed as a means of celebrating the greatest transition our species has perhaps ever known?the movement from the status of prey to predator.
Pausanias, the Greek historian, tells of the dismemberment and communal eating of a child sacrificed to Zeus on Mount Lykaion. Throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, there is evidence of human sacrifices at bridges, temples, houses, and forts to ensure that these structures contained the proper spirit. The penchant of the ancient Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas for sacrificing humans to their gods is well known. These grim customs persist. Following a tidal wave in southern Chile in 1960, Mapuche Indians threw a 5-year-old boy into the sea to appease the ocean spirit. In 1986 in Peru, an Ayrnara man was beheaded by cocaine traders to "pay the earth" in an attempt to bring blessings on a new venture.
Human sacrifice is right at home in our Judeo-Christian traditions. It was enshrined with the sacrifice of Abel by his brother Cain, the aborted sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac, and the death of the son of God himself at Golgotha. Christian sacrifice still has its appeal. In 1986 evangelical Christians in an Andean village drove a stake through the heart of a 9-year-old boy in an attempt to save the life of a sick man*
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, called Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son a "monstrous paradox" and could find no logical justification for it. He concluded that something else must be going on, "which no thought can grasp.'"'
As animal sacrifice has become an unacceptable method of shedding blood, we have taken to sacrificing each other on our altars of social violence. The principal tool in this carnage is the handgun. Twenty of them are manufactured each second in the United States, and they find their way into 71 million homes. In 1992 there were 13220 handgun murders in the United States, of which only 262 were ruled as justifiable homicides in cases of self-defense. Our capacity for murder led classics scholar Walter Burkert" to suggest renaming our species Homo necans, or "man the killer."
As if they are finally taking revenge for being used in ritual sacrifices for millennia, animals have begun shooting us. "Hundreds of people are killed each year by firearms accidentally discharged by domestic pets," Watsons research reveals.


Women encourage killers. They do it by falling in love with warriors and heroes. Men know it and respond with enthusiasm. The Crusaders marched off to war with ladies' favors in their he1mets. They were not setting out on some mission of gallant gentleness. On their way through Asia Minor, the Crusaders literally roasted Christian babies in cases of mistaken identity. Because the local folk did not speak a language they understood, the chivalrous knights assumed the panicky babblers were heathens. Heathens, of course, deserved no mercy. So the heroes sliced up the adults and baked the infants on spits, all the while thinking of how the damsels back home would admire their bravery. ?Howard Bloom"
When males go to war, somebody sends them. This means that the masculine warrior function has evolved hand in hand with the role of those who stay behind to tend the hearth? wives, lovers, parents.
Hearth tending is generally considered a passive female role?waiting and worrying until "the boys come home." But female roles during war are often quite active. As C. E. Montague" put it. "War hath no fury like a noncombatant." In modern times women have adopted vigorous pursuits such as encouraging popular support, selling war bonds, working in industry, growing crops, and nursing the wounded. Women have become the weapons makers for soldiers away at war, the most famous symbol of whom was Rosie the Riveter of World War II.
Although heavily gendered, war has never totally been a male endeavor. Early European explorers of western Africa encountered the female regiment maintained by the kings of Dahomey, a living equivalent of the mythical Amazons. Deborah Sampson enlisted in the American Revolutionary War and served with valor, but only after "becoming a man," transforming herself into "Robert Shirtluff" and concealing her sex (until a wound to her shoulder gave her away). Ehrenreich-notes
The female disadvantage in the realm of muscular strength was mitigated long ago with the invention of the bow and arrow, not to mention that great leveler of our own era, the gun. Nor ... do women have any innate inhibition against fighting and drawing blood. Revolutions and insurrections have again and again utilized women in combat roles, if only because revolutionary forces are generally less formal and tradition-bound than the armies of nation-states. Even as "noncombatants," women have played lethal roles in men's wars.... Polynesian women had the job of selecting and cooking defeated enemies for postbattle feasts.... There is no compelling biological or "natural" reason why men have so exclusively starred in the drama of war.
Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain, won the Falklands War, supplied the British military with nuclear submarines, and stocked them with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Indira Gandhi led a military campaign against Pakistan and jailed her opponents. The assassination squads of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas were composed almost entirely of women."
Only a generation ago it was virtually unthinkable that we would send women into combat. In fact, this prospect was used to mobilize votes against the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution." Since then, however, women have served in a variety of combat-related roles from directing artillery to piloting helicopters, and a few have been trained as fighter pilots and have found assignments on combat ships. When U. women were killed and 2 were captured in the Gulf War, there was no special outcry. From many women's perspective, this was not an entirely negative development.''



People often say that war results from some incurable defect in the masculine character. Women are wiser and more compassionate, and they know better than to make war. If only women could ascend to positions as heads of state, peace might prevail and war become obsolete. However, in view of the ferocity with which women currently are clamoring for roles in combat, this claim has a hollow ring. As Ehrenreich^"" puts it: "To anyone who had believed that war could be abolished by severing its links to male privilege ... the end of the twentieth century can only bring gloom." Biologist Howard Bloom agrees. In his acclaimed book The Lucifer Principle, he states:
It is useless for women to blame violence on men, and it would be futile for men to blame violence on women. Violence is built into both of us. When Margaret Thatcher constructed a nuclear navy, she was not behaving in a manner distinctly male, nor was she behaving in a manner distinctly female. She wasn't even obeying a set of impulses that are uniquely human. Thatcher, like Rome's Livia, was in the grip of passions we share with gorillas and baboons, passions implanted in the primordial layers of the triune brain.


The world cannot be ruled by love, it is an incommensurable principle. If that were possible, it would have been ruled by love long before Christ. For instance, if the teaching of old Pythagoras could have been applied, tlie world would have been in a marvelously peaceful, wise, and per feet state. We would all be wearing white linen clothes, and we wouldn't eat or drink too much, we would be mild in every respect. But the world would have remained us it was in 600 B.C. That teaching cannot be applied and never was applied. Even when God's son ('nine to earth they crucified him. And what has Christianity produced? Constant fighting, it started with bloody fighting at the very beginning, it is a long string of wars and revolutions. That is the history of Christianity and it is full of devils. ?C. G. Jung"
Taking the path of the warrior was for me one of the most enlightening events of my life, because it was an opportunity to dredge unexamined areas of my unconscious mind into the light of awareness. Jung called this process "making consciousness." I am not proud of a lot of the things I found scattered in my psychic basement, and I consider it a great misfortune that I did not find a less violent path toward self-understanding. Nevertheless, the experience was healing and freed me in large measure from being unconsciously and endlessly enslaved by my impulse for violence.
These are some of the reasons I am not a pacifist. To obstruct totally deep-seated psychic drives such as the urge to warrior ship seems to me sheer folly, because in the end this obstruction leads to the very violence it seeks to avoid. Yet it is clear we cannot afford any longer the kind of warrior ship that takes place on modern battlefields. Our world is too small and fragile, too precious, and the weapons too destructive. How, then, are we to deal with the old drives?
The answer is not to abolish warrior ship (as if we could), but to find less violent ways of being warriors?possibly becoming warriors for the earth and the environment, or warriors against poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, and human suffering in all its forms?to practice, in other words, the compassion mentioned in the epigraph by Hotter. These endeavors hold the prospect of adventure, exposure to exotic cultures and foreign lands, and even the risk of personal harm or death, which are salient features of rites of passage and participation in war.
Yet even as I write these words I am leary of them. To suggest that the drive toward war can be sublimated in socially valuable ways is to sell war short and risk being victimized by it in the future. We do not choose war, it chooses us: and if we forget this maxim we are in grave danger. Even when we describe war as a rite of passage we intellectualize it. We simply cannot think our way out of war. As the Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld said, "So elemental is the human need to endow the shedding of blood with some great and even sublime significance that it renders the intellect entirely helpless."


Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. - Pascal

It is useless to argue that we can escape war's grasp by becoming more religious. War has always been used as an instrument of the world's great religions, with the blessed exception of Buddhism.
Injunctions for inflicting civilian casualties in war, including rape and the slaughter of innocent children, are biblical. For example, after Moses' troops defeated the Midianites, he commanded them, "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (Numbers 31:17-18, KJV).
The extent to which Christianity has employed war is often denied in the West. But the imperatives of Christianity have always been militaristic: "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war." As Saint Bernard (whose name is derived from words that literally mean "bold as a bear") said in the 12th century, when the Crusades were in progress: "The soldier of Christ kills safely; he dies the more safely. He serves his own interests in dying, and Christ's interests in killing! Not without cause does he bear the sword!""
British author Oliver Thomson" states in A History of Sin that during the period of crusading activity between 1091 and 1291, the battlefield was believed to be a clear path to heaven, and the duty of war was preached from every pulpit. Of the 9 million people killed during this 200-year span, approximately half were Christians. The other half?
ln the panoptic holocaust of the crusaders imagination, ... the killing ofJews, the nation of Judas, was certainly not seen as inhumane.... But the Jews were not the only people to suffer from the violence of the crusades. There was much gratuitous killing of Moslems also: in the siege of Nicaea in 1097, human heads were used for catapult ammunition; and Richard 1 (1157-99), Coeur de Lion and a man of limited moral imagination, slaughtered 2,700 prisoners of war at Acre when their ransom was delayed. He was also the first ruler to make general use of the new "immoral weapon" of its time, the crossbow, which was condemned as such by the Lateran Council of 1397 and barred for use against other Christians. [So much for arms control.] Ironically, Richard died a lingering death from a crossbow wound.
Killing for Christ achieved great momentum when the Cathars, who were among the last European adherents of nonviolence, were targeted as heretics by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century. They held that "the soldier obeying his captains and the judge pronouncing sentence of death were both nothing but murderers."" In retaliation for this doctrinal error, the Cathars were exterminated. Northern French knights, in return for indulgences, "flayed Provence [where the Cathars lived], hanging, beheading, and burning 'with unspeakable joy.'" When the city of Beziers was taken and the papal legate was asked how to tell the Cathars from the regular Catholics, he replied, "Kill them all; God will know which are His."" The knights complied by slaughtering 20 000. The main villain at Beziers was the crusader Simon de Montfort (1160-1218), who enjoyed gouging out the eyes and slitting the noses of his victims.

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