Let us face it. War is entirely unacceptable, entirely avoidable. In fact, nowhere in nature, except in the human species, do we find organised war and bloodshed. After each war, humanity hopes and dreams that there will be no more wars.
The end of feudalism and colonialism, the growth of democracy and freedom, the United Nations and the development of a rule-based world order — all these lull us into thinking that war is obsolete, that humanity has progressed beyond war. No more wars, we say to ourselves!
Yet, the world is full of conflict. In the context of the ongoing Russian attack of Ukraine, that is the first thing to acknowledge. War is not confined only to that landlocked Slavic nation, one of the largest states in Europe after Russia.
There are zones of attack and assault in many parts of the world. In the Middle East, on the high Himalayan borders of Pakistan, India, and China, and to a lesser degree, elsewhere, insurgencies in the interiors of nation states too. Moreover, there are other kinds of wars — drug and crime wars, narrative wars, social wars, even family feuds, and personal wars.
A war of ideas and cultures
On the larger scale, “War then is the whole business of the State in its relation to other States, a war of arms, a war of commerce, a war of ideas and cultures, a war of collective personalities each seeking to possess the world or at least to dominate and be first in the world. Here there can enter no morality except that of success, though the pretence of morality may be a useful stratagem of war,” said Sri Aurobindo, the great Indian revolutionary, philosopher, yogi, and poet, whose 150th birth anniversary we are celebrating.
He was writing over a hundred years ago, during the Great War, when he published from August 1916 to July 1918, a series of essays called “The Psychology of Social Development,” in his monthly review, Arya. These essays were later, collected, revised and published as the The Human Cycle in 1949, the year before his passing.
Later, close to the end of the war and the formation of the League of Nations, Aurobindo, in another series of essays called “War and Self-Determination,” argued that neither commerce, nor science, nor physical or financial exhaustion would end wars.
Nor would war itself, with its millions of dead, dying, and injured, not to mention the destruction of cities or nations, guarantee the end of war: “War itself, it is hoped, will end war; the expense, the horror, the butchery, the disturbance of tranquil life, the whole confused sanguinary madness of the thing has reached or will reach such colossal proportions that the human race will fling the monstrosity behind it in weariness and disgust.”
Not so: “But weariness and disgust, horror and pity, even the opening of the eyes to reason by the practical fact of the waste of human life and energy and the harm and extravagance are not permanent factors; they last only while the lesson is fresh. Afterwards, there is forgetfulness….”
Why is this the case? Aurobindo argues that “So long as war does not become psychologically impossible, it will remain or, if banished for a while, return.” War, though not a biological necessary, seems to be humanity’s psychological compulsion.
Even after the physical war, “fought in physical trenches, with shell and shot, with machine-gun and tank and aeroplane,” ends, another war, fought in “mental trenches and bombproof shelters, with reconnaissances and batteries and moving machines of thought and word, propaganda and parties and programmes” begins.
That is because, as Aurobindo puts it, “Men fight for their personal or communal or national interests or for ideas and principles of which they make watch- words and battle-cries.” Wars will persist, says Aurobindo, until they become “psychologically impossible.” In other words, wars begin in the minds of men and women. It is there that we must find their root causes as well as the ways to end them.
Not a localised affair
In the present war in Ukraine, what we must remember that war is not a localised affair, even if seemly so. War in one place affects all of humanity. Because humanity is one, war wounds the collective psyche of the human race and ruptures planetary consciousness itself. Any act of violence against any individual is also an act of violence against humanity itself.
From such a point of view, whatever our personal views and predilections — and we must be true to them — it is very important not jump into the fray and immediately take sides in any conflict situation. That will only polarise us farther, fracturing any possibility of collective will and energy to resolve the conflict. In any war, regardless of how we are affected by it, the only right side is the side of peace.
If we must take sides, let us be on the side of peace. Whatever supports peace and the cessation of hostilities and causalities will, in the long run, be good for humanity. Of course, by peace, we do not mean the peace of the grave or the peace bought with the blood of innocents, or a peace based on injustice, untruth, or the trampling of the weak by the strong. That is no lasting peace at all but only the prelude to another cycle of violence and blood letting.
As Aurobindo reminds us, “the law of life cannot be self-immolation; self- sacrifice can only be a step in self-fulfillment. Nor can life be in its nature a one-sided self-giving; all giving must contain in itself some measure of receiving to have any fruitful value or significance.”
Cultures of peace need long term reciprocity, commitment, and investment. Wars, on the other hand, seem to promise quick results. But, in any conflict situation, we must collectively see — and articulate — the alternatives clearly.
As a species, what is it that we will choose? A brighter and more prosperous future for all or endless conflict, endless violence, endless suffering, even the end of life as we live and love it and of all planetary existence itself?
Once our choices are made and clearly articulated, they will work themselves out in a myriad ways. But wherever we are, we will be identified as peace warriors, part of the solution, not perpetuators of the problem.