By Donella Meadows
–January 24, 1991–
The people who tried hardest to warn us against this war were those who had experienced war.
Among them were veterans who stood up in town halls, campus lecture rooms, Congressional hearings, trying to tell us through the feeble power of words what war is. Words cannot carry such a heavy burden. The vets communicated best through their body language, tone of voice, and emotions, but even those were insufficient to express the horror of war as seen by those who have to fight it.
We were also warned by Europeans and others whose memories of war are those of the people under the bombs. Vietnamese, Afghans, Ugandans, Cambodians have those memories too — of putting your life back together, somehow, when your cities have been blasted, your institutions overthrown, your land cratered, your family decimated, your spirit broken. There are millions of survivor stories. It is impossible for anyone to take in and hold the sum of all that suffering.
Maybe that’s why we didn’t listen. Or maybe it was because we knew, most of us, that WE would not personally fight the war. WE wouldn’t be under the bombs. Maybe what we needed to hear was the story of the costs of war even to those who wage it at a distance.
Though this war is new, some of those costs are already apparent. Let us chronicle them, for the sake of future generations who may be tempted to decide that war is a rational way of settling differences.
War not only brings violence so widespread that no one can comprehend it, it glorifies violence and those who perpetrate it. Those who aren’t willing to see that phenomenon in our own society can see it in the self-importance and the public deification of Saddam Hussein.
In war information is no longer a right of citizens, it is a tool of combat. Generals and politicians have many good and a few bad reasons to withhold or distort facts. Information comes from headquarters at the rate and with the accuracy that headquarters deems appropriate. Only when the war is over is there a chance to put together a picture that might come close to being true.
War means extravagance that cannot be questioned. In the heat of battle, it is unpatriotic to worry about the fact that it is costing $500 million a day. Who dares ask what else we might buy with that money? Even during peace the overriding importance of “national security” leads to $800 screwdrivers. During war to plead for fiscal responsibility is to risk “asking our boys to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.”
The extravagance of war extends to the use of resources and the environment. Armies, even when they are not engaged in battle, consume fuels, generate garbage, and emit pollutants at a terrific pace. In war the earth’s resources are squandered with no restraint. The flaming oilfields of Kuwait are releasing particulates, generating greenhouse gases, and consuming irreplaceable fossil fuel, without even powering automobiles or heating houses in the process.
With information limited, dissent stifled, and budgets unquestioned, war deadens democracy. War takes first and only priority. Time horizons collapse, the national focus narrows. We can’t deal with the environment or feed the hungry or repair bridges or rebuild our education system when we’re at war.
War deranges moral reasoning. In war we bomb in order to save, we occupy to liberate, we kill to punish, we devastate to “send a message.” By labeling nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons unacceptable, we somehow anoint as acceptable weapons that merely explode. We come to believe that evil can be countered by more evil. We forget that the sixth Commandment says simply, “Thou shalt not kill.” It does not add, “except in war.”
War dashes the hopes of those who believe in the perfectability of humankind. It confirms cynicism. It turns whole populations into statistics or stereotypes. It dehumanizes the enemy. In war even more than in peace people become extras and props in scipts conceived by presidents, generals, and dictators.
War releases flows of adrenalin and testosterone, which excite and thrill all human beings, but, let’s face it, especially men. In wars women, almost without exception, work in support of men. The world becomes fascinated with boys’ games and boys’ toys. Women keep silence. Small children cry out in their sleep in terror.
War brings forth from our complex natures the best and the worst of us — courage and indomitability and patience and solidarity, fear and greed and vengefulness and hatred. War is high drama. War tries us. War confronts us with death and therefore affirms the value of life. There are positive, challenging sides to war, but not one that cannot be achieved at much less cost some other way.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991