This was a short peice I wrote after reading several books, both historical and fictions based on historical accounts, all about war and how it effects the people involved in conflicts.
Why Do Humans Engage in War?
Time and again throughout all of human history, we engage in war. History is awash with groups of people who are convinced that they have the moral high ground when they take land, resources, or vengeance. I believe that cultures constantly act on their biases about “the other”, by believing that they are more superior. All Quiet on the Western Front and My Forbidden Face, tell stories that are two outstanding examples of this. Both books graphically demonstrate how dehumanization is the key to war and oppression.
In the case of All Quiet on the Western Front, retaliation was the catalyst for the aggression following the killing of Archduke Ferdinand. Austrian-Hungry and Serbia had been on the verge of conflict for decades for numerous reasons. The way these countries employed nationalism and the complexities of how they made allies created a conflict much bigger than it should have been. On page 203 in All Quiet on the Western Front Paul and his comrades have a very long conversation about patriotism and war. In that conversation, Kropp was questioning his nationalistic military training, “we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?”
Soldiers from all sides, in all wars, could ask a similar question. In fact, it takes a lot of effort to get people to ignore their natural tendency to empathize with others. Humans evolved to be social creatures capable of empathy and connecting with others. This is an obstacle to be overcome when training soldiers. During basic training, officers must totally strip the men of their personal identity and replace it with a herd mentality. All training propaganda portrays the enemy as savages using the “we/ they” tactic. It may not be coincidental that women have not traditionally been soldiers. Women are less susceptible to this tactic because they seem to have a much deeper sense of empathy than men. Women will see the enemy as people with children, and as brothers, husbands and parents, just like us.
In the book My Forbidden Face we learn that the Taliban also used this tactic of removing all personal identity, but not for training. They use it as a way to totally remove the power of women in society. They took away all forms of self-expression by banning bright clothes, dance, make up and pictures. In an effort to thoroughly obscure the humanity of women, they forbid them to show their faces! This removes almost all possibility for connection, empathy or compassion. If you cannot see the fear or pain in the eyes of “the other”, when you are beating them, you will feel far less guilty. Under the Taliban women are anonymous, much like the enemy in war.
Whether we are talking about teaching soldiers that they are superior to the enemy, or throwing a black sheet over a woman, both these books address the fact that dehumanization is essential to war and oppression.