Why We War
“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” —Winston Churchhill
“Respect yourself and others will respect you.” ―Confucius, Sayings of Confucius
I once crossed a ridge in Kentucky on my mountain bike and dropped down onto a wandering gravel road at the bottom of a shallow valley. It was near dusk and I didn’t want to take the two-hour trail back through the state park, so I turned north on a dusty one-lane, hoping to find a shortcut back to where I was staying. I rounded a corner and stopped in front of an old unpainted wood-siding cabin. It rested at the top of a small hill within earshot of the road. An old man in a rocking chair sat on the front porch. He pondered a moment, evaluating the spandex shorts and the bright moisture-wicking bike jersey, and finally spat a dark stream of tobacco over the porch edge.
“Mister,” I called, “Does this road reach the highway?”
He didn’t say anything but he did stomp his foot on the wooden porch. Three dogs roused from their slumber under the house and galloped down the hill toward me. Two of them, black and tan coonhounds, bayed in that musical howl that fills the southernwoods on cool autumn Saturday nights. The other, a Catahoula Cur, separated from the group when he reached the bottom of the hill. He circled behind me, quiet, menacing, and low to the ground, his eerie blue eyes locked on my bare legs. I put the bike between him and me, figuring I had a better chance against the coonhounds.
“Mister,” I shouted. “I’m gonna kill me one of these dogs.”
It was a bluff, of course, and I don’t even know why I said it. Somehow that was all I could think of at the moment.
He eyed me carefully, spat again and said, “You might as well. They ain’t no good anyway.”
I tried every trick I knew on those dogs: submitted posture, no eye contact, aggressive alpha male, nonchalance, but nothing worked. They were professionals!
After a long moving battle of lunges, low snarling attacks, kicking counterstrikes and careful positioning of the bike, I managed to reach the border of their territory. They stood their ground in the road—grumbling, watching me warily, making certain I continued along my way.
I was angry for a while and pedaled furiously down the lane, replaying the incident in my head: what I should have done differently, what I should have said, how I should have handled the dogs. But after I settled and could think coherently, I realized that somehow I had disrespected the old man.
It did not matter that his rules of social engagement made no sense to me, only that those rules had been violated. When I violated his rules I gave him permission, in his mind, to go to war.
It seems most conflict begins in disrespect. Nations, defined by culture and tribe, rules of behavior, religion, language, become defensive when another nation encroaches. And within nations polarizing opinions divide to endless conflict. Politicians launch scorch-the-earth campaigns against the perceived lies of their opponents. Families feud, couples fight, and teenagers slam their bedroom doors.
Men are particularly sensitive to disrespect. In the military, that bastion of a male worldview, you dare not neglect to salute. At Arlington Cemetery easygoing tourists are often scorned to silence by the smart foot soldier that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The entire military culture is built on respect, rank, discipline, and the value of sacrifice.
I travel quite a bit in an RV and often find myself in laundromats. Located in lower income areas, they are often filled with young struggling mothers and their toddlers, especially if you go in the morning. In Memphis, I once watched a teenaged mother yell at her rambunctious three-year-old and raise her hand, threatening a slap. He cringed but within minutes was back to his antics. A large red and blue tattoo on her fleshy arm proclaimed, “You Have no Right to Judge Me.”
I smiled to myself. I had already silently judged her—crude, uneducated, poor, lazy, redneck—all my favored prejudices in a single thought. Her tat nailed my self-righteous hypocrisy. I should have spoken to her. I should have been kind and friendly and accommodating, but I wasn’t. My judgments silenced me; my hypocrisy paralyzed me.
I envision myself as a tolerant, understanding peace-lover, but I rage like an assault-rifle-toting-survivalist when some plant worker in a pickup truck cuts me off on the interstate. Respect.
I suppose it is naive to imagine a world without war, a family without conflict, a love relationship without arguments, a child without a tantrum; but I can dream, can’t I? And maybe, if I dream, I’ll be more respectful.
image by Taka Nakura