Human beings have an instinctive, some would say “God given,” revulsion to killing other humans. It appears to be as ancient as we are and the vast majority of human cultures have seen such killing as among the ultimate offenses and apply penalties appropriate to the crime. Such is our instinct.
So those who wish war for whatever reason have a hurdle to overcome. War requires young, healthy, bodies to fuel its ambition and under normal circumstances those people aren’t primally directed to kill and for the comfort of those who send them. Thus, that basic taboo about taking human life must be overcome.
Here lies the work of the propagandist, government, corporate, ethnic, it really makes no difference because to move a normal human being to kill requires a single outcome, the dehumanization of the ones those in power wish to die. If it is deeply and inherently wrong somewhere deep inside the average human, then that is an obstacle that must be overcome so a generation will be willing to endure and inflict trauma for those who wish it.
Witness the horribly racist pictures of slant eyed, buck toothed, Japanese of WW2. Witness again the spiked helmeted Germans tossing babies on their bayonets and raping the innocent of WW1. The Vietnamese became “Charlie” or “Gooks”, people from the Middle East become “A-Rabs” and the list could go on. Almost any or everything goes if the powerful want to condition young minds to see the people they wish dead as something less than human and, by doing so, give them a pseudo-moral framework to justify the horrors they wish to make real. Every side plays the game. Sadly, it seems to be one of the great commonalities among us as a species. If the powerful want to keep or increase their power, they need willing bodies with willing minds shaped by and endless flow of information to overcome a sense of common humanity with the desire to kill.
Sometimes, of course, the programming won’t work, or it takes reinforcement. Witness the executions of French soldiers in WW1 who, seeing the slaughter and stupidity, refused to continue to perpetuate it. Witness, too, the moments of humanity in any war where people faced with the flesh and blood reality of things find ways, large and small, to be humans even as those above them try to keep them animals. Witness, as well, the veterans of long-ago wars who somehow, in reflection recover that which the state tried to strip from them, namely the understanding that the folks shooting at them were, in the end, just “Little people” doing what the “Big people” told them to do and even discovering friendships with those they had been told were not even worthy of life. Witness, finally, those who never recover, people for whom the programming “took” and never let go of its grip, people who spend the rest of their lives embittered at people they never met who were actually more like them than they ever knew.
One must kill in their heart before they can kill in the physical world and that death of the heart is probably the worst part of war and the place where war, even the “good” ones, most violates the Christian conscience. In war one must kill twice, first in the soul and then on the battlefield and even those who survive it all never quite leave that ugly place no matter how many parades are held or how shiny the headstones are kept.
Still, our basic humanity is strong because it is God given, it is part of the image of God that now even war can ultimately remove. And when war is upon us perhaps this is also where we can all agree. We can pray that somehow in a secret place in the heart those who instigate war and those who choose or are coerced into accepting it will have a tiny light inside that allows a single question “Why?” and from that “Why?” they’ll see what they are becoming, what they’ve been told to be often by those who are far away and very safe from where they are and their humanity will return.