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My Turn

Wayne Dyer on the Harmful Dynamics of War

| May 2005

The war in Iraq, specifically America’s role of leadership in this war, is a painful invitation to ask ourselves what, if anything, we’ve learned from previous wars. I, like you, am revolted by the brutal killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people during any war. And, like you, I’m saddened by the apparent inability of human beings to find less violent solutions to conflict and terrorism. What can we learn from previous wars? Are there lessons from past experiences that can help reduce or minimize the likelihood of excessive and unnecessary destruction and devastation of lives and countries, and our future on Earth? I believe the answer is yes! We can learn, and there are lessons available.

In an interview with Errol Morris, Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis, delineated some lessons from both events. Eighty-five-year-old McNamara, in Morris’s Academy Award-winning documentary, The Fog of War, looks back at the crucial mistakes made by our government in failing to understand our supposed enemy, and even more egregiously, our failure to communicate with those Vietnamese leaders we were assigned to hate and destroy. The lesson? Empathize with your enemy.

Meeting with his North Vietnamese counterpart, described by McNamara as “a wonderful man named Thach,” almost 30 years after pulling out of Vietnam, Thach still insisted that America’s mission was to colonize and enslave the Vietnamese. Thirty years later, McNamara couldn’t convince his former enemy that we believed we were there to protect them from Communist control. In all those years of conflict and killing on both sides, we had never successfully communicated to our enemy why we were fighting and killing them, and we were unable to empathize with what they were experiencing as a civil war. Thach felt they were fighting for their independence and we were fighting to enslave them. Total misunderstanding is the result of failure to empathize. We must learn to find out why we’re so hated and make an attempt to understand each other.

Today we are once again engaged in a gigantic battle with people that we’ve dubbed insurgents or resistance fighters, who seem to be so filled with rancor and rage that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves and their loved ones to destroy the hated Americans. Are we making an effort to understand and empathize with our new enemy; to communicate with those who want to destroy us? Sadly, the first lesson of war offered by an octogenarian who’s been there and seen the folly of fighting an enemy you cannot comprehend, let alone, understand, is still being ignored at a horrendous cost.

Our strategy today, just as it was some 40-plus years ago, is to kill the insurgents even if we must destroy the villages—including schools, mosques, homes, and businesses in the process. After all, we can always rebuild what we’ve torn down. Yet the hatred remains, and force gives birth to counter force. The killing and destruction go on, and the people who witness the total annihilation of their land are future insurgents in the making.

We’re told by those who represent us that the insurgents and the average Iraqi and Middle Easterner hate us because we stand for freedom and democracy. It’s my contention that we have it backwards. We’re hated because we fail to stand for freedom and democracy. In fact, what we do stand for is whatever is best for American financial interests. Under the Shah of Iran, freedom and democracy didn’t exist, yet we supported that regime. The Saudi royal family certainly doesn’t stand for freedom and democracy, yet we have no quarrel with them. The Emir of Kuwait is not about freedom and democracy, and he has our dying loyalty.

The average person on the streets of Iraq isn’t fooled by our occupation of their country. They hate us throughout the Middle East and the Moslem world because we care most about how to make money in foreign lands. They know it and we should know it. But we’re told that it’s our freedom and democracy that engenders this animosity toward us. Residents of Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and other countries throughout the Middle East hate us vehemently because they believe that Americans simply can’t figure out how all that American oil got under their sand. They believe that we’re acting in our own self-interest and that we justify destroying their villages and killing insurgents by convincing ourselves that it’s in the name of freedom and democracy.

If all of this is blatantly untrue, and we have no monetary motives in our continual clean-up campaigns that are leaving corpses and severely wounded people by the hundreds of thousands, then let’s make an effort to communicate with those whom we’re now aimlessly killing. I ask each and every person who conducts this war under the guise of Christian principles to answer this question: How much time have you spent praying for your enemy today? Read Jesus in Matthew 5:43-44: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Throughout our history, there has been a long list of those we’ve been conditioned to hate. The British, French, Spanish, Germans, Japanese, Russians, Communists, Northern Koreans, Vietnamese, Iranians, Taliban, and both northerners and southerners in our own country are some of the people we’ve been encouraged at various times to call enemies and to hate. The list is long, and as time passes, those we were assigned to hate we later were told should be removed from our hate list. The enemy is obviously hatred itself, and the glassy eyes and the tears rolling down the face of a former wartime Secretary of Defense say it all to me. Have empathy for your assigned enemy.

With empathy you know in your heart that it’s not a sign of weakness to attempt to understand that the people we call terrorists have placed the same label on us, and that the use of force will create a counter force, a never-ending saga of killing and hate. Ending war involves cultivating empathy in our policies and the love of God in our hearts.

As the Native Americans reminded us: No tree has branches so foolish as to fight among themselves.

Reprinted with permission