Militarism vs. Our Shared Humanity


Robert C. Koehler | Common Wonders – TRANSCEND Media Service

8 Nov 2023 – Sitting safely at my desk, looking at photos of bombed buildings and knowing that missing children are buried under the rubble, imagining (unavoidably) what this must feel like . . . oh my God, empathy gives way to horror. Move on, I tell myself. Write about something else. All wars are like this.

But the big question won’t go away: Why?

Beyond all the reasons and excuses for the continuing carnage of Gaza, beyond the U.S. justifications for its complicity: Why?

Every war foments this question, but only if you care about the victims. If you don’t — if you embrace one side’s justification — the dehumanization process kicks in and, if you’re sitting at home reading about it on the Internet or watching it on TV, it starts morphing into a video game. Crash, boom, hooray! This is war and we’ve got no choice but to win, no matter the cost . . .and no matter that a victory carved out of corpses in the rubble only means that further war and further hell (for everyone) are inevitable.


I think the answer is collective in nature. Humanity has politicized itself into a war mentality. When a soldier has served his term and returns to a solitary life, he may be beset by monsters, flooded with guilt. This is called moral injury. Collectively, we can protect ourselves and justify our participation in the murder of “the enemy.” It’s necessary, and I’m just following orders. But when the collective spirit dissipates, the spiritual wounds — the self-annihilating shame and regret — manifest. We can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing ourselves.

How do we escape this paradox? No one wants war — not when it affects them personally, or when the veil of propaganda justifying it gets torn open. But to stand publicly against it isn’t easy and often has consequences. Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian, is currently facing congressional censure for making this outrageous statement in the House of Representatives:

“I can’t believe we have to say this but Palestinian people are not disposable,” she said as she broke down in tears.

“We are human beings just like anyone else,” she continued. “My sity, my grandmother — like all Palestinians — just wants to live her life with freedom and human dignity we all deserve. Speaking up to save lives no matter faith, no matter ethnicity should not be controversial in this chamber. The cries of the Palestinian and Israeli children sound no different to me. What I don’t understand is why the cries of Palestinian children sound different to you all. We cannot lose our shared humanity.”

How dare she? Congress doesn’t care about “shared humanity” — not when it passes $800 billion-plus defense budgets every year, the point of which is to maintain a divided humanity.

Author and theologian Walter Wink called it “the myth of redemptive violence” — the myth of the ongoing necessity to kill the enemy before the enemy kills us. In his book The Powers That Be, he writes that violence “doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be in the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god.”

America, America, “god” shed his grace on thee . . .

The profound danger of the myth of redemptive violence is, as I note, that it is collective. Humans band together against other humans. Today the world is divided into nation-states — 195 of them at this point in the game — which, with a few exceptions, spend an enormous portion of their wealth and energy preparing for (and/or waging) war. Nation-states do what they want: That’s what “sovereignty” allegedly means. But doing what they want keeps winding up meaning killing, imprisoning and threatening their external and internal enemies. Thanks to this simplistic attitude, humanity is on the brink of committing suicide, either politically, via nukes, or ecologically, by smothering the planet’s life-sustaining environment. Or both.

But the myth starts small. Every problem, whether personal or social, is something to fight. Consider, for instance, that even though the medical profession is all about healing, we “fight” our diseases more than we try to understand them, just as we fight our social maladies. We wage wars on cancer, on drugs, on crime — on virtually everything that’s problematic. None have been successful. But then again, wars are never successful, even when we “win.”

Of course, that’s only in the real world. In the mythical world, where the myth of redemptive violence rules — the world of Hollywood, let us say — congressionally funded violence (a.k.a., “good violence”) is consequence free.

Here’s how it plays out: John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, has climbed atop the stagecoach and the Apaches are tearing after them as the music swells. In a few minutes of the 1939 John Ford classic Stagecoach, a few dozen Indians die, each one flying dramatically off his horse. There were hundreds of them, hooting, armed with rifles, but they have almost no impact on the valiant stagecoach, on which four white men return fire at the savages with grim precision. One of them actually has a wry smile on his face, relishing his opportunity to do so. They blast away. Eventually the cavalry shows up and the Indians flee.

The myth of redemptive violence is God’s gift to scriptwriters — but a curse on our shared humanity and the real world.


Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based peace journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is still available. Contact him at



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