In 1906 American psychologist and philosopher Williams James gave a speech at Stanford praising the “higher military virtues “ of discipline, self-sacrifice, and hardihood. He suggested we as a country channel them into the constructive service of the nation by building schools, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The speech became a well-known essay titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
James' suggestions were aimed at a conservative audience who tended to operate in what Carl Jung would classify as the extraverted realm. James acknowledged the strengths of his audience and tried to persuade them to focus those energies on what we as a nation could do to improve our country. He understood technology was rendering war untenable. Unfortunately, neither the speech or essay prevented the U.S. from the horror show of the first half of the twentieth century. Eight years before the guns of August and one life-span-of-Jesus before the Nazis invaded Poland, the sentiment didn’t come close from keeping us from war, but did inspire Roosevelt’s WPA program and later, Kennedy’s Peace Corp. Even today, former US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal’s current service year exchange initiative is a direct descendant of this sentiment.
Last year, songwriter and The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn released a solo album titled "I Need a New War." The name comes from a refrain in the album's fifth track "Grant at Galena", a song about man adrift and purposeless in the modern world who compares himself to a bankrupt and ruined Ulysses S. Grant moving to Galena, Illinois just before the Civil War broke out.
For Grant and the protagonist of the song, war was equivalent with purpose. It gave them structure and meaning to life, a chance to serve a cause larger than one's self, a chance to earn some self-respect. The protagonist's war is metaphorical, but the feeling of being lost and adrift, of Waiting for Godot, is something everyone deals with.
I would posit, at the current moment, we're a nation in search of a war, and if we can't find it on the metaphorical realm, we're going to slide into it on the literal and physical realm and that's something no one needs. The Civil War and World War II were fought, however imperfectly, in the service of higher ideals. We tried to stay out of World War I, but were drawn in to break the stalemate. The Cold War, Vietnam, and our never ending escapades in the Middle East have all been waged out of fear (some founded, some not) but not ideals. Fear of the other, fear of scarcity of resources, fear of ideology.
I'm not advocating isolationism, nor am I blind to the needs of #NationalSecurity, but I think it's important to acknowledge our true motivations. To acknowledge the ghosts in the machine.
Part of the culture seems be waking up to this. In the 50s, the B-Horror movie THEM! portrayed our national fear of the other as mutant giant ants crawling out of the ground and destroying our civilization and way of life. Writer/Director Jordan Peele captured the current zeitgeist with his horror movie US, where the long repressed collective shadow of the nation emerges to exact it's revenge. I think he nailed it. The thing we should be worried about is us, not them.
Jung said "No one can understand their shadow without considerable moral effort." The concept of the shadow, for those who skipped intro to psych, is the Jungian term for the unconscious aspects of someone's personality they don't want to identify with. I think we're at crossroads nationally where we, left and right, have a choice to either deal with our collective shadow, or ignore it and pay its price, or more likely, externalize the costs on others.
This will require introspection on a national and personal level about who we are, what we're afraid of, and where we want to go. It will take place in churches, synagogues and mosques, on meditation retreats, therapists couches, support groups, or in twelve step meetings. At the national level it is starting to and hopefully will continue happen through our art and music, film and TV and our podcasts. I believe if we want to avoid disasters of the twentieth century it's our duty as citizens of the world to investigate and come to terms with ourselves. This country is like Grant at Galena and in order to avoid a real one, we need a new moral equivalent of war.