Not Our Histories

When there’s conflict in the world — and sadly, there seldom is not — it’s important to remember a few things.

First, recognize that the people catalyzing conflict are generally not the majority in any given instance. It’s usually a militant group, a collective of extremists, or government officials who decide which outsiders are allies and which are enemies. They decide who is good and who is bad, and when and where violence will be used as a tool for political/economic/philosophical gain. They draw the lines in the sand and tell us the people on the other side of those lines are different.

They yell ‘fire’ when they think it’s in their interest to take something from across the lines, or when things aren’t going well for them on their own side.

I can’t think of a single moment in history in which all the non-military civilians in a country got together and invaded another country. Civilians typically want to live calm, peaceful lives. Violence occurs when those up top (or those who aspire to be up top) use those below as resources in the pursuit of more resources.

Second, those who are killed and killing are generally used as expendable resources, and as such are victims or killers not because they did anything wrong or because the person on the other end of their gun/rocket/bayonet did anything wrong. These otherwise normal, decent human beings are acting based on fears — whether valid or manufactured — which have been trumped up by the same people who sent them into combat (people, by the way, who are unlikely to ever fire a gun or gaze into the barrel of one).

The people who start wars, who terrorize, who kill without remorse, are the ones who need watching. The soldiers on the ground, the citizens in the crossfire, the corpses that results on both sides, they have far more in common with each other than with those who are handing them weapons or using them as human shields.

Finally, remember that the histories of ‘our people’ are not our histories. They are the experiences of people from our countries, from our faiths, who hold the same passports we hold, but that doesn’t mean their experiences apply to us.

That someone from my country killed someone from your country (or vice versa) at some point in history does not make us enemies. If we assume that it does, we’ll have no choice but to be at each other’s throats forever. Till there aren’t any throats left.

I was having a drink with a Russian friend the other night, when news about rocky Russian and US relations flickered across the bar’s TV screen. We both looked at it, grimaced, and clinked our glasses together. What relevance does such a thing have to us? Are we supposed to give a damn about the priorities of these people who see us as nothing but foot soldiers to forward their violent causes and power-grabs?

The thoughts outlined above have pathetically little weight for anyone who’s currently in a conflict zone, and I know that. I am truly sorry if you’re stuck in the middle of a conflict that isn’t yours; a conflict based on someone else’s bravado, fear, or ignorance.

If you’ve got a gun pointed at you, I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in a position where pointing that gun seems to make sense to the person holding it. If you’re the one holding the gun, I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in a position where that seems to be a moral choice.

Let’s please remember that all casualties of conflict between humans are unnecessary casualties. We become so embroiled in the emotion of good guy versus bad guy, big army versus little rebels, people who look like me versus people who don’t, that it’s easy to forget this. People fight and die because other people convince or coerce them to do so. There needn’t be a single human death at the hands of another human.

I wonder how we might convince the powerful that it’s not okay to use us as resources, and I wonder how we might keep these spenders of human life from achieving power in the first place.

Update: April 18, 2017

I’m fairly certain I was living in Prague when I wrote this, and while there, a large number of my friends were Russian. Which was sometimes awkward, as we were having a bit of a PR scuffle with Russia, and the tempo of that scuffle seemed to be increasing; it made us all uneasy, though at the same time seemed so irrelevant to us.