Fireside Angel by Max Ernst
(From a photo I took in the Portland Museum in OR in 2013)
Monday, April 24, 2017
A Terrible Love of War
Published in the Concord Monitor 4/22/17
A Terrible Love of War
Fireside Angel has been on my mind as of late. Max Ernst painted it in the run-up to WWII, soon after dictator Francisco Franco had brutally defeated the Republican rebels in the Spanish Civil War with the help of his Italian and German allies. In fact, Hitler, using this conflict as a practice run, utilized airplanes for the first time to bomb civilian cities.
That global situation from 1937 bears a striking resemblance to what is happening now in the Syria Civil War where rebels are attempting to overthrow dictator Bashar Assad, also with powerful anti-democratic allies, using scotched-earth tactics including dropping barrel bombs and Sarin gas on the civilian population.
Writing about Fireside Angel in 1948, Ernst admitted that this was “an ironic title for a clumsy figure devastating everything that gets in its way.” What he was trying to do is evoke a visceral sense of that chaos and destruction.
Ernst got it right in 1937 and in a nightmarish, deja vu moment, it appears to be happening again. After all, in today’s world, who can this clumsy figure be – creating chaos and threatening destruction – if not Donald Trump.
Certainly Trump appeared lost, out of his depth, for most of his first 100 days in office; his poll numbers were the worst ever for a president this early in his term. It appeared his presidency was unraveling.
That is, until April 7th, when in a fiery display of fire and brimstone he launched 59 tomahawk missiles into Syria. Overnight everything changed: he was instantly met was almost universal acclaim by pundits, talking heads, and even most democrats.
Then, within days, he dropped The Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) on a network of tunnels in the boondocks of Afghanistan and is now threatening to go to war with North Korea.
Up until April 7th, like the master showman he is, Trump seemed to be trying out material with his audience to see what works best. Now, I’m afraid he has found it. Americans always rally around their president in time of war.
The question we must ask is, why are we such suckers for war?
James Hillman in his book A Terrible Love of War has a unique explanation. He says, paradoxically, we get infected so easily with war fever because we try to be too rational. The trouble is, causal reasoning is a recent add-on in human evolution while the foundation of our psyche is mythic and primal.
And nothing is more primal than war.
When we are in the throes of war’s passion, we have entered a mythical state of being, that’s rationally inexplicable: “War… is a human accomplishment and an inhuman horror, and a love that no other love has been able to overcome.”
“Where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor – that strange coupling of love with war – do we find ourselves transported to a mythical condition and the gods most real?”
If war is indeed a primal state of passion, as Hillman argues, then we must use our cognitive facilities of reason – not so much to try to understand war but to control it: We can be encouraged by the courage of past cultures, “even in dark ages, to withstand war and yet sing.”
As the war drums of the Trump administration beat louder, it is imperative that we regain this courage of culture, if we are to have any chance of bequeathing a livable world to our children.
No one can deny we have a long track record of learning to control and sublimate our passions. All societies, for instance, have learned to establish customs, ceremonies, rituals, and laws to restrain unbridled sexual passion.
In our own country, in just the last 50 years alone, we have made major strides by passing laws and raising public awareness to reduce sexual victimization by broadening the definition of what constitutes rape, abuse, and sexual harassment.
Yet when it comes to war, our politicians and mass media have done the opposite, loosing prohibitions, even becoming cheerleaders for war. As Hillman points out, War becomes more normalized every day.
Trade wars, gender wars, network wars…the war against cancer, the war against poverty, and the war against all other ills of society has nothing to do with the actualities of war. Hillman makes clear how “this way of normalizing war has whitewashed the word and brainwashed us, so that we forget its terrible images.”
Now Trump is accelerating this trend with his threats, ultimatums and incomprehensible statements like the one he made about nuclear weapons, “if we have them, why can’t we use them?”
One monumental difference between now and the run-up to war in 1937 is that with our new president who values generals over diplomacy and who values gut instinct over policy is that in our next war – and there will be one– we will undoubtedly be the perpetrator.