Conflict is not always a bad thing. It is, at times, even necessary to use conflict effectively to bring internal tensions to the surface and bring conflicting individuals to a better understanding of each other’s perspectives. Conflict of this kind is better than allowing brooding over differences, which can cause greater turmoil. It is the method by which we argue or even “fight” that makes the difference as to whether conflict is bad or good. The way we handle our disagreements can show a great deal more about our character than the actions we take in times of inner peace and celebration.
What if we apply this general principle to a macro level, that of countries’ conflicts and, ultimately, war?
Though war is not inevitable, conflict is. And, obviously, in our imperfect and often suffering world, it is something we all experience at one level or another.
When countries’ conflicts come to a devastating head in war, one of the most important elements of war is the actions of ordinary people, both citizens and soldiers. Sometimes we get so focused on the evil of war and the corruption of the governments that sponsor the bloodshed that we don’t pay attention to the roles and experiences of individuals.
On our way back from the Life/Peace/Justice conference that was held on March 29, my boyfriend Mike and I stopped to visit the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam. Treading sensitively on the ground where so many died, we reflected on what had occurred there and what the men (and, in some cases, women!) had gone through as they faced each other on the battlefields. We imagined the courage they must have had and the fear they must have felt, knowing they could die at any moment. We saw what they might have seen, looking across the fields at their “enemies.” We imagined how the civilians who had homes sometimes literally on the battlefield may have responded. We learned more about humanity. Walking on such sacred ground not only brought the brutality of war to a more personal level for us in many respects but also gave us a better understanding of the human condition in both its good and bad aspects.
To demonstrate on a more personal level the humanity of individuals involved in war, let me share a story Mike and his mother told me about one of the experiences his mother’s father had during World War II.
Thaddeus was an officer in the 2nd Polish Corps under the British 8th Army. He learned of a young man in the corps who was struggling and unwilling to fight. Thaddeus didn’t consider the man a coward but rather someone who was facing an awful situation: after facing the horrors of war in the form of the Russian military’s ruthless treatment of the Polish people in Siberia, the man was having an emotional breakdown at the thought of going through similar experiences while serving with the British Army.
Thaddeus sat down with the man and told him how he had to fight or else he would face a court martial and be charged with the capital offense of desertion and be executed. Thaddeus told him how he would do everything he could to help him and keep him safe in the war.
Feeling he had no alternative, though, the young man shot himself after Thaddeus left him. Thaddeus, Mike’s mom said, carried feelings of guilt with him until his own death.
Reflecting on the experiences of these two men, it is hard for me to say anything at all, especially because of my proximity to these people. I am close to them through not only the ties of relationship but also my own emotional ties. I cannot relate directly, but I can almost imagine what they felt, and, again, it brings me closer to that part of the human experience. Not only is there pain, but there’s also an underlying sense of compassion in both men’s hearts, at least from my perspective. There is the reaction of the man who committed suicide, an action that may have involved not only fear and an unwillingness to face more brutality but perhaps also a desire not to inflict more pain and suffering on those “enemies” he would face. And then there are the actions of Thaddeus, who really did everything he could, even if he felt he could have done more. This encounter sheds light on the personal experience of war. It shows the character of the people involved, who very much appear to have had the best intentions in the midst of the darkest struggles.
To fully bring this issue to the forefront of today’s struggles, it is critical, when we make decisions about the wars or potential wars we currently face, to consider the impact on individuals. These decisions involve much more than governmental agreements, politics, and the contents of general news coverage. For example, we have to consider, what will we do about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict? How can we ensure that we remain ethical in our choices regarding this dilemma that threatens more than Ukraine, since the Russians may invade more countries? I cannot answer those questions, but I think increasing our cognizance of individuals’ experiences is of the utmost importance in choosing our methods of limiting, and hopefully eliminating, the threat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military actions pose to the world.