This is What War Looks Like

Fighting brings out the animal nature in each one of us


| June 3, 2004


We shouldn't be surprised at the news of the horrible atrocities our boys and girls have been committing at Abu Ghraib prison, suggests Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who has done so much in the name of world peace that Martin Luther King Jr. once nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Hanh was exiled from his native Vietnam in 1966 for protesting the war there, and today lives in Plum Village, a meditation retreat he founded in southern France. 'The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq shocked me,' Hanh wrote in an interview with Beliefnet. 'Because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity.'

Hanh sees the good in all of us, but also recognizes the potential for any human to be transformed from man into beast. 'Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over.' He refuses to blame any one person, or any one country for this demise that now has American soldiers spread out all over the globe in a state of paranoia and ready to kill, but instead places the guilt on the shoulders of all humanity. 'When we hold retreats for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the candle, they are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible.' Hanh alludes to the United States' unenviable reputation in the world today, but does not delve into politics, instead introducing the important Buddhist concept of forgiveness. 'In the past, the U.S. was loved by many of us in the world because the U.S. represented freedom, democracy, peace, and care for other countries. The U.S. has lost this image and must rebuild it.'

What makes this interview truly special is that Hanh focuses less on the state than on the individual. With regards to Abu Ghraib, he suggests that prison guards who torture their subjects are actually harming themselves. 'When you torture a living being, you die as a human being because the other person's suffering is your own suffering. When you perform surgery on someone, you know the surgery will help him and that is why you can cut into his body. But when you cut into someone's body and mind to get information from them, you cut into your own life, you kill yourself as a person.'
-- Jacob Wheeler

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