Demonic war


There’s never been an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

Henry David Thoreau

Most things in the world we are allowed to question, especially the “we” of liberal democratic societies. But if we pause to consider, the military institution is something we are not allowed to question. The general agreement of silence surrounding the military speaks to an unstated injunction; human beings seem to have fallen under its spell, or else its dark penumbra hushes them. The military’s existence is accepted as implicitly as the existence of universities and hospitals. If the matter is pressed, the military is resignedly regarded as “a necessary evil.” Yet today, in our connected and full world, we have never been in a stronger position to challenge the existence of the military.

Let alone challenge the fact that it is growing. In the last decades, across continents and regardless of countries’ political and social differences, military budgets, arms trading, and nuclear weapon upgrades have been on the rise. Significantly.[1] According to SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), global military expenditures surpassed 2 trillion dollars in 2020 reflecting a steady increase since the end of the Cold War.[2] The war in Ukraine is providing further opportunity and excuse to bloat the military establishment.[3] Where exactly can all this escalation go—or end? The insanity of the global system is spiking.  

It is a corrupt system. Not just the growth- and profit-driven economic system of neoliberal capitalism as Leftist rhetoric always reminds. We are also captive to an irredeemable political system, with its geopolitical gambits and parade of inept dunces (politicians) who we are supposed to think of as our leaders. What is perhaps most vile about the political sphere is that it funds, grows, and glorifies the military. The military is prima facie a political institution not an economic one. Yet its ironclad grip on humanity is all about the sway of the military-industrial complex—a political-economic alliance bent on turning death and destruction into power and profit.

There has never been a moment in human history where abolishing the military machine has been more urgent. At the very least, the military draws down Earth’s resources, debases human engineering creativity, and spews a gale of greenhouse gases into a broken climate.[4] As overwhelming as all this is, it is the least of it. The very existence of the military—and the insolent permission it gives itself to keep ballooning—speaks to a deeper vein of woe: the military mindset is projected and largely received as “rational,” suggesting that the world of humanity is a sea of sleepwalkers. We need to unmask the consensual reality of the perceived rationality of the military mindset, which not only enables the physical military machine and its nonstop wars but bolsters the normalization of any insanity, including mass extinction of Earth’s species, climate breakdown, factory farms, fishing out the ocean, drowning the planet in glyphosate, or whatever.        

It may feel impossible to prevail over what appears to ground the military’s existence: unreal divisions between people, invidious straightjackets of group “identities,” and sundry expressions of nationalistic drivel. Yet there remains a hopeful possibility: recognizing the felicitous fact that human beings have an actual identity we can celebrate. We are Earthlings amongst countless nonhuman others. Stepping up to our shared identity may allow us to drop us-versus-them ideologies in a heartbeat.

Getting archetypal about being-Earthling, we are creatures of the Middle World.[5] That membership comes with some built-in suffering (minimally, heartbreak, disease, old age, and death), but it also comes with exuberances of the human spirit, with adventures of discovery, knowledge, invention, service, art, and spirituality inside a planetary garden of delights. Our membership in the Middle World comes with the gift of so much earthly beauty. It comes with rich and open-ended relations of kinship with the more-than-human world. When our relations are predicated on wonder, curiosity, affection, and respect, they not only support that exquisite world, they also elevate the ethos of the human.[6] The symbol-image of the Middle World, which Charles Darwin invoked to depict evolution, is the Tree of Life: gigantic, majestic, solidly rooted, and simply lovely. When we heed the Tree of Life as our teacher, she teaches us to stand firm in nourishing all beings and loving them all the same.


Following early eco-visionaries, I advocate bioregionalism as a political model of human neo-indigenous inhabitation.[7] It is a virtuous vision of human life on Earth, serving the good of nonhuman and human worlds. In bioregional polities, people (will) assume the greatest part of their identity from the land they dwell in: from its nonhuman citizens, its ecological affordances, its particularities of foods and seasons, its cultural heritages, and its regional feeling-tone. The remaining, also substantial, part of their identity bioregional people will assemble from the diversity of cultures (accessible thanks to the good side of globalization) to create their unique individual personalities.[8] How could the bioregional peoples of the world—having culturally comingled and biologically interbred—go to war with one another? They will need to adjust their populations, economies, and technologies with reverence for the land they inhabit—a land that will in turn nourish them with wholesome and ethically sourced food.

Between bioregional polities will stretch vast terrestrial and marine habitats that are free: belonging to no human group but only to themselves. At least half Earth’s ecosystems thus released to be home to our nonhuman kin and to human Indigenous Earth keepers, regenerating abundant and diverse life in all its ecological complexity and evolutionary potential.[9] At the heart of bioregional inhabitation lives the understanding that Earth is our Beloved. Not our colony.

Bioregions will trade stuff and ideas. Trading stuff (judiciously) and ideas (however crazy) is good for people, enabling them to feel more secure and to be more open-minded. Nutritious and diverse food is good for people too. So is a natural world so deliciously vibrant that it feeds the senses and heals body and soul. In a bioregional civilization, humanity and all life will eventually recover the taste of pure air, water, and food. Human and nonhuman beings will experience the healing touch of living waters—of oceans, rivers, streams, and lakes teeming once again with life. We all know and can agree on what is virtuous even with latitude for disagreement. Here’s two things we know and can agree on beyond doubt: the health of Earth and the health of humanity are inexorably aligned; and this inexorable alignment is good.

The good is what we must serve. Goodness is the common religion of humanity. In that religion, all deities (past, present, and future) are welcome. Humanity’s collective pantheon reflects its mythological numinous landscape: so many avatars, heroes, healers, and teachings that keep the human imagination exalted and ethical inquiry at the forefront of everyday life.

Within the diverse ensemble of bioregions, humanity can serve the good of all, and most especially the good of the planet. Truth compels us to acknowledge that Earth comes first because Earth is the support of all beings including of course humans. If you love humanity and cherish its future, become ecocentric! Only by serving Earth and all her beings do we serve the highest quality of life for humanity. Earth’s essence is to manifest diverse, abundant, regenerative, and complex life—a Creation that primordially forged our very concepts of beauty and goodness. To preserve Earth’s formidable arts, ecocentrics urge that we move toward shrinking the human factor demographically and economically by means of instituting and augmenting human rights. We also advocate for global demilitarization NOW.

When we get around to humanity’s common religion of goodness, serving the wellbeing of all, we have to admit that it cannot coexist with the institution of the military. The good cannot coexist with the notion of war as “a necessary evil”—a smokescreen idea, in any case, because (a) war always finds a way to glorify itself and (b) most wars are not “necessary.” We must make the word war first dismal then obsolete and finally archaic. Some environmental analysts may insist on focusing our energies on mass extinction and climate change as these present more immediate existential threats. A big war, however, would precipitate mass extinction and climatic upheaval in the blink of a geological eye—like an asteroid hit. Therefore all existential threats we face, including nuclear war, are equally urgent. Importantly, they are of a piece.


We tend to think of war as the most violent expression of dispute and hatred among groups of humans. This makes war appear to be a purely inter-human affair, having little to do with the nonhuman world other than the latter being an innocent bystander and suffering collateral damage.[10] In its very essence, however, war wars against nature. The purpose of the military is to war on nature.

At the most basic level, the military wars on life by making human life cheap and throwing humans into a stage-set where they must kill in order to survive. The cheapening of human life—stripping it of its sacred inviolability—makes such things as rape, torture, genocide, and other atrocities mere emergents of war. The idea that there are “war crimes” we should be incensed over and decry is a consensual-reality tack distracting us from the fact that war itself is the crime—albeit always with some extra horror thrown into the mix.

At the level of core motive, the military—meaning “the political” acting through the military—wars on the land. Civilization’s original political act of war was to label the land as human property. Transmuting the land into property is the ground-zero human-supremacist terrorist act on this planet. Since land generically signifies human property in the human-supremacist worldview, it can always potentially swap hands among different ethnicities, empires, or nation-states, depending on historical specifics or contingent opportunity. Once land is seized and occupied, everything within its space can be appropriated, converted, exploited, killed, or enslaved. For just as the land is reconfigured as “property,” so are its living and inanimate elements reconfigured as “resources”—things for the taking, like soil, fur, metals, timber, freshwater, and so on.[11] Such human-supremacist ideas and goals are what war is all about—and has been all about since the institution of the military took off with the rise of city-states and empires.

It would appear that many environmentalists have also been hushed by the military, for they often fail to say out loud that the military machine wars on nature. It does not only war on the land (thereby securing access to launch more wars for its “resources”), it also wars directly on human nature. First, worth repeating, by cheapening human life; but also by the malicious wounding of the human soul. We are all-too-versed at glossing over the term “PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder), but it has become vital for humanity to behold the soul wreckage this diagnosis actually describes.[12] War wars on nature at every front—nonhuman and human, physical and psychic.

Furthermore, the war machine/mindset is exceptionally efficient at spinning out targeted wars on life, such as the war against wildlife perpetrated by the United States “Wildlife Services” agency, trophy hunting, factory farms, industrial fishing, or genetic tinkering with dangerous viruses. Not to forget Big AG’s war on nature, swamping the world with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—so-called “inputs” that hail direct links to World War I and II research and Auschwitz.     

War does not emanate from nature, nor is war an expression of nature. War is a form of demonic derangement that has its origins in human alienation from our home planet, reproducing violence as a colonizing way of life across generations, while also contaminating unaffected peoples. Indigenous author Jack Forbes described “the demonic” as cultural expressions of cruelty, callousness, oppression, and abuse against other humans as well as nonhumans. People possessed by the demonic veer out of the moral order of nature into criminal insanity. Forbes called this affliction Wetico. War is Wetico: It goes against the grain of what nature is (namely, interconnected), and it targets interconnection as such.

I am aware that many Indigenous nations have engaged in warfare and lionized a warrior spirit. In his beautiful book on the Kiowa native Americans, The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday writes: “The principal warrior society of the Kiowas was the Ka-it-senko, ‘Real Dogs,’ and it was made of ten men only, the ten most brave. Each of these men wore a long ceremonial sash and carried a sacred arrow. In time of battle he must by means of this arrow impale the end of his sash to the earth and stand his ground to the death.” Observers who “naturalize” war—thus making it more resistant to critique—point to Indigenous warrior cults as proof of the supposed biological roots of warfare. Yet the Kiowa way of the warrior (as an example) might be better understood as aligned with a propensity of some humans for high-risk sport (“extreme sports”) or martial arts. By this analogy I do not mean to unconditionally exonerate all indigenous warfare: I simply suggest that the warrior way, which expresses such admirable human traits as discipline, fortitude, daring, and fearlessness in the face of death, can be satisfied in artful ways.

On the other hand, the military machine that came online with the emergence of social stratification and the rise of empire (and the latter’s craving for land, loot, and slaves) is an altogether different type of enterprise: one that depends on dispensable humans[13] who have been, for millennia, coerced and conditioned (traumatized) into violence. Once this military institution was established, it became invincible: physically it triumphed by force; but it also triumphed as a meme, because the only way to resist warring invaders, composed of expendable humans, was to mimic the meme and one up it. (“Once established, war has a tendency to spread, with violent peoples replacing less violent ones.”[14]) The war machine has written post-Neolithic political history: the military institution and its nonstop campaigns and innovations have been constitutive of history not intermittent sideshows.[15]             

Others might still push back, stating that territorial aggression exists among nonhumans. No animal, I would reply, appropriates, annexes, and names land as its “property” with all other beings brought under its jurisdiction and (non)mercy. Same-species aggression certainly exists in the animal world but as a relatively minor aspect; moreover, aggressive animal encounters are frequently ritualized or simply play-acted—they are not bloodbaths.[16] While aggression as well as competition arise in nature—they are survival traits after all—they always arise within the overarching reciprocity among all beings who co-create a commonwealth of interdependent coexistence. Aggression and competition arise inside that commonwealth—they neither define nor underlie life’s entangled planetary reality.         

Back to the institution of the military. The military institution does not “arise,” it implacably is. When we look at animal reality, we find that the aggression matrix is not institutionalized, but fluid: if a wolf’s claim to alphahood is defeated this year, she might live to become alpha in the future. The military institution, on the other hand, reproduces its entrenched reality, especially as it has so many tentacles in conventional domains like politics, GDP, profiteering, markets, science and technology research, social identity, nationalist ideology, patriotic sentiment, and historical memory. The military institution has its grip on reality, which is why we do not call it out, which is why so many do not even see it. But let’s look at it now: The incessant wars that have defined human history have driven the demolition of nature’s dynamic and creative play, piece by piece. What is now at stake is the entirety.

Warring today continues in manifold expressions but always in the one direction it knows how to go: killing life. Armed with nuclear weapons, the military machine can take its inherent directionality to the ultimate destination—killing everything that is killable by it. Many would prefer to resist the unthinkable, insisting that deterrence will always trump Armageddon. As David Barash points out, however, the solace of deterrence is a dangerous myth. The essence of war is to war on nature: War has nowhere else to go—it does not have a rational kernel. Nor does it come from nature whose sweet bottom-line is survival.

The war machine has to go, or everything else sooner or later will. The environmental movement and the peace movement are one. Our call: Love all, no more war on nature, nonhuman and human. Embracing peaceful coexistence heralds humanity’s return to our Earthling nature, our authentic identity.

Read ‘Demonic war’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blog

[1] On recent military trends, see my 2020 Earth Tongues blog and references therein: https://blog.ecologicalcitizen.net/2020/05/31/before-midnight/

[2] https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/world-military-expenditure-passes-2-trillion-first-time

[3] See Hedges 2022; Tucker 2022.

[4] https://earth.org/us-military-pollution/

[5] According to certain shamanic traditions, existence is composed of three worlds: the Upper World, the Lower World, and the Middle World. The Middle World refers to the physical reality we inhabit along with its numinous qualities. See Ingerman 2008. 

[6] For an exploration of the enduring relevance of the Middle-World mythos, especially in highlighting ethical principles of ecology, community, and spirit, see Curry 2004.

[7] Snyder 1990; Sale 1991.

[8] See Taylor 2000; Crist 2020.

[9] Wilson 2016; Dinerstein et al. 2019; Crist et al. 2021; Locke et al. 2021.

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/13/science/war-environmental-impact-ukraine.html

[11] Not too long ago, resources also included human slaves from peoples socially constructed as “subhuman races.” As philosopher Matthew Calarco points out, the human-supremacist (anthropocentric) worldview has never assumed that all humans belong equally in the distinguished category of anthropos.

[12] See van der Kolk 2015 for a brilliant exposition of trauma in general.

[13] Mumford 1966.

[14] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/war-is-not-part-of-human-nature/

[15] The world political histories of Susan Wise Bauer offer a stark view of war as driving motor of post-empire human history. See Bauer 2007 for starters.  

[16] For example, fact 8 of the “10 incredible facts about the sloth” narrates an almost humorous example of animal male aggression for “access to a female for mating.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/34C4dGp1kqnbs5MT7TZQN44/10-incredible-facts-about-the-sloth


References

Anthes E 2022. “A ‘silent victim’: How nature becomes a casualty of war.” The New York Times April 13. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/13/science/war-environmental-impact-ukraine.html

Barash D 2018. “Nuclear deterrence is a myth. And a lethal one at that.” The Guardian January 14. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/14/nuclear-deterrence-myth-lethal-david-barash

Bauer SW 2007. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. WW Norton.

Calarco M 2012. “Identity, difference, indistinction.” The New Centennial Review 11: 41-60.

Crist E 2020. “For cosmopolitan bioregionalism.” The Ecological Citizen 3 (C): 21-29. 

Crist E et al. 2021. “Protecting half Earth and transforming human systems are complementary goals.” Frontiers in Conservation Science 2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2021.761292/full

Curry P 2004. Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity. Mariner Books.

Darwin C 1964/1859. Origin of Species. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dinerstein E et al. 2019. “A Global Deal for Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets.” Science Advances 5(4): p.eaaw2869.

Ferguson B 2018. “War is not part of human nature.” Scientific American September 1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/war-is-not-part-of-human-nature/

Forbes J 1979/2008. Columbus and Other Cannibals. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Hedges C 2022. “Chronicles of war foretold.” Counterpunch February 22. https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/02/25/chronicle-of-war-foretold/

Ingerman S 2008. Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner’s Guide. Sounds True.

Locke H et al. 2021. “A Nature-positive world: The global goal for Nature.” https://www.nature.org/content/dam/tnc/nature/en/documents/NaturePositive_GlobalGoalCEO.pdf

Momaday NS 1976. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press.         

Mumford L 1966. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Sale K 1991. Dwellers of the Land: The Bioregional Vision. New Society Publishers.

Snyder S 1990. The Practice of the Wild. New York: North Point Press.

Taylor B 2000. “Bioregionalism: An ethics of loyalty to place.” Landscape Journal 19(1): 50-72.

Thoreau HD 1854. Walden, or, Life in the Woods. New York: Vintage Books.

Tucker S 2022. “Congress approves 40 billion dollar Ukraine war bill.” Counterpunch May 17. https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/05/17/congress-approves-40-billion-dollar-ukraine-war-bill/

Van der Kolk B 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin.

Wilson EO 2016. Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. New York: W.W. Norton.