Rites of war

Apr 21, 1999 at 12:00 am

Air-raid sirens scream nightly in Belgrade. Serbian troops continue their attacks in Kosovo. The Balkans are awash with refugees. The civilian death toll mounts.

This nation faces murky questions of war and peace, and answers that no one wants to face.

Social critic and author Barbara Ehrenreich examined war and warriors in her most recent book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Henry Holt, 1997). Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D. in biology, writes regularly for Time, the Nation, Atlantic Monthly and other publications.

She spoke to the Metro Times by phone from her home in Key West, Fla.

Metro Times: How does the Balkans crisis relate to what you’ve written?

Barbara Ehrenreich: There’s a tremendous surge of nationalism that we’re seeing. Rather than being demoralized by the bombing, which I suppose was what NATO expected, they have rallied to Milosevic. The opposition to him, which was really strong three years ago, has been eliminated. Not only because there’s martial law now and he can close independent radio stations and not allow dissident voices, but also because people spontaneously rally to their leader if they’re being attacked by an outside force. And this is something that was totally predictable.

In my book I make the case that this is a deep part of human nature. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage, this patterned response to a common threat to band together with our kin, our tribe, our countrypeople.

MT: People of the World War II generation say it was the most exciting time of their lives.

Ehrenreich: In the early 1990s, I met a Serbian woman at a feminist conference in Europe. She was a feminist and very anti-war, so I asked in sort of a naive, open-ended way, "What’s it like to be in Serbia now?" Serbia was the aggressor at that moment in Bosnia. Her response just floored me. She said sarcastically, "Everybody loves it; life is so much more intense. People say that life is meaningful now. Sex is better. Everything is better." She was very disapproving, but it surprised me at the time. There is this very thrilling response to common danger, which isn’t to say they’re not scared.

MT: Still, you hear much about the bombing’s psychological toll.

Ehrenreich: Yes, but the overall point is NATO should have known better than to think this was going to undermine Milosevic. He may look out his window every morning and see mangled bridges and smashed ministry buildings, but he also sees the crowds of people who were only a few years ago demanding he and his party get out of power and are now hailing him as their great leader and savior of the country.

MT: Why didn’t NATO know this?

Ehrenreich: I don’t know. ... There are so many historical examples, like the German bombings of London during World War II. ... We habitually, routinely, obsessively bomb Iraq, but opposition to Saddam Hussein has not sprung up; if anything, people have rallied around him as a result. The current bombing seems almost deliberately designed to strengthen the most genocidal forces in Serbia.

What we will get in the long term is another desperately poor, basket case-type country whose prime product will be terrorists and guerrilla fighters.

MT: Who perpetrates these terrible acts of war; is it just the guy next door?

Ehrenreich: Yes, potentially. War produces a certain kind of person; a certain kind of man. It brutalizes, but it also produces men who get addicted to the warrior life, to its thrills, to the solidarity you have with your fellow soldiers.

It’s not just that warriorlike men make war, but war turns around and makes more warriorlike men. The bombing now in Serbia, the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, is incubating the young men, and the girls too, who will be the terrorists and angry guerrilla fighters of tomorrow.

MT: Is this just a male characteristic? I’ve heard feminists speak only half-jokingly about testosterone poisoning.

Ehrenreich: First I’ll say it’s not so clear that it’s something innate to men, although I started with that analysis myself, as a feminist. Yes. There is something wrong with them. But a lot of that breaks down. Testosterone, for example, is not so clearly linked to aggression. That sort of fades away if you look at the actual research and controlled psychological laboratory studies.

These studies show very little difference between men and women. Women, when they’ve had the chance, fought in wars again and again, certainly in this century. They’ve taken part in wars of national liberation. They fought during World War II in the regular Soviet army against the Germans. It doesn’t seem to be so absolutely a male vs. female sort of thing.

MT: Some Serbs feel the Russians will come to their rescue. NATO thinks they don’t have to worry about them

Ehrenreich: This problem goes back to the reformation of NATO a few years ago. At that moment there should have been concern about the addition of the three postcommunist nations — Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Russia sat there saying, "We thought NATO existed to defend Europe against the Soviet Union. There is no Soviet Union today. Why do you need this military alliance? And, if you’re building a military alliance that deals with the whole Eurasian continent, why do you leave out Russia and the fragments of the former Soviet Union?"

The re-creation of NATO was a menacing move to Russia and the only explanation for doing it is that NATO is a major arms market. The United States is the biggest arms merchant in the world and we need it to exist even if there is no enemy because of the economic addiction we have to militarism through arms manufacturing and marketing.

MT: Can we count on a rational response from all the parties involved?

Ehrenreich: People suspend their normal rational judgment when the shooting starts. Also, there’s one very serious matter going on between the United States and Russia. We are attempting to get them straightened out as far as Y2K goes, so that their nuclear weapons don’t just shoot off spontaneously when the date changes on New Year’s Day 2000. Russia recently terminated its Y2K compliance program with the U.S., and that’s terrifying.