JUNE 6, 1944. D-DAY. SEVENTY YEARS AGO. Under the deadly fire of bombs and guns, the Allied Armies retook to the beaches of Normandy. Our Longest Day, historians labeled that day of heroic sacrifice. I haven’t seen much about D-Day in the news in recent years. I looked for it, but it hasn’t been there in real depth. Occasionally a photo, a remembered story, or a map. That’s all. I was 13 years old in 1944. I followed the war intensely in those days, watched every newsreel, read every issue of Life Magazine. Bobby Longtine was our first neighborhood casualty, in the Pacific theater of operations. I will never forget when I saw the Gold Star hung in his parent’s window.
We had our heroes as well as our casualties. Dick Bong, America’s leading ace, who shot down 40 Jap planes, was from Poplar, Wisconsin, a few miles from Superior, my hometown. I remember our excitement when he married Marge Vattendahl, the sister of one of my good East High classmates, and how he thrilled us all when he brought his P-38, named “Marge,” to Superior and flew it Chinese style — one wing low — down our main street. He received the Medal of Honor from General MacArthur. He was sent “home for good” in January 1945 to promote the sale of war bonds and so we would end the war with a live hero; but he died test-flying one of the new fangled Lockheed jets on August 6, 1945, the day we bombed Hiroshima. To this day I cherish a picture of Dick Bong and his P-38, and his autographed dollar bill, birthday gifts from my sister, Cathy. When I was a kid, I made a balsa model of his P-38, covered with tissue paper, complete with a picture of Marge. I was active in Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Barry Goldwater had been one of Bong’s flight instructors.
We were proud Americans one and all. We believed the war was the war to end all wars. And after the war, our Marshall Plan pretty much became the savior of the world, putting a lot of destitute nations on the mend.
But the war wasn’t the war to end all wars. Memories are short. I was at the University of Wisconsin when the Korean War got in full swing in 1950. Several of my high school buddies got trapped on the Chosin Reservoir when the Chinese intervened. They brought home tough stories. I was lucky, my two-year stint in service started as the war wound down.
In 1971, during the Vietnam War, anthropologists Louis Leakey and Robert Ardrey lectured at the Leakey Foundation about Aggression and Violence in Man. During their discussions Ardrey said:
“After our experience in Vietnam I would hope Americans would learn that [a war] of intrusion is not a rewarding way of life.”
There were some pretty active Vietnam protests back then, and there was Peter, Paul and Mary and their soulful Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
But we didn’t learn. Wars of “intrusion” continue, recently in the Baltic, Iraq and Afghanistan, and take up a hefty portion of our national budget, kill our young men and women and cause a lot of unemotional killing of others we have been propagandized to call “collateral damage” — the death of others, not enemies, but not members of our tribe. Today’s wars of intrusion draw fewer protesters because our soldiers are not conscripts and because we are not asked to sacrifice back home as we were in WWII. We simply add to our perpetual borrowing to pay for our wars.
If we travel around our globe in this our 21st Century, if we aren’t an arms manufacturer or gun dealer, any close look at human aggression can be pretty discouraging.
Was Raymond Dart (who discovered Australopithecus africanus in 1924) right in the 1950s when he developed the theory in his The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man that interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution?
Is there No End to War as Walter Laqueur wrote? Has man always fought, as Steven LeBlanc concludes in Constant Battles? Was Konrad Lorenz right about man’s instincts for aggression against his fellow man in On Aggression? Was Geoffrey Perret right about us in Country Made by War?
In contrast, was Rousseau‘s romantic view right? Do we come from a stock of “Noble Savages,” an ancient peaceful species who lived a life worthy of emulation? Or, is Rousseau’s idea akin to Plato’s “feel-good” “Noble Lie?”
As I pondered these thoughts, I returned to Ardrey’s and Leakey’s 1971 Leakey Foundation lectures. Ardrey reasoned our killer instinct evolved over a million or more years, from our early experiences as a hunter, and has been a necessary trait for survival.
Louis Leakey disagreed, attributing our aggression to our societal development, beginning as small communities of cave dwellers, where we gained control over fire, and speech and socialization evolved over the last 40,000 or so years. Leakey said, “(W)ith the arrival of real speech, although it has done a great many beautiful things, at the same time it has done certain awfully bad things, because it gave us time and leisure to invent ideas and some of those ideas, I am afraid, were the causes of our aggression.“
Among Ardrey’s and Leakey’s agreed-upon-conclusions was that humans are aggressively “territorial.” Individually and functioning in group or societies, humans aggressively value, conquer, and defend territory. Territory is a prime source of conflict, both in human and chimp communities.
As he wound up his lecture, Ardrey concluded,
“Evolution makes difficult to learn that which is not survival value. … It is easy to learn to kill to hunt. And now we have to unlearn to kill and it is difficult.”
Leakey responded, “(E)ither we will be destroyed … or we are going to save the world for our future generations.”
Ardrey’s conclusion — “we have to unlearn to kill” to survive — stopped me. What about when the conflicts are over deeply-held values and beliefs, and the perceived rights that come with them? What about the potential for calamitous conflicts we face today because of growing food and water shortages brought about by our abuse of our Earth’s resources? Do we solve our sharing of our Earth’s precious but limited resources by war? By land grabs? By Darwinian economics? By negotiation and sharing?
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Albert Schweitzer wrote some eight decades ago in Out of My Life and Thought:
“A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help. As soon as man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins. By having a reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world. By practicing reverence for life we become good, deep, and alive. By respect for life we become religious in a way that is elementary, profound and alive. I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics. The man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own.”
It would be more than naive to hope that all of us will simply, and quickly, follow Schweitzer’s path or take the Darwin within us off autopilot to favor Ardrey’s advice when it comes to confrontations or actions involving our deeply-held beliefs and values, or our perceptions of our sacred rights regarding territory or the Earth’s cherished offerings we consider exclusively ours.
But we have a problem. We live by our stories. Over the centuries, our ancient stories have lost their spiritual meaning as guiding metaphors and are held in the hearts and minds of too many as rigid, undeniable facts, though their “truths,” once the only truths we had, are out of touch with what we now know. Joseph Campbell’s wrote in Transformations of Myth Through Time:
“But there is a difference between the science of 2,000 B.C. and the science of A.D. 2,000. And we’re in trouble on it because we have a sacred text that was composed somewhere else by another people a long time ago and has nothing to do with the experience of our lives. And so there’s a fundamental disengagement.”
Because much of what we assumed to be factually accurate in the ancient stories we have chosen to live by is not, it has to be unlearned. Unlearning is the first step in our spiritual re-engagement with our Earth and with each other. The second stage: creating new stories to guide us, filling the voids of the unlearned stories with spiritual metaphors in art, literature, and song, rooted in the science and mystery and deep spiritual wonders of our Earth, as we grow in our understanding. New lessons about human singularity — our Earth’s diverse, but One World community. Stories that minimize our tribalism.
New stories that build our reverence for life, bringing us “into a spiritual relation with the world.” For then we will, as Schweitzer has written, “become religious in a way that is elementary, profound and alive.”
Then, we will have Honored Our Longest Day.