How Culture of War Threatens Human Civilization

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[Issue Of Principles]

The culture of war that permeates and dominates our consciousness threatens to make nonsense of the notion of a common humanity, which seems so imminent to flower with the globalization of communication and commerce.

The menacing culture is manifested in the hegemonic values and means deployed in settling socio-political differences and disputes. It finds particular expressions in local and national politics, as well as in international relations. In daily discourse, it is found in the militaristic idioms used to express strength; in the metaphors employed to convey masculine virtue; in the machismo traditions; in the way war heroes are placed on a pedestal, more or less as role models; and in glorification of war-related occasions, symbols and institutions. It can be detected in governmental priorities and resource allocation. And paradoxically, it sometimes finds sanction in religious dogmas.

The degree to which a culture of war or militarism is more or less accepted in society can be gauged, for example, in national budgets. A critical examination of virtually all national expenditures shows a pattern of allocation of resources to the military and armament that dwarfs investments in productive social sectors of society such as education, health care, agriculture, infrastructure, etc.

Hence, even during periods of economic crisis for the great majority of people, the predominance of the culture of war can be seen in the way military expenditures are regarded as sacred cows. In countries where millions of people have no food security, adequate health care and education, the culture of war can be seen in the obscene purchase of armaments and their circulation in society. In a number of countries in Africa, for example, the armaments purchased from national resources have been used to undermine democratic processes and to wage war against and terrorize ordinary citizen.

In the not so distant past, the catastrophic human and economic costs of using violence or military force to settle socio-political differences have left indelible scars in the body politics of a number of countries in various regions of the world. Prominent among these are: Afghanistan, Burma, Burundi, Chechnya, Darfur, Iraq, Liberia, North Korea, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the Congo, the Middle East, and Uganda, etc.

In all these countries, the tendency was and has been to place premium on, and make virtue of, militaristic means of resolving differences or disputes. If we are to avoid the type of carnage that took place in these countries and attempt to redeem humanity for a better world, it is imperative that we awake our consciences and adopt robust and effective strategies to eradicate the mutating pathology of violence that has become an integral equation in the calculus of domination.

Although we have all been impoverished and our humanity diminished by the culture of war, women in particular have borne the brunt and weight of suffering, if not dehumanization. The facts are grotesque and chillingly. Violence against women, who constitute more than a half of the human population, is a pervasive and cold reality of social life in most societies. It continues to devastate lives everywhere.

Data from relatively enlightened countries can be cited to illustrate the extent of the pathology against women. In Britain, around 1 in ten women experience rape or other violence each year. In the USA, about 17% of women have survived a completed or attempted rape. In South Africa, stories about violence against women have become such a staple of the media that they oftentimes simply numb moral sensibilities. A study by UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) found that women in South Africa who had experienced violence at the hands of their partners were 48 percent more likely to be infected with HIV than those who had not.

In a groundbreaking and extensive research, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that gender-based violence, or violence against women (VAW), is a major public health and human rights problem throughout the world. The WHO World Report on Violence and Health notes that "one of the most common forms of VAW is that performed by a husband or male partner.” The researchers found that cultural norms are a key contributing factor to the proliferation of violence against women.

And a recently released report by the UN Population Fund titled State of World Population, 2010, paints a grim picture of a global phenomenon of prejudice against women. It states that, “In all societies, to a greater or lesser degree, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture.” Similarly, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (DESA) report, The World’s Women 2010: Trends and Statistics concludes that the scourge of violence against women “is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace.”

The catalogue of grim statistics does not, however, capture the full spectrum of the human costs of violence against women, which are burned into their very being. They come in different forms and shades. Apart from the lives and relations shattered, these include:  traumatic disorders, lost of self esteem, stigmatization, psychology of victimhood, objectification of women, and a sense of dehumanization, suffered by women. The worst aspect of violence against women is the internalization of its value by both women and men, which perpetuates the vicious cycles of the culture of war.

In a powerfully poignant documentary by Lisa Jackson, “The Greatest Silence,” we are afforded a glimpse at the human cost of violence against women in the one country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Through the testimonies of women who went through the inferno of rape, kidnapping and mutilation at the hands of soldiers from both foreign militias and the Congolese army, we vicariously feel the cold-blooded and abominable brutalization of women and the denial of their human rights there.

Significantly too, the film gives us a clue to the main source of the problem.

What seems puzzling is that violence against women has continued despite the formal adoption of many national laws and international declarations and legal instruments in support of equality of treatment and empowerment of women.  Notable among these are: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDEW) and the Millennium Development Declaration. How are we to understand the tragic paradox and address it?

If we are to understand and effectively tackle violence against women and translate the ideals of equality of treatment of women into practical reality, it is not sufficient to simply condemn violence against women and issue formal declarations for women empowerment. The problem of effectively dealing with violence against women is essentially twofold.

In the first place, it requires that we properly diagnose the source of this festering pathology that gnaws away at the moral fibre, as well as physical and psychological vitality, of society. At the root of the problem are values and means in society. Put plainly, violence against women more often than not mirrors the culture of war and domination in the world. It is a manifestation of the hegemonic values and the means people use in society to resolve differences or disputes. In a real sense, violence against women is a reflection of the poverty of ethical values, rational consideration and insecurity of men in society.

When the modus operandi of militarism is adapted to interpersonal relations and grafted onto habit of instant gratification, it forms a lethal cocktail. This is often manifested in a behaviour that insists on one’s way without much consideration to other people’s legitimate interests. Hence, when one is not granted want one would like, the tendency is to employ force to acquire what one would otherwise not be rightly entitled to, just as countries use military might to obtain what they would not gain through reasoned dialogue.

The simple and profound point is that violence against women is not in the DNA of men. Rather, it is a socially constructed component of power relations, which is bereft of ethical grounding or moral compass. It is a learnt habit through socialization. This might be illustrated by analogy. Various studies have demonstrated that children who are raised in an environment where violence is used as a common means of settling differences over time internalize the mode of social interaction and regard it as normal. Once they regard violence as normal, they are likely themselves to be violent abusers in interpersonal relations. This is no less true of men in particular and people in general who are brought up in a culture of war.

The case of the Congo is instructive in this regard and illustrates how militarism takes hold of society, functions and is translated into violence against women. There, most of the people who perpetrate violence against women are men who bear arms and who have discovered the perverse “power” of the gun. It is evident that the culture of impunity against women developed in the throes of the vicious cycles of violence and counter violence that have gripped the country since the mid 1990s, when systematic infusion of violence in socio-political interactions and economic transactions assumed revolutionary significance.

During the period wars acquired new symbolic, psychological and material meanings. Indeed, it was through violence or wars that those who possessed and utilized the means of destruction acquired power, prestige and livelihood.  In some cases, combatants exacted through violence much more in a month than most people would earn in a year. In effect, war became the main means for upward social mobility and maintenance of power. For a good many men in the grips of the crises, wars or the use of violence brought them into contact with women and illegitimately allowed them to engage in all sorts of transgression, such as rape, which had traditionally been regarded as taboo.

In the Congo, as in other countries affected by prolonged civil wars, thousands of people become casualties of the frequent use of force and militaristic means. Significantly as well, traditional institutions, means and codes of peaceful social interaction are dealt devastating blows. In the long run, from the ashes of conflicts, new and lethal values, which often bring about fragmentation of social compact between various groups, emerge.  Violence against women is one symptom of a culture of war that society tends to be wedded to.

It is therefore the triumph of the culture of war and politics of violence, which render the doctrine of rights and the ideals of human equality more or less meaningless for the great majority of people, especially for women.

And secondly, having identified the societal nature and source of violence against women, we should embark upon concerted and multifaceted education to raise consciousness, emancipate minds about the problem and transform the calculus of human relations. The task would require that in place of the culture of war, we should resolve to build institutions and a culture of peace based on ethical values of informed empathy, understanding, solidarity, tolerance, compassion, cooperation, reasoned discourse, dialogue and the rule of law. Only a new set of ethical values, means of resolving differences and of treating one another would bring about effective eradication of violence against women, as well as enable women to live meaningful lives as human beings who are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Education to foster ethical values in society should begin in families, then in formal schools, in workplaces and should be displayed in the conduct of power elites. My mother would say that the type of education we required must be based on a common sense about our humanity, although common sense seems not to be very common.

In the final analysis, we should realize that violence against women is intricately interlinked to the culture of war, which is bereft of ethical values. As such, a critical challenge in the efforts to eradicate violence against women is to build a common ground to globalize ethical values that would bring about the flowering a peace culture in the world.

Given that people wedded to war culture are quite powerful, there is a need for an ecumenical movement to wage peace in every facet of life. Only an ecumenical movement for peace informed by ethical values of moral and intellectual solidarity will alter the tide of history which hitherto has lifted the culture of war and violence against women to a structural level in the world. Once an ecumenical movement for peace is consummated by the spirit of ubuntu it would inaugurate a new dawn of a common humanity in today’s global village.

Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu is Professor at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, USA

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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