Twenty years ago, I visited Northern Ireland. Walking along the haunting image of the wall brought me back to a 60 Minutes report during the early 1970s. In 1974, Morley Safer reported on just how much destruction and devastation Northern Ireland was facing. The conflict was named “The Troubles.”
The Troubles was a violent Ireland sectarian conflict lasting from 1968 to 1998 between Protestant unionists (loyalists), who desired the province to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the Roman Catholic nationalists (republicans), who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
Safer was able to gather a group of young Catholics and Protestants. One of the most compelling lines I remember today came from a young attendee. The exchange (not verbatim) went something like:
“Why do you want to kill (him/her)?” Shafer asked.
“Because that’s what my father did.”
In 1995, Shafer returned and met the town doctor, Charles Sullivan. Sullivan told Safer that many children suffered a series of psychological side effects as a result of the war — from nightmares to stuttering. The worst of it, he said, was that children were starting to associate all deaths with violence.
Fast forward to Iran.
The killing of Qassem Suleimani, is probably one the most consequential act taken against the regime in Tehran in thirty years—even if we don’t know what those consequences will be. One thing is clear: conflicts between countries could easily spin out of control.
World War I started after heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. A 1325 war between two Italian states, Bologna and Modena, killed 2,000 people. It started because some Modenese soldiers took the bucket from Bologna’s town well. A 1925 fight that saw 20,000 Greeks meet 10,000 Bulgarians on the battlefield. The catalyst was a dog that had gotten away from a Greek soldier. The soldier chased after the dog and Bulgarian border guards, seeing a Greek soldier running through their territory, shot him. At least 50 people died.
Mathematician Peter Turchin’s research suggests America’s cycle of violence repeats every 50 years. The surge of violence begins in the same way as a forest fire: explosively. Only after a period of escalation, followed by sustained violence, citizens start to “yearn for the return of stability and an end to the fighting.” And what is that ‘explosive?’ Stupidity.
The commonality between the Northern Ireland conflict, World War 1, the 1325 Bologna and Modena war, and the Greek Bulgarian war is ‘stupidity.’ When it comes to predicting the future, history reminds us of crucial warning signals – heightened rhetoric or the inability to understand the other side. War’s participants fail to grasp how the other side was thinking and feeling.
In spirituality, our morality is founded upon principles, not rules. In Buddhism, these beliefs are expressed in Precepts and include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In general, most spiritual principles include kindness, gentleness, mercy, and tolerance. The same is true of most religions. Even the most extreme circumstances do not erase those principles or make it “righteous” or “good” to violate them. Yet, we do.
History shows us how wars start. But history also teaches us how rarely they turn out as planned. History also shows us how difficult conflicts are to stop. Much has changed about war, but certain things remain constant: Stupidity and death.
The only thing that wins is death.