By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, June 11, 2023
Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus, has plenty of insights, plenty of worries that may prove justified, and a fair bit of silliness. But it’s hard to argue with his summary of the Our Boys Didn’t Die in Vain Syndrome:
“The narrating self is the star of Jorge Luis Borges’s story A Problem. The story deals with Don Quixote, the eponymous hero of Cervantes’s famous novel. Don Quixote creates for himself an imaginary world in which he is a legendary champion, going forth to fight giants and save Lady Dulcinea del Toboso. In reality, Don Quixote is Alonso Quijano, an elderly country gentleman, the noble Dulcinea is an uncouth farm girl from a nearby village, and the giants are windmills. What would happen, wonders Borges, if out of his belief in these fantasies Don Quixote attacks and kills a real person. Borges asks a fundamental question about the human condition. What happens when the yarns spun by our narrating self cause great harm to our selves or those around us? There are three main possibilities, says Borges. One option is that nothing much happens. Don Quixote will not be bothered at all by killing a real man. His delusions are so overpowering that he could not tell the difference between this incident and his imaginary duel with the windmill giants. Another option is that once he takes a real life Don Quixote will be so horrified that he will be shaken out of his delusions. This is akin to a young recruit who goes to war believing that it is good to die for one’s country, only to be completely disillusioned by the realities of warfare. And there is a third option, much more complex and profound. As long as he fought imaginary giants, Don Quixote was just play-acting. But once he actually kills somebody he will cling to his fantasies for all they are worth, because they are the only thing giving meaning to his terrible crime. Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused. In politics, this is known as the Our Boys Didn’t Die in Vain Syndrome.”
Harari goes on to recount how Italy jumped into the First World War eager to retake Trento and Trieste from Austro-Hungary, thinking it would be easy, and lost thousands of troops in the first battle. Rather than tell grieving families that their kids died in vain, leaders proclaimed their intention to continue until victory. The second battle was worse, but the answer was more of the same. The third battle was even worse, and the answer the same. This went on until total defeat in the twelfth battle two years later. And not only politicians but ordinary people in droves believed ever more strongly in the mission, not despite the horrible slaughter of hundreds of thousands, but precisely because of it. This, Harari writes, is why priests would ask people to sacrifice a bull to a god, not because the non-existent god needs your bull any more than we need the “bull” of our politicians, but because you wouldn’t want to ever stop believing in a god to whom you had sacrificed so much — that would make you look like an idiot.
We are now coming up against this maddeningly irrational syndrome in Ukraine, on both sides of a war that may, in the end, kill all life on Earth so that those already killed in it should not have died in vain. Those supporting the Russian side may believe in the absolute goodness of Russian warmaking, citing perfectly true facts about decades of Western aggression and arrogance to justify horrific massacres. Those supporting the Ukrainian side may believe that their side, too, — but only their side, not the other — was helplessly forced into pure noble defense, than which there is no possible alternative but submission to mass torture, rape, and murder. They may cite perfectly true accounts of Russian attacks to justify their blanket opposition to negotiating peace. Both sides may still, after so many months of doing so, believe that victory is imminent for their side. This locks each side into insisting on complete surrender by the other. And now, increasingly, each side is — in addition — apparently driven by the desire that all the people who’ve died thus far on their own side be followed up by more people because of the OBDDV Syndrome.
The fact is that neither side is ever going to get anything better than the Minsk 2 agreement that they could have had years ago simply by complying with it, much less anything so much better than that as to outweigh all the murder and injury and destruction and trauma and homelessness and militarization and corrosion of culture and empowerment of fascists. There is no way in hell that either side’s “boys” — men, women, and children — will not have died in vain. But how do we persuade either side to accept that? How do we award each side with something good enough that they can claim that their sociopathic actions have had some benefit, and make each side accept that the other side is receiving any reward at all, and at the same time not encourage future warmaking by anybody? Or how can we best approximate such an impossible achievement?
Here’s an idea. Ukraine gets a ceasefire resulting from its valor and glory. Ukraine gets all Russian forces out of Ukraine. Ukraine gets a commitment from Russia not to attempt to conquer Ukraine. The people of Crimea and Donbass get to vote in globally monitored elections to determine their own fate, no matter what the Russians want, because democracy triumphs. Ukraine gets a commitment of no Russian military equipment or troops within 100k of its borders. Ukraine gets to choose its own economic policies without U.S. interference or sanctions on anything. Ukraine gets all of this in a deal that the stupid Russians believe works out well for them.
Russia gets a ceasefire resulting from its valor and glory. Russia gets all NATO forces out of Ukraine. Russia gets a commitment from Ukraine not to join NATO. The people of Crimea and Donbass get to vote in globally monitored elections to determine their own fate, no matter what Kiev or Washington wants, because these Eastern people’s wishes matter as much as anyone else’s. Russia gets a commitment of no Ukrainian military equipment or troops within 100k of its borders. Russia gets an end to U.S. sanctions. Russia gets all of this in a deal that the stupid Ukrainians believe works out well for them.
Such an agreement would be only the start of a long process of building trust and establishing the rule of law. Such an agreement might have to be arrived at by a series of verifiable steps, given the complete absence of trust right now. But such an agreement could be insisted upon right this minute by the vast majority of the people and nations on Earth that are not Russia or Ukraine/United States, and that don’t want nuclear war.
Harari’s book, by the way, does its bit to distract from the danger of nuclear war. Homo Deus begins by suggesting we move on from the now passé worries of famine, disease epidemics, and war. It’s been several years since Harari wrote the book. But people were dying of famine in significant numbers then, as now. And his argument that some people who cannot afford good diets now die of obesity from eating horrible foods instead of lacking food, does not suggest to me a moment to dust off our hands, declare success, and move on. Meanwhile, I think we can agree that disease pandemics are still with us, and note that the environmental destruction and bioweapons labs and other suspect factors are only being escalated. This was perfectly knowable several years ago, and Harari’s satisfaction with AIDS treatment being available to those with money is not good enough. He does acknowledge that worse epidemics may be yet to come, and that they will be human-created. He does not explain how that makes them any better.
Perhaps I can link to, rather than repeating, the problems with the pinkerist pretense that war is over. Not only is it not over, but it has made nuclear apocalypse more likely than ever and helped make general environmental collapse over a slightly longer period more likely than ever. Harari pretends that war was once everywhere, whereas in reality there were and are societies without war, and for most of its history war hardly resembled at all what it is today. He thinks nuclear deterrence is a great help. He says that poor countries have wars, without ever mentioning that rich countries manufacture the weapons. He thinks the current glorious peace could be ended by technology, such as through “cyberwar.”
To his credit, Harari eventually says that all this success is good reason to complete the job of eliminating famine, plague, and war, and not reason to cease doing that work. But the purpose of this whole introduction to his book is to justify moving on to the rest of the book, in which he speaks of famine, plague, and war as “disappearing,” and never even as “being eliminated.” He also brushes aside climate concerns and never even mentions overpopulation, even while focusing on possible future extensions of the human lifespan. But then he writes that he’s not advocating for moving on to pursuing human immortality; he’s merely predicting that this is what people will do. He notes that predictions can change outcomes, but seems more inclined to believe that his prediction will cause people to do the opposite rather than that it will encourage people to make it come true.
Harari eventually gets to the topic of environmental collapse and mentions in passing the need to not give nukes to people who believe in an “afterlife,” but doesn’t seem to realize how many decades too late that comment is.
The most troublesome bit in the book, however, may be Harari’s notion that because all material actions are determined by prior actions, “we don’t choose our desires.” The fact that my thoughts have probably been predetermined since long before I was born does not impact how I think about how I think, and does not impact how most people think about how they think. When I say that I’ve decided to do something, Harari concedes that indeed I have. But then he declares that I had a desire to make that choice, and that I did not choose to have that desire. Yet it’s possible that I did so choose to have that desire, in all the ways I’ve ever intended such a statement. It’s possible I chose to read all the right books, live in all the right cultures, develop all the right habits and disciplines to give myself that desire. When I decide to show up at a peace rally, my desire was informed by everything I’ve chosen to learn about peace, about war, and about the power of civic action. Telling people that determinism strips them of the ability to choose their desires, when they’ve never claimed to choose their desires in the sense intended by a medieval academic, is not helpful. If we don’t start choosing better desires fast, we’re doomed.