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A Buddhist Perspective on the New Gulf War




David R. Loy

Professor in the Faculty of International Studies,
Bunkyo University, Chigasaki, Japan

TFF associate


March 24, 2003


I think Buddhism can give us some special insight into why this crazy, stupid war seems about to happen. A huge international antiwar movement has sprung up almost overnight because the "official" reasons for attacking Iraq simply do not add up. Despite extreme efforts to prove otherwise, no connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda has been discovered. Saddam is a brutal dictator? Of course; but since when is that something that bothers the U.S. government? We have supported many brutal dictators around the world, as long as they serve our interests &endash; as we armed and supported Saddam when he attacked Iran and gassed his own Kurds. If his weapons of mass destruction make him so dangerous, why have been they so difficult to find? And why aren't his neighbors more worried about them? Because Saddam's military threat is a fragment of what it was 12 years ago. There is indeed an extraordinarily powerful nation that continues to develop horribly destructive weapons, and continues to abrogate international treaties that would control them. But that rogue nation is not Iraq.

So what is really going on? This is where Buddhist teachings can help. Karma emphasizes the intentions behind our actions. We suffer, and make others suffer, because of the "three poisons" or roots of evil: greed, ill will and delusion. These must be transformed into their positive counterparts: generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. These problems are collective as well as individual: there is institutionalized greed (e.g., corporations), institutionalized ill will (e.g., the military industrial complex) and institutionalized delusion (e.g., the media). We can see these three poisons motivating the new Gulf War.

Greed? For oil, of course, as well as an opportunity to remake the Middle East according to our own liking (or so we think).

Ill will? We are told that Saddam tried to assassinate Bush I. More important, probably, is that the Dad's old guard is back in power, and they want to finish the first Gulf War. They are still angry that Saddam survived it, whereas the first Bush administration did not survive the next election.. But there is another factor: the need to divert attention from the fact that Shrub and Co. have not been winning their war against terrorism. Bin Laden escaped and al Qaeda has regrouped. Afghanistan is descending back into chaos. More terrorist attacks are expected soon. Since this failure cannot be acknowledged, attention must be diverted to a new enemy. Another face must be found for evil -- or, more precisely, a new target for one's anger and frustration. This is especially true for a presidency that only found a direction for itself on 9-11. The timing of the switch was perfect, and responsible for success in the midterm elections.

This motivation is not necessarily all conscious. We are all familiar with how it works. Your boss gives you a hard time at the office, so when you come home and your kid says something mildly irritating, you slap him. It's the same (immature) principle.

Delusion? This is where it gets really interesting, from a Buddhist point of view. For one thing, there is the collective ego-inflation that results from being the world's only hyper-power. Power is measured by its resistance. With nothing to challenge U.S. military dominance, what need is there for restraint? One is free to remold the world to the heart's desire. The naughty word is empire, of course, yet in the long run such arrogance is self-destructive, because it forfeits all legitimacy.

But there is another, special insight that Buddhism has to offer here. It is connected with anatta, the "no-self" teaching. Anatta means that our core is hollow. The shadow-side of this emptiness is a sense of lack. Our no-self means we feel groundless, and that often makes life a futile quest to make ourselves feel more real. Individually, we seek being in symbolic ways such as money, fame, or through the eyes of our beloved. Yet there is also an important collective dimension that feeds ideologies such as nationalism and group struggles such as war. We are always relieved to discover that the sense of lack bothering us is due to something outside us &endash; personified in the enemy, who therefore must be defeated if we are to become whole and healed.

That is why war is sacred, and why we love violence. It seems to give us clear purchase on the sense of lack that otherwise tends to haunt us in an amorphous way. Violence focuses the source of our dissatisfaction outside us, where it can be destroyed. No wonder, then, that people tend to rejoice when war finally breaks out, as even Freud and Rilke initially did at the beginning of the first world war. We feel newly bonded with our neighbors in a struggle that is no longer unconscious but something we have some conscious control over. Our problem is no longer inside us, but the evil that is over there. In Afghanistan. Or Iraq.

When wars and revolutions do not bring us the salvation-from-lack we seek, though, we need repeated wars and continual revolutions. Since we can never fill up the hole at our core in this way and make ourselves really real, we always need a new devil outside us (or inside us: a "fifth column" of Islamic terrorist cells) to rationalize our failure and fight against. We hide this fact from ourselves by projecting our victory sometime into the future. If Afghanistan didn't give us the security we crave, defeating Iraq will. When that doesn't quell our festering sense of collective lack, we'll find some other evil to fight. North Korea, anyone?

The special problem today is that our increasing technological powers make this game increasingly dangerous. If we don't see through this cycle and stop it, we will destroy ourselves in the process of destroying others. Ultimately, our individual and collective lack can only be resolved spiritually, because that is the only way to realize our true ground. That is the point of the Buddhist path. We need to take our projections back into us and deal with them there. Instead of running away from my sense of lack, mindfulness training (such as zazen) makes me more aware of it. When I "forget myself" in meditation practice, the emptiness at my core can transform into a "peace that surpasses understanding," into a formless, spontaneous fountain of creativity free to become this or that. And to realize my own Buddha-nature in this way is to realize that everyone else &endash; yes, even terrorists, even Saddam -- has the same Buddha-nature. Buddhism emphasizes non-violence so much because this path is incompatible with what has been called "the myth of redemptive violence," the belief that sees violence as the solution to our problems.



© TFF & the author 2003  


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