The Nature of War

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Poater by Michaelsen Rolf (Norway)

After I wrote my last post about women impinging on men’s territory, it occurred to me that I had hit on the very reason why there’s a war between the sexes in the first place.  Because what is war anyway but a conflict over territory? Even when the purported reason for the war is to protect some ideal or philosophy, it all boils down to a battle for territory.

Take the war in Iraq. Bush justified it as a fight for democracy, but in reality it was to protect our territory. Those who orchestrated the war wanted to make sure that no one (read terrorists) would ever be able to take over America. And, to be honest, it was also to protect our “territory” in the sense of our access to Middle Eastern oil.

Everyone has territory. It can be physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, philosophical, familial—you name it, we all have it. The reason why territory is so important to us is because what we “possess” makes up a great deal of our identities. Who would you be without your possessions, both material and immaterial? Without your home, your family, your religion, your ideas? And make no mistake, even with those things that are also possessed by others (like religion), we will still protect our version of it.

One of the things we possess is our roles. If anyone tries to take over our “God-given” roles, we become defensive, even aggressive. Thus the man feels threatened when his wife makes more than he does, because his special role is to be the provider. And his wife tends to shut him out of the things that define her role as a wife and mother: nurturing and consoling the children, decorating and maintaining the home.

That’s why it’s hard to let go of these roles even among egalitarian couples. The father might be all for his wife contributing to the family’s net worth, and yet resents it when she does it better than he does. The mother is all for sharing parenting and household tasks, but finds fault with everything her husband does.

It’s not so much that we want to prevent others  from trespassing on our territory, it’s that we want to retain control over it. They can “visit” all they want; we just don’t want them to take over. You can see this dynamic when women become mothers. It’s especially hard when our children are infants, for instance, to relinquish control over their care. We want our husbands to help out, but we feel uncomfortable or even angry when they try to do too much.

By the time our children are older and we could really use help taking them to doctor appointments and attending their school events, not to mention disciplining them, the pattern is already set. We may chafe under the responsibilities of child-rearing, but by then we’ve bought into the idea that they’re our responsibilities.

And it’s not just men who make us feel threatened when they attempt to usurp our parenting role. Sometimes we feel even more threatened by other women: the nanny, our mothers, our exes’ second wives. One of the things that made me hate my children’s stepmother when they were little was when she had their hair cut short (really short) during a summer visit. I still can’t believe the gall of that woman! Who did she think she was—their mother?? (And of course, I blamed my ex, too, for allowing her to do it; he impinged on my territory.)

It seems to me, however, that it is men who feel the most threatened than women do by the opposite sex’s intrusion into their territories. Men have a thing about defending their territory. They also like expanding it.That could be what gets us into wars. Would the world be better off if more leaders were women? Not necessarily. Because once we’ve identified our territories, we can be just as ferocious as men in defending them.

It’s normal for humans to want to have areas of expertise that are unique to them. But can we afford the idea that we don’t have to share with anyone else? Look at the United States. It prides itself on being the epitome of democracy. But that only makes us look down on all other forms of government. And it makes us feel that we can tell (or force) other countries to do it our way.

Our insistence on protecting our territory is one reason why we refuse to co-operate with other countries. All we care about is protecting our own boundaries. It makes sense that the U.S. enjoyed the most good will during and after World War II, when it co-operated with other nations against Hitler’s and the Japanese’s attempts to take over the world. Compare that with the world’s attitude toward the U.S. now that we’re going it alone in Iraq. Or when we refused to participate in the Kyoto Protocol against global warming.

The reason this last point is significant is because co-operation is exactly what is needed in order to prevent war, whether it’s war against other countries or the war between the sexes. We have to stop thinking in terms of territory and open our boundaries to the influence of others.

Unfortunately, we’re not seeing many instances of co-operation these days. That could partly be because we protect our territory more when we feel it’s being threatened. Those who have recently or historically held the upper ground are feeling threatened by groups they feel are attempting to take over. Christians feel threatened by Muslims, Americans by terrorists, Republicans by Democrats, conservatives by liberals, Arizona by Mexico, Wall Street by Main Street, the rich by the poor, men by women.

War should always be a last resort. But too often it is the first reaction to a breach of territory. There are other ways to achieve ends that will satisfy the majority. But using them requires that we give up control over our perceived possessions (which can include intangibles like power, expertise, birthright, etc.).  And that is something that few people are ready to do.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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