Just as conventional doctors mistakenly think of health as the absence of disease, military strategists think of peace as the absence of war. Here’s the case for radically rethinking the myth of national security.
THE THREAT of nuclear war is the most dramatic symptom of a multifaceted, global crisis that touches every aspect of our lives: our health and livelihood, the quality of our environment and our social relationships, our economy, technology, our politics—our very survival on this planet.
Conventional politicians no longer know where to turn to minimize the damage. They argue about priorities and about the relative merits of short-term technological and economic “fixes” without realizing that the major problems of our time are simply different facets of a single systematic crisis. They are closely interconnected and interdependent and cannot be understood through the fragmented approaches pursued by our academic disciplines and government agencies. Rather than solving any of the difficulties, such approaches merely shift them around in the complex web of social and ecological relations. A resolution can be found only if the structure of the web itself is changed, and this will involve profound transformations of our social and political institutions, values, and ideas.
The first step in overcoming
the crisis, in my view, is to recognize that the required profound cultural
transformation is, in fact, already
beginning to take place. This transformation has many aspects. At its core is a
dramatic shift of world views; a shift from a mechanistic to a holistic and
ecological vision of reality. The paradigm that is now beginning to recede has
dominated our culture for several hundred years, during which it has
significantly influenced the rest of the world. This world view consists of a
number of ideas and values, among them the belief that the universe is a
mechanical system composed of elementary material building blocks, the view of
the human body as a machine, the view of life in a society as a competitive
struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved
through economic and technological growth, and the belief that a society in
which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a
basic law of nature. During recent decades all of these assumptions have been
found severely limited and in need of radical revision.
The mechanistic world view
was formulated most succinctly in seventeenth-century science by Galileo,
Descartes, Newton, Bacon, and several others. During the subsequent three
hundred years it was extremely successful and dominated all scientific thought.
Today, however, its limitations have become clearly visible, and scientists and
nonscientists alike will have to change their underlying philosophies in
profound ways in order to participate in the current cultural transformation.
I would like to illustrate
the limitations of Cartesian-Newtonian thinking with two examples—health and
peace—examples that will turn out to show some striking parallels. The
mechanistic view of health still dominates our medical institutions and the
mechanistic view of peace dominates the thinking of our politicians and the
military. In both cases, we have to realize, of course, that the mechanistic
view and the “engineering approach,” as I shall call it, are of great value.
But they are limited and must be integrated into a larger holistic framework.
Descartes compared the human
organism to a clockwork. “I consider the
human body as a machine,”
he wrote. “My thought compares a sick man and an ill-made clock with my idea
of a healthy man and a well-made clock.” Many characteristics of current
medical theory and practice can be traced back to this Cartesian imagery. Health
is often defined as the absence of disease, and disease is seen as a
malfunctioning of biological mechanisms which are studied from the points of
view of cellular and molecular biology. The doctor’s role is to intervene,
using medical technology to correct the malfunctioning of a specific mechanism,
different parts of the body being treated by different specialists.
As medical scientists define
health as the absence of disease, so military strategists define peace as the
absence of war, and the engineering approach to health has its counterpart in
the engineering approach to peace. Politicians and military men tend to perceive
all problems of defense as problems of technology. The idea that social and
psychological considerations—let alone philosophy or poetry—could also be
relevant is not entertained. Moreover, questions of security and defense are
analyzed predominantly in Newtonian terms—”power blocks,” “action and
reaction,” the “political vacuum,” and so on.
In contemporary health care
the human organism is generally dissociated from the natural and social
environment in which it is embedded, and the large network of phenomena that
influence health is reduced to its physiological and biochemical aspects. In
very similar ways, the conventional approach to defense reduces the large
network of phenomena that influence peace to its strategic and technological
aspects. And even those aspects are further reduced as politicians and the
military continue to talk about national security without recognizing the
dangerous fallacy of this simplistic and fragmented notion. Most of our
politicians still seem to think that we can increase our own security by making
others feel insecure. Since the threats made with today’s nuclear weapons
threaten to extinguish life on the entire planet, the new thinking about peace
must necessarily be global thinking. In the nuclear age, the entire concept of
national security has become outdated: there can only be global security.
In conventional medical
thinking, the therapy involves technological intervention. The self-organizing
and self-healing potential of the patient is not taken into account. Similarly,
conventional military thinking holds that conflicts are best resolved by technological
intervention and does not take into account the self-organizing potential of
people, communities, and nations—see Afghanistan, Grenada, Poland, Nicaragua,
and many other examples.
The conceptual problem at
the center of contemporary health care is the confusion between disease
processes and disease origins. Instead of asking why an illness occurs and
trying to remove the conditions that lead to it, medical researchers try to
understand the mechanisms through which the disease operates, so that they can
then interfere with them. Very often, their research is guided by the idea of a
single mechanism that dominates all the others and can be corrected by technological
intervention. Similarly, politicians tend to he blind to the origins of conflict
and concentrate instead on the external processes: for example, on the visible
acts of individual violence rather than the hidden structural and institutional
The mechanistic world view
has been complemented by a value system that is much older than
Cartesian-Newtonian science. The values, attitudes, and behavior patterns which
dominate our culture and are embodied in our social institutions are typical
traits of patriarchal culture. Like all patriarchal societies, our society tends
to favor self-assertion over integration, analysis over synthesis, rational
knowledge over intuitive wisdom, competition over cooperation, expansion over
None of these values and
attitudes is intrinsically good or bad, hut the imbalance that is characteristic
of our society today is unhealthy and dangerous. The most severe consequence of
this imbalance is the ever-increasing threat of nuclear war, brought about by an
overemphasis on self-assertion, control and power, excessive competition, and a
pathological obsession with “winning” in a situation where the whole concept
of winning has lost its meaning, because there can be no winners in a nuclear
There is now a rich feminist
literature on the roots of militarism and war in patriarchal values and
patriarchal thinking. Patriarchy, these authors point out, operates within the
context of dominance/submission. Thus parity of nuclear weapons is not enough
for American generals: they want superiority. This “macho” competition in
the arms race extends to the size of missiles. During one administration,
military lobbyists persuaded politicians to spend more money on defense by
showing them upright models of Soviet and American missiles, in which the Soviet
missiles were larger, although it was known that the larger missiles were
technically inferior. The phallic shape of these missiles makes the sexual
connotation of this competition in missile size obvious. Patriarchy equates
aggression and dominance with masculinity, and warfare is held to be the
ultimate initiation into true manhood.
To conclude my illustration of the parallels between concepts of health and concepts of peace within the old paradigm, I should mention that in both areas the mechanistic views are perpetrated not only by scientists, politicians, and generals, hut also—and perhaps even more forcefully—by the pharmaceutical and military industries, which have invested heavily in the old paradigm. The scientific establishment and the corporate community match each other perfectly, since the outdated Cartesian world view underlies both the theoretical framework of the former and the technologies and economic motives of the latter. To change this situation is now absolutely vital for our well-being and survival, and change is possible if we are able, as a society, to shift to the new holistic and ecological models.
The systems view of living
organisms seems to provide an ideal basis for a holistic approach to health,
an approach that is profoundly ecological and thus in harmony with the
Hippocratic tradition which lies at the roots of Western medicine. At the same
time, the parallels between health and peace can be carried further:
Corresponding to the systems view of health there is also a systems view of
At the core of the systems
view of health lies the notion of dynamic balance. Health is an experience of
well-being resulting from a dynamic balance that involves the physical and
psychological aspects of the organism, as well as its interactions with its
natural and social environment. The natural balance of living organisms
includes, in particular, the balance between their self-assertive and
integrative tendencies. To be healthy, an organism has to preserve its
individual autonomy, but at the same time it has to be able to integrate itself
harmoniously into larger systems. Imbalance manifests itself as stress, and
excessive stress is harmful, often leading to illness.
A holistic approach to peace
will consist largely in finding healthy, nonviolent ways of conflict resolution.
This will mean, first of all, developing a holistic view of the network of
economic, social, and political patterns out of which conflicts arise. Once
these patterns have been understood, a wide range of methods may he used to resolve
the conflicts Humanistic psychologists, family therapists, and social workers
have spent the last two decades studying group dynamics and have developed a
whole spectrum of techniques of stress management and conflict resolution. It is
now time to apply these techniques at the political level—nationally, between
nations, and globally.
Age Journal, March/April, 1988