Out Of Weakness

Understanding the roots and ravages of war can lead to healing

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 44
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Elsewhere in this issue Richard Rathbun spoke of the need for more deep thinking on the problem of war. Andrew Bard Schmookler has continued thinking about it since the publication of his much-acclaimed book, The Parable of the Tribes, excerpted in IC #7 (Autumn 1984), which argued that the evolution of civilization should be understood not as an expression of human nature or free human choice, but as a function of the intersocietal anarchy that inevitably accompanied civilization’s emergence. The lack of any natural restraint or effective human law among civilized human societies has led to inevitable confrontations; and once one party in conflict exercises force, all other parties are virtually compelled to do likewise or face displacement and/or annihilation. Power spreads through the system like a disease, and all must adopt the ways of war.

The following are selected passages from Schmookler’s new book, Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds That Drive Us to War. The new work builds on the previous one, but it goes deeper to explore how our traumatic history has wounded and disabled us – and to point towards a way of healing.

War is both the parent and child of human fears. For the people of the world today, the expansion of our powers of destruction has increased the scope of our fears. As before, each nation worries about impingement or conquest by rival powers. But a new element has been added. We are haunted by the possibility that in a fit of bellicose passion we human beings may self-destruct. This danger casts a shadow over everything we love.

To avoid this new and cataclysmic danger, we must master an ancient problem. To end the plague of war, we must understand both the adaptive and the maladaptive dimensions of our fears and our efforts to protect ourselves.


People go to war to defend many things. It is sane to defend our lives and homelands against those who would take them from us. But the engines of destruction in human affairs are often fueled by a defensiveness of a different kind.

Contrary to rationalist and materialist assumptions about the human motivation, what we human beings seem most ferocious in defending are certain beliefs we hold – or want to hold – about ourselves. We are not weak, we insist, nor are we insignificant. We most emphatically are not evil. Nor, we declare, are we confused or bewildered. It is in defense of these beliefs that we have so often been ready to kill and to die. This helps explain why the warrior spirit has been tinged with madness. For these beliefs about ourselves we defend so zealously we inwardly sense to be false.

We feel our own confusion, but we insist on denying it because it is frightening. Even less are we prepared to acknowledge the painful guilt from the sense of our own evil. And, outraged by our condition as mere specks at the mercy of forces beyond our control, we fight to uphold a grandiose sense of our importance and power. The human condition can be terrifying, and we fight to protect our flight from that reality. The fact that we are struggling against what we unconsciously feel is true only makes us more desperate and destructive, and ultimately more self-destructive.


Arguing that we fight because we are in flight from "the human condition" is misleading in one important respect. It implies that the distress from which we strive to escape is a part of our birthright, inextricable from our inherent nature. True, we did not begin with perfect peace, any more than we were created in a perfect paradise. But with the unfolding of the destiny of our species, something of both peace and paradise was lost. It is not "the human condition" per se that our warrior spirit seeks to deny. What we cannot bear is the human condition as it has been rendered by our tormented history. This correction implies both a blessing and a tragedy concerning human destiny.

All human beings are fallible and vincible, and all must control their impulses. Were this enough to set us at war with our condition and with one another, we all would be conduits of destruction. But some of us know peace. If it were incompatible with peace to be intelligent, social, and mortal, there would be scant basis to hope for the survival of our species. But there is ground for hope. We are capable of living at peace. This is the blessing.

The tragedy lies in the way social evolutionary forces beyond our control have compounded the inevitable stresses of human life and made them more than we can bear. When, with our creativity, we extricated ourselves from the regime of biologically evolved nature by developing civilization, we seemed to become free. But, by a tragic irony, this apparent freedom is not what it seems. What seems to be freedom for any one society is anarchy in an interacting system of such societies.

The reign of power is dictated not by human nature but by the anarchy into which we are inadvertently plunged. Any creature whose cultural evolution brought it across the threshold of civilization would have to contend with this agonizing evolutionary process. Any such creature would be condemned to engage in a ceaseless struggle in which destruction is not part of a larger, harmonious order that protects sacred living systems. And the resulting process of selection would magnify the worst of that creature’s potentialities into laws of its cultural existence.

This is the tragedy of the human experience so far: because of human creativity but not because of human choice, the thrust of civilization’s development has been toward the ways of power and destruction. Our wonderful qualities of mind and imagination have condemned us to live in chronic fear and insecurity.

This view of the dynamics of the evolution of civilization puts a new light on our problems in coping with "the human condition." The inescapable problem of power that arose with civilization has both intensified the burdens of our condition and weakened our capacity to bear them. It is the wounds inflicted upon us by history that have made us so uncomfortable being what we are. Were the world around us not so threatening, we would not be so defensive.


I speak of "us" human beings, then I use some monster like Hitler as an illustration of "our" condition. Some, I imagine, will object to such a connection. What has a Hitler to do with us? Nothing, many would like to believe. But though it is an understandable temptation to regard the likes of Hitler or Pol Pot or Idi Amin as totally "other," it is a dangerous error to succumb to that temptation.

The monsters among us provide a valuable insight into the human condition. The inner demons that make a Hitler monstrous are to be found in the rest of us as well. As I have studied these pathologies of destructiveness, everything I have found in these destroyers resonates with some part of myself. The difference is partly a matter of degree, but more important, it is a matter of the way in which the elements are organized. What differentiates Hitler is that the demonic elements that you and I also have within us gained possession of him. What we may keep hidden and under control, in a Hitler or a Stalin showed its naked face to the world.

The value of these extreme and monstrous examples lies in the opportunity they provide to learn the faces of the demons that lurk also in us. Then we might recognize those demons for what they are if they should come to us at some stressful moment and bid us allow them to take charge of our "protection." Hitler was a destroyer who would have brought the whole world down with him. As we try to preserve our survival in an age of nuclear weapons, it behooves us to come to know the face of the world-destroying impulse, and to recognize that this impulse might rise also in us.


Most animals, in their natural state, comport themselves with dignity and poise. Not only the regal lion, but also the grazing deer; not only the elephant, but also the shy gorilla. Anthropologists dwelling among the few hunter-gatherer societies remaining in our times have noted the dignity of their informants. To feel craven and of little worth is not our birthright. But neither were we fashioned to strut with bloated pride.

The hypertrophic ego of the warrior is a sign of a perturbation of the natural human instrument. Like a musical string pulled from its place, injured human pride oscillates between extremes. The inflated narcissism of the warrior is one extreme of an oscillating spirit; it is a rebound from the other extreme, the experience of being degraded.

At the core of this narcissism is the feeling of having been wronged. Not that being wronged enhances one’s self-esteem – it injures it. From bad treatment one absorbs the feeling that one is bad. However, mistreatment can also engender the insistence on the opposite, compensatory image of oneself as superior. Conscious megalomania, as Jung observed, is the visible companion of unconscious feelings of inferiority. It is not for nothing that boot camp, to mold warriors, humiliates and terrorizes the recruits. To make "a few good men," first treat them worse than dogs. Thus does the warrior gain his pride.


Our species has made itself mighty, but our strength resides not at the core of our being. We can destroy the earth, but we lack the solid strength of a healthy creature comfortable with itself. War is a test of strength. But the war against our bondage to war is a test of another, truer kind of strength.

We have understandably worshiped the might of the warrior, for his sword has governed much of our history and has divided those who shall live from those who shall die. Behold him, glorious and proud in his armor. Yet, we can see beyond the armor to the weakness. Armor, though a form of strength, is a signal of vulnerability concealed beneath: what is secure does not need to be covered with dead layers of protection. The body of the warrior, even stripped of its metal protection, stands before us "armored." The Reichians speak of "body armor," the bunchings of muscle that tighten the body, blocking the flow of life energy, in an effort to keep what is threatening from penetrating into one’s experience. In the statues of the warrior through history, we see that the body of the warrior wears such armor of flesh and blood. His body bears the imprint of fear, which makes his body rigid and closed.

Another kind of strength is imaged in the representations of Jesus and Buddha. Jesus’s body shows vulnerability. It is not that he is more vulnerable than the warrior, but rather that he is comfortable enough with his vulnerability not to hide it. The Buddha too appears unguarded. His belly is not the warrior’s scrubboard of abdominal muscles, but a fullness and openness to flows that dissolve boundaries. These are bodies that rest on a foundation of true strength – strength at the core.


In a benign world, our dreams may be of happiness and fulfillment. Life has positive possibilities. But in a dangerous world, the avoidance of pain and terror assumes priority. The crueler the world, the more our most cherished dream will be to find a way to avoid the nightmare.

The worship of strength reflects this aspiration. Strength is a shield against victimization. Weakness is intolerable because it puts one at the mercy of other forces. Were these forces merciful, were they kind and caring, weakness might be as good as strength. A baby in the loving arms of its mother may know bliss in spite of its utter helplessness. A baby who is abused, whose mother’s arms not only hold but strike it, discovers the terror of its helplessness. From such fear arises a desire for strength: "If I were strong enough no one could hit me again."

Since the beginning of civilization, people have lived in fear, knowing that the blow might fall upon them. The perpetual anxiety of the war of all against all has bred into the warrior spirit of civilized societies a love of strength. When an abused child, as both Hitler and Stalin were, comes to rule a nation that feels itself to have been the victim of abuse, such as Germany or Russia, all other values may fade in relation to the worship of strength.


In a sense, most of what we call "mental illness" is "adaptive." The neurotic patterns we learn make sense as a means of surviving under circumstances that are highly stressful: lessons learned under the impact of trauma are deeply imprinted upon our being lest we forget what our survival requires. It is especially in our formative years, when we are in fact most helpless and thus most vulnerable to trauma, that we are most likely to establish our life-long neurotic patterns in self-defense. Yet all years are "formative," and not only for us as individuals but for us as collectivities or nations. Thus a Pearl Harbor can induce traumatic learning, and the "the lesson of Munich" [that the lack of resolve shown by the Allies in the historic meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain encouraged Nazi aggression] can make an indelible impression on the consciousness of nations shocked by historical trauma. Such shocks can make us declare, with the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, "Never again!"

Although we are foolish, when in a dangerous environment, not to place a high value on the capabilities that protect us, trauma may lead us into folly of a different sort: losing sight of what it is we are trying to protect. We need to have the means to survive, but what kind of life have we gained if all we can love is power, if we have no moral sense of right or justice that goes beyond the amoral workings of raw might? The worshiper of power has a problem with means and ends. This problem goes deeper than the old issue of whether the end justifies the means. The power-worshiper clings so desperately to what should be only a means to an end that the means becomes an end in itself.

As the idea of goodness disappears into the idea of strength, so the goal of survival overwhelms concerns about the quality of life. The preoccupation with the external threat means neglect of the interior life. We can see this effect of threat-orientation at both the individual and social levels. The manly values of the warrior are anaesthetic, away from feeling. Toughness includes the capacity to disregard pain, which might otherwise distract the warrior from combating the external threat. But the barriers to the experience of pain cannot function so selectively; thus, blocking the path of pain means turning away from the realm of experience generally. Warrior discipline means putting the uses of the self above the caring for the self. The territory inside, where life is lived, is neglected in favor of the territory outside, where survival must be won.

The preoccupation with threat is learned from injury, and from injury can come not only adaptive lessons but organic damage as well. The turning away from the quality of life toward mere survival can reflect not only the necessity for strength but the incapacity for experiential richness. Too traumatic a pain can destroy our ability for pleasure. Traumatized to the core, we leave the core not only to ward off further blows but to escape the pain that lies within.

The more we are incapacitated to live fully, the more we will be driven to accumulate the symbols rather than the substance of living. Strength is one of these symbols; money is another. Money can be described as coagulated happiness, for it embodies consumption (or gratification) that has been postponed or, in the capitalist ethic, canceled forever, with all profit perpetually reinvested to make still more money and never directly enjoyed at all. Strength also can serve a symbolic function, for if we are unable to enjoy life, the strength we amass can provide consolatory testimony to our capacity at least to survive. The senseless accumulation of ever more missiles and warheads may be akin to the pursuit of endless wealth in being essentially symbolic consolation: the money represents pleasure we cannot enjoy, the weapons the preservation of life we cannot live.


The problem of war has two principal sources: it is an inevitable result of the fragmented and anarchic form in which our civilization has arisen; and it is an expression of the war, engendered by our tormented history, between ourselves and the conditions of our lives. Neither source will be quickly eliminated. We have begun to diminish the fragmentation of civilization, but an end to anarchy and its dangers is difficult to imagine in less than a century, even with history’s ever-accelerating pace. A spiritual transformation of humankind is hardly an easier undertaking, nor more quickly accomplished. None of us alive today will dwell in the promised land, or even see it clearly on the horizon.

To face the problem in this form is a central part of the spiritual challenge we face. To insist that there be some "quick fix," on the other hand is a manifestation of the same spiritual deficiency it seeks to solve. Like the sources of the warrior’s excess described earlier, the need to believe that the New Age is almost at hand shows a refusal to confront the reality of our condition. As our false pride and false certainties drive us to make war, so can our false hopes disable us from undertaking the proper work of making peace. Those who underestimate the magnitude of the task will focus on momentary tactics where a long-term strategy may be needed. More important, they will lack the spiritual stamina to persevere when they discover that their efforts leave the problem not greatly diminished.

Facing how entrenched is the problem of war, however, constitutes just the first step. The second is to maintain hope in spite of it. If on one side of our path is the trap of false hope, on the other is the abyss of despair.

Despair, like false hope, represents a deficiency of courage. The idea, often heard, that mankind is surely doomed to exterminate itself is not the brave acceptance of unpleasant truth it pretends to be. Rather, it is a comforting abdication of responsibility. The pessimistic certainty of failure, like the Panglossian certainty of quick success, gives a kind of comfort: if it is hopeless, we need do nothing; if the issue is resolved already, we can ignore it. The truth is that the future remains for us to write – or to obliterate. To avoid plummeting from our perilous path will take all the strength and wisdom we possess.


The other day I saw a poster of a doll-like figure hung over some kind of machine that might have been a medieval torture device, or perhaps an old-fashioned clothes wringer. The caption reads: "The truth shall set you free. But first it will make you miserable."

We avoid painful truths for good reason: they hurt. The ability to bear pain is another illustration of that unfair principle, "Them that has, gets." The more whole we are, the more we can bear the pain, and come out through it more whole still. Those whom life has wounded most profoundly lack the strength to confront reality honestly. The patients most desperately in need of surgery may be ineligible for it, because they are so weak they would die on the operating table. The less intact we are, and the more injurious the world is, the more difficult it is to bear embracing our true pain and peril.

This has ramifications for the nuclear age, which exposes us all to such shatteringly unthinkable dangers. The need and the difficulty grow together: what is unthinkable we recoil from confronting, yet nothing is so necessary for us to face together openly and with humility. The perils of the nuclear age thus impose on us the question whether the urgency of the challenge will bring us to our senses and compel us to deal with one another as vulnerable creatures, or whether the pain of our vulnerability will drive us on a dangerously insane search for illusory security through unusable strength.

This perspective does not solve the problem, but it helps show part of the nature of the solution. If we are to choose life, we must be whole enough to choose all of life. What is excluded will turn demonic and work against life. Everything, therefore, that strengthens us at the core will help to preserve us. All the ways that we can truly nourish ourselves and one another will better equip us for the making of peace: the building of friendship, the creation of beauty, the reduction of tensions – all such things help build the foundations of peace.


Our times, as troubled as they are, are manifestly full of activity to lay the foundation on which a new structure of civilization might be built. Where there is famine, food from around the world pours in; for problems of the global environment, international organizations have been formed; the very idea that war and conquest are glorious – dominant in civilization until less than a century ago – has been substantially eroded, and ideas of world order and international arms control have sprung up. The very basis of our despair – that growing sense of ours that our present ways of running our civilization are dangerously inadequate – may itself prove to be like the coiling of the spring for the leap.

But in the meantime, even as we may be laying the foundation for a new civilization, we may despair of our having the capacity to make fundamental change. We may see the destructive historical pattern of the old fragmented civilization stretching indefinitely into the future until it falls off the cliff. The idea of a truly whole civilization may seem impossibly utopian. But this should not be at all surprising.

There is a saying in Yiddish, never show a fool a half-finished work. And in these matters, we are fools. Had we been observers earlier in the evolutionary process, we could hardly have had the capacity to imagine what the next whole would look like. In a world of elements, we would be unable to envision something as magnificent as a strand of DNA. Nor could our minds have seen how the cell implied the possibility of a body like ours. Now, as we strain to begin to grasp the magnificent complexity of the biosphere at one level, and of our own brains on another, it is way over our heads to imagine the whole that might emerge through a harmonious alignment of human minds with one another, and with the living flows of the earth’s biosphere.

The world as we now find it is riven with wounds and divisions but it is laboring to heal itself. Even out of conflict and destruction, the way toward the new whole may be discovered. Perhaps the predation of our societies upon one another – after marring the face of civilization over the millennia to this point – will ultimately bear the fruit of evolutionary advance. Perhaps as victims and victors share the patterns of their awareness and seek the basis for a harmonious and synergistic way of coexisting, the consciousness for a new kind of civilization will emerge. Perhaps out of the crucible of war will be forged the symbiotic kingdom of shalom – of "fitting together."

Our very suffering is part of the process. If we can gain the strength not to be broken by our injuries, we can use them to grow wiser. The more we are able not to act from weakness, the more capable we will be to move beyond weakness. Our pain, if we have the courage to face it and to learn what it has to teach, can guide us to heal the deadly fragmentation of our systems and the dangerous cleavage in our souls.

It may be that the path toward peace is ultimately not so uphill as we fear. To struggle against the destructive currents of history may be, from a more fundamental point of view, to allow the still more powerful creative force of the cosmos to flow through us. Not war but peace is the way of life. Not anarchy but harmonious order is what the cosmic process creates. It is through us that this cosmic process now works, challenging us to use this time to heal our injuries. Then can the weeds of our historical fears give way to a garden of love. Then can the gargoyle that is now the visage of our civilization be transformed into an image of the face of God.

The General

by Andrew Bard Schmookler

I had a personal encounter with the denial of vulnerability not long ago. It involved the idea of space-based defensive systems against nuclear attack, the system nicknamed "Star Wars." I was involved with a project to explore our national options on the nuclear defense issue. My job was to travel around the country interviewing the experts to seek out their ideas and to uncover the assumptions underlying their positions. All these interviews were cordial and pleasant, except one.

The gentleman in question had held high rank in both military service and U.S. intelligence. I will call him the General. His work at that time (early 1984) was as a vocal advocate of Star Wars. He promised me an hour’s interview, the minimum required to get beyond practiced position statements to underlying beliefs, and I traveled to meet him at his office.

Part of my method was to present interviewees with the arguments of those who disagreed with them and to invite them to respond. This helped uncover the true areas of disagreement, usually on matters much more fundamental than those debated in the political process. I had already interviewed a great diversity of experts, and one of the few things on which there was a semblance of consensus among them was that the hopes for an effective Star Wars defense were based on illusions, and that nothing approaching meaningful protection was technically possible. Many argued that the deployment of such systems would intensify the arms race, militarize space, destroy the arms-control process, and finally increase crisis instability. In other words, the striving for an illusory invulnerability arguably might have the very real consequence of helping bring about the nuclear holocaust.

The General and I never got to those issues.

I found him behind his desk, chain-smoking. He began going through his argument, offhandedly, as if he had said it all so many times before that it not only must be true but must be obvious that it was true. It boiled down to this: we cannot trust the Russians to be "co-guarantors" of our security, so we should construct defenses so they can’t hurt us. Mutual assured destruction is intolerable, so we should choose assured survival instead. We were about ten minutes into our interview. I was gently probing some of his collateral points – such as his contention that the Soviets’ ruthlessness and indifference to their civilian casualties made it doubtful that the threat of a retaliatory strike would deter them from making a first strike on the United States – when he abruptly terminated the interview.

Shocked, I reminded the General of his promise of an hour’s time. "I’ve changed that," he said. I replied that at least I would like to know why he was terminating me. "I don’t have to explain anything to you," he said. "The interview is over." He was eyeing me from under his eyebrows, as if I were the enemy. I assured him that my questioning his positions had nothing to do with whether I agreed or disagreed with him. It was not my job to take sides, but to explore experts’ views. The better I understood his positions, the better I could use them to challenge the ideas of people who disagreed. "Get out of my office!" he commanded.

My blood chemistry was changing, turning from that of one comfortably engaged in mutual exploration into that of one under attack and mobilizing to deal with it.

Then I saw the connection among his positions: "I don’t have to justify my conduct. I don’t have to respond to counterarguments challenging my opinions. I don’t have to be vulnerable to Soviet missiles." They were all part of the same thing, the same insistence on being out of reach, invulnerable.

I rose, almost quivering from all the things I was not letting my body do. "Well, General," I said as I left, "I see what you mean by good defenses."

It felt good to deliver that line. But I did not enjoy the turmoil in my guts.

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