The narratives we choose today may determine decisions of war and peace tomorrow

The narratives we choose today may determine decisions of war and peace tomorrow


The legendary Bob Dylan is the only person to have won a Grammy, a Pulitzer, an Oscar, the highest US civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Nobel Prize. One of this poet-chronicler’s masterpieces was the iconic 1964 song With God on Our Side. Penned in the backdrop of the Vietnam War, its lyrics highlighted how political leaders create narratives to justify violence used against the opposing “evil,” portraying their own actions as “righteous,” blessed by a superior divine power. This core belief that “our” side is right and the “other” is wrong is foundational to human conflict. Every family, society and nation-state maintains a tense balance in its struggle for resources and needs narratives to rally its people around a strategy conducive to their survival.

We experience this contradiction without realizing our participation in inherently conflicted narratives. How else would we watch a Pakistani team playing cricket (a game taught by a common oppressor) in India on a TV made by a country with which we have hostile relations and trade deficits. All three countries—India, China and Pakistan—harbour active face-offs in several military and trade conflicts, wasting precious resources and lives while bearing opportunity costs they can ill-afford. Leaders of nations (especially nuclear-powered historical and ideological enemies) work out ways to co-exist in a state of ‘affordable’ war. This has adequate jingoism to appeal to their political base and is practical enough to avoid political hara-kiri. That is as true of our neighbourhood as of Israel and Gaza, or for that matter, the entire world.

However, we are wired to accept narratives agreeable to us. Especially those that we are inculcated into. Watching the video of a four-year-old shivering in sheer terror, with her face lacerated, slumped on a table bleeding from her wounds, in pain and bewilderment, will evoke strains of emotion depending on who that child was and the narratives she is cloaked in. If the child’s face was slashed and mutilated with a sharp razor, suggesting torture by Hamas terrorists in the presence of her parents, it incites a particularly seething anger in the community she presumably belongs to. If instead it’s a face slashed by shards of glass—the ones that ‘smart’ Israeli bombs throw around when they explode, a different emotion overcomes another group. And what if it was a Kashmiri face punctured with pellets or Manipuri throats slit with machetes?

How we choose to accept the suffering of others foretells our longevity as a race or nation and the character of the world we shape for our children and narratives we commit them to. By unconditionally empathizing with the weak and persecuted, we demonstrate sustainable core values. Those thrust into conflict don’t get a choice of alternatives. Especially women and children with the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of a border or narrative, or simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Innocent bystanders don’t get the option of being killed by an Israeli drone from above or Hamas rocket from below. Orphaned children and powerless women don’t get to choose between state sanctioned security forces or fate-imposed militants as their murderers.

That bleeding child on the table is just the tip of an iceberg. Even without Gaza, there are tens of millions of refugees, displaced people and persecuted minorities who are victims of war, conflicts, social or economic subjugation, living in the very world that is enamoured by space travel and AI-powered vehicles and is given to grandiose talk of world unity and peace.

Leaders taking decisions about the outcome of the war in Gaza or any other conflict are driven by simple reasoning. What would satisfy their polity that can be delivered fast enough to ensure their continuance in power? And what outrageous acts can they get away with without risking people’s revulsion? Ironically, that is what it usually boils down to. Which brings us right back to where we began: The standards we adopt and how we intend to develop as a society. In any society, shivering lacerated children are unlikely to grow into ‘gainful’ contributors. The use of hard violence condones the creation of human time-bombs in future generations, as does the hypocrisy of euphemisms such as ‘collateral damage’ or whataboutery over who perpetuated an atrocity first.

There is no such thing as ‘collateral damage.’ A wounded child, regardless of her nationality, is not ‘collateral’ to her parents. Her pain doesn’t become any less if she is an Israeli or American, an Indian or a Gazan. And if we choose to label a wounded child as a ‘collateral’ consequence of achieving our purpose, then we are educating our next generation that it is alright to kill innocents in pursuit of a goal. And so we must not be surprised if that shivering lacerated child chooses to pursue revenge over reconciliation, regardless of which side she belongs to.

Perhaps it is befitting that Bob Dylan’s song also tell us which beliefs we should foster in future generations and what we ought to demand from our leaders. The last line of Dylan’s song is (the thought): That if God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war. We need leaders who assure us of stopping the next war—not starting it.

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Updated: 13 Nov 2023, 07:54 PM IST


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