Home The Editorial Page Politics Contributors Contributors Recommended Links About HPLeft Contact Us

Dona Nobis Pacem

Peace and security. Americans want them back again. We lost them after 9/11, after the most deadly attack ever on continental United States soil – when it finally became clear that Islamic Fundamentalism wasn't just something we read about in newspapers, or watched reports of on television. President Bush tells us that because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, we now need to launch a preemptive war against Iraq, to insure that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction never fall into the hands of terrorists. He hints that we may eventually need to attack other Muslim nations who might someday also give comfort and aid to fundamentalist terrorists. He says that our national security demands this.

War and Peace
Is war an effective way to create peace and security in the world? I suspect it depends on how you define peace and security. Clearly, the lessons of history suggests that avoiding a war simply out of fear, or an unwillingness to stand up to tyranny or oppression, can lead to dire results later on – as the years leading up to World War Two make crystal clear. The larger question, however, is a much subtler one: are we any good as a species at differentiating between the chaotic emotional and mental impressions at war within ourselves, and the legitimate provocations that might require fighting a just war? Are we any good in deciding which wars to fight with words, which wars to fight with arms, and which wars are best fought within ourselves – with the appropriate field of battle being the heart and psyche of each and every person, and, by extension, the collective psyche of a nation? The evidence, based on many millennia of human history, suggests that we are not.

Consider the example of Saddam Hussein. Faced with a war that will almost assuredly result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and probably his own death as well, he refuses to submit to the will of the international community – and live up to the commitment he gave by agreeing to the cease-fire at the end of the original Gulf War. He is even refusing to accept exile and immunity for himself, his family, a cadre of officers/bodyguards, and enjoy the many billions of dollars he has stashed away in international banks. It is a rather astonishing choice, to be sure, and absolutely not the choice of a man at peace with himself. It is very much the choice of a man fighting an internal battle far more terrifying than anything the United States and Great Britain will be able to throw at him.

Let us also consider the example of the neo-conservatives that populate the Bush Administration – men and women like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and the President himself. There are two salient characteristics that unite these men and women: 1) an absence of any combat military experience to humble them about the true nature of war, and hence give their hawkish views a degree of emotional credibility; 2) a romantic view of American foreign policy as some great, noble excursion through which we should export our values, and hence make the world a far better place for all concerned.

Perhaps you think that I'm being unfair here. Wouldn't the world be a much better place if American values were the values of the entire world? Not necessarily. It all depends on the specific values you advocate exporting. There are quite a number of elements in this continually evolving, work-in-progress, America that are clearly not ready for prime time, so to speak. Consider our predilection towards violent crime, in comparison to that of most European nations. Compared to these countries where murder rarely occurs, we're obviously doing something very wrong. And, I'll not get into our obsession with physical perfection, perpetual dieting, and cosmetic surgery, to name only one additional wart on our current national character.

There are larger, complicating, issues as well. What happens when the values you want to export are in conflict with values that another equally enthusiastic and adamant group is also looking to export – say, Islamic Fundamentalists? The answer is, of course, obvious, and on display for all to see. When religious fervor and unfettered idealism march before consciousness and emotional intelligence, chaos and death inevitably follow in their wake.

Assuming the values you want export are worth the effort, what happens when the way that you seek to communicate your beliefs contaminates the authentic beauty and power of their message, and hence leads others to reject them? That answer is also obvious, as witnessed in the example afforded by the current crisis. Had the Bush Administration used an appropriate degree of emotional intelligence in building the kind of coalition that his father did before the first Gulf War, had it been staffed by men and women with the requisite blend of healthy caution and emotional and diplomatic savvy, then perhaps there would be no need of “French bashing”, or for silly, jingoistic reactions like renaming deep fried crinkled potatoes or dumping fine wine.

A Psycho-Spiritual Perspective
Let me pose another relevant question: what dynamic inside of us makes it so important that these values even be enshrined as universal? Do we absolutely know that they represent “truth” – or could they simply be the truth as any one of us understands it, based on our incredibly limited capacities to comprehend subjects as vast as ultimate knowledge, and the impact of the cosmos, or God, on human affairs?

I'll propose an answer here. It strikes me that any time a person attempts to advocate for the absolute truth of anything, it often has as much to do with their wanting to feel more secure within themselves as it does the validity of the thing for which they advocate. In this mode, my experience is that we often become as inflexible and unconvincing advocates for truth as, well, both Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush appear to objective observers at the present moment.

The sad truth of our current world situation is that, in the eyes of much of the world, Saddam Hussein has been able to drag down President Bush to a level where a contemptible, murdering dictator appears to stand on equal footing with the leader of the free world – and, in some more partisan observer's perspective, especially in the Islamic world, perhaps even a few feet closer to hell.

In Bush's furious determination to remove Hussein, in he and his staff's willingness to stretch the truth in obvious and recklessly transparent ways, and in their inability to stick to a coherent story that they would be able to sell to a skeptical world community, they have very much lost the moral high ground around the world. They may have even critically damaged this nation's ability to lead in the future with anything like the same degree of trust as it once enjoyed – especially if things go wrong in their marathon campaign to invade, occupy and rebuild Iraq. Moreover, it is fair to say that they not only flunked International Diplomacy 101 while in school, but also skipped any classes on effective marketing or the skillful orchestration of world opinion, in favor of learning the dubious lessons offered in old John Wayne films, and Ariel Sharon's favorite class, “How To Use Brute Force to Influence Friends and Intimidate Potential Enemies.”

In my years of studying experiential depth psychology, and more significantly, my years of being immersed in the actual process of the work in my own life, I learned no more important lesson that this: the unlived life of any person is likely to present itself time and again in often surprising and dangerous forms of psychological projection. Hence, I must return to the fact that almost of none of the men and women responsible for our current situation has any experience in combat, or even military service. Many of them used every method at their disposal to avoid going to Vietnam when they had the opportunity. None of the Vietnam War generation staffers in the core teams at Defense, National Security, or in and around the White House, chose to enlist. Yet, they consistently portray themselves as super-patriots “defending the realm”, haughtily dismissing anyone who doesn't share their hawkish attitude as “appeasers”.

They chastise the nations of Europe for not being willing to quickly resort to the sword, without weighing in the balance that continent's long history of war, devastation and death. In comparison, no American city has been ravaged by battle since the end of the Civil War. Consider how utterly off–balance the attacks on 9/11 have left us? Yet our heroic group of Washington warriors, their vast experience gathered in situation rooms, or on film and through books, feels itself qualified to judge the reaction of others who dare not agree with their assessment of the current threat. They demonstrate the same degree of understanding in regard to war that we see portrayed in the callow young men of the Confederacy, at the beginning of “Gone With the Wind”. Compare this attitude to that of a mature and obviously experienced former soldier, Dwight David Eisenhower: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity".

In his lust for confrontation with his daddy's enemy, our intrepid, fearless and, oh so very inexperienced president, and his team of situation-room warriors, will now get the battle that many of them have clearly lusted for since 1991. They will settle the score with “Saddam”, they will proudly fly the banner of the indomitable American military spirit in the world once more, no matter the cost to our prestige and leadership, no matter the wildfire of new growth Islamic terrorism they give birth to, no matter the eventual loss of American life, both military and civilian, that the nation will suffer as the result of their exercise in confusing bravado with true courage, and dangerous ideology with wisdom. By the this end of this war, and certainly by the end of the proposed reconstruction of Iraq, I strongly suspect the United States may enjoy less peace and less security than we even do today. May God have mercy on us all.

A Mass for Our Time and All Time
But what measure of peace and security is available to us now, in this specific moment? And where might it be found? I suspect that many of us do not spend more than a few minutes of every day truly at peace with ourselves, or with the world. We may not go out seeking actual wars, in hope of channeling a fire within that can either consume or transform us – depending on our choices, our capacity for honesty, and, ultimately, our consciousness. But in very specific, impact-laden ways, we each contribute to the chaos and emotional confusion on the planet, and can also contribute to its healing.

There are many ways to cultivate true peace and security in times like those in which we currently find ourselves. Different people will pray, meditate, contemplate, do yoga, work the steps, thrust themselves in meaningful and fulfilling work, or spend time attempting to heal strained relationships with family and friends.

For me, there is often nothing more centering than to immerse myself in the music of someone I consider my spiritual kinsman, Ludwig van Beethoven – and specifically the music of his “late” period, the last five Piano Sonatas, the last five String Quartets, the Ninth Symphony, but most of all, the mighty Missa Solemnis.

Much of Beethoven's music can be heard as a study in epic human struggle – of titanic battles waged between physical disability and a steadfast refusal to surrender to it, between the radically different dictates of head and heart, between hope and depression, and between emotional isolation in the world and a faith in our inescapable connection to an ultimately coherent, benevolent cosmos.

In times like these, this music can return me to a place of wholeness, of intellectual balance and emotional equilibrium – and a sense of belonging to a long line of men and women who have chosen to take up the work of “jihad” in the way that I suspect The Prophet Mohammed actually intended it: a battle with the self, one layer of onion skin at a time, one layer of illusion and self-deception at a time, one layer of ego at a time, until, in God's time, and with our effort, we become a more perfect embodiment of whatever gift the cosmos had in mind when it willed our birth.

Yes, in dire moments of war and world chaos, like the moment we find ourselves in at present, there is no balm for me quite like that of the Missa Solemnis. The Missa is, as the name implies, a setting of the Catholic Mass – but the Mass on steroids, a celebration not so much of Catholicism with a capital “C”, but of a faith in the universal experience of God that mystics of all religions and spiritual paths would recognize without much difficulty. It is an extraordinary work from a compositional perspective – with vocal lines pushing the soloists and chorus beyond the typical requirements for performance, as if Beethoven were suggesting that if humankind truly wanted to understand the majesty and immensity of God, we would have to stretch our capacities to do so. Wilhelm Furtwaengler, arguably the greatest conductor of the 20th century, would not even play it, believing it impossible to properly perform.

Let me reiterate that the Missa is not a mere Christian devotional work, like the Bach Passions or Handel's Messiah. Like the accompanying Ninth Symphony, it reaches far beyond the temporal, limited conception of either Christianity or Catholicism, and towards a sense of God as the universal force behind all life, more cosmos and creator than the more personal God of Abraham, Jesus or Mohammed. Yet, even amidst this vast, transcendental panorama, the suffering of man is not ignored or slighted. In a very real sense, the Missa was one of the earliest anti-war works – embodying Beethoven's experience of living through an era of political revolution and Napoleonic Wars. To illustrate the point in musical terms, in the concluding, anguished, Agnus Dei section, Beethoven has the soloists' and chorus' pleas for mercy and peace repeatedly interrupted by the drums and bugle calls of war, only to be silenced each time by an even more forceful, adamant return of the chorus, and the steady, heart-easing melody sung to the words Dona Nobis Pacem.

Beethoven' s compositional master stroke in this concluding movement strikes me as an apt musical reminder of the role each of have in creating peace, both in our own lives, and in the troubled larger world in which we live, a world that has evolved less in God's image than as the reflection of a billion troubled psyches – including those of men and women like Saddam Hussein and the Bush team – very much in need of a dose of authentic jihad. Will we choose to create peace, first in ourselves, and then in the world? Will we choose to fight the "good" war that that only we can fight?

"From the heart -- may it go to the heart again" (from Beethoven's title page for his Missa Solemnis).

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2003. All rights reserved.

Recommended Recordings

John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists/Monteverdi Choir - DG Archiv
George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra/Cleveland Orchestra Chorus - Cleveland Orchestra private collectors issue
Eugen Jochum/Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam - Philips (currently out of print)

Originally published March 18, 2003.