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Healing the Hurts of Nations

Healing the Hurts of Nations - sample extract

The Wounds and Scars of Nations

How we got hurt, way back when

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It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
Dolores Ibarruri, leading Basque politician, 1936.

He's the man from the Mission. He's just painted plaster, hung up there, nailed to the wall. He lived up in heaven. He looked down at us. And one day he came and stole thousands of acres from us. That's him, that painted plaster statue. Damned liars - he isn't God.
An Arhuaco Mamu (shaman) of Colombia, on being asked "Who is Jesus Christ?", from a Danish TV programme, The Earth is Our Mother, 1996.

Stresses and strains between different countries, ethnic and interest groups are all too frequently reported in the news. This indicates the extent to which nations and peoples are damaged by their past. All peoples without exception are affected by painful, malignant and distorting scars deriving from events taking place years, generations, centuries, even millennia ago. Sagas of the past and their remaining footprints influence collective judgement and the quality of life today. The worst thing is that these hidden influences are largely unconscious, unrecognised and not taken into account for the effect they have on us now.

In the last decade or two we have seen conflicts involving Bosnians, Kosovans, Croats and Serbs in Yugoslavia; Georgians and Abkhaz, Chechens, Armenians and Azeris, all in the Caucasus; Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in Afghanistan; Tigréans, Eritreans and Amharas in Ethiopia; Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land; Kurds in Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan; East Timorese in Indonesia; Tamils in Sri Lanka; Karens in Myanmar (Burma); Tibetans and Uighurs in western China; Zapotecs in Mexico; the Mende, Temne, Hausa and Bassa in West Africa and Zulus in South Africa. This is not a conclusive list. More groups, some of whom have had frictions for centuries, act out their conflicts too, whether violently, in heated exchanges, nervously or in suppressed frustration.

Anxious, seldom-expressed feelings ricochet between many peoples who are technically at peace. Germans, French and English are allies, but past shadows lurk around, coagulating around any niggle that comes up - recently evidenced in their sudden sparks over Iraq in early 2003. Northerners and Southerners in USA still reference back to the American civil war of the 1860s and vie with each other politically and culturally. Russia has a wary relationship with Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, going back to the 1920s and earlier. The relationship between French Québecois and English-speaking Canadians heats up periodically, dating back at least to the 1790s. Taiwanese frictions with mainland China go back to 1948 and the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists. Sikhs in Punjab, sandwiched between Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan, look anxiously both ways, having done so for centuries. Shadows of the past deeply permeate attitudes and can, in exacerbated circumstances, lead to irritability, reactivity and trouble. Every nation has its own versions, even if frictions have gone quiet or are forgotten. Events and their implications have a way of digging out old wounds.

Buried pain and shadows cause nations to overreact to events and developments. They cause them to project unwholesome imagery on their neighbours and assume postures inaccurately representing their true position or interests. This can lead to self-destructive or mutually-harmful behaviour. The long Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was a manifestation of a multi-chapter story at least three thousand years old, even though the insecurities between the regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran actually ignited the war. Iraq and Iran (Persia) have variously controlled and vied with each other for many centuries. The ruinous 1980s war cost 1.5 million lives, to little avail, hardening both societies and propelling both into years of difficulty. One wonders whether such conflicts are between opposing sides or actually between war and peace.

If there is a history of conflict, it does not mean conflict has to break out again. It depends on what happens, on leaderships and cultural movements and what they choose or omit to choose to do. In the early 1990s South Africa came dangerously close to civil war between whites and blacks and also between Zulus (Inkatha) and Xhosa (ANC). The day was saved by white and Zulu acceptance of the situation, coupled with a mature and inclusive philosophy pursued by the ANC toward all parties. People stepped back from the brink. Actually, it is usually by far the easiest solution - as long as the bones of contention are properly sorted out.

Two unique ethnic groups have fought less than one might expect, in the circumstances: the Armenians and the Kurds. Both have lived where they live since ancient times - 700 BCE and 2000 BCE respectively - and both have long been dominated by neighbours and split up by other people's political boundaries. Around 1915 1.75 million Armenians were massacred by the Turks or deported, mostly to die, and many others were dispersed worldwide. The Kurds have sustained chemical attack twice, from the British in 1922 and the Iraqis in 1988, and the 1980s repression of Kurds in eastern Turkey was exceptionally cruel. Even speaking and writing Kurdish became a crime. Today, Armenians are much diminished as a result of death and emigration. The Kurds have shown remarkable resilience and patience with their situation. Both groups have markedly persevered. Perseverance like this has been demonstrated more than anyone by Tibetans: when the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s a resistance movement started amongst the Khampas in the east, but this was discouraged by the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetans have remained exceptionally pacific, despite extreme provocation.

There are several reasons why national hurts are propagated over time. Here we shall run through a number of them.


For the Palestinians, the wars of 1948-49 and 1967 have not been forgotten to this day - understandably, since so many were exiled and dispossessed, despite assurances by the British and the UN. Circumstances since then have been adverse for Palestinians. As a people, they are divided between and within themselves over the need to fight Israel, which is why much of their resistance is secretive, in the form of suicide bombers. The Poles, who have seen Poland partitioned and swallowed up by Austria, Russia and Prussia/Germany over the centuries, have a justifiable nervousness of repetition - so much so that, after the collapse of the Soviet Warsaw Pact in 1991 Poland was quick to seek NATO membership. These two nations have been faced with the sharp-edged question of whether or not to fight back, and the very existence of the question has had a big influence on their histories.

China has seen enormous atrocities in its time, but the Japanese occupation of 1937-45 was particularly brutal. Diplomatic relations were later patched up, but the Chinese people still hold reservations about Japan today. This is unlikely ever to come to war, but held-down feelings are there. Serbia's history has been scarred by the armies of Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey, Habsburg Austria and Nazi Germany. In the 1990s, Serb treatment of Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims reflected old Serb feelings toward the Turks, and its trust of Germany has never fully revived after World War Two. During the 1990s, Serbs, or at least their leaders, chose to express their feelings through war, and the outcome has mainly been great loss, even though they were the technical military victors.

Germany, an aggressor in two world wars, has painful memories of occupation and devastation by foreigners too. What started as Protestant revolts in Bohemia and Holland against the Catholic empire of the Habsburgs became the full-scale Thirty Years War of 1618-48, in which French, Austrian, Bavarian, Danish and Swedish armies pillaged, burned and battled their ways across Germany's principalities, setting back the land for a century. The 1920s Rhineland occupation after the Great War, plus weighty war reparations, led to resentments that were exploited by Hitler to justify what became the Second World War. After 1945 Germany underwent foreign occupation by USA, Britain and France for four decades. In 2003 these shadows reared up in Germany's vehement opposition to the Iraq war: it knew what foreign occupation and interference meant. Having tasted being a victor in war, it also knows the taste is not sweet.

Civil War

More insidious is civil war, such as the thirty years of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland during the 1970s-90s. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s claimed 60,000 lives. Civil wars set neighbours against each other, eating out the heart of society, and ill feeling permeate down to neighbourhoods and families. The scars of the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, the Mexican revolution of 1910-40, the American civil war of the 1860s and the French Wars of Religion in the 1560s-90s still leave their marks on current public feelings. Social trust can be fatally undermined for generations, fundamentally eroding confidence in society's fabric and its capacity to regenerate itself. Negative precedents can be set which do not disappear - they make repetition of ill-fortune easier.

During the 1980s-90s came a new type of civil war led by criminals and opportunists, usually for control of lucrative business. The Colombian civil war involved drug barons, and crime-funded leftist and rightist forces who ripped and tore at the country, caught in a loop of feuding which has devastated the country. Rationales change, yet the civil war addiction carries on, seemingly unable to exhaust itself. Wars in Zaïre/Congo, Angola and various West African states have been fought over control of diamonds, copper and gold - that is, big money. Such wars lucratively interlock with the interests of international arms dealers and suppliers, subjecting local populations to senseless atrocity, loss and insecurity. In West Africa a precedent arose in the 1990s when 40,000 boys entered the fight, desensitised by drugs, personal loss and oblivion to 'good behaviour' in war. The Geneva Conventions, regulating the treatment of war wounded, prisoners, civilians, deportation, torture, hostage-taking, collective punishment and chem-bio weapons, were completely flouted.

The avoidance of civil war in South Africa and Russia in 1988-94 was an untrumpeted victory for social sanity and maturity - or perhaps for weariness with suffering. Such triumphs don't hit the news because non-happenings go unnoticed, unannounced in the media. Yet they have a strengthening and healing effect on public integrity and spirits worldwide. Civil wars have recently been avoided in Jordan, Nigeria, China, Brazil, Jamaica, Romania, Burundi and Estonia. This century we need to build a growing tide of triumphs, de-escalating warfare and outweighing the habit of reaching for the guns. Conflicting groups cannot just be admonished by the international community and forced to sit at negotiating tables unless existing injustices are righted. Otherwise the causes of conflict perpetuate, and diplomacy is overridden.

Arms-producing countries, arms traders, banks, corporations and international authorities have been crucially involved in permitting and sanctioning civil war. Money-making is no excuse for undermining societies, popular movements and governments. CIA interventions, under the cover of anti-Communist activities yet usually on behalf of business interests, have played a disastrous role in the last fifty years. The CIA has fomented coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Ecuador (1961 and 1963), Dominican Republic (1963), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Greece (1965-67) and Chile (1973); it undermined elected governments in Australia, Guyana, Cambodia and Jamaica; it supported dictators in Chile, Iran, the Philippines, Haiti, Panama, Zaïre, Greece, Pakistan and Iraq; it created, trained and supported death squads and secret police in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Iran, Turkey and Angola; it launched secret, illegal military actions in Nicaragua, Angola, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and contributed to the massacre of 200,000 in East Timor, 500,000 in Indonesia and 1-2 million in Cambodia. A fine record, achieved mainly by using locals as proxies. The overall effect has been to stunt the social and economic growth of many countries.

Internal repression

Serious internal repression, such as Stalin's eradication of millions of dissenters and innocent bystanders in the Soviet purges of the 1930s-50s, or the suppression of Protestants in Catholic Europe in the 1500s-1600s, is equal to or greater than warfare in the damage it wreaks. If your government nonsensically turns against you, the whole logic of society turns upside down, warping social relations and setting precedents that make repetitions possible. The brightest and most valuable people are dispossessed, exiled or killed, weakening the possibility of revival, killing off ideas and peace-building coalitions. The price paid by ordinary people is staggering, often affecting them for generations. They might not think of the people who are not there because war killed them or their parents-to-be, but the gap is nevertheless felt in unconscious ways. Mercifully, the shock of disaster can sometimes make for a 'never again' response too, which can change the future.

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the best candidates to replace him were eliminated or exiled. Exiles lose touch with their country, making them less legitimate to lead when times get better. Whenever Tibet is at last relieved of Chinese occupation, its people will have to start from an entirely new and untried basis: the exile Tibetan government has written an exemplary constitution ready for such a time, but there is no knowing what life will be like for residents, whose memory of the old culture is virtually gone, and for returned exiles, many of whom have been born abroad. Independence will mark the beginning of a long journey of nation-rebuilding, of creating a new Tibetan culture.


Pain and angst deplete a nation's spirit longterm, frequently weakening its gene-pool, kinship patterns, neighbourhood relations and social structures. Promising possibilities are killed off, together with the people who can set them in motion. The dissolution of England's monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-40 was a massive cultural outrage: churches were wrecked, sacred artworks and relics destroyed, valuables sold and nuns and monks cast out. A whole socio-economic sector was shaken out, mainly to serve the interests of the king and his henchmen. In orthodox history Henry VIII is regarded as a great king, yet he was a tyrant who severely damaged the nation's psyche. Today his legacy contributes to an underlying shadow of British public cynicism and reluctance to turn against the political establishment. Powerful and necessary shifts and geopolitical developments took place in Henry's time, but such depravity, self-interest and theft as were practised were not inevitable, and a reconciliatory approach was perfectly possible. Are wrecked abbeys, of which England has plenty, truly gems of national heritage, or are they memorials to a nation's guilt?

Ethnic cleansing and the intentional disadvantaging of sub-groups, up to and including genocide, casts a shadow of horror which can long outlast living memory of it. The singling out of Jews, Gypsies, dissenters and homosexuals by the Nazis in the 1930s-40s left a shadow with lasting consequences in Germany. This has had not only a negative effect: Germany's promotion of tolerance and its reluctance to deploy armed forces in anything but peacekeeping and nation-building been its strong point ever since. But did we have to have Hitler to obtain such a result? Hitler's long shadow falls now on Israel, in its questionable treatment of the Palestinian people over recent years.

The damage caused to Ethiopians by the Mengistu regime of 1977-91 has made governance and the buildup of inter-ethnic trust in Ethiopia difficult. Trust was fundamentally broken and, though the Ethiopian government has since worked hard at national reintegration, sporadic war with Eritrea has persisted and other tensions lurk like ghosts, waiting for a spark to fire them up again. In Ethiopia, climatic problems, famine and social tensions interlock horribly.

People oppress others because they are already hurt. As a child, Saddam Hussein was regularly beaten for years on end, and Slobodan Milosevic watched his parents commit suicide in connection with political strife during his childhood. Stalin was bullied at school and, in his twenties, was sent to Siberia for his Communist beliefs. Hearts are thus hardened and, a generation later, thousands can suffer. Such extreme cases reveal the top of a worldwide iceberg of endemic human cruelty. Precedents established in one place germinate and propagate the psycho-emotional cruelty virus, which jumps from place to place unless it is dealt with. In Afghanistan the onus for cruelty passes from one party to another, reproducing itself in different contexts and taking hold of people whose own pain intersects with collective resentments, turning them from victims into perpetrators and criminals against humanity.

The slough of despond

Some susceptible places become sump areas where existing social-cultural weaknesses attract harmful social viruses from elsewhere, and the nation catches a disease - dissension, oppression or war. Few foresaw the breakdown of social relations in Yugoslavia around 1990 or the extent to which it would go - yet Yugoslavia, disoriented by the fall of the Iron Curtain, unconsciously took on the cold-hearted shadow of the Cold War, which was being shed by other formerly-Soviet countries, and it caught the civil war bug from Lebanon, where a civil war had just ended. Just like colds and flu, these psycho-emotional viruses can move fast.

Even so, such conflicts are usually fomented by individuals who activate harmful ideas and feelings in others, setting mass traumas in motion. This proves difficult for peacekeepers and negotiators, who must be impartial when intervening in crises. In some respects, it could be more effective to 'take out' key perpetrators, but this cannot legally be done, and it is risky. Hence, in Cambodia, Pol Pot's henchmen still walk free, bringing a pervasive atmosphere of fear and forcing the continued presence of peacekeepers to keep the matter under wraps.

Human history has witnessed a cumulative buildup of scars like these, twisting and poisoning situations out of proportion to the actual causes of the problems they face. The unchecked transpersonal motivation to oppress or be oppressed is often unconscious, usually only indirectly connected to the manner in which the oppressor was originally hurt, or the oppressed were originally vulnerable. People might not knowingly exact revenge for past injury, and it might not be aimed at the original oppressor, but it is nevertheless revenge, a psychological getting-back for past pain. One of the biggest illusions we need to break open is that victory in conflict is gratifying.

Connections between past and present events run deep. The Battle of Britain of 1942, when Germany attempted an invasion, revived unconscious English associations going as far back as the Anglo-Saxon invasions some 1,400 years earlier, which came from Germany. These invasions brought large-scale genocidal ethnic cleansing to the Britons. The main strain of the English gene stock derives from the Saxon peoples, and the Battle of Britain activated deep unconscious imagery. The Saxons had invaded Britain precisely to insulate themselves from pressure and attack by others - they came there seeking safe space and willing to fight for it. In the 1940s, this was by no means a consciously-held memory, but its symbolic associations were nevertheless there - a miasm or hidden propensity in the psyche of the English.


Ill feeling frequently represents a shift of blame onto an available scapegoat, in the absence of truth and of sane ownership of responsibility at home. Discrimination aimed at convenient minorities such as immigrants deflects attention from deeper national issues, fears and social stresses. This has happened for Arabs and Berbers in France, for Mexicans in USA, for Palestinians in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon and for Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few. The anti-Americanism of today is of this kind, even though Americans are not underdogs: while there is cause for such feeling, Americans have become opportune targets for a range of sentiments concerning other issues. USA currently embodies a ghost of imperial heartlessness and big-footedness going back at least to the Romans, also attracting residual anti-imperialist ill-feeling derived from the now-defunct British Empire.

The bottom line here is twofold. First, oppressed or formerly-oppressed peoples, while genuinely hurt, are nevertheless responsible for their own lives and feelings. They cannot continue indefinitely blaming oppressors or symbols. Whether or not they are correct in their feelings, it does them no good. Second, former oppressors have a duty to act to redeem their history and to recognise how others have experienced their actions, whether or not such feelings on the part of recipients are fully justified.

Minorities are scapegoated to steer public attention away from domestic weaknesses. The net effect is that overall social control is increased - not only of the minority. Recently, in USA, anyone looking vaguely Arabic has risked trouble. Sikhs have suffered discrimination, even though they are not Muslims, they dislike Muslim fundamentalism and have themselves suffered greatly from its effects. But their turbans, skin-colour and beards are sufficient to spark mistaken discrimination. Such things happen in many countries and cultures.

Over time, Jews have faced tremendous pressure, insecurity and persecution. This has meant that errors on their part, real or perceived, have been blown out of all proportion, and they have caught blame for things they had little to do with. During the Crusades, European malice toward the Muslim infidel fell first on Jews, who were close to hand and easy to punish - so Jews were persecuted. In our time, as traditional anti-Jewish prejudices have generally been subsiding, except in the case of people who feel aggrieved toward Israelis' recent and current behaviour, it is important for Jews to release the anticipation of persecution. It can cause Jews to over-react to events, misread situations and develop questionable rationales for mistreating non-Jews. The challenge for Jews is to trust: the miasm of anti-Semitism is a two-way tango.

Ethnic jealousy and intolerance can lead to the destruction of cultural heritage remains. This gets at the heart of a culture. The Romans burned part of the library of Alexandria to teach a lesson to free-thinking intellectuals in that city, and in 640 invading Arabs destroyed its remaining 700,000 volumes for similar reasons. In 1993, Serbs targeted Bosnian archives and museums in Sarajevo and Croatian sites in Dubrovnik, and in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the historic Greaco-Bactrian Bamiyan Buddhas. The Serbian case represented distinct ethnic retribution and culture-attack, while the latter was a case of historic deletion of signs of the country's pre-Islamic greatness.

Sometimes such actions are carried out from barefaced arrogance, born of decades or centuries of hard-heartedness. Sometimes they are pointed and intentional, as was the Chinese destruction of Tibetan holy places in the 1950s-70s. Sometimes, though, cultural destruction has been deliberately avoided: the Ottoman Turks, taking Constantinople in 1453, converted the architectural wonders of Christian Byzantium to their own uses, inheriting a ready-made proud capital. Alexander the Great and his fellow Greeks enjoyed inheriting the assets of Phoenicia, Egypt, Babylon and Persia - they thought of themselves as an upgrade of all preceding civilisations.

Passing the buck

What pain drives USA to bombard various parts of the world every few years? One contributory factor lies in the nation's birth and earlier times: many settlers arrived as escapees from hardship and oppression. Once they had got there, carving out a life and building the infrastructure of American society incurred further hardship. The trials faced by refugees, settlers, pioneers, homesteaders, slaves and factory workers built a strange mixture of a strong family spirit and a gun-addled hard-heartedness. USA has at times utilised its arms superiority to positive ends, but the shadow of gun law, armed might and self-interest largely cancel out this benevolence. Conservative Christian fundamentalist values have ruined millions of lives in Latin America and the Middle East. The overwhelming force of the American military permits nothing but the most skilful opposition, such as that of al Qaeda - and many of al Qaeda's methods were taught to them by none other than the CIA in the 1980s. What goes around comes around.

Conservative power-lobbies in USA semiconsciously create enemies against which to rail and joust: once it was Communists, 'the evil empire', and now it is Muslims and rogue states, 'the axis of evil'. There is some basis for these projections, yet they betray a national obsession and paranoiac tendency. USA's underlying insecurities undermine its best interests. There is talk of Pax Americana, but for such an ordered world hegemony to work longterm and wholesomely, if such is possible, it needs to be created with the minimum of force and the maximum of cultural sensitivity. In the last sixty years USA has done more for arms proliferation than any nation. This ethical failure creates an unconscious dynamic inviting the attentions of such people as Muslim terrorists: in their view they challenge the evil forces of world destruction. But their own error is that terror fails to stop war: they have fallen into the same trap as USA's hawks.


Nations, like individuals, can become self-immolating or suicidal. This applies to all nations, each in their own way and to a greater or lesser extent. As a whole the world is in an unprecedentedly suicidal phase: this surfaced with the exploding of the first atomic bombs in the 1940s, extending since then into environmental, demographic and climatic arenas, into disease, inter-ethnic and military manifestations. Collective death-urges have existed throughout history, but only in the late 20th Century did this become global, consistent and truly visible.

Dallying with death has its thrills - like motor racing or skydiving, it involves treading a fine line between life or death, as if to precipitate one or the other. Yet the brunt of this collective death-wish falls upon some more than others, on victims of war, drought, famine, destitution, disease and social breakdown, whether in Sudan or Harlem. This overall world condition hits vulnerable individuals, social subgroups and nations because it is there globally, like pollution. Suicides in jail, heroin junkies, suicide bombers, terrorists and dictators are not just isolated cases dumping their personal problems on everyone else - they carry something on our behalf that we suppress by living routinised, 'sensible', cautious, self-suppressed lives.

To cover up past inequities, injustices and shadows, a country unconsciously infects itself with degenerative tendencies, taken sometimes to the point of national collapse. Some African countries have fallen in this deep pit - damaged beyond sense or easy revival. Cambodia's 2.5 million deaths in the 1970s represented a nightmare humanity presumably had to suffer, in order to draw a line on depravity, yet Rwanda proved that the shock therapy had been insufficient. Saddam Hussein took Iraq twice to the edge of disaster, with suicidal panache.

National rulers and their competitors can engage in ruinous power-manoeuvring; society lapses into crime, drug-abuse, drunkenness or mass murder; endemic corruption or delusion penetrate business and government, or military establishments gain total control; or social life can drift into a sad movie of contrived appearances and false beliefs. Such symptoms conceal gaping untruths, eating into the body social like dry rot, undermining it to the core. The cultural revolution in China in the 1960s-70s dulled truth perhaps for generations. Such scenarios seem unstoppable until they exhaust themselves and the bottom of the trough is reached.

On the surface, all might seem well enough in many societies, but something insidious lurks underneath, relating to undiscussed national verities and collective crimes sanctioned by public omission and commission. Northern Ireland, Colombia and Angola each became so habituated to polarisation and violence that they had trouble stopping, even when the causes of conflict changed or when resolution came in sight. Afghanistan's future rests on its warlords choosing to bury the hatchet, forget past rivalries and get on with the job of reconciliation. In the end, this is mainly an attitudinal issue, and everything else proceeds from there. It depends also on the amount of power a community gives to those leaders who promote rivalry.

Pain and difficulty are habit-forming. It seems easier for conflicting parties to perpetuate strife than face conflict-redundancy and the facts and realities that peace reveals. While war is in progress, people are toughened, accepting what comes as best they can, but when peace comes pain can surface as people realise how fruitless and ridiculous the whole trauma was, and how much they have lost. The dead and disappeared are missed and the bombsites and minefields starkly remind everyone of their traumas. Delayed-action loss and bitterness can take years, if not generations, to work through. Forgiveness only partially relieves the shooting of one's parents, since it remains a concrete fact that they are no longer there. Yet, still, things can be done to relieve such pain: festivals, mourning occasions, reconciliatory ceremonies and forgiving messages, truth commissions, rebuilding projects and simply getting on with life do bring healing - if the pain is acknowledged rather than suppressed.

The lawless and arbitrary terror of Idi Amin's Uganda and Duvalier's Haiti in the 1970s represented extreme examples of hidden national self-hate and self-doubt turning in on themselves. In Haiti, poverty, dictatorship, an anarchic history and American meddling created a long-lasting nightmare. In Uganda, post-colonial hiatus and the abstractness of Uganda as a nation, founded by colonialists with little regard to local peoples, allowed Idi Amin to drive tribes against each other, then to justify taking military control. This started a murder epidemic. After he escaped to Saudi Arabia (where he still lives), his reign of terror was followed by an AIDS epidemic, caused by rape and bad behaviour during Amin's days.

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 arose from internal degeneration tipping over a critical threshold. The Hutus and Tutsis had been cemented unwillingly into one nation - again, Rwanda was a former colony inappropriate in shape to its residents. The Tutsi minority customarily held the power. The Hutus were deliberately stirred up by their leaders, who exploited a difficult situation to make things worse, and the massacres followed. This kind of thing does not have to happen, but to survive in peace a divided country needs collectively-reinforced social values and impartial institutions to protect it from division or degeneration, and this can sometimes be difficult.

If a nation has steadying factors, cultural or institutional, to prevent the rise of dictators or the descent of society into degeneracy, such nightmares can be avoided. Individuals can do this too: characters such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel and Konrad Adenauer each raised the spirits of their nations after hard times, contributing mightily to reconciliation. But the balances are fine: the friendliest and most beautiful of nations can transform into places of horror - Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia and Cambodia all being examples. One major helpful force is women, whose collective power to shift social values, when it gains momentum, can be final and unstoppable.


When society splinters and atomises, national attention and energies are diverted away from the central issues it faces. Ulster has always suffered a certain geographic marginality which it needed to counterbalance by developing its special talents and assets. Yet it accentuated its marginality by becoming a civil war zone, prompting emigration, discouraging outside contact and, overall, disempowering Ulster society. Moderate sectors of the population were hampered and cowed by sectarian extremists of both sides, just 10-20% of the population, who dominated and skewed all dialogue. Further complications arose too - drug-abuse, disaffected youth, diseconomies, unemployment and lack of a future. Such a loss of social spirit makes any enterprising person choose either to get out or to become a troublemaker.

Opium consumption in China deflated what otherwise could have become a movement for reform or regeneration in the declining days of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s. Western business interests imported the opium, seeing an opportunity to control China through its markets - and, incidentally, establishing the precedent of secret government involvement in the world drugs trade. Opium-addled degeneration was not China's sole alternative, but imperial and cultural conservatism made China easy to exploit. Popular rebellions against the Qing took place, but they failed and, again, were exploited by foreigners for their own designs. Corruption, stagnation and social apathy took hold. Had significant changes come about instead, perhaps around 1790-1840, the later revolutions and disasters of the 20th Century might have been avoided. The Qing were ousted in the nationalist revolution of 1911. This was followed by warlordist mayhem and systemic corruption in the nationalist period of the 1920s-30s, then by Japanese invasion (1937-45) and finally the Maoist revolution of 1949. The Maoist revolution went awry, leading to late-1950s famines during the Great Leap Forward and the 1960s madnesses of the Cultural Revolution. Each of these crises was a mother-of-all-disasters in itself. Arguably, they all dated back to avoidable causes such as the opium trade of the 1800s.

Nations can wallow in self-indulgence to conceal their historic unease. They gratify and placate themselves through consumerism, or pageantry and ostentation, military adventures, investment bubbles, political insanities or faddish cultural permissiveness, in an attempt to bury old woes and dilemmas and to conceal signs of cultural emptiness or decline. The 1920s demonstrated such symptoms in many countries - an exciting time in one sense, but also a time of avoidance and creeping lunacy.

During the 1980s and 1990s countries of the developed world lived in an affluent daydream from which they are only now waking up. At a time of urgently pending world change, comfortable indulgence, self-interest and affluent leisurism prevailed. Western civilisation has many virtues, yet it is plagued with immoderate, unsustainable levels of materialism, complacency and self-entertainment. Gulping consumerism vacuums up the world's resources, prioritising the developed world's interests over all others. This has a burn-up effect, like over-indulgence at Christmas, leading to cultural lethargy, indigestion and eventual crisis. Indulgence makes some sense when a society is reviving from hardship, but ongoing affluence can be self-destructive. Europe's and America's futures lie in humane cultural creativity, but materialism blocks this and is very addictive. As a result they omit to contribute their maturity and inspiration to a changing world.

The sunny opulence of California compensated for the compounded historic hardships experienced by immigrants to USA and migrants heading out West, a century and more ago. The Golden State promised fortunes and the fulfilment of dreams which were to bury Californians' woes forever. This worked well enough between the 1930s and 1980s, at least for the winners, but things are now moving on. When rich and successful, it is difficult to change, even though plenty of Californians do seek it. This is tragic, because available wealth can help bring change, yet change is often delayed until times get hard. Affluence is an age-old means of lulling internal irritations to sleep. Reality does return. Western affluence is now a key global problem, and California is one of its centres. Something must change.

One symptom of insecurity is intolerance toward alternative perspectives, coupled with an unwillingness to discuss major national defining issues. Ruling classes or whole nations can go into denial, maintaining enormous falsities for a long time. This was a perverse cause of the Protestant Reformation in 1500s Europe: the Catholic church had stifled nascent ideas for so long that new and necessary religious developments could take place only outside its cloisters. The church became increasingly militant and repressive in response to the challenge of the innovators. When it staged a comeback in the Counter-Reformation from the 1540s onwards, it had lost its character as a 'broad church', a catholic church.

Internal oppression takes many shapes: domination of provinces by capitals; the tyranny of ruling classes, majorities or influential minorities; the exploitation of workers or specific social groups; male dominance, selective infanticide, ageism, caste and race discrimination; exclusion of the disabled, disadvantaged or outsiders; and punitive judicial systems and suppression and exile of dissenters. These reflect a deep-seated division of the collective psyche into compartments which lose dialogue and eventually stand in opposition.

Such splintering weakens the national psyche as a whole. This goes back longer than anyone can remember, accreting gradually, with flare-ups following latent periods. National characteristics feeding such crises are often accepted as given, indelible tendencies. As global interaction and cultural comparison have increased, populations have become more aware of others' strengths and weaknesses, throwing light back on their own societies. Sometimes this relieves age-old problems and sometimes it transplants social ailments across borders.


Deep social divisions can channel very ancient issues. Caste separation in India is an atavism of the Aryan invasion of 3,500 years ago. It prevents ethnic groups from intermarrying or diversifying their social roles, thus rigidly preserving separate gene-stocks, social groupings and roles in a multi-ethnic subcontinent. Indigenous Dravidians, such as Tamils, are today mostly spread across ethnic minorities in south India. At the top of the caste pile are the Aryan Brahmins and warrior and merchant castes of the north. They themselves were kicked around by Muslim invaders of Afghan, Mongol and Turkic origin, who arrived in waves between the 1000s and 1400s, placing themselves on top. Then came the British in the 1700s, placing themselves above Muslims and Hindus. The British successfully dominated India because their own class system had educated them to 'divide and rule'. Mother India absorbed them as a new ruling caste. To an extent this was a balanced power arrangement. But when the British left, Hindu-Muslim relations deteriorated, India was partitioned, Pakistan became entirely Muslim and India remained mixed, with a reduced Muslim population. Secular governance handled this up to the late 1970s, but Hindu nationalists gained the ascendancy by the 1990s. This widened the north-south, Aryan-Dravidian divide in India. An old story was thus revived.

Some empires have been founded on the emotional energy generated from being kicked around or threatened. The Ottoman Turks, busy carving out an empire in Anatolia, were suddenly defeated by Timurlenk at Ankara in 1402. This galvanised them and, within 50 years, they had taken Constantinople and much of the former Byzantine empire. Eventually they controlled the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa.

The rise of imperial Rome can partially be attributed to demeaning treatment by the Etruscans, when Rome was but a small town. Already aggrieved, the Romans smarted after the sack of Rome by invading Celts in 387 BCE. Eventually they broke the back of the Etruscans and other Italian tribes until, by the 290s BCE, they controlled most of Italy. This invade-and-control process extrapolated itself until, within 400 years, their empire stretched from Iraq to Scotland.

The British had been merchant adventurers, pirates and haphazard colonists for 200 years, but when the Americans shockingly declared independence in 1776, the Brits became serious imperialists. Napoleon then took over Europe between 1794 and 1810, isolating Britain, and industrialising Britain was goaded into action by loss of its European markets. The British made sure they dominated the seas and colonies, embarking on a massive colonial project.

The point with the above instances is that, as with school bullies, imperialists and oppressors have historic pain that they then pass onto others.

Environmental impacts

Historical hurts manifest in the destruction of landscapes. Insecure nations think short-term - so the forests are thoughtlessly chopped down, the grasslands desertified and the rivers polluted. It is not felt to be worth it to invest energy in wise land-use, improvement of ecological capital and conservation. Inter-tribal feuds on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) led to its deforestation centuries ago. Ancient Sumerian farming and irrigation techniques were cut back when attacks started, and this led to land salination, turning much of Mesopotamia into semi-desert. Settler pressures and over-farming in the US Midwest led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Soviet industrial, plantation and irrigation projects in Uzbekistan led to the draining of the Aral Sea, now a fraction of its former size. Britain, once 97% and now 4% forested, was deforested gradually, but the shipbuilding exploits of Henry VIII and his successors robbed the forests of their greatest trees, and ordinary people, over-taxed and rather jaded, permanently cleared much more.

Collective pain can blind a culture to its environment, causing it to bypass sustainable development strategies. This can emanate directly from rulers - such as the decimation of Lebanese cedar forests by king Solomon for the building of the Jerusalem temple. Heavy taxation, economic downturn, social disturbance and civil war mightily contribute to environmental degradation. As each new generation grows up it carries no memory of how things were before, so it tends not to return things to their former glory. Military actions have laid waste whole landscapes, polluting the soil with lead, chemicals and, more recently, depleted uranium. A mixture of human folly, local need and industry-scale exploitation has denuded the world. Restoring healthy natural balance involves not just policy decisions and investment but significant psycho-emotional shifts in humankind. The biggest single ingredient in environmental correction is love - love for life, love for the land and love for the massive job of restoring it.


We have examined various manifestations of social pain and historic scarring. To prevent further tragedy and repetition of error, a fundamental healing process is needed. Treaties, fair trade, peace processes and nation-building have their virtues and their place, but they do not replace healing They usually work more for governments and business than for ordinary people and their feelings. Healing through economic growth and democratic institutions without attending to the feeling-substrate of society can create fuel for future crises - like chocolate, it relieves a craving but leads to longer-term health problems. What is needed is a deeper process of public communication, communion and reconciliation which addresses hearts in their own language of empathy and feelings. When victims recognise that oppressors are in themselves hurt and defensive, some movement might start. When oppressors realise that victims have genuine grievances, movement can accelerate.

Pain-inflicting activities ultimately help no one: they are internalised injuries externalising themselves. Cycles of tyranny can go on forever. Until negative tendencies are turned around, their repercussions can reverberate through to generations uninvolved in the initial wrongs and often unaware of them. Collective memory-shadows can stretch back thousands of years. No matter what justification is given for conflict, conflict is critically obsolete now that globalisation has changed the context. Even pre-emptive strikes on the most humanitarian of grounds have a damaging longterm impact. Conflict obstructs the process of getting to grips with global issues. So a matter of primary importance is to set in motion a global process of directly addressing hurts. It is not just a matter of dealing with the past: we need to stop creating new pain for the future.

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© Palden Jenkins, 2003. This material may be quoted with proper attribution and printed out in single copies for personal use and study, without permission. Publication on websites or in print is not permitted. Please e-mail the author on any copyright questions: .

Healing the Hurts of Nations

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