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I’ve today went to the Museo de la Nacion in Lima, Peru. (Have i forgotten telling you i’m in Peru? Well, i had the best reason ever!) Anyway, the visit is awesome, in my forthcoming post about how maths is silly there will be a photo of me there with a quipu. Lots of Precolombino things there, but what was completely breathtaking was the exhibit about Terrorism.

As it turns out, Terrorism in Peru is the word for civil war, or more precisely to a kind of civil war that developed here in the 80s and 90s. Two left-oriented groups, the Sendero Luminoso and the MRTA created a lot of unrest and violence. I do not know nearly enough about such events to comment about anything, but i have a few musings about violence, war, and our lives.

One of the things is that connection between the Sendero and drug traffic. It points to a very interesting (and often overlooked, maybe on purpose) link between war and the economy.

Those people were not a few overly zealous group of students, they were a full-blown paramilitary organization. And that means they needed financing. In fact, any organized violence act must be very careful to allocate its resources properly. Even for example a classical terrorist act, which distinguishes itself for its independence from occupation tactics, needs some hefty basic materials.

We can downplay that and just say that war requires some basic economical basis, just as everything else. But we can also take war to be primarily an economic activity. Economy at its bottom is the management of energy. And violence is at its bottom the use of energy. In a very direct sense they are inextricably connected.

So for example, if you have a society that has a steady production and a decent level of savings, you can exert more violence in a more controled way. Obviously, but… Maybe society is just a technique to amass this power — as opposed to all these moral and naive things we use to say like democracy or human rights. Maybe all the amenities of so-called civilized living are just lubricant to a machine that basically serves other very different purposes.

That is obviously not a concrete thesis, but it is supposed to be enough of a disquieting idea to make one wonder. But there is yet another possible, and strange, connection to war that can be glimpsed in en Museo de la Nacion. Amongst the Incas, there is evidence of two kinds of war, complete with different fortresses and weapons. One was normal secular war, and they also had the ritual war, aimed at capturing people to serve as human sacrifices. And so maybe war is related to religion, and ultimately to our idea (and our experience) of the sacred.

The sacred is not that which is beyond the material world — this is a biased and unreliable explanation of the religious experience. Religion has always been tightly connected to how people live their lives. The actual precise definition of sacred is that which must not be touched. Thus, it is first a material thing, but a material thing that we, through material means, must subtract from the day to day life.

It is also, and in some ways because of it, something that gives meaning to the day to day life. The sacred is that which we can believe in.

If so, we must understand war not as the failure of society, as Hobbes do, but as a crucial, albeit not desirable, trait of it. We must wonder why and how war is part of society.

On the terrorism exhibition, one thing that was striking was how no one seemed to be right. There was no faction at all in which you really would trust. The militia seemed to be imposing some crazy ideals without really much discussion, and the military on the other hand seemed to be imposing a tired and obviously cruel status quo without any discussion at all. And though all of them claimed to be working to the benefit of others (the people, the nation, whatchacallit) they also just curiously happened to kill lots of civilians, all of them.

And maybe that is the real problem of things, that it is so easy to be criticising and moralize the issue, it is so easy to call names, it is easy to think that we are above it all, personally.

But it also seems, from the same exhibit, that they were all fighting for things they believed in. They were after meaning, they wanted a better world for you and me and everyone. It is a shame that, for those particular guys, this meant killing each other. But let’s not forget that fighting for what you believe is something that makes us human, as in, better than ourselves.

So, assuming no one wants to be Agent Smith — that is to say, everyone wants “a better world” — and also assuming that war is a part of society and not its disease, does it even make sense to talk about “better world”? Is there any form of progress that is even possible? And even if there is progress in those issues, can it ever get to a point where we could actually be proud of this world we’re living in?

Those are not only important questions. They are questions that lie in wait at the very heart of our self-becoming as society. If we can’t understand the very dangerous ambiguity that war involves, we might be damned to just keep repeating the same mistakes.

Again, it is very easy to fall into simplisms here:

  • on one hand there are those who forsake violence, adopting a naive pacifism that simply refuses to see how deeply ingrained violence is embeded in our very ideals of peace;
  • and in the other there is the assumption that every pacifist is kept by a hard man in congress, but this accepts a stupid lack of standards, which is a form of blindness to our very dreams.

War is more than violence. A war only happens when someone (or a people) is willing to put his very physical safety at risk in order to fight for something. War says that something is so important that without it, life is not worth the effort. It might be land, freedom, or money, but more and more as we get further down this whole modernity route, more and more war can be just about what we are choosing to believe in. War can be about ideology.

And to make it all more interesting, we are getting better and better at making war. Which means that our mistakes will cost highly. We must understand. We always did, but from now on the lack of understanding will become extremely dangerous. What’s even more, understanding brings control, which, besides being a form of better violence, is also a better form of building.

Taking war as this complex event that happens at all those different levels, taking war as this fight for whatever is more important to us than everything else, taking war as this deep experience that we must face with understanding and courage, maybe we can avoid the trap — always so close and so tempting — of allowing our fight for what is important to be the very thing that blocks us from that.

We are those strange, beautyfull, violent but also caring, cruel but also able to dream, those confusing and confused, sometimes brave but sadly so often fearful, small furless creatures. Being able to do war — in all its forms, from all-out genocide to dirty family business — is both what makes us free and what chains us.

And for what it counts i prefer free.


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  1. […] which was the civil-war like insurrection of “Sendero Luminoso” and this exhibit totally exploded my head, and then after that a guy from the hostel gave me a Castañeda book, and that woman at the market […]

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