The Whale, the Fish, the Man and Armed Conflict

In ‘How the Whale got his Throat’ Mr Rudyard Kipling tells the story of a small Stute fish, in danger of being the whale’s next meal, tricking the whale into eating a man instead. This man ends up causing terrible trouble in the whale’s stomach, making the whale’s live pretty unbearable. Finally the whale spits the man out and sensibly decides not to eat men again. To a certain extent, how this fish under threat reacted, is how most armed conflicts currently come to take place.

During the past forty years 162 armed civil conflicts have taken place the world over. Since the middle of the 20th century the identity of civilians has become the main reason for war. The massacres and genocides by Nazi Germany and the Gulag; in Nanking, Cambodia, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa; and of Armenians, leftist Chileans and Argentinian students, were all endorsed by identity driven grievances. In Rwanda poverty and a lack of fully functional social-political structures allowed ethnic difference to provide legitimacy for criminal entrepreneurs. Whilst the war in Bosnia and Sri Lanka was waged by several ethnic groups and the current revived unrest in Iraq is due to tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Identity driven grievances have replaced the ideological reference point of national warfare from the first half of the 20th century to mix with religious, political, social and economic motives as instigators of conflict. Consequently, entire societies have become subjected to pathological conflict, so that in contemporary warfare all aspects of society are utilized as instruments of war. Each ethnic conflict moreover, has causes and consequences at state, regional and local level rendering the effects of ethnic conflict clear to all people of a society.

Warring civilian identities in these cases are based on conceptual collective identities, created to be broad enough to unite a multitude of individuals. Visions of collective identity exist in many shapes and sizes ranging from religious to secular, multicultural to fundamentalist, racial to ethnic.  Similarly to how the threatened fish was able to have the whale target ‘man’ in general by telling a seductive story of man’s tastiness, all groups in conflict embrace mythmaking. Memories of the past, understandings of the present and projections of the future are shaped in accordance to a certain notion of what ‘we’ and ‘they’ really are. Examples of these constructed ‘glorious’ memories are plenty. Milosevic mobilized Serbs on a reinterpreted legend of a Serb prince depicted as Christ figure, fighting a Muslim, portrayed as Judas.

The reshaping of one’s former foe’s image into the image of a non-foe is critical for a resolving conflict.  Unless two former foes can reimagine a benign image of each other, a common identity and memory will be impossible, rendering a future together impossible. Currently processes of reconciliation are often proving ineffective and stuck in the discourse of opposing the perpetrator and victim. Following from this dichotomy, reconciling solutions are limited to vengeance (punishment) or forgiveness (reward). Whilst this works to create short term security and stability, these solutions will become electric in the long run for the conflict is not fully reconciled for divisions that caused conflict still endure.

Ultimately, the reshaping of a foe into a non-foe will only happen through the active encouragement of empathic understandings of the ‘other’ in post-conflict societies. The essence of empathy is to see another human being whose values and life is equal to one’s own. In the end the small Stute fish has to hide behind a rock forever more, fearing that the whale will seek vengeance for his confrontation with Man. If the small Stute fish was to have convinced the whale to emphasize with his plight, the Man would not have been eaten, the whale would not have stomach problems and the small Stute fish would be swimming free.

How the Whale got his Throat - Rudyard Kipling

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