Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Not-Han) has been a spokesperson for peace and human rights since the 1960s, when his activism to end the Vietnam War inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been living in exile from his native Vietnam since 1966, and calls Plum Village, a meditation retreat center he founded in the south of France, his home. He conducts retreats throughout the world on "engaged Buddhism," nonviolence, and mindfulness, and has written more than 100 books. In an email interview with Beliefnet, he offered his thoughts on the prison abuse scandal.
What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq?
Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides us with the opportunity to look deeply into the nature of war. This is an opportunity for us to be more aware. This is not new; everywhere there is war, these kinds of things happen.
Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained in order to see the truth about war. Soldiers are trained to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers are told that if they don't kill, they will be killed by the so-called "enemy." They are taught that killing is good because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society.
Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their "enemies" as fellow human beings just like them, they would have no courage to kill them.
It is important not to blame and single out the U.S. in this kind of situation because any country would do the same thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam War atrocities were committed by both sides.
The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq shocked me. Because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men going to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all cost, being ready to kill at any moment.
In this state you can become extremely cruel. You may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them long after the abuse has ended.
Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over. We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.
There have been examples of individuals who were kind to prisoners. Assuming they have the same training and are operating in the same difficult conditions, what makes some people compassionate and others abusive?
Some people are able to remain compassionate because they are lucky to have received a spiritual heritage, kindness and goodness, that stayed at least partially intact despite their training. This heritage is transmitted by parents, teachers, and community. Their humanity is preserved to some extent even if they have been damaged during their training. So they are still able to be shocked by their fellow soldiers' acts of torture. But those with a poorer spiritual heritage, who come from a family or community without much understanding and compassion, lose all their humanity in the process of military training.
There is no `good cause' for torture. As a torturer, you are the first to be a victim because you lose all your humanity. You do harm to yourself in the act of harming another. If you had a good cause to begin with, it is lost when you torture another human being. When we imagine situations when torture could be justified, we jump to conclusions too quickly and too easily. Torturing someone will not always give us the result we wish for. If the prisoner in custody does not tell us the information we want it is because they don't want their people, their fellow soldiers to be killed. They withhold information out of compassion, out of faithfulness to their cause. Sometimes they give out wrong information. And there are those who prefer to die rather than give in to the torture.