First you call them terrorists. Then you say you’re defending yourself. Moral problem solved!

You can kill as many of them as you want.

Well, maybe there will be consequences later (and maybe not), but for the moment you have overcome your own moral barriers and can start doing your job as a soldier: killing people. And in the process, you are making the world – your world, not theirs – safe. War is such a paradox: killing one’s way to peace. But apparently it’s humanity’s primary organizing principle.

Citizens of America, citizens of Israel, citizens of Russia . . . citizens of the world . . . this has to change! Now is the time to end war, by which I mean transcend war: disarm, demilitarize. We’re killing the planet; we’re living on the brink of nuclear suicide. Creating and dehumanizing an “enemy” isn’t going to create peace, but rather, just the opposite. We’re spreading hell across the planet, and not only does war always come home, it continues to create an endless cycle of death and destruction – simply to justify itself.

For instance, Palestinian writer Emad Moussa put it this way recently in the Los Angeles Times: “The general impression among us Palestinians — whether at home or abroad — is that as Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza, what the soldiers saw contradicted their worldview of the inferior, subhuman Palestinian. They had to destroy all and re-create an image of Gaza that matched their imagined worldview. As if to say, dehumanize to facilitate and justify the culling.”

The paradox of dehumanization! When we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And as an American, I find it troubling for the nation’s mainstream position on present wars to be free of any self-awareness, any lingering shock and awe, about our own bellicose history.

So I jump back a few decades and a few wars, to Vietnam, specifically to what came to be called the My Lai massacre, where between 350 and 500 unarmed villagers – men, women, children – were shot and killed by U.S. troops in 1968. The deaths were just a small percentage of the war’s total cost in civilian lives (possibly more than 2 million), but the horror of the killings has remained etched in the American, and global, consciousness. It opened us to the moral price of dehumanization.

During the Vietnam war, the good guys were fighting communists, not terrorists, but the terms had essentially the same meaning: bad guys with no moral sanity, who only wanted to impose harm on the world. Seymour Hersh, the journalist who initially wrote about the massacre, exposing it to the world, wrote a New Yorker essay many years later further contextualizing the event. One of the people he spoke to was Paul Meadlo, a participant in the massacre, who said to him: “There was supposed to have been some Vietcong in (My Lai) and we began to make a sweep through it.”

That simple quote reverberates in every direction. Vietcong, Hamas . . . they’re presence (actual or merely alleged) poisons everything: the village, the hospital, the school, the community. Civilians in their midst are now, first and foremost, nothing more than collateral damage.

Hersh’s story continues. The soldiers gathered up the villagers. Then the Charlie Company leader, Lt. Willaim Calley, told the men he wanted them shot. “I started to shoot them,” Meadlo said, “but the other guys wouldn’t do it.” So Calley and Meadlo “went ahead and killed them. We all thought we were doing the right thing.”

But Hersh complicates Meadlo’s account by adding some of the original testimony of other soldiers, one of whom had said Meadlo and a fellow soldier “were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.” And when Calley and Meadlo started shooting, Meadlo “started to cry.”

Those tears belong to all of us, you might say. We – at least those of us who are not the victims – have to start claiming collective responsibility for these wrongs, which begin with dehumanization. Armed dehumanization, for God’s sake. Why is this where we find ourselves?

In the context of war, peace is just a blank. It’s nothing, or virtually nothing. A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson puts it this way: “Peace is that brief, glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading.”

In other words, we raise our families, create art and culture, emanate love . . . during ceasefires. But the social structure in which we live with relative safety (or not) is only present because armed authorities have cleared the space for it to exist, temporarily, beyond the forces of evil. This is the belief that allows militarism to endure, sucking up some two trillion dollars from the global economy every year.

Ray Acheson, addressing the Ukraine war two years ago, wrote: “The abolition of nuclear weapons, of war, of borders, of all the structures of state violence that we can see clearly at play in this conflict is at the core of the demand for real, lasting, paradigm-shifting change that we need in the world. It can feel like vast, overwhelming, and inconceivable. But most change is inconceivable until we achieve it.”

Conflict among people will never go away. Our fear of the unknown – of people, say, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look like us, who possess something we want (such as land) – will never go away. We can dehumanize those we fear, attempt to kill them, and stay in hell. Or we can attempt to understand them.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His newly released album of recorded poetry and art work, Soul Fragments, is available here: