A Brick in the Wall

Imagine this:

You’re a young soldier, six months out of your parent’s house, the only home you’ve ever known. You’re not a zealous patriot, but an 18-year-old-boy. You’re not hungry for glory, but for a sense of self and belonging. You’re not made of iron, but of flesh.

You’re stationed at an outpost, and ordered to keep watch over a semi-dense populated area. Your uniform and the history it represents earns you no love among the population you’ve been ordered to guard. The orders themselves came from your superiors, who were ordered by their superiors, who were in turn ordered by their superiors in a chain of authority that stretches into the upper clouds, based on old decisions made by distant actors you will never see or talk to.

The position isn’t glamorous, or particularly exciting. Your childhood was not spent imagining and preparing yourself for this moment. You’re there because the law requires you to serve, and the several institutions that govern your life have, through consecutive rolls of many-sided dice, placed you at that station.

The population doesn’t know your story, or care. They despise you, for reasons you can understand and for reasons you can’t. Your presence pains them, and most of them feel powerless to make you leave. Some of them, made furious and desperate by that powerlessness, throw rocks at you. Small rocks, not capable of much harm. Large rocks, capable of killing. As long as you stay in your car, you’re safe. Out of your car, however, you are vulnerable. You’ve heard stories of people hurt by those rocks, badly hurt. You are a long way from home. You are afraid.

Your orders are clear. Keep watch, report back, and do not antagonize the population—a population that you’ve never met or spoken with as an equal, a population you understand mostly through the cultural and historical lenses of fear, hatred, suspicion, and racism. The international community is critical of you–or rather, of the institutions controlling you–and will not look kindly on any violence on your part. Your superiors have informed you that if you shoot, you will be thrown in military jail. So you bear the tension quietly, stewing with frustration at the government that put you at that outpost, at the population that is attacking you, at the situation you were born into.  The levers of power are far away, and in many ways, you’re every bit as helpless to control your life as the population over which you are keeping vigil. To you, with your 18-year-old understanding, these are not a people fighting for self-determination, but an angry, violent mob keeping you from living your life. To you, seeking shelter from the rocks, these are not a people suffering under the yoke of your state, but a crafty people manipulating events to win sympathy to their cause.

You’re a young soldier, and your anger is understandable.


There are two dimensions along which any long-term conflict has to operate. The first is the dimension of history, of the slow unfurling of powerful and inexorable forces. It is this dimension that shapes the conflict, that influences the boundaries of interaction and the borders of engagement. This is the dimension guiding the decisions of the leaders and occupying the minds of many of the theorists.

The second is the dimension of the individual, of the creation of the conflict anew in each and every mind. Because while in one sense the conflict transcends any single individual, the conflict can only be carried from generation to generation as a welcome passenger in the minds of individuals. The wall, after all, is first and foremost a collection of bricks. These are not individuals fundamentally different from each other, or you. These are individuals coming into the world with hopes similar to yours, feelings similar to yours, and fears similar to yours. The circumstances of their lives mold them into the characters of this play, an unwilling chorus to this tragedy.

It is crucial to realize that it takes more than an individual, or a class, or a single school of thought to carry a conflict of this nature: it takes entire populations, entire civilizations, to carry it forward. It takes more than a teacher teaching a student a synthetic history to cause them to hate and fear: it takes direct experience to give life to the history, to carve the etchings of ideas into deep grooves of identity. There is no single group coordinating from above, but rather a hopeless storm of actors, agents, goals, and obstacles creating a region that continues to shape each generation into a vehicle for conflict.


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