Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Sun: An Interview with Paul K Chappell

I have been a subscriber to The Sun for a few years now. It's a good magazine, although there can be a certain sameness to the issues. The interviews are usually with mystics, practitioners of alternative medicine, unconventional political crusaders, and back-to-nature types. Even when I'm on board with them, as I usually am, their worldview can get a little predictable, as can the "life is tough but ain't it beautiful" note struck by many of the stories and poems.

There can also be an annoying air of middle-class complacency about the magazine's radicalism, as if a few more meditation retreats and book clubs would be a real first step towards solving the world's problems.

Nonetheless, I am always glad when a new issue arrives. I feel like the editors are always trying to reach people, and don't pawn off anything that they weren't genuinely affected by on their readers. As anyone who reads literary magazines can attest, this is actually quite rare. Many of the photographs are beautiful, the Readers Write section is always worth reading, and there are often discoveries to be made in the Interviews.

This month's interview is with Paul K Chappell, an Iraq veteran who is now a peace activist. He gives some very thoughtful responses to many of the difficult questions that face pacifists, and also provides an interesting window into the training of officers in the army. I was surprised, for example, to discover the extent to which West Point encourages its students to face opposing viewpoints: apparently they invited Noam Chomsky to give a speech on the legality of the Iraq War, and many of Chappell's friends were already reading Chomsky, along with people like Howard Zinn, to decide what they thought of the war they would soon be joining.

One particularly interesting section was Chappell's distinction between violence and play (Leslee Goodman is the interviewer).
Goodman: As a parent of sons, I heard that if I didn't let my boys play with toy guns, they would just make guns out of sticks. Is this not an indication that violence is in our genes?

Chappell: We need to look at the difference between violence and play. In play as soon as someone gets hurt, the game stops. When two puppies are biting each other, and one puppy yelps in pain, the play stops. If two boys are playing swords with sticks and one boy gets hurt, the play stops. The intention of violence is to inflict pain: you want to hurt people. The intention of play is to have fun, practice hand-eye coordination, test your strength against your peers, bond socially, and so on. Play is crucial, not just for humans but for all mammals. Nearly all young mammals like to wrestle. It builds muscular strength and the connections in your brain that govern motor control and balance. But it has nothing to do with violence.
I remember reading an article in the Boston Globe recently about the illegal traffic in finches to be used in cage fighting matches. Male saffron finches are "naturally aggressive" -- they fight over mates -- but the interesting detail for me is that these confrontations are rarely fatal in the wild, because the finches have room to retreat. The fight stops as soon as one bird feels himself overmatched. It leads to death or serious injury only when the birds are primed to fight and then forcibly confined. I think there are definite analogies to be drawn.

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