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COMING TO TERMS WITH WAR: Is pacifism a waste of passion and commitment, a form of idealism that is doomed to disappointment? And, more generally, is anger, sadness and disgust at the thought of war the result of a failure to understand the larger picture? In my view, Yes and Yes.
First, a few preliminary comments. Nothing I say here relates to nuclear war, which is simply mutual annihilation by machine. Second, by a pacifist I mean an extreme pacifist, someone who regards war as the ultimate evil, and who hold all participation in war as unacceptable—and certainly un-Christian.
Here’s my case. Man is a competitive animal and war the most thrilling of all competitive sports. Or, if you wish, war is the ultimate form of competition. Bertholt Brecht was probably right when he remarked, ‘War is like love: it always finds a way.’ If war does always find a way, it would explain why Jesus of Nazareth never explicitly condemned war (nor slavery for that matter). This fact can hardly be explained by supposing that Jesus didn’t share the common view that war (and slavery) are very great evils. It’s inconceivable that He belonged to the Prussian school of thought, namely, that war is the most glorious activity of man. But you can go over the four gospels with a fine-toothed comb, and you won’t find a word about the wickedness of war, the wastefulness of war, the appalling scale of the slaughter in war and so on and so forth; indeed not a word about war at all.
When Jesus cured the servant of the centurion, He praised the centurion’s faith for recognizing that He had the power to heal his servant without coming to his house. Notice, however, that Jesus neglected to tell the centurion (or inform him through his emissaries—in one gospel the centurion goes personally to ask Jesus for help, in another he sends his Jewish friends), “By the way, you really ought to find another line of work because soldiering is a profession I can’t approve of.” There is nothing in the gospels that throws any particular light on Jesus’s attitude towards organized warfare. What are we to make of that, especially those of us who think Jesus was a pacifist? Well, here’s one way to see the wisdom of His silence on the subject. War is a collective activity in a way that greed, adultery, slander, passing judgment on others—things that Jesus did explicitly condemn—are not. An individual can change his character, but he can’t change the character of the community or of the state. Moreover, there’s no conceivable way to prevent groups of human beings from disagreeing with one another, and war is nothing more than the most violent form of disagreement. It therefore follows that war will be with us as long as nations or classes or ethnic groups continue to have serious disagreements.
There’s another point about war that we often miss due to the fact that human nature, though not especially moral, is notoriously moralistic. What we fail to see is that war, though a man-made evil, is not always a purely moral evil. The British historian Christopher Dawson wrote, ‘A great war is not a matter of human choice. On the contrary, it marks the point at which events pass out of human control. It is a kind of social convulsion—an eruption of the forces which lie dormant like the subterranean fires of a volcano.’ And then there are those poignant words from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugaural a month before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox: “Both parties deprecated [i.e. expressed disapproval of] war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” And the war came! Like a hurricane or an earthquake.
Perhaps the anguish suffered by those who have a particular horror of war can be lessened if they keep the following facts in mind. The greatest war in history was the Second World War. During the last two years of that war, one million people were being killed every month. That amounts to 12 million a year when global population was half of what it is now. Today, traffic accidents kill about 1.2 million people every year and medical mistakes many times that number. War, on the other hand, accounts (according to one detailed study) for about 75,000 deaths annually—on average since the year 2000—or about one death per 100,000 people. So, from the point of view of fatalities, war is relatively insignificant in comparison with the great wars of history and, nowadays, compared with traffic accidents, medical mistakes, malaria, etc., etc.
What’s more, unlike traffic accidents and medical mistakes war provides the largest and most dramatic arena for the display of courage, and there are few things that human beings admire so spontaneously or celebrate so much. So that fact should go on the credit side of the ledger. War is also good at providing opportunities for loyalty, sacrifice and glory, qualities that we cherish and go into the making of good stories; and we should never forget that stories are a staple enjoyment of the human condition along with eating, drinking, and talking. Think of all the novels and films and documentaries that have war as their subject or context, and how much pleasure they have given to millions, many millions more than have been harmed by war. Think of how many of us are only here because the disturbed conditions of war time brought our parents together. In conclusion, although it may sound cold-blooded, when you combine these indisputable facts with the main fact of war’s inevitability, the result should perhaps be a more dispassionate, nuanced, and even appreciative attitude towards this perennial evil.
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