Archive for the ‘Anti-war’ Category
After the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1847), the American Peace Society sponsored an essay competition, with $500 (roughly equivalent to $15,000 today) to be awarded for the best “Review of the Mexican War on the principles of Christianity, and an enlightened statesmanship.” The competition was won by the Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbott Livermore (1811-1892).
The following paragraphs, taken from the closing pages of Livermore’s essay, apply as much today as then.
Source: Abiel A. Livermore, The War with Mexico Reviewed, Boston, American Peace Society, 1850, pp. 280-286.
[Note: the material below has been slightly re-arranged, viz. the powerful last two paragraphs come from the chapter preceding the Conclusion in Livermore's essay.]
“I have been apt to think there never has been, nor ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace.” — FRANKLIN.
“Then, at least shall it be seen, that there can be no peace that is not honorable, and there can be no war that is not dishonorable.” — CHARLES SUMNER.
AN able writer of the present day has said, that “the philosophical study of facts may be undertaken for three different purposes; the simple description of the facts; their explanation; or prediction, meaning by prediction, the determination of the conditions under which similar facts may be expected again to occur.” The Mexican War is now numbered among the things of the past. What has been done, is done; and what has been written, is written. Its consequences, however, will long remain, and will mingle with future events and influences materially to affect our national prospects. A treaty may stop the war, though some symptoms are unfavorable, but it cannot stop the war-results. The question then is, how can this great evil be turned to the best account. After narrating and explaining its events, so as to get a clear idea of its origin, causes, losses of life and treasure, and its social, political, and moral evils, the next step is to state the conditions on which we may predicate the recurrence of similar mischiefs; or draw such lessons of warning and encouragement, as will tend to prevent them. This end the American Peace Society propose to accomplish by publishing a Review of the War, and pointing out clearly and impressively to the citizens of our land, what measures should be taken to save us from plunging again into like calamities. Thus reviewed, and exposed, this darkest of all the passages in our country’s history, and most ominous of evil to come, in the judgment of wise statesmen, and sage moralists, may be converted into an unexpected blessing. The wars, consequent upon the French Revolution, aroused the friends of Peace on both sides of the ocean to more positive and combined action in behalf of this cause, and induced the formation of associations to work for the grand object of a universal and perpetual pacification of the world. Much has thus been effected to enlighten both rulers and people, and to impress upon both their solemn duties. Much has been done by the devoted and untiring laborers in this department of Christian philanthropy, over which angels must rejoice, and the King of kings extend his benediction.
But the great work has but just been commenced. We cannot suppose that so “splendid” a sin as war can at once be stripped of its false and fascinating garb, that the deeply-rooted and long-revered customs of nations can be torn up in a day, martial passions and habits be checked, and a public opinion, and a public conscience and heart too be formed on the subject, of sufficient potency to sheathe the sword for-ever. But the slowness of progress, the discouragements of efforts, the violent opposition with which a good cause and its advocates meet, do not release us from our duty to that cause, or furnish in reality a solitary reason why we should fold our arms in despair. The cause of Peace only suffers a like fate from opposition, misconstruction and misrepresentation, as the other glorious causes of philanthropy, and as that parent religion of which these causes are the legitimate and hopeful offspring. We may be sure that nothing is lost, that is done in a true spirit and a high aim for the furtherance of human good, and the divine glory. God forbid that we should ever fear that “His ear is heavy that it cannot hear, or His hand shortened, that it cannot save!”
In this faith, the Mexican war is a new weapon, put into the hands of peace, wherewith to win her bloodless victories. It teaches us, were lessons wanting, the folly of all war, its sin against God, and its subversion of His great plan. It teaches us by its gory fields of carnage, and the screaming hells of its hospitals, that a retributive God sits in the heavens, and that those “who take the sword, shall perish by the sword.” If rightly interpreted and faithfully laid to heart, it is capable of showing us the emptiness of military glory, the contentious and unchristian spirit which it cherishes among the officers and soldiers of the same side, the torrent of vices that is let loose in the path of armies, and the pro-fuse waste that is made of all that men hold dear, or labor most industriously to attain. It is a lesson at home, a republican, an American lesson. It has been brought nigh to many a heart, alas, and many a home, and burnt as with a red-hot branding-iron upon the memory of thousands, by bereavements and pains, such as God only can know, and eternity measure. And we believe that all the warnings and forebodings of the opponents to the annexation of Texas now stand vindicated in the light of a fearful and guilty history. Their prophecy is now fact. They predicted a war with Mexico, the extension of slavery and the slave-power, and infuriate lust of territory, the hatching of new schemes of war and plunder, and a headlong course of conquest and aggrandizement. We are deep in these evils and their results, or waver on the brink, apparently about to plunge in deeper than ever. If these things be so, then let the predictions and warnings of the friends of peace at this time not fall, Cassandra-like, on cold hearts and insensible con-sciences. But let every patriot and Christian, every lover of liberty and man, study what he can do to help stay the hour of his country’s danger, and, perhaps, ruin. It profits little to sit still and croak, like the ill-boding raven, of ills to come; but we must forth into the field of duty, action, and influence, and by voice and vote, by pen and purse, by example and precept, by a living and by a dying testimony, whether ours be the widow’s mite or the rich man’s offering, the influence of the high, or the word of the humble, strive, as for life, to arrest the downward tendency of things, recall the promise of our young republic, relight the torch of freedom, shame modern degeneracy with the early doctrines of our history, and set in vivid contrast the heathen nation we are in danger of becoming, with the glory of a true Christian commonwealth.
Let, therefore, these awful lapses in national virtue only serve to arouse to a more comprehensive and resolute course of action the disciples of the Prince of Peace. Let them thank God and take courage, that if they cannot wholly extinguish the wide-spread conflagration of war, they can yet rescue many victims from its fiery passions and its corrupting moral code. Let them bear their testimony against evils, still too powerful to be subdued at once. Let them see the hope and beauty of a brighter to-morrow symbolized in the rainbow that spans the departing thunder-cloud. War is but one section of the kingdom of Satan that is doomed to be overthrown by the kingdom of God. There is as much encouragement in laboring to remove this sin as any other of the gigantic evils that prey upon humanity. Faith, there-fore, faith is the word; faith vivified and illuminated by hope; faith made strong, and gentle, and patient by charity; faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, the spiritual Governor of men, in whose kingdom of liberty, righteousness, and love, all nations, races, colors, clans, and sects, will at last be harmonized, and God shall be all in all.
Yea, despite the late war, despite the belligerent symptoms of the day at home, despite the warlike aspect of Christendom abroad, though all Europe seems to be turned into barracks and camps, and every country to be resounding with the march of armies hastening to the combat, our just and reasonable confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Gospel of peace is not in the least shaken. The last thirty years of comparative pacification have not passed in vain. Darker clouds than now overhang our horizon, have in former times shut out the light of heaven and hope. If in the solid midnight of sin and superstition, when the whole world lay bound at the chariot wheels of a military despot-ism, Jesus and his apostles knew that a better day was coming, how undying should be our faith amid the breaking of the morning light! For the truth is great, and it will prevail. God is faithful, and his promise will be redeemed. The Gospel is from the Almighty, and it must prevail over man. It is light from heaven, and the darkness of earth must flee before it. Its power is infinite, and its obstacles only finite.
Though for a season then, or for ages its victory may be delayed, the final result is none the less certain, for it is guaranteed by Him who alone is True. Verily, though the world should again plunge into that gulf of horrors, called a general war; though Christian nations should apostatize, and the churches sink into corruption; though the mighty impulses of philanthropy should fail, and the missionaries of the cross should return home, and renounce the sublime hope of evangelizing the world; though our holy faith should retire from the city and the assembly of men, and hide itself from the gaze of the world, we would yet follow her in fear and darkness to her last holy retreat on earth, to the spot, where a mother was kneeling over her new-born infant, and offering up to the Father of spirits her thanks and supplications, and even there catch a new inspiration of faith and hope for the revival of Christianity. For we should remember the sacred scene, eighteen hundred years ago, when the mother of Bethlehem prayed over the babe in the manger, and blessed her Saviour-child; and angels from heaven sang the anthem of his birth; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Pacification of the World
And if we would inquire, how the heart of the world can be calmed, and enlarged, and inspired with the life-breath of peace; we can only say that such a heart comes from the nurture of home, and the solemnity of the church, and the tomb of the loved and gone. It comes by the closet of prayer, and the communion of nature, and the table of the Lord. It comes by a sister’s love and a brother’s example, and the memory of “the good old place.” It comes in the distilling dew of Christian instruction and the infinite sanctions of death, judgment, and eternity. It comes by the sweetness of Fenelon, and the love of Scougal ; by the majesty of Luther, and the humanity of Penn. It comes by the horror of blood, and the courage to be [wrongly] called a coward…. It comes by the testimonies of the wise, and the heroism of the good. It comes by the Beatitudes of the New Testament, and the Lord’s Prayer, and Paul’s masterpiece of Charity, and John’s epistle of Love. It comes by him who was born in a manger and died on a cross, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of sinners.
By these means the weaker spirit of war may be made to yield to the mightier spirit of peace. “And,” in the words of an English divine [Rev. Richard Ramsden of Cambridge (1761-1831)], suggestive of some of the foregoing remarks, “it must appear to what most awful obligation and duty we hold all those from whom this heart takes its nature and shape, our king, our princes, our nobles, all who wear the badge of office, or honor; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law, all instructors of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness, and polish, to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle as that a child may lead it.”*
* Of the sermon of Richard Ramsden from which this quote comes Gladstone wrote, “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.” Gladstone supplies a longer quote that rewards thoughtful reading. [Update: a later post on Satyagraha discusses this 1800 sermon of Richard Ramsden.]
To mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, we should consider what the lessons are:
1. The US government will lie to any degree necessary to start a war.
2. A war will last at least 10 times as long and cost at least 10 times as much as initially announced.
3. Once the war drums beat, most Americans will step in line unconditionally.
4. There is a single ‘war party’ comprised of the Republican and Democratic parties.
5. Once commenced, no politician will question a war; no reivews will be made of the prudence of continuing it.
6. Foreign-imposed regime changes lead to prolonged, bloody, internal fighting.
7. Those who protested the US invasion of Iraq were neither unpatriotic nor wrong.
8. News and entertainment media promote and glorify war.
9. The Christian churches of America, who stood by doing nothing then and still refuse to denounce US militarism, are abrogating their moral authority, discrediting Christianity, and — though God alone knows for certain but we must dare suggest — grieving the Holy Spirit.
10. The US government will betray its veterans whenever that saves money.
These are the lessons that should be learned. Whether they will be learned is another matter entirely.
The Cause of Peace Demands the Specific Attention of Christians
“There is not one generation of the church which has slumbered over the evils of war that can stand guiltless.”
IF war could be abolished, and peace universally secured, the combined voice of mankind would admit it were a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But notwithstanding this admission, to some the whole subject of peace is but an Utopian scheme. To others, who admit the truth of inspired prophecy, universal peace is something that will take place in some distant age, but like the beauty of a fair morning, or the blessings of a fruitful season, it will be the absolute gift of God, exclusive of all human agency. Some entirely despair of its accomplishment, and feel that war, though terrible, is as inevitable as the tempest and the earthquake. Others stand aloof, and gravely rebuke its friends because they propose no one simple, undisputed principle, around which all may gather for common adoption and combined action. And others again seem to feel that no special effort is necessary, imagining that the general advancement of philosophy and Christianity will do the work.
We are persuaded that these views are fraught with no little danger to the whole cause of Christian benevolence and philanthropy. Their influence, so far as it extends, (and this in some of the above forms is over a wide portion of the community,) discourages all distinct attention to the cause of universal peace on earth. The first point is, to convince the advocates of Christian benevolence that something can, and ought to be done in the way of specific and direct action. The evils of war, in all their dreadful detail, should be exposed to view, its effects upon social enjoyment, national prosperity, civil liberty, life, morals, religion, and every thing which enters into the composition of human happiness, should be effectually exhibited, for the purpose of awaking and directing the feelings of mankind; but still the great object now is to bring the Christian community to feel obligation and be excited by a sense of duty and responsibility. In our view, the church, (and we use the word as including all who believe and love the gospel), must put forth efforts with specific reference to the cause of peace, or war will forever remain spreading its mourning and woe over the face of the earth, and laying its obstacles before every movement of the good, in their efforts of humanity and benevolence.
Full and deep is our persuasion, that the church will soon see, and be obliged to admit, that the cause of benevolence most fearfully, and perhaps fatally, labours under the weight which the spirit of war is from every side throwing upon it. But alas! so far is the church from this position, that if Christianity, in form and feeling as she now exhibits it, were to become universal, it would leave the nations of the earth still in the allowed use of all their terrible preparations for the slaughter of each other. And would such a result be that day of glory which the ancient Prophets have so exultingly described? Surely, something must be done to spread Christianity through the earth, a better form than her professors have practiced for sixteen centuries, or the leopard and the kid, the lion and the lamb, will never lie down together. Good men, who love the gospel, and believe its predictions, must be brought to act together, on this subject, with zeal and energy. The time is coming when nation shall no more lift up sword against nation, but like every other predicted good to man, it involves the obligation of his own direct agency; and it is time that with the prediction in view, and the way of its fulfilment clearly seen, the Christian world were up and moving on in firm faith to its accomplishment.
Many reasons combine their influence in urging to such a direct and specific effort in the cause of peace.
1. The world will not free itself from war spontaneously.
Evils seldom cure themselves by their own operation. However terrible be the consequences which spring from the lusts of men, we never witness such a phenomenon as the rising of the mass of mankind spontaneously, and throwing off their vices, and thus shaking themselves loose from the despotism of their own appetites. The examples are all the other way. Unless some bold and zealous reformer has risen up, and with unsparing rebuke and faithful warning aroused the people, and in persuasive eloquence led them away from their delusions, they have gone on like the old world, filling the earth with violence; or like Sodom augmenting their wickedness before the Lord “exceedingly,” until his judgments have “cut short the work in righteousness by an awful extermination.” War presents no exception to this general rule. The years of the present century which have already passed, afford no encouragement in regard to the future, when left to its own course. In this term of thirty-five years, are included almost all the wars of Buonaparte, with the horrours of the Russian campaign, the bloody battle of Borodino, the passage of the Beresina, and the final consummation on the field of Waterloo—the wars with Greece, with the massacre at Scio—the war of America with Great Britain—the civil wars of Spain and Portugal—the invasion of Turkey by the Russians, with many other wars of less note, in South America, Europe, and Asia. How loudly do they proclaim that the savage thirst for blood is still unslaked, and that deeds of butchery are not yet foresworn, even by those who bear the Christian name! The present moment, it is true, is more calm; the future prospect is more bright, but it is not by any means the result of the mingled action of the vices and passions of men, working themselves pure from their defilements, by their own motion. The men of peace, and the still more widely diffused principles of peace, though unseen, are abroad in the earth; prayer and labour go hand in hand, and the public mind, unconscious whence it comes, begins to feel their influence. So by the silent influence of the dew of heaven, the air is softened and purified, and a fresher green is spread over the face of nature. But let these few hands hang down, through weariness and despondency, because the professed disciples of Christ refuse any encouraging cooperation, and the nations, unchecked, will pursue the course to which pride, revenge, selfishness, and mad ambition, urge, and the present calm be of but short duration; it will prove but the stillness before the storm. The tempest of war will again sweep over the land, and spread its mangled and bleeding victims over a thousand battle fields.
2. The deep delusion which prevails on this subject.
The public mind seems in nothing to be led on more passively, without rational conviction, and without inquiry, than the subject of war. For ages a deep delusion has rested on the nations, and led millions to the field of battle, unconscious of the cause, and regardless of the reasons of the war, like beasts to the slaughter. The ranks are filled by a thousand expedients. The bounty and pay, the hope of plunder, the freedom from moral restraint, change, excitement, fame, discontent, caprice, conscription, intoxication, all are used to allure or compel the man to become a soldier; and when once enrolled, the force of martial discipline controls and directs him, as passive to all the purposes of rational self-government as the weapon he wields. He is henceforth a simple instrument in the hand of another, to be used in the most effective way for human destruction. An hundred thousand men on a side are thus arrayed against each other; all made in the image of God, responsible to him for every act, at the price of eternal retributions, giving up their reason, and conscience, and submitting to be used by one ambitious or angry man, according to his own unquestioned order, and in blind compliance therewith turning all their force upon each other, to wound, and maim, and kill, in the greatest possible degree, till, in a few hours, half of them have fallen on the field, and their souls by thousands, in all their uncancelled guilt, have gone to the judgment. Where is there delusion so deep and dreadful as this, except it be that which permits the world and the church to look on and see the destruction of their brethren, with no inquiry into its necessity, no examination of its cause, no efforts to avert its certain and frequent recurrence? Here is one of the most astonishing instances to how dreadful an evil the human mind can be exposed, and yet from the force of long continued and deep seated delusion, slumber in guilty neglect and indifference.
A thousand things conspire to perpetuate this delusion. War appeals to all the bad passions of human nature, and also administers to the gratification of what is styled the nobler qualities of man. There is not only revenge and rapine and licentiousness for the depraved, but splendour, and distinction, and power for the ambitious. Deeds of heroic courage and intrepid valour, and sometimes even of generous sacrifice and patriotic endurance spread a magic charm around this work of butchery, dazzling and deluding the mind, while poetry and its kindred arts lend their aid to heighten the effect. The option so generally imbibed, that this whole subject is beyond the reach of common hands, and in the keeping of legislators and national cabinets, as if they were sacred retreats from the influence of public sentiment, and the intrusion of injunctions of divine authority, with the power of precedent and habit, serve to bind this curse upon the world as with “bands of iron and brass.” Those who “will not touch it with one of their fingers,” bind the burden without resistance or rebuke on others, whose wealth, and sons, and blood, must be put in contribution to sustain it. And can such an evil be removed by efforts having no distinct aim or specific direction?
That credulous heart which has expected such a result, from such means, will meet with certain disappointment. The evil, in its length and breadth, must be measured, and the overwhelming sum of misery and death which it occasions, must be told, with direct purpose to awaken the slumbering millions that they may understand it, and arouse themselves to effort. In no other way will the least ray of hope dawn upon the future.
3. Peace is important not only as an end, but as a means.
While the final triumph of religion is sure, it is not to be expected that the cause of peace will have no distinct agency in accomplishing this triumph. That it is simply to be combined with other blessings, and not itself to be a powerful agent in the accomplishment of other benevolent aims, is an opinion violating all probability. No subject seems to have filled the minds of ancient Prophets with more ecstacy than this. On no occasion do they pour forth their fervid emotions in more glowing language, than when describing the profound and holy peace which is to pervade the nations under the gospel. Whatever may be the state of the church now, prophets and apostles of old, held this fact in the most prominent and conspicuous point of view. The sons of peace, and the nations of peace, were to be the direct instruments of advancing still farther the principles and blessings of the gospel.
Thus the cause of peace is to be viewed not merely as an item in the last triumph, but as one of the essential agents in securing it.
The common knowledge of the wars of Christendom is one of the greatest obstacles to the success of Christian missionary work. The taunting and cutting remark has been made to more than one missionary— look at home! The traditions of the bloody Crusades, and the remembrance of the invasion of Egypt by the French, are still retained by all the inhabitants on the plains of Turkey and Persia. Oh! how deep rooted must be the prejudices in many a non-Christian mind, throughout Asia, and suffering Africa, against any gift from nations whom they know to be so often, and so deeply stained with blood. We shall never win their confidence while in one hand we bear the gospel which reveals it, and in the other, hold a sword. Whatever may be the spirit and principles of the new religion, the practice of those nations who profess it will be felt the first, and strike the deepest. No miracle is needed to carry conviction to non-Christian minds that the religion of the Bible is from heaven. It is enough that it be sent to them by a people who practice according to its pure and peaceful principles.
4. To clear the church from the guilt of war.
In morals and religion, we are responsible for the evils which we might have prevented, as well as for those which we immediately occasion. There is not therefore one generation of the church which has slumbered over the evils of war, that can stand guiltless before God. Though in times of general ignorance, God may have “winked at it,” yet now most emphatically, is the call to repent, and to “bring forth fruits meet for repentance.” Light has been shed upon the evils, and the absurdity of war as a redress for national grievances, both from nature and the Bible. Whatever may be said of the very few wars in self defence, for national existence, the great proportion of all wars, (the exceptions are so few as not to modify the general rule)—can be characterized only as bloody, savage, guilty transactions. Every injury inflicted, evil incurred, and life lost, cries aloud to heaven for justice, to be executed somewhere. And if the church of God, by slumbering at her post, is giving occasion to evils which she might prevent, she cannot stand acquitted at the bar of her final Judge. Judgment will “begin at the house of God” for it. It may be in the shape of abortive efforts, and fruitless charities, and unanswered prayers. God will speak till his voice be heard, and his meaning understood; and if his professed people refuse then to obey, there remaineth no other judgment but utterly to “destroy both them and their fathers’ house, while enlargement and deliverance shall arise from another place.” The church cannot, therefore, without fearful guilt and danger, refuse fairly to consider this subject, and solemnly and deliberately as in the sight of her Redeemer, decide what she ought to teach—how she ought to act—and where she ought to throw her light and influence. Her missionaries, and those to whom they go, her future sons and daughters, her coming prophets and evangelists, the whole world, need the full announcement of her creed, and this illustrated by her practice. All feeling which approaches the subject of war, other than that of the most serious and prayerful frame of mind, betokens an indifference to its enormities, worthy of all rebuke from both the church and her divine Lord and Master.
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* Another item from the 19th century anti-war movement literature. Minor edits have been made for the benefit of modern readers — the webmaster.
Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), ‘Thoughts on Universal Peace‘ (Section 3). In: Works of Thomas Chalmers. Philadelphia: Towar, 1830 (pp. 295–303). This is an example of the remarkable 19th century anti-war literature that awaits rediscovery by modern readers. More examples can be found in The Book of Peace (1845) and on my website.
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III. I trust it is evident from all that has been said, how it is only by the extension of Christian principle among the people of the earth, that the atrocities of war will at length be swept away from it; and that each of us in hastening the commencement of that blissful period, in his own sphere, is doing all that in him lies to bring his own heart, and the hearts of others, under the supreme influence of this principle. It is public opinion, which in the long run governs the world; and while I look with confidence to a gradual revolution in the state of public opinion from the omnipotence of gospel truth working its silent, but effectual way, through the families of mankind — yet I will not deny that much may be done to accelerate the advent of perpetual and universal peace, by a distinct body of men embarking their every talent, and their every acquirement in the prosecution of this, as a distinct object…. Were each individual member of such a scheme to prosecute his own walk, and come forward with his own peculiar contribution, the fruit of the united labours of all would be one of the finest collections of Christian eloquence, and of enlightened morals, and of sound political philosophy, that ever was presented to the world. I could not fasten on another cause more fitted to call forth such a variety of talent, and to rally around it so many of the generous and accomplished sons [sic] of humanity, and to give each of them a devotedness, and a power far beyond whatever could be sent into the hearts of enthusiasts, by the mere impulse of literary ambition.
Let one take up the question of war in its principle, and make the full weight of his moral severity rest upon it, and upon all its abominations. Let another take up the question of war in its consequences, and bring his every power of graphical description to the task of presenting an awakened public with an impressive detail of its cruelties and its horrors. Let another neutralize the poetry of war, and dismantle it of all those bewitching splendours, which the hand of misguided genius has thrown over it.
Let another teach the world a truer, and more magnanimous path to national glory, than any country of the world has yet walked in. Let another tell with irresistible argument, how the Christian ethics of a nation is at one with the Christian ethics of, its humblest individual.
Let another bring all the resources of his political science to unfold the vast energies of defensive war, and show, that instead of that ceaseless jealousy and disquietude, which are ever keeping alive the flame of hostility among the nations, each may wait in prepared security, till the first footstep of an invader shall be the signal for mustering around the standard of its outraged rights, all the steel, and spirit, and patriotism of the country.
Let another pour the light of modern speculation into the mysteries of trade and prove that not a single war has been undertaken for any of its objects, where the millions and the millions more which were lavished on the cause, have not all been cheated away from us by the phantom of an imaginary interest.
This may look to many like the Utopianism of a romantic anticipation — but I shall never despair of the cause of truth addressed to a Christian public, when the clear light of principle can be brought to every one of its positions, and when its practical and conclusive establishment forms one of the most distinct of Heaven’s prophecies — “that men shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks — and that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn the art of war any more.”
Last night I happened to see ‘The Amazing Race’ on television. This week’s episode took place in Bangladesh — and amazing it was, an eye-opening witness to the utter poverty and privation of the people there, and their determined energy. The vividness was heightened by having the opportunity to watch the episode on HDTV.
It made me want to go there myself, on the rationale that such an experience would change me. When considered from vantage point of our living rooms or dens, the suffering of the third world seems merely an abstraction. It elicits a mild concern — maybe enough to send a check to a charitable organization, but not much more than that. In contrast, to actually live in a place like this brings the full force of human misery, and our instinctive urge to help, to the surface. If one has any skill at all, anything to offer other human beings by way of service, one could not face these people in person without the conscience commanding one to think or say, “How can I help? How can I be anything like a complete human being if I do not commit myself to assisting such people with my all!”
Yet, I imagine that if I were to go there and ask some sage elder, “How can I help?”, the answer might well be: “Why travel here? Could you not do more in your own country? Can you not apply yourself to changing hearts and minds there?”
Indeed, tonight two presidential candidates will posture and pretend to meaningfully address the foreign policy of the United States. Both represent a pitiless status quo which thinks nothing of killing thousands or millions of Iraqis, Afghans, or Pakistanis in pointless wars. And more telling: we spend trillions of dollars on war, when for 1/10 that amount in humanitarian assistance we could attain complete national security by winning the friendship, admiration (and imitation) of every nation on earth.
It is fitting that we should recall the words of that great American practitioner of satyagraha, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke as follows in 1965:
All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… And then he goes on toward the end to say: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution. (“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, Commencement Address for Oberlin College, June 1965, Oberlin Ohio)
The beginning of change is education. Despite its potentially negative aspects, modern technology is making the world one. If you’d like to get a picture of life in Bangladesh, you can see the episode (complete or clips) at the CBS website, here.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ George Santayana (The Life of Reason)
We don’t need to make this post any longer than necessary – the title makes the message plain enough. Just as it is obvious to anyone with common sense that the war in Afghanistan is pointless (if not suicidal) and should end.
Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and a prime architect of the Vietnam war, admitted that the Vietnam war was a mistake, and had the good sense to reflect on where the nation went wrong in pursuing it. In 1995, he published his reflections in a book, titled, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage Books, 1996. ISBN: 0679767495). The chapter titled, “The Lessons of Vietnam” (pp. 319–336) explained eleven specific mistakes. These mistakes are summarized below, along with obvious parallels to the current US involvement in Afghanistan. [Note: McNamara's words are italicized and in quotes; headings and bold text are my additions.]
“If we are to learn from our experience in Vietnam, we must first pinpoint our failures. There were eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam.”
1. Exaggerated dangers
“We misjudged … the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries (in this case, North Vietnam and the Vietcong, supported by China and the Soviet Union).”
The common assumption is that we are fighting in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks here. Yet Al Qaeda is effectively removed from Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden is dead. We are now fighting the Taliban, an Afghan cultural and political faction, which has never attacked the US, and would appear to be only concerned with affairs in Afghanistan.
2. Misjudged people and leaders
“We totally misjudged the political forces within the country…. We [mistakenly] saw in them a thirst for – and a determination to fight for – freedom and democracy.”
What do we know about the intentions and determination of the political leaders in Kabul, except that all evidence points towards their corruption and greed?
3. Underestimated patriotism
“We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people (in this case, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong) to fight and die for their beliefs and values.”
The common assumption is that the Taliban is merely a front for warlords who wish to exploit and oppress the people of Afghanistan. But would it not conform with common sense to suppose that they see the US as an imperialistic invader, and are at this point strongly motivated by a genuine and realistic sense of nationalism and patriotism? Our government and political system is today so plainly out of control that we ourselves seem unable to control its vicious advances. Who, then, could doubt that there are people in Afghanistan who would fight to the death to prevent this same machine from taking over their country and subjecting them to the same dehumanizing institutional forces. We shouldn’t suppose that the Taliban are saints, or that their motives are completely honorable. But whatever their other failings, they are human beings, and human beings are well known to die rather than surrender their homeland to an invading force.
4. Ignorance of history and culture
“Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.”
What do we know about the culture and politics of Afghanistan? Are we truly so naive as to think that the cultural dynamics are as simple as the formula “Taliban = bad guys, anti-Taliban = good guys”? In what area of life is such primitive, black-and-white thinking correct or adequate to solve a problem?
5. Machines vs. men
“We failed … to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements.”
All available evidence and testimony points to the rural and rugged terrain of Afghanistan as decisively favoring the guerilla tactics of the Taliban, and making our approach there, based on superior technology and conventional troop actions, an impossible logistical nightmare.
6. No honest debate
“We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia before we initiated the action.”
The American public bought into the Afghanistan operation under the stated premise that it was to be a short-term operation (e.g., 90 days), designed to destroy terrorist training camps and to capture Osama bin Laden. Since then there has been no “full and frank discussion” about our goals, objectives, and strategy. Rather, the war has dragged on by institutional momentum, and by the irrational yet widespread belief that we should continue precisely because we began, and to leave would be unpatriotic or a sign of weakness.
7. No public communication
“We failed to retain popular support in part because we did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did…. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, but, rather, in the unity of its people. We failed to maintain it.”
The war has created (or, we should say, increased) a deep chasm between citizens and government. At present, polls show (as they have for some time) that most Americans oppose our continued involvement in Afghanistan.
More fundamentally, the public has no idea (and, likely, neither do members of Congress) as to the true reasons for our involvement. Upon repeated inquiry to my US Senator (Barbara Boxer D-CA), I finally received a short response alluding to “geopolitical objectives.” In the face of such vague government communications, the public can only speculate. Are our “geopolitical objectives” to place a US-style democracy adjacent to Iran? ; or next to China? Is it to get our foot in the door of the mineral-rich Caspian Sea area?
And why have we let the war spill over into Pakistan with drone strikes? Are we trying to keep Pakistan’s nuclear arms out of the hands of Pakistani terrorists? Have factions of the Pakistani government secretly asked our help to control their internal terrorist problem in exchange for other concessions, while at the same time they publicly denounce our drone strikes to quell the indignation of their citizens?
Or do the AfPak military operations continue merely because they line the pockets of war profiteers, who, by making large campaign contributions, control US foreign policy?
8. False sense of omniscience
“We did not recognize that neither our own people nor our leaders are omniscient. Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.”
Clearly the US government still labors under the burden of a false sense of omniscience. And while our leaders continue to say that the Afghanistan war is not an effort in nation building, our actions and massive siphoning off of US funds – while our own infrastructure deteriorates – shows beyond doubt that this is exactly what we are attempting.
“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action – other than in response to direct threats to our own security – should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”
It is no secret that the so-called multinational effort in Afghanistan is indeed merely cosmetic. Several members of the original coalition have at least had the decency to withdraw their support.
10. No easy solutions
“We failed to recognize that … there may be problems for which there are not immediate solutions…. At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”
Perhaps we don’t like the Taliban, and perhaps with good reason. But, ultimately, what happens in Afghanistan is not our business. Can we not trust the innate capacity of the Afghan people to gradually work out their problems? And if we wish to save the world, why not do so with positive efforts, like ending famine or eradicating disease – goals which, unlike a military victory in Afghanistan, are attainable?
11. Executive branch disorganization
“Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues… Such organizational weakness would have been costly had this been the only task confronting the president and his advisers…. [But] it coexisted with the wide array of other domestic and international problems confronting us. We … failed to analyze and debate our actions in Southeast Asia – our objectives, the risks and costs of alternative ways of dealing with them.”
Two successive administrations have shown an utter lack of ability to confront the war in Afghanistan in an honest and sensible way. And today we have even more pressing social problems than existed during the Vietnam era, problems which demand an even greater proportion of government attention.
McNamara followed his list of these errors by noting how they all interacted in a negatively synergistic fashion:
“These were our major failures, in their essence. Though set forth separately, they are all in some way linked: failure in one area contributed to or compounded failure in another. Each became a turn in a terrible knot.”
He then concluded with important observations that modern Americans should take to heart:
“Above all else, the criteria governing intervention should recognize that, as we learned in Vietnam, military force has only a limited capacity to facilitate the process of nation building. Military force by itself cannot rebuild a ‘failed state.’… External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves.”
“We must recognize that the consequences of large-scale military operations – particularly in this age of highly sophisticated and destructive weapons – are inherently difficult to predict and to control. Therefore, they must be avoided, excepting only when our nation’s security is clearly and directly threatened.”
“These are the lessons of Vietnam. Pray God we learn them.”
Finally, he said:
“Can we not go beyond the culture of war that saw so many deaths from war in the 20′th century? Surely that must be not only our hope, not only our dream, but our steadfast objective. Some may consider such a statement so naive, so simplistic, and so idealistic as to be quixotic. But as human beings, citizens of a great nation with the power to influence events in the world, can we be at peace with ourselves if we strive for less?”
These last words deserve special attention. As mankind has never found the ability to learn from history, we should not be greatly surprised that the same myopia afflicts the current generation. But there is a radical difference between Americans today and during the Vietnam era. At least then people were able to set peace – and an eventual end to war – as a conscious, if distant objective. Now the voice of conscience is utterly absent in the news media and in social discourse. We must not compound our present errors by succumbing to the further sin of what psychologists call learned helplessness. While under the oppression of the present political system, let us at least denounce it, and work by whatever avenues – including but not limited to prayer – are available to us to build a better world.