The Road to Peace (7-17-86)
“We know that wars will probably happen no matter what we do or say. We know we will be persecuted for our refusal to participate in them. We know that the state, our neighbors, and community will do everything possible to destroy our reputations and careers, and punish us in worse ways if we are not able to defend ourselves, or otherwise avoid that fate – often by paying some sort of tribute in money or “service.” It takes a lot more courage to be a pacifist than it does to be a warrior, yet the pacifist is generally thought to be a weakling and a coward.”
We often hear about peace-making, “conflict-resolution,” “arms negotiations,” and treaties of convenience and mutual interest intended to establish peace in some region of the world, or between what are perceived to be opposing “sides.” Some ages are remembered as being (relatively) peaceful and harmonious, while others are remembered for their devastating wars.
History records the tragedy of the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece; the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage; the Hundred Years War between England and France; the Thirty Years War between Protestantism and Catholicism; and so forth. When the two greatest powers in a region go to war, and the war is protracted, there is literally hell to pay. The amount of suffering, pain, death and deprivation can be staggering. The real costs of war are incalculable, and in the case of a total war, far greater than any possible gains which might be realized from a victory. It is only in the abstract realms of political ideology, religious belief, and/or racial/ethnic division that wars “make sense.” Only the fanatic really believes in it, and willingly participates when one occurs.
Yet, we are taught, about “martial virtue” from our earliest experience. We are taught to march, wear uniforms, choose “sides” or “teams,” regard outsiders with hostility or suspicion, participate in civic rituals designed to create rivalries and conflicts with other communities, etc, etc. Some of us are gravely troubled by this experience, and trace to it every sort of evil associated with war.
If people weren’t conditioned to believe in war; to prepare for it; and to regard it as proper and inevitable, then it seems to me that wars might never happen. Youthful idealism? Liberal foggy-headedness? The very denial of reality, itself? We’re charged with this, and more. And we know that our numbers are small; that we are virtually powerless in terms of the voter’s influence on government, influence on public opinion, and most of all, influence on history.
We know that wars will probably happen no matter what we do or say. We know we will be persecuted for our refusal to participate in them. We know that the state, our neighbors, and community will do everything possible to destroy our reputations and careers, and punish us in worse ways if we are not able to defend ourselves, or otherwise avoid that fate – often by paying some sort of tribute in money or “service.” It takes a lot more courage to be a pacifist than it does to be a warrior, yet the pacifist is generally thought to be a weakling and a coward.
When I was on the East Coast, I remember hearing Montana environmentalists being characterized as “a breed a part” insofar as they had to stand up to the loggers, miners, oil-drillers, and others who hated them enough to want to fight them. The same may be true of Montana pacifists — it’s’ a little different marching to the gates of Malmstrom AFB [then home to a nuclear strike force of 200 Minuteman missiles carrying up to 600 warheads – today, it’s 150 single-warhead missiles] compared with demonstrating on the Mall in Washington, D.C. or a college campus!
Even the 1960’s hippies, universally known for their doctrine of “peace and love,” took on a rather different character here in Montana. They began to carry large sheath knives, and if you got into a disagreement with one of them, it wasn’t likely he’d refuse to go outside and settle the matter in the parking lot, or even with firearms, if it came to that! I was one of the very few who thought he could maintain some self-esteem while politely refusing such invitations. And so it is with the pacifist, today.
If we take our peace and freedom and justice seriously, we’ve got to be prepared to act according to our beliefs, and organize our thoughts, our communications, our budgets, our livelihoods, our lifestyles and even our entertainments in such a way that they will further peace, and whatever else we might believe in. Such is the responsibility of membership in a free society.
How might we better serve this cause of peace? Before we can really do something, we must understand the problem clearly, and be able to relate cause and effect in such a way that our efforts will have the effects desired. Thus, I question the motives of peace “demonstrators” who confront and antagonize, and whose thoughts and reasoning are so esoteric and far-removed from the ordinary person’s understanding that no useful communication takes place. During the Vietnam era, I know it was the case that most people in Montana thought that anyone against the war was anti-American, crazy, a Communist, or worse. The very fact of demonstrating and being against the war on the part of a variety of long-haired, drug-using “hippies” convinced many people that the war was right, and that we should support it!
If one understands what is happening here, and one really wishes to end a war or prevent one, one’s only rational response is to change one’s behavior so that people are affirmed in their suspicion of war-making politicians and generals, and in their desire for peace and harmony with other nations. So peculiar is the American culture that literally millions of people kept marching in the streets and offending the sensibilities of others more or less for the fun of it, or out of a frustration which apparently could not be channeled into any more constructive action. And thus, I sadly believe, the Vietnam war lasted longer and cost much more than would have been the case had no radical demonstrations or civil disobedience occurred!
Teach-ins, constructive use of the media, and traditional political action would have done the job much more quickly and effectively, I’m sure, and the success of fundamentalist conservatism using precisely these methods provides strong evidence in favor of my contention. If intelligence has anything whatsoever to do with the cultivation and application of reason, then we, as intelligent people, should certainly believe that reason is efficacious in political decision-making, and that reason is a universal to which anyone, regardless of intelligence or lack of it, must finally accede.
Some people think that “you can prove anything with reason,” but that is just not the case. Reason isn’t a mechanism so much as it is an attitude; the desire to understand as fully as possible, to use one’s understanding as a guide to future action, and to intend, in every case, the universal good of all. “Reason” that brings harm or destruction is practically a contradiction in terms, and thus not “reason” in any legitimate sense of the term.
All of the foregoing applies to conventional as well as nuclear war. The difference with nuclear war is that it is total and final Once it occurs,, there will be practically nothing left of what we know as civilization. There will be no recovering from it as we have recovered from past wars. Life will have become, indeed, “solitary, cruel, nasty, brutish, and short” as the British philosopher (and Rationalist) Thomas Hobbes said of “the State of Nature.” Following a nuclear war, there will be little, even, of Nature remaining, and the “shortness” may be measured in minutes, weeks, or months instead of years. Such has been our “progress” in technology and politics since the 17th century!
We must remember, though, that Hitler and Stalin were “rationalists”, too. It’s just that they were also psychopaths and intent on destroying something, even if it was their own nation, party, or circle of friends. If they lacked a “spiritual dimension,” it wasn’t because they weren’t superstitious or convinced of their own “God-chosenness” or its materialist equivalent. And thus, the Nazi or Bolshevik “logic” proved to be a sophistry; a means by which a political organization might wield power oblivious to every kind of criticism and opposition. And we are not so very far from this condition in the United States, today.
Great Falls, Montana