War As Calamity

by | May 16, 2017

During my time in the military, I confronted the question of whether war is justified.  One idea I frequently confronted said that, “if you want peace, prepare for war.”  This fatal conceit makes two wild presumptions.  First, that by merely choosing to fight wars we can guarantee that we’ll win them, and spare ourselves the ravages of calamity.  Second, that the cause of our national team represents justice and expediency – when, after all, this is what every nation who fights wars believes.

An idea entered into my moral imagination at this time.  This was that war, in many or most cases, is nothing but a calamity of fate.  Like natural disasters, when it befalls us, we suffer then endure.  Unlike natural disasters, “going to war” actually can exacerbate the suffering.

This is an important perspective for libertarians who, I think, grapple with the question of “but how do we deal with national defense?”  My answer is that we have to start thinking of human politics as an ecosystem, or climate, in which we live but which we can’t necessarily control.  Our political solutions need to carve out space for liberty, but when calamity falls sometimes our calling is to suffer, then endure.

Jumping into the fray and passions of war is the worst mistake we can make.  The worst outcome of war isn’t what afflictions it imposes on its victims, but rather what sort of monsters those who prepare for war become.  Just look at what has happened to American government during the 20th century.

I’d like to share some words to this effect from an old time Yankee preacher (who is as verbose as you’d expect, apologies).

From On War, William Ellery Channing, 1839:

“I now proceed to consider, first, as I proposed, the chief evil of war. The chief evil of war! What is it? What induces us to place war at the head of human calamities? In replying to these questions I shall not direct you to the physical sufferings of war, however great or terrible. Death in its most agonizing forms, the overthrow of proud cities, the devastation of fruitful fields, the impoverishing of nations, famine, pestilence, — these form the train of victorious war. But these are not the distinguishing evils of war. These are inflictions of other causes much more than of war. Other causes are wasting human life and joy more than battles. Millions, indeed, die by the sword, but these millions are as nothing compared with the countless multitudes who die by slow and painful disease. Cities are overthrown by earthquakes as well as by armies, and more frequently swept by accidental conflagrations than by the flames of war. Hostile bands ravage the fields; but how much oftener do whirlwinds, storms, hurricanes rush over land and sea, prostrating harvests and destroying the labors of years on a scale so vast as to reduce human devastations to a narrow extent! The truth is, that man is surrounded with mighty powers of nature which he cannot comprehend or withstand; and, amidst their beneficent operations, all of them inflict much suffering. What distinguishes war is not that man is slain, but that he is slain, spoiled, crushed by the cruelty, the injustice, the treachery, the murderous hand of man. The evil is moral evil…

“Allow me to make another supposition, which may bring out still more strongly the truth on which I now insist, that the great evil of war is inward, moral; that its physical woes, terrible as they may be, are light by the side of this. Suppose, then, that in traveling through a solitary region, you should catch the glimpse of a distant dwelling. You approach it eagerly in the hope of hearing a welcome after your weary journey. As you draw nigh, an ominous stillness damps your hope; and on entering, you see the inmates of the house, a numerous family, stretched out motionless and without life. A wasting pestilence has in one day made their dwelling a common tomb. At first you are thrilled with horror by the sight; but as you survey the silent forms you see on all their countenances, amidst traces of suffering, an expression of benignity. You see some of the dead lying side by side, with hands mutually entwined, showing that the last action of life was a grasp of affection, whilst some lie locked in one another’s arms. The mother’s cold lips are still pressed to the cheek of the child, and the child’s arms still wind round the neck of the mother. In the forms of others you see no ambiguous proof that the spirit took its flight in the act of prayer. As you look on these signs of love and faith, stronger than the last agony, what a new feeling steals over you! Your horror subsides. Your eyes are suffused with tears, not of anguish, but of sympathy, affection, tender reverence. You feel the spot to be consecrated. Death becomes lovely, like the sleep of infancy. You say, Blessed family, death hath not divided you!

“With soothed and respectful sorrow you leave this resting place of the good, and another dwelling, dimly descried in the horizon, invites your steps. As you approach it the same stillness is an augury of a like desolation, and you enter it expecting to see another family laid low by the same mysterious disease. But you open the door, and the spectacle freezes your blood and chains your steps to the threshold. On every face you see the distortion of rage. Every man’s hand grasps a deadly weapon; every breast is gored with wounds. Here lies one, rived asunder by a sword. There two are locked together, but in the death grapple of hatred, not the embrace of love. Here lies woman, trampled on and polluted, and there the child, weltering in his own blood. You recoil with horror as soon as the sickness of the heart will suffer you to move. The deadly steam of the apartment oppresses, overpowers you, as if it were the suffocating air of hell. You are terror-struck, as if through the opening earth you had sunk into the abode of fiends; and when the time for reflection comes, and you recall the blessed habitation you had just before left, what a conviction rushes on you that nothing deserves the name of woe but that which crime inflicts! You feel that there is a sweetness, loveliness, sacredness in suffering and death when these are pervaded by holy affections; and that infinite wretchedness and despair gather over these when springing from unholy passion, when bearing the brand of crime.”

About Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson was a captain in the United States Air Force before quitting because of a principled opposition to war. He received a MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as class valedictorian. He also has a BA in Economics and a BS in Computer Science.

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