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Today we pause from our work week for a terrible, solemn reason: To honor the sacrifices of the men and women who died in our country’s wars, and to pray for their eternal souls. Dying in battle, in the chaos and terror and slaughter of a trench in the First World War, or along some desolate roadside in Afghanistan, is not the way that any of us would choose to leave this world. Each of us hopes that he will pass peacefully in bed, surrounded by loved ones, right after confessing his sins to a trusted priest. But hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens since 1776 have given up that privilege, and bled to death alone on foreign soil—for us. So that we could overcook steaks today in our peaceful, free backyards. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.
We have written before about what is wrong with militarism, a callous but deeply tempting answer to life in a dangerous world. Few wars that Christians have fought over the past two thousand years have really qualified as “just,” or been waged with the proper concern for preserving civilian lives. It’s important to remember, the next time we are urged to send our soldiers to some foreign shore to “advance democracy” or overthrow a tyrant, that most of the unjust wars fought through Christian history were fought by people who’d convinced themselves otherwise—who had listened to their leaders and bought into their propaganda. Both sides in World War I marched into the trenches with the blessings of their bishops, and millions of German soldiers in 1939 marched off on Hitler’s war of genocidal aggression sincerely believing in their army slogan, “Gott mit Uns” (“God is with us”).
The obvious reaction to ugly facts like that is to embrace radical pacifism. It has the same clean, simple logic, and it offers a subtler opening for asserting the will to power—via the service entrance. If you are not the kind of person who can pat himself on the back for asserting, “Kill them all, let God sort them out,” pacifism offers a more exotic pleasure: the privilege of looking down with furrowed brow on the actions of every man and woman throughout the whole of human history and on the instincts of every human being who has ever lived. Because there is no drive more rootedly human than the will to preserve yourself and to protect your loved ones—an instinct pacifism condemns, either openly or secretly. Any position that asks that you passively watch your spouse or children be raped, enslaved, or killed is intrinsically antihuman. (Inconsistent pacifists, who would protect themselves and their families, but won’t take part in protecting their neighbors and fellow citizens, are simply and radically selfish.) Pacifism is also subhumanist, since it devalues the lives and liberty of every human being, which are simply not worth fighting for. The wholesome and healthy impulse of self-preservation can be perverted, of course. If it is not tempered by altruism and limited by a keen sense of the intrinsic moral worth of strangers, it can grow into a tumor—as in the collective narcissism that is nationalism or racialism.
But anyone who condemns the self-protective drive in itself is saying that human nature is intrinsically perverse, fundamentally evil—the product of a depraved or incompetent god (as the ancient Gnostics taught), or the ugly outcome of unfortunate evolution. We inherited too many genes from those killer chimps. He is also, whether or not he knows it, feeding into the worst and most warlike impulses in the tangled-up human heart.
How so? The obvious part of the answer is that when the leadership classes in free countries like England declare—as the Oxford Union did in 1933—that they “will not fight for king and country,” they are sending a clear message to the leaders of other countries, such as the Germany that had just welcomed Hitler as its chancellor. Their message of war-weariness, cynicism, and self-congratulation was not lost on those millions of Germans who were outraged by the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles, whose takeaway from the First World War was not “never again,” but “next time we won’t be such sentimental milksops.”
The less obvious and more important part of the answer can be found in Elizabeth Anscombe. In her classic essay, “War and Murder,” Anscombe demolished both the biblical and the philosophical case for pacifism. But more importantly for our purposes, she points out how it enables and advances the cause of total war. As she wrote:
a outrance! that those who wage war must go as far as technological advance permits in the destruction of the enemy’s people. As if the Napoleonic wars were perforce fuller of massacres than the French war of Henry V of England. It is not true: the reverse took place. Nor is technological advance particularly relevant; it is mere squeamishness that deters people who would consent to area bombing from the enormous massacres by hand that used once to be committed….
Pacifism and the respect for pacifism is not the only thing that has led to a universal forgetfulness of the law against killing the innocent; but it has had a share in it.
Pacifism presents people with a choice between absolute, utter ruthlessness, and passivity and surrender. With no third (or fourth, or tenth) alternative, healthy people who are not Gnostics or moral poseurs will pick ruthlessness every time. But this is an utterly false choice, one that emerges because our morality has been blunted and dulled by our bad metaphysics—another legacy of Subhumanism.
In To End All Wars, the gifted writer and moralist Adam Hochschild presents a vivid and deeply humane portrait of a small band of principled people who spoke out in England against the First World War. It’s impossible not to admire these men and women who braved contempt and ostracism, penury and prison, to oppose that useless and futile slaughter. Apart from moral uplift, however, another thing you must take away from the book is the sense that their efforts were also futile. And you are led to wonder why. With Anscombe’s remarks in mind, the answer emerges: Instead of making a principled case that this war was needless and wasteful, and offering reasons that drew on the shared, Christian/liberal consensus, these activists urged against the war on grounds of absolute pacifism. In some cases they also invoked socialism—arguing that the working class of every nation ought to unite against their rulers, not fight among themselves. Grounded as their actions were on two false (and more important, unpersuasive) premises, it is no surprise that their slogans were easily drowned out by patriotism that was morphing into jingoism and bloodlust.
What might have been more effective was a concerted effort by Christians and conservatives on both sides of the conflict to argue that this war was neither just nor necessary. A few such voices emerged, but too few to matter. Pope Benedict XV made just such arguments, but he was ignored. The troops on both sides who forged a spontaneous “Christmas truce” in 1914 were acting in the same spirit. They were threatened with punishment for “mutiny” by military leaders who still imagined that a quick victory was possible. The newly crowned Austro-Hungarian ruler Karl I attempted in 1917 to broker a peace without annexation, even as his German allies schemed to infect Russia with the plague bacillus of Bolshevism. But by that point the combatant nations were too far gone—they had sunk too much wealth and too many lives to settle for anything less than triumph. The very type of men who should have been fighting for a negotiated peace had gotten caught up in the frenzy: G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc on the one side and Thomas Mann on the other each proclaimed this war a “crusade” for civilization. The poet Charles Péguy had joined the army and died in one of its first battles. The American Catholic bishops, eager to prove their patriotism, flouted the Vatican’s call for peace and urged their congregants to enlist. And so on. The complicity of Christians in furthering this war of unprecedented destruction and futility did more to discredit the churches in the long run than any atheist tract ever published. As Hochschild reported:
Ferocity about the war could be heard everywhere. “Kill Germans! Kill them!” raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon. “…Not for the sake of killing, but to save the world…. Kill the good as well as the bad…. Kill the young men as well as the old…. Kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant [a story then circulating]…. I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.” The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican bishop of London.
Jason Jones and John Zmirak are co-authors of the forthcomingThe Race to Save Our Century,which will be released July 28, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.