Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 19, 2021
War is what’s on my mind and in my heart today – and foolishness, too. War and foolishness because war, I believe, is one of the most profound forms of human foolishness, and tragic, too. War and foolishness have been on my mind because of the recent end of the war in Afghanistan and also because of the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of the ‘war on terror.’ Hundreds of thousands of lives lost – who knows how many? – and trillions of dollars spent badly.
In October of 2012 –I jotted down the following list of things that are likely to happen in a war – things that are likely to happen beyond soldiers being killed or wounded. I don’t remember what led me to write down this list. This was nine years ago, and eleven years after 9/11. Most U.S. troops had left Iraq a year earlier, and U.S. troops would still be in Afghanistan for almost a decade longer. So I don’t remember why I jotted down this list. We were very much in the middle of a never-ending war, as we always seem to be.
- Young lives will be ruined. The survivors will wake with terrible memories.
- Civilians will be killed.
- The costs will be much, much higher than anticipated.
- Unspeakable acts will be committed, some by us.
- Civil liberties at home will be trampled.
- There will be secrecy and lies that undermine democracy.
- We will worsen our relations with some otherwise uninvolved friends and serve the purposes of some opportunistic bad actors.
- We will create massive, distant wreckage that we will not want to repair.
- We will entangle ourselves in ways that will make it hard for us to disengage.
- We will set in motion an unfolding humanitarian crisis that will last for years: refugees, divided families, deprivation and the like.
- We will sow the seeds of future conflict.
- We will fail to learn lessons of peacebuilding because we won’t have tried it, again.
All these things happened in Afghanistan. All these things happened in Iraq. And they happened in Syria and Lebanon and Libya, too – and not only in those places. It would be foolish to go to war and not expect that most of the bad things will happen. Those who support wars should have their eyes wide open and their hearts hardened in anticipation of these tragedies.
I’ve opposed this sequence of wars. When I’ve written my Senators or written a letter to the editor, I’ve talked about these terrible things that are likely to happen and urged them to oppose these wars. I’ve mostly written about things on this list.
Let’s call the items on this list the prudential arguments against war. War won’t get us where we want to get to. It won’t bring peace; it will bring further war. It will not bring understanding; it will bring mistrust and hatred. War today will bring war tomorrow. You’d have to be foolish to expect anything else. We have abundant recent evidence.
But these prudential reasons for being against war aren’t really why I’m against war. These prudential reasons are important – very important – but deep down I know I am against war because I am a foolish person – foolish in a very different way.
I’m a different kind of foolish person because I’m a pacifist.
I became a pacifist in the late 1960s during another war, the one in Vietnam. (All those bad things on the list happened then, too; they always do.) I became a pacifist before I became a Quaker. It was in understanding why pacifism made sense, even though it was foolishness, that I found my way to Quakerism.
Why is pacifism a kind of foolishness? Do you even need to ask? Tell someone you are a pacifist and they look at you with utter dismay and incredulity. Voiced or unvoiced you hear a torrent of questions. Would you have let the Nazis win? If someone attacked your mother, wouldn’t you try to stop the attacker? If they attacked your wife? Your children? Would you really not raise a hand to stop an aggressor?
It’s unfathomable; people can’t believe you’re serious; as soon as you say you’re a pacifist they know you are a fool.
You certainly put yourself beyond the boundaries of reasoned argument. You can no longer have any standing whatsoever in discussions of foreign policy. There is no point in writing your Senator and telling her she should oppose a war because you’re a pacifist. That letter will carry no weight. When you say you’re a pacifist you put yourself out of bounds – beyond the pale. Only ‘serious people’ get to participate in the decisions about going to war – and no ‘serious person’ is a pacifist.
I understand being a pacifist is foolishness. It’s a very, very different kind of foolishness from the foolishness of thinking that war won’t bring those twelve terrible things I listed before. You have to choose which kind of foolishness is yours: believing that war will work, or believing that one door to a different, better world (the “beloved community”) is marked “I will not go to war.” Let’s call the pacifist argument against war the transformational argument against war. It’s an argument deeply grounded in Jesus’s argument to love your neighbor as yourself.
“What if everyone acted like you did?” That’s one of the torrent of questions you provoke if you declare for pacifism. And that one question is easy to answer: You can say, that would be wonderful. You have to believe – you should believe – that everyone can and should make the same choice, the choice to say no to war. Not just your family and friends, not just your fellow citizens, but everyone would make the same choice.
Pacifism is a kind of foolishness that begins by saying I am not going to accept that what has happened over and over again is the only possibility.
“I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” That’s from George Fox, of course. He’s saying, I took myself out of this world and put myself in a different world. And, he might well have added, I’m not coming back.
Join me in the that new world, Fox is saying. Sign up for the foolishness that says there are new possibilities. We can do this together. We can choose to love one another. We can put ourselves into an understanding that each and every one of us is a child of God, capable of giving and receiving love. But each of us has to begin by making the individual choice to say no to war. Each of us needs to make a solid commitment to the way of love, not a tentative or half-hearted, ‘but you go first’ one.
Yes, that’s foolishness. It is a rare and wonderful kind of foolishness. Here’s a statement from British Friends in 1920 – that is, just after the end of another horrible war – in which all those terrible things happened.
“When the early Friends said that the ‘Spirit of Christ would never move them to fight and war against any man with outward weapons!’ they not only testified that war was wrong, but they also indicated that there was a new and right way of dealing with men consonant with Love, and certain to be attended by a success far greater than had ever been attained by war. Instead of destroying or suppressing the evil-doers, the new method would transform them into children of light. These early Friends were come ‘into the Covenant of Peace which was before wars and strifes were’ and by their lives lived in the power of the light they were helping others to enter that same covenant.”
Or as A. J. Muste once put it, “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
Yes, pacifism is foolishness by the world’s lights, but it is, I believe, a far, far better foolishness than the endless alternative of war.
So here is the choice, a choice between two kinds of foolishness. Do you choose the foolishness of war and its terrible train of tragedies, or the foolishness of a new life lived in love?