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COMING TO TERMS WITH WAR: Is pacifism a waste of passion and commitment, a form of idealism that is doomed to disappointment? And, more generally, is anger, sadness and disgust at the thought of war the result of a failure to see the larger picture? In my view, Yes and Yes.

First, a few preliminary comments. Nothing I say here relates to nuclear war, which is simply mutual annihilation by machine. Second, by a pacifist I mean an extreme pacifist, someone who regards war as the ultimate evil and who holds all participation in war as unacceptable—and certainly un-Christian.

Here’s my case. Man is a competitive animal and war the most thrilling of all competitive sports. Or, if you wish, war is the ultimate form of competition. Bertholt Brecht remarked, ‘War is like love: it always finds a way.’ If he’s right, that would explain why Jesus of Nazareth never explicitly condemned war (nor slavery for that matter). This fact can hardly be explained by supposing that Jesus didn’t share the common view that war (and slavery) are very great evils. It’s inconceivable that He belonged to the Prussian school of thought, namely, that war is the most glorious activity of man. But you can go over the four gospels with a fine-toothed comb, and you won’t find a word about the wickedness of war, the wastefulness of war, the appalling scale of the slaughter in war and so on and so forth; indeed not a word about war at all.

When Jesus cured the servant of the centurion, He praised the centurion’s faith for recognizing that He had the power to heal his servant without coming to his house. Notice, however, that Jesus neglected to tell the centurion (or inform him through his emissaries—in Matthew the centurion goes personally to ask Jesus for help, in Luke he sends his Jewish friends), “By the way, you really ought to go into a different profession because soldiering is a line of work I strongly disapprove of.” There is nothing in the gospels that throws any particular light on Jesus’s attitude towards organized warfare. What are we to make of that, especially those of us who think Jesus was a pacifist? Well, here’s one way to see the wisdom of His silence on the subject. War is a collective activity in a way that greed, adultery, slander, passing judgment on others—things that Jesus did explicitly condemn—are not. An individual can change his character, but he can’t change the character of the community or of the State. Moreover, there’s no conceivable way to prevent ethnic or national groups from disagreeing with one another, and war is nothing more than the most violent form of disagreement. It therefore follows that war will be with us as long as it is possible for cultures or nations or classes to hold incompatible views.

There’s another point about war that we often miss due to the fact that human nature, though not especially moral, is notoriously moralistic. What we fail to see is that war, though a man-made evil, is not always a purely moral evil. The British historian Christopher Dawson wrote, ‘A great war is not a matter of human choice. On the contrary, it marks the point at which events pass out of human control. It is a kind of social convulsion—an eruption of the forces which lie dormant like the subterranean fires of a volcano.’ And then there are those poignant words from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugaural a month before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox: “Both parties deprecated [i.e. expressed disapproval of] war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” And the war came! Like a hurricane or an earthquake.

Perhaps the anguish suffered by those who have a particular horror of war can be lessened if they keep the following facts in mind. The greatest war in history was the Second World War. During the last two years of that war one million people were being killed every month. That amounts to 12 million a year when the global population was less than one third of what it is now. Today, traffic accidents kill about 1.2 million people every year and medical mistakes many times that number. War, on the other hand, averages about 75,000 deaths annually since the year 2000—according to one detailed study—or about one death per 100,000 people. So, from the point of view of fatalities, war at the present moment is insignificant in comparison with the great wars of history, relatively insignificant even when compared with traffic accidents, medical mistakes and malaria.

What’s more, unlike traffic accidents and medical mistakes war provides the largest and most dramatic arena for the display of courage and heroism, and there are few things that human beings admire so spontaneously as courage or celebrate so sincerely as heroism. That fact does not, of course, justify war, but it is a fact, a fact that we must neither ignore nor attempt to deny. Similarly, war also provides many opportunities for loyalty, sacrifice, honour, and glory, qualities that we cherish and find intensely interesting. These qualities are also main ingredients in the making of good stories, and it should never be forgotten that stories are a staple enjoyment of the human condition along with eating, drinking, and talking. When we think of all the novels, films and documentaries that have had war as their subject or their setting and of how much pleasure they have given to hundreds of millions, we realize that more people have got something positive from war than have been harmed or destroyed by it. Think, too, of how many of us are only here because the disturbed conditions of war-time brought our parents together. In conclusion, although it may seem blind to the horrors of war to insist on these mitigating factors, when you combine them with the main fact of war’s inevitability, the result perhaps can be a more dispassionate, ambivalent, paradoxical and even in a way appreciative attitude towards this great and perennial evil.

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