by Ted Miller
(originally published February 2020 in Tumbleweird)
I have always wanted to live in peace. Not just an absence of war in my own country, but peace among all people throughout the world.
I don’t like war; most people I know don’t. But war has been a part of human history since we first picked up a club and used violence as a way to resolve differences and maintain the power of one group over another.
Throughout history, man has developed ever more powerful and efficient means to kill one another, often in bloody conquests to steal land and resources from those who couldn’t defend themselves; at other times to violently overthrow oppressive governments, or to stop the advancement of despots and autocratic regimes.
There is evil in the world, and sometimes the violence of war is necessary, if not inevitable. Some wars are justified, aren’t they?
As the son of a military family, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and a thirty-year veteran, I have always thought that a strong military was essential to ensuring peace. The ability and willingness to go to war when necessary was the price for our national security. That’s what I have always believed.
Until I met Chuck.
Chuck and I had become friends through a shared belief in the transformative power of music. We had worked together with a non-profit in outreach to our community and, as our friendship grew, we discovered we shared a common set of values. We were comfortable enough with each other to talk about anything.
A few years ago, after reading one of my columns, Chuck asked to meet with me. Something I had written was bothering him and he wanted to talk about it. That conversation led to ongoing discussions on a wide range of topics, including my experience in the military.
I learned early on that Chuck was a lifelong pacifist. As a teenager in high school, he had read an essay written in 1955 called “Speak Truth to Power, A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.” Although he wasn’t raised as a Quaker, the powerful argument against violence presented in that paper changed his life. When his draft number came up for military service, Chuck declared himself to be a conscientious objector and entered Alternative Service, serving a poor Black community instead of going to war in the military.
“I was willing to die for my country,” he said, “but I wasn’t willing to kill for it.”
I can’t imagine that level of conviction as a teenager. I greatly admire Chuck’s unshakable commitment to pacifism and nonviolence. He has challenged me to question my assumptions about war and about peace. If I ever had more than a passing opinion about pacifists, it was that pacifism was overly idealistic and impractical. Pure pacifism couldn’t possibly be effective in every case, could it? Wasn’t violence the only practical response to a violent attack? Isn’t military might the only way to deter military aggression?
I wanted to better understand what had convinced Chuck so strongly, so I read “Speak Truth to Power” which you can find at quaker.org/legacy/sttp.html. To prepare to write this column, I also read papers by Veterans for Peace, searched for other articles about pacifism online, and discovered a blogger named Jonathan Wallace who posts at spectacle.org. In his essay “Violence is Never Justified,” Wallace makes the case that perhaps violence is sometimes necessary, but it is never justified (spectacle.org/1196/just.html).
In my very limited research, one of the points that I have come away with is this: If violence is sometimes justified, what criteria do we use to provide that justification? Where is the line between violence that is just and violence that is evil? Can we know in advance when violence is necessary, or can we only decide that violence was necessary after the fact when the results of that violent act can be evaluated? Who decides, the victor or the victim? Is the cost ever worth it?
Consider the costs of the so-called war on terror. The United States has been continuously at war in the Middle East for over 18 years. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University (watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/):
· Over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
· Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
· There are over 21 million war refugees and displaced persons
· The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $6.4 trillion dollars
· Over 6,900 American service members have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
· Hundreds of thousands more service members have been wounded or died indirectly, each with families directly affected
I’m not minimizing or ignoring the attack we experienced on September 11, 2001. That day will be forever etched in my memory. But is this continual war our only option? Are we safer today than we were before 9/11? Is the Middle East any more stable?
The pacifist reminds us there are other options.
Today, I re-read the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave on December 11, 1964 after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, titled “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” He said:
I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
In that speech Dr. King also said:
There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.
Fifty-five years later, those words still ring true.
We can’t put an end to wars overnight, but I think we are much too quick to go to war in the first place. Most Americans agree that the war in Viet Nam was a mistake. The invasion of Iraq was justified with false information. We have yet to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan. And the current administration is perilously close to war with Iran.
There are alternatives to war: diplomacy, negotiation, the rule of law, investments in peaceful initiatives to combat poverty, hunger, and corruption in other parts of the world.
Dr. King said we have the capacity to eliminate poverty and hunger, to make war obsolete, and to live in world peace. He and Ghandi are some of the most notable pacifists who showed us by word and example that change can be achieved without violence.
In our most recent conversation about pacifism, Chuck asked me a hypothetical question.
“If you saw your grandmother being beaten, would that be a justification for violence?”
“Of course,” I said. “What choice would I have?”
“And why do you think that would be your only option?” he said.
I didn’t have an answer.
We should listen to the pacifists.