Loving War, Seeking Peace

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Friday, January 25, 2013 – to Minneapolis-St. Paul

This is it: the last day of term; the day we fly home from Munich. I’ve never been able to sleep on flights, even the transoceanic kind. So I fully expect to spend several hours reading (or, very unlikely, getting a head start on grading and/or filling out reimbursement requests).

Thomas, The War LoversFor this kind of reading, I generally like to stretch just a tiny bit and learn more about American history. And given the selection of airport bookstores, popular American history. The last time I flew, I picked up a copy of Evan Thomas’ The War Lovers, since I often make the Spanish-American War a key moment early in this course—when the US became the global power that would, eventually, enter and help win WWI for the Allies, setting a path for its foreign policy role in the world that took a temporary detour in the interwar years.

And Thomas explains all that effectively in the course of (very compellingly) telling his story. But more interesting was what the question implied by the title: why do people love war? (Or, I guess, do people love war? But I think the answer to that is depressingly obvious…)

Of course, there must be some diversity of answers to that question, since Thomas’ set of “war lovers” includes someone as bellicose as Teddy Roosevelt, as icy as Henry Cabot Lodge, and as… well, whatever William Randolph Hearst was. Was it simply a peculiar sort of pathological late Victorian father-son dynamic that led the adolescent Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (who spends much of the book suffering psychosomatically from the absence of his war-obsessed father, who himself had struggled his whole life to live up to his father’s expectations) to write a poem (“The Norman Baron’s Prayer”) like this:

Would God I might die sword in my hand
My gilded spur on my heel
With my crested helmet on my head
And my body closed in steel….

Would God when the morning broke
I might by my friends be found
Stiff in my war worn harness
Ringed by dead foes all around.

Thomas thinks love of war is more universal. In an April 2010 essay that first appeared in Newsweek and is included with The War Lovers as an appendix, Thomas asks directly, “Why Men Love War.” (His story is quite bound up with men agonizing about their masculinity, though he acknowledges in the essay that women are increasingly taking on combat roles. A century from now, a “war lovers” history of Iraq/Afghanistan might look quite different.) He suggests a few answers that recur time and time and time again:

  • “War has been, for almost all peoples and all times, the purest test of manhood. It is a thrilling addiction and a wretched curse—’a force that gives us meaning,’ as former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has written—and the ruination of peoples and nations.”
  • “Collective amnesia”: simply put, we forget how bad the war was, as those memories are replaced by the growing dream/delusion that war is virtuous, “divine” even (to the Civil War veteran and Spanish war advocate Oliver Wendell Holmes).

Thomas — who decided to research this topic after doing some soul-searching about his own enthusiasm for the rush to war in 2002-2003 — concludes that “we’ve now had our fill of fighting.” Though he gives little reason to think that people will cease to find war addictive or meaningful, or that we’ll break the pattern of forgetting.

And, if anything, I think he hedges a bit by intimating that we’d be okay if we’d just remember instead of creating myths about warfare. Because that suggests that the “thrilling addiction” can be treated, that manhood can be tested in less violent ways, and that war can easily be replaced by something less ruinous but equally good at “[giving] us meaning.”

But I fear that the pull of war is even stronger. Michael Shaara conveys the primal appeal of war better than anyone I’ve ever heard or read, in his classic novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels (that is, humans). One of Shaara’s central characters is the unexpectedly heroic professor-officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine. Resting at the end of the battle’s third and climactic day, Chamberlain reflects on the sight of Pickett’s brave, doomed men emerging from the woods and charging up Cemetery Ridge into Union defenses:

Chamberlain closed his eyes and saw it again. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. No book or music would have that beauty. He did not understand it: a mile of men flowing slowly, steadily, inevitably up the long green ground, dying all the while, coming to kill you, and the shell bursts appearing above them like instant white flowers, and the flags all tipping and fluttering, and dimly you could hear the music and the drums, and then you could hear the officers screaming, and yet even above your own fear came the sensation of unspeakable beauty. (p. 362)

Dead Confederate Soldier at Gettysburg
Photo by Alexander Gardner of a dead Confederate soldier at Gettsyburg - Library of Congress

Far from the stereotypical war lover, Shaara’s abundantly civilized Chamberlain cannot, as a man of deep integrity, deny the profound, mysterious beauty of warfare at its most murderous.

So here we’re back to the divide between the two Germans: Ernst Jünger and Erich Maria Remarque. Jünger makes abundantly clear that he loves war. Not in a romanticized sense, since he’s clear-eyed in perceiving the costs of warfare. But in the sense that war, as a crucible that refines all that we are into all that we’re meant to be, touches him more deeply than anything else humans experience.

Then there’s the pacifist Remarque. The very fact of All Quiet on the Western Front’s enduring popularity (read by every succeeding generation; filmed twice already, with a new version featuring Harry Potter himself in the works) seems to belie the hope of Remarque (and Evan Thomas) that improved remembrance will break humanity of its love of war. I suspect that a healthy percentage of the tens of millions who fought in World War II had read Remarque (or seen the 1930 film) short years before, and the fate of Paul Bäumer and his friends didn’t stop them from fighting. (You could certainly argue that one could be deeply affected by All Quiet and still think it worthy to fight for a cause more just than those of August 1914—and I believe that the WWII, on the Allied side, comes as close as any modern war to meeting ius ad bellum criteria—but that wouldn’t reassure a pacifist that addiction to war has been cured, just that it’s an addiction humans are adept at rationalizing away.)

Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain - Peace Pledge Unit

Vera Brittain—to my mind, a significantly more subtle thinker than Remarque, Robert Graves, and other famous male anti-war writers—recognized the fundamental appeal of war and the challenge that it posed for pacifist activists like herself. Here’s how she put it near the end of Testament of Youth:

…no one living will ever understand so clearly as ourselves, whose lives have been darkened by the universal breakdown of reason in 1914, how completely the future of civilised humanity depends upon the success of our present halting endeavours to control our political and social passions, and to substitute for our destructive impulses the vitalising authority of constructive thought. To rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war could surely be a more exultant fight than war itself, a fight capable of enlarging the souls of men and women with the same heightened consciousness of living, and uniting them in one dedicated community whose common purpose transcends the individual. Only the purpose itself would be different, for its achievement would mean, not death, but life. (p. 656)

This (perhaps unintentionally) is a response to Jünger, who claims that war is uniquely capable of pulling humanity together in common purpose, identity, and spirit. (Something that the Austrian pacifist writer Stefan Zweig understood as well. Looking back on the outbreak of WWI, this eyewitness to the declaration of war in Vienna admitted, “As never before, thousands and hundreds of thousands felt what they should have felt in peace time, that they belonged together…. All differences of class, rank, and language were flooded over at that moment by the rushing feeling of fraternity.”) Brittain here recognizes that pacifism cannot succeed merely by negotiating treaties or passing resolutions (neither of the two linked examples did anything to prevent a second world war); it must find something other than war that is capable of “enlarging the souls of men and women… uniting them in one dedicated community whose common purpose transcends the individual.”

For Brittain, it was the quest for peace itself that could supplant war as the prime mover of man. However, I fear that her solution—to establish the “vitalising authority of constructive thought… To rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational”—is doomed to failure. One need look only so far as the history of Communism (guilty of killing over 100 million people in the 20th century, according to the landmark Black Book of that ideology) to see how systems founded on (supposedly) rational analysis have little problem perpetrating terrible violence.

I suspect that peace can only be built on a different foundation, one that an American pastor named Harry Emerson Fosdick well understood when he wrote these words in the aftermath of WWI:

Cure thy children’s warring madness;
Bend our pride to thy control.
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1930)
Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1930

Theological liberals like Fosdick had, with few exceptions, been eager to go to war in 1917 (unlike most fundamentalists, who viewed the liberals’ postmillennial hope that American power could usher in a reign of peace and justice as they did most liberal ideas: with skeptical hostility). Looking back on those days, Fosdick confessed that he had preached “in the support and sanction of war” and was “ready to declare war… even before the nation was.” (Quoted in Richard Gamble’s The War for Righteousness.) Chastened by that experience but still optimistic about the untapped potential of human reason, Fosdick and other liberals now became staunch pacifists and backed efforts like the Kellogg-Briand Pact. (And in Fosdick’s case, argued against American involvement in WWII right up to 1941, and even after Pearl Harbor urged his male parishioners at Riverside Church to register as conscientious objectors.)

While I tend to sympathize more with the Christian realism of his staunch critic, Reinhold Niebuhr, I credit Fosdick with recognizing that the quest for peace was best articulated not as an intellectual argument or political manifesto, but as a prayer. Humanity by its own power seems by now to have proven itself utterly incapable of overcoming its “warring madness.” Only the “God of grace and God of glory” to whom Fosdick addressed his famous hymn can truly turn swords into plowshares and fulfill war’s false promise to enlarge our souls and gather us together in community.

And so, at some point en route to Minnesota, when I weary of thinking any more about war, I’ll pray Fosdick’s famous refrain:

Grant us wisdom,
Grant us courage,
Lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.


<<Day 22

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