It is indeed a boldly imaginative and far-seeing essay, clear-eyed about the pending horrors of modern mechanized war that would be unleashed a few years later in World War I, trying to imagine a way that humanity might avoid such horrors without losing the intensity of effort and high pitch of virtue that war brings out in people, along with the destructive bestiality that James does not minimize.
James' argument derives its strength by enacting a principle he recommends generally for "any controversy" : "enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of [your] opponents." In so doing, James opens a window for readers today on a time when some serious thinkers were still arguing openly that war was essential to human progress and the most intense crucible of human virtue. James takes their arguments seriously -- as readers whose minds were formed after the catastrophes of the world wars might have difficulty doing. He asserts that those who see war as only destructive catastrophe and dare to envision the human race outgrowing it generally fail to grapple with their opponents' insights, which he characterizes as follows:
Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible. Without risks or prizes for the darer, history would be insipid indeed; and there is a type of military character which every one feels that the race should never cease to breed, for everyone is sensitive to its superiority.James accordingly seeks a "moral equivalent of war" -- that is, a means of galvanizing citizens to devote the intensity of effort that war has historically inspired to building a more just society:
But I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement...Much in James' essay is alien to current sensibility: a squeamishness about industrial and commercial means of generating wealth and and an assumption that those pursuits are opposed to the higher ends of justice and the higher virtues of martial society; a pious wish that we might all crave to be "owned" by the state so that we might serve its higher purposes; a casual sexism that assumes that the virtues he admires are inherently masculine, and a racism that assumes an inherent gulf between savage cannibals and "the general staff of any civilized nation." More fundamentally, I am not surprised that Jimmy Carter's attempt to rally the country to the notion of a "moral equivalent of war," in which Fallows had a hand, fell flat.
The war-function has grasped us so far; but the constructive interests may some day seem no less imperative, and impose on the individual a hardly lighter burden. Let me illustrate my idea more concretely. There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. The planetary conditions once for all are such, and we can stand it. But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, should have no vacation, while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this campaigning life at all, — this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds. It may end by seeming shameful to all of us that some of us have nothing but campaigning, and others nothing but unmanly ease. If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life.
Those today who admire martial virtues, as most people I think still do, still probably don't consider "equivalent of war," moral or otherwise, a compliment to the thing equated. Though James was aware enough of war's destructive force to try to imagine a way for humanity to escape its grip , we've had a century of atrocity that he dreamed not of. Then too, the virtues exercised by, say, the Gates Foundation, or someone designing an electric car, or building schools in Afghanistan, or delivering babies in Haiti, seem incommensurate with those of soldiers in battle -- notwithstanding the high credit that Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, has in the US military now, or the remarkable extent to which U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown themselves into the arts of civiil administration and village and tribal governance.
If the equivalence strikes a false note, however, James' contention that humanity must invest itself as fervently in constructive pursuits as it has in war remains valid. So does his conviction that competition must fuel those pursuits, that human beings must strive against each other as well as nature. I wonder what he would think of Fukuyama's notion that sheer competitive pressure will ultimately push all nations, and the species at large, toward capitalism and democracy. Not much, perhaps -- he seems to credit the notion that too much focus on commerce breeds moral decay. Here I butt up against my ignorance of James' broader political thinking and writing (I know only his Varieties of Religious Experience, which made quite an impression on me as an undergraduate. James has a bracing openness to the wide variety he ably chronicles).
See also The moral equivalent of warmongering