Thursday, September 16, 2010

The moral equivalent of warmongering

William James' 1906 essay The Moral Equivalent of War (which James Fallows recently induced me to read) derives its strength in large part from the avowed pacifist James' willingness to take seriously the arguments of those he seeks to correct -- theorists who avow openly that war is the highest crucible of human virtue and therefore essential to human progress. Hence his search for a less destructive 'equivalent' means of mobilizing human passion and effort.

Thinking again about the thirty year-old pastime of boomer-bashing (see Thomas Friedman; my response here), it seems to me that underlying that impulse is a repressed sympathy for the kind of openly avowed militarism that no one would subscribe to today. Here is James' distillation of one such thinker's doctrine:
Other militarists are more complex and more moral in their considerations. The Philosophie des Krieges, by S. R. Steinmetz is good example. War, according to this author, is an ordeal instituted by God, who weighs the nations in its balance. It is the essential form of the State, and the only function in which peoples can employ all their powers at once and convergently. No victory is possible save as the resultant of a totality of virtues, no defeat for which some vice or weakness is not responsible. Fidelity, cohesiveness, tenacity, heroism, conscience, education, inventiveness, economy, wealth, physical health and vigor — there isn't a moral or intellectual point of superiority that doesn't tell, when God holds his assizes and hurls the peoples upon one another.
Excoriating the postwar generation constitutes a back-door endorsement of the notion that peace and prosperity corrupt and that war cleanses.

Few today would greet the onset of a cataclysmic new war with the enthusiasm of the English poet Rupert Brooke, marching off in 1914:
Now, God be thanked, Who has matched us with His hour,
   And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
  To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
  Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
   And all the little emptiness of love!

Many, however,  betray his disgust with a life of peacetime pursuits.There is unseemly self-hatred in boomer-bashing, as well as an implicit recognition of what James acknowledges explicitly: that the military virtues valorized by the militarist really are worthy of admiration, if war itself is not. Boomer-bashing today is one way of dealing with the uneasy awareness that most Americans (usually including the basher) will never experience the tests of endurance, the intense camaraderie, the high-pressure problem-solving and the willingness to sacrifice undertaken by our small warrior class in Afghanistan and Iraq.  (Of course, we'll also be spared the PTSD, stressed family relations, lifelong flashbacks and other psychic wounds that afflict so many combat veterans.)

I am more struck now than before by the subtlety of James' thinking, the unsentimental realism in his audacious hope that humanity can outgrow its passion for war.  He holds in balance two near-incompatible ideas: first, that some virtues sometimes elicited by the test of war are indispensible:
The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues, although originally gain by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods.
But second, that the same time, the triggers of war in a world of modern plenty are preventable, and the consequences unendurable:
The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity.
James' solution -- that humans must find the same intensity of  effort and passion (very much including, in his view, competitive drive) in pursuits of peace as they have historically found in war, remains a seductive challenge.  We may not share his apparent view that it must be primarily the state (in a "vague socialistic future") that marshals such passion in collective effort. And I would question whether more than a small minority will ever find such intensity of effort and purpose -- hence the guilt harbored by many of the vast majority who don't, along with the Brookean suspicion or wish that war might draw it out of them.

Actually though, I don't know that James' call for a "moral equivalent of war" can be separated from his concept of a state making warlike demands. I would question the premise that it's our leaders' duty to marshal citizens to some grand collective effort, to fulfill Friedman's longing that they call us to sacrifice.I think that Jonathan Bernstein is mainly right that the only sacrifice they have a right to ask of us is a prudential one, such as paying more for fossil fuels to secure our environment and future economic viability.

Leaders do sometimes succeed in calling on the better angels of our nature, as in the passage of civil rights legislation or the defeat of fascism.  But such moral marshaling is always a matter of enlightened self interest.  A state is, after all, a commonwealth, and its ultimate prosperity depends on ensuring that prosperity is shared and secured for the future as well as the present. The tension between short-term pain and long-term gain can't be factored out by Bernstein's transactional model.  Appeals to longer-term and less obvious interests do constitute calls for sacrifice.

Strange, though, that relative success in that securing peace and prosperity leaves the beneficiaries excoriating themselves for self-absorption, hedonism, frivolity...and all the little emptiness of love.

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