WHY DO WARS PREVAIL?
A talk given by Rev. Harold W. Beu
Imagine Peace Conference
First Baptist Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan
19 August 2018
So, the first question we are asked ourselves today is: Why do wars still prevail since the end of World War I in 1918 even though they are more threatening? Obviously, in these past one hundred years, we find ourselves in a time where wars can practically destroy most of human life, if not all, and severely damage our natural world, it’s flora and fauna, to make the earth almost uninhabitable. One would think that rational human beings would understand this reality and thus do everything in their power to turn away from war.
Now if I were to ask you: Do any of you here wish to promote war? Certainly, I would think that none of us would. Indeed, we are gathered here today to promote peace. For what is war but organized violence, and I think any rational decent human being would oppose the idea of violence, especially violence that happens continuously and ferociously.
But I can tell you that there are others who claim that they are just as committed to peace, but that peace can only happen through strength, meaning military strength. Pres. Dwight D Eisenhower in his farewell address of 17 January 1961 in which he articulated the dangers of the military-industrial complex also talked about the importance of military strength. He said, “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”
Sadly, there is truth in Eisenhower’s words. I can think of two examples out of many in which whole societies were destroyed simply because they did not have the military might to protect themselves.
The first is the tragedy of the genocide of the native people in this continent. The Europeans, who invaded this continent, had a greater military with more powerful instruments of war and were better organized. For there were some 400 tribes on this continent, some of whom were peaceful and others were more warlike, but still the individual tribes were small and weak compared to the European armies and not as well organized. Thus, they never had a chance against the Europeans. Also, we can also note how disease destroyed so many native people that contributed to their weakness in face of the onslaught of the Europeans.
The other example is the tragedy that it’s happening today between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The situation is analogous with the Native Americans as the Zionists used their military might against the Palestinians, who had no military to resist. The Zionists as a group of European nationalistic, militaristic, settler colonists succeeded as few such movements have in the triumph and tragedy of the creation of the state of Israel. We Americans have a responsibility for the persistence of this conflict because of our support of Israel. Even though the Israelis have a powerful military, the most powerful in the Middle East and one of the most powerful in the world and certainly with the most advanced technologically, we grant them $3.8 billion a year in military aid – far more than any other country. But more than that, we enable Israel to continue their program of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians through political means.
Now, no matter what you think about these nations, when we talk about the United States of America and Israel, we can safely say that they would not exist today without their use of organized violence. And they would not have able to succeed in their program of ethnic cleansing if the native people had stronger organized, discipline militaries. We can understand why Eisenhower said, “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment.”
Thus, we have a problem. People as organized into societies, tribes, nations, non-state actors, etc. would want to be strong militarily, have access to the most destructive instruments of war and create highly organized, discipline armies, navies, marines, etc. simply to protect themselves. I am speaking here realistically. But the tragedy is that having a military implies a willingness to kill and destroy.
It would be good if all human beings were pacifists meaning that people would rather die than kill another human being. For if that were the case, there would be no wars, indeed no need for any kind of military.
But alas, we are confronted with those who hunger for dominance, resources and land. Would that human beings were not so greedy. What then do we do when confronted with those who like the Europeans in this continent and the Zionists in Palestine were guilty of the sin of greed and use their military might to achieve their goals? They may have sinned, but the native Americans and the Palestinians had sinned as well. Their sin was their military weakness.
But most of us, including myself, are not pacifists. I have great respect for pacifists, they are some of the most self-actualized and admirable people I know but then I think of the example of Lieutenant-General Roméo Antonius Dallaire, who was the Force Commander of the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force that attempted to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but his hands were tied and was unable to use his military to fight against the perpetrators. He felt great anger and anguish about his being so restricted that allowed the genocide to unfold. The question becomes for you, would you allow the genocide to continue or would you try to stop it with the use of military force?
And how do you think about using violence on a personal level? Would we not want to protect ourselves and our families from physical harm even if it meant we had to use violence? But – if we are to hold to the idea that violence is necessary sometimes, then I say this: when we use it, we better pray with all our hearts and minds that we are on the side of the angels. I would also say that since World War II, the United States government has rarely been on the side of the angels when it used the military option.
We can understand and even support those who use violence to protect themselves, but what about those who use violence simply because of their greed, their desire for land, resources, and dominance? What about them? For if you are not being threatened, then why would you use organized violence against other people?
I think we can understand now why war prevails. It is our very human tendencies. And if we are to move to a more peaceful war, we must first acknowledge those tendencies and make a commitment to not give in to the temptation of using organize violence for no good reason, and especially for evil ones.
I don’t suppose that we can prevent all human beings from sinning anytime soon. But we can look to how our obsession with military strength still hurts us, certainly not in the way it hurts those whose lives and land we destroy, but in ways that cause us, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, spiritual death.
Such an obsession causes us to isolate ourselves from other human beings, and thus often we become afraid. But more than that, we can never be secure in the knowledge that we are rational, decent people when we destroy other people’s lives and land. Thus, we can suffer from a guilty conscience. As a result, we may suffer from self-hatred such that we often will project it onto the very people we are victimizing and hate them more than any other people. Not a joyful state of affairs.
It is important for all of us to examine our own predilections for the use of violence for no good reason. On a practical level, we need to come to our senses because right now the use of organized violence will lead us not only to the destruction of our so-called enemies but also of all of us. We can note from history, the thousands of cases, where dominions committed to the use of organized violence were eventually destroyed. And, as I alluded to earlier, any use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal, even if there were no retaliation from the other side. In such a case, the earth would be so damaged that every living thing would suffer.
If we continue to obsess with the use of the military option for no good reason, not only would there be a rise in violence and tension in the world that would create the greater chance of nuclear war, but also we would be diverted from attending to other serious problems that can overwhelm us and destroy just as certainly as war. Certainly, the problem of climate change comes to mind.
So, the third question concerns our inability, it seems, to listen to the voices that are calling forth to us to respond to reason and our sense of decency. Again, let us listen to General Eisenhower’s Farewell Address:
[America] knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals…. Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.
It may seem odd that a military man would argue for peace, but Eisenhower was one of those warriors who knew war and hated war. Thus, we would be well-advised to hear his plea for peace.
Another such important voice was that of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Beyond Vietnam” speeh on 4 April 1967, given a year to the day before he was tragically assassinated. In this speech, he was trying to speak to those in the African American community who were tempted to use violence in order to protect themselves and promote justice for themselves. But King knew that such use of violence would only lead to greater violence and tragedy.
I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
King was warning not just the African American community, but all of us, that we cannot let the organized violence used by our government be our guide for achieving protection and justice. He showed us that the use of military strength will only create more violence, more hatred and more distraction from our attending to other matters of our security and safety. He does give us a way to help solve the problem of war, the most important solution there in helping us to attain and maintain peace. He said:
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
So, while the question of war and peace is immense, and has always been so, the answer has always been there, and it is so simple. That we hold to the principle that each of us, every human being, has worth and dignity, and that if we treated other people as if they were our own family members, our fathers or mothers, our brothers or sisters, certainly our friends, then we would not be tempted to use organized violence against them and to the extent that we would turn away from the war option is the extent that we can solve our other just as important life-threatening problems.
Finally, my friends, I leave you with this quote from the 17th Century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza:
Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.