VIOLENCE: War, by Thomas Merton


From Love and Living

Living in a world that is constantly at war, in an age when all war has become total war, we scarcely need an explanation of what war is.  And yet we are so familiar with it that we forget what it really is.  If we did not forget so easily, we would not be so ready to become involved in new ones.

The most obvious fact about war today is that while everyone claims to hate it, and all are unanimously agreed that it is our greatest single evil, there is little significant resistance to it except on the part of small minorities who, by the very fact of their protest, are dismissed as eccentric.  The awful fact is that though mankind fears war and seeks to avoid it, the fear is irrational and inefficacious.  It can do nothing against a profound unconscious proclivity to violence which seems, in fact, to be one of the most mysterious characteristics of man, not only in his individuality, but in his collective and social life.  War represents a vice that mankind would like to get rid of but which it cannot do without.  Man is like an alcoholic who knows that drink will destroy him but who always has a reason for drinking.  So with war.  And the best, most obvious, most incontrovertible reason for war is of course “peace.”  The motive for which men are led to fight today is that war is necessary to destroy those who threaten our peace!  It should be clear from this that war is, in fact, totally irrational, and that it proceeds to its violent ritual with the chanting of perfect nonsense.  Yet men not only accept this, they even go so far as to sacrifice their lives and their human dignity and to commit the most hideous atrocities, convinced that in so doing they are being noble,honest, self-sacrificing, and just.

The only possible conclusion is that man is so addicted to war that he cannot possibly deal with his addiction.  And yet if he does not learn to cope with it, the addiction will ruin him altogether.

Instead of dealing in abstractions, let us begin by considering the typical and concrete act of war: the destruction of Dresden, by the English and Americans, in the Second World War.

First of all, it must be remembered that considerably more people were killed in this bombing raid than in the atom bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  In wave after wave of bombers, the defenseless city of Dresden was systematically pulverized and reduced to ashes by so-called conventional weapons – which no longer excite any special interest on the part of casuists today.

Second, Dresden was not what one could call a military target, and in any case, the bombers paid no special attention to the industrial plants in and around the city.  They concentrated on the city itself and the residential areas.  In so doing, they obtained what someone referred to as a “bonus” in extra victims, since the city was filled with refugees flying from the Russian Army in the east.

Third, the bombing of Dresden was not necessary, nor was it even from a military point of view particularly useful.  Dresden was bombed for purely political reasons, glossed over, perhaps with arguments for military expediency.

In a word, this ferocious and massive act of destruction was nothing but a calculated atrocity, perpetrated for the effect that it might have on the Russian ally.  But as ever in such cases, it was rationalized as an inescapable necessity.

It will be seen that anyone who willingly participates in modern warfare sooner or later commits himself to cooperation in acts like this.

For this reason, Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris, declared that war was no longer to be considered a rational method of settling international disputes (since it obviously settles nothing at all), and the Second Vatican Council called for an entirely new evaluation of war on the part of all the men of our time, in the realization that we will all be called upon to account for our acts of war and the future will depend on the decisions we make today.  The Council added:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself.  It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

The arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree.  It is much to be feared that, if this race persists, it will eventually spawn all the lethal ruin whose path it is now making possible.  Divine Providence urgently demands of us that we free ourselves from the age-old slavery of war.  It is our clear duty therefore to strain every muscle in working for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent.

What the Council has said is, of course, quite obvious to reason.  But we repeat, the trouble is that war is not made by reason, its conduct is not governed by reason.  To appeal against war to reason is to make an appeal that cannot have any serious effect on the war makers themselves.

Though sustaining itself by a massive pseudologic of its own, war is, in fact, a complete suspension of reason.  This is at once its danger and the source of its immense attraction.  War is by its nature supposed to be the “last resort” when, all reasoning having failed, men must turn to force to decide their differences.  The moral problem of war does not begin when men have finally resorted to force.  The root problem of war is the occult determination to resort to force in any case, and the more or less conscious self-frustration of any show of “reason” in settling the problem that will eventually be decided by the ordeal of force.  The awful danger of war is, then, not so much that force is used when reason has broken down but that reason unconsciously inhibits itself beforehand (in all the trivialities of political and military gamesmanship) in order that it may break down, and in order that resort to force may become “inevitable.”

This demonic psychological mechanism behind war is at once the fault of everybody and of nobody.  The individuals who make the actual decisions are convinced that they are acting seriously and responsibly, and indeed they can convincingly display the anguish they feel in their awful situation.  The public applauds their sacrifice and clamors for guns and ammunition.  And yet: when examined dispassionately by the historian, it may often be seen how “inevitable” wars could fairly easily have been avoided.  If only whole nations had not been ready to fight, if only empires had not thirsted for blood and revenge, if only the commanders had not been all too eager for a pretext to launch another campaign!

The real problem of war is, then, not to be found in this or that special way in which force is grossly abused, but in the instinct for violence and for resort to force which has become inveterate in the human race.  Is this something that man can learn to change?  If so, how does he go about it?  What should he do?  Where should the study of this dreadful problem begin?  Who can say?

Perhaps our first problem is to get rid of the illusion that we know the answer.

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