Shaking a Fist at Thunderheads
Ah, war, that scourge of humanity. How nice it would be if all the swords were beaten into plowshares and the lion were to lie down with the lamb.
"None of us should be in wars. Wars are the last resort, the absolute last resort to try to settle our differences -- and it really doesn't. All it really does is have people die, and people are maimed, and you never really accomplish what you set off to accomplish."
-- Doran Cart, Senior Curator of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, MO, speaking on Kansas City's Fox 4 News in a Memorial Day 2013 newscast.
Doran Cart received his master's degree in museum studies and history from the University of California, Riverside. His curatorial skills and hard work have given us a museum widely recognized for its excellence. However, his statement above expresses sentiments about war that are commonly held, unfortunately, by our best and brightest, both in and out of academia.
Notice that Mr. Cart's comments are not specifically about WWI, but rather act as a blanket statement regarding war in general. Anti-war activists echo these ideas which, on the surface, sound rather benign. Yet they have grave implications, for they carry within themselves presumptions and flaws that threaten to leave our republic defenseless before her enemies.
"None of us should be in wars." Perhaps this is true, but it's a counsel of perfection, and saying it is as useless as saying that we should all be perfect human beings. Being against war is like being against bad weather -- in this case, the turbulent human atmosphere that swirls with greed, vanity, the lust for power, for territory, for ideological hegemony, etc. One might as well shake his fist at thunderheads in the hope that the action will bring sunny blue skies.
Even a cursory glance at history reveals that, at nearly any given time, some portion of the human race is or has been involved in warfare. Most of us may not like war, but war likes us, and there are reasons both good and bad to engage in it. War prosecuted in an unjust cause is a symptom of moral failure, and yet taking up arms against that unjust cause is evidence of moral virtue. Mr. Cart, alas, makes no such distinction.
But such distinctions did become crystal clear to us one December morning in 1941, just as they did on a September morning sixty years afterward. When an aggressor barges through your door, the proper response is not to hold fast to a conviction that "none of us should be in wars", for those who raise Mr. Cart's notion to the status of conviction -- and the anti-war contingent is full of such people -- refuse to raise a hand in our nation's defense. They also encourage the rest of us to do likewise. It is an abdication of responsibility for our collective defense that, if widely adopted by citizens at large, will embolden our enemies and bring about our defeat and subjugation. The fewer the people among us who believe that "none of us should be in wars", the better we will be able to defend both ourselves and that which ought to be defended.
"Wars are the last resort, the absolute last resort to try to settle our differences --" While aggressors commonly violate this counsel of restraint, it is certainly held to be true by moral and reasonable people. But this notion isn't:
"-- and [war] really doesn't [settle our differences]." To convince oneself that war never settles differences, one must ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- i.e., turn a blind eye to the historical results of all those wars that really did settle differences. The American Revolution settled our differences with England. The American Civil War settled differences between North and South regarding sedition and slavery. Great differences were settled by the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Why does Doran Cart ignore these blatant facts?
Mr. Cart declares, perhaps unintentionally, that all the blood and noble sacrifice expended in war is a horrible waste: "All it really does is have people die, and people are maimed, and you never really accomplish what you set off to accomplish." Really? The goal of the American Revolution was independence from Britain, the goal of the United States in the Civil War was to maintain the Union, and the goal of our war against the Axis Powers was to topple those nasty regimes. All of these goals were accomplished, and taking up arms -- with all the dying and maiming it entailed -- was the only way to do it. Yet Mr. Cart chooses to be oblivious to this.
I say that Mr. Cart chooses to be oblivious, because willful blindness seems to be the only explanation for a highly educated man's refusal to acknowledge the most obvious facts of history. I suspect that he is also blind to the deleterious effects of his anti-war statements.
These beliefs are dangerous because, insofar as they are adopted by our fellow Americans, they sap the resolve our nation requires to fight enemies who would do us harm. They also undermine any call to arms, for if all war is merely a needless horror, there can be no justification to engage in any warfare at all. Sending military personnel to their deaths under such circumstances would be grossly immoral. And if all warfare is immoral, then our gratitude -- to those whose sacrifice in fighting war has benefitted the rest of us with life and liberty -- is misplaced, since, according to Mr. Cart's blinkered anti-war outlook, there are no benefits to fighting the good fight, only horrible costs. I have to wonder what he thinks when he gazes up at the four sculptured Guardian Spirits who ring the top of Liberty Memorial's tower: Courage, Honor, Sacrifice, and Patriotism.
A basic flaw in this anti-war outlook is that it isolates the horror of war as something to be avoided at all costs, and it ignores factors that can justify taking up arms. In focusing only on horrors and failing to take a comprehensive view, it places all participants -- attacker and defender, the good and the bad -- in a corrupt basket of absurdity and death where any ultimate goal is largely doomed to failure. In Cart's words, ". . . people die, and people are maimed, and you never really accomplish what you set off to accomplish."
The primary aim of people who are unequivocally opposed to war isn't to parse causes, to apportion blame and justification and, thereby, risk admitting that going to war in a given case may be the best bad option. Rather, their aim is to avoid altogether the horrors of war. Toward what they see as that noble end, their ideas ultimately advocate a refusal to fight at any time, for any purpose, for any cause, all in the name of 'peace'. If peace is defined as the absence of war, anti-war proponents are correct that not fighting wars would result in peace. But peace on whose terms? King George's? Hitler's? Stalin's? Al Qaeda's?
Oh, but if only everyone would just lay down their arms. . .
That's a nice fantasy, but it's a terrible basis for convictions that govern one's thinking about war. Despots and ideological hegemonists will continue to stir up the weather, and thunderheads will continue to march over the horizon and plague the rest of us with their destructive storms.
The immutable lesson that thousands of years of human history teaches us -- at least, those of us who are willing to learn -- that there always have been, and there always will be, enemies who will try to dominate us. They will not beat their swords into plowshares. They will continue to challenge us. If we refuse to accept peace on their terms, if we choose not to live under their rule, then we must be willing, when necessary, to fight them -- in war, with all of its horrors.
Robert Babcock writes from Lawrence, Kansas, where he ventures now and then to wrestle a few words into pleasant coherence. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.