know even as little history as I do, it is hard not to doubt the efficacy
of modern war as a solution to any problem except that of retributionthe
exchanging one damage for another.
for war will insist that war answers the problem of national self-defense.
But the doubter, in reply, will ask to what extent the cost even of a
successful war of national defensein life, money, material, foods,
health, and (inevitably) freedommay amount to a national defeat.
National defense through war always involves some degree of national defeat.
This paradox has been with us from the very beginning of our republic.
Militarization in defense of freedom reduces the freedom of the defenders.
There is a fundamental inconsistency between war and freedom.
modern war, fought with modern weapons and on the modern scale, neither
side can limit to the enemy the damage that it does. These
wars damage the world. We know enough by now to know that you cannot damage
a part of the world without damaging all of it. Modern war has not only
made it impossible to kill combatants without killing noncombatants,
it has made it impossible to damage your enemy without damaging yourself.
many have considered the increasing unacceptability of modern warfare
is shown by the language of the propaganda surrounding it. Modern wars
have characteristically been fought to end war; they have been fought
in the name of peace. Our most terrible weapons have been made, ostensibly,
to preserve and assure the peace of the world. All we want is peace,
we say as we increase relentlessly our capacity to make war.
at the end of a century in which we have fought two wars to end war and
several more to prevent war and preserve peace, and in which scientific
and technological progress has made war ever more terrible and less controllable,
we still, by policy, give no consideration to nonviolent means of national
defense. We do indeed make much of diplomacy and diplomatic relations,
but by diplomacy we mean invariably ultimatums for peace backed by the
threat of war. It is always understood that we stand ready to kill those
with whom we are peacefully negotiating.
century of war, militarism, and political terror has produced greatand
successfuladvocates of true peace, among whom Mohandas Gandhi and
Martin Luther King, Jr., are the paramount examples. The considerable
success that they achieved testifies to the presence, in the midst of
violence, of an authentic and powerful desire for peace and, more important,
of the proven will to make the necessary sacrifices. But so far as our
government is concerned, these men and their great and authenticating
accomplishments might as well never have existed. To achieve peace by
peaceable means is not yet our goal. We cling to the hopeless paradox
of making peace by making war.
is to say that we cling in our public life to a brutal hypocrisy. In our
century of almost universal violence of humans against fellow humans,
and against our natural and cultural commonwealth, hypocrisy has been
inescapable because our opposition to violence has been selective or merely
fashionable. Some of us who approve of our monstrous military budget and
our peacekeeping wars nonetheless deplore domestic violence
and think that our society can be pacified by gun control.
Some of us are against capital punishment but for abortion. Some of us
are against abortion but for capital punishment.
does not have to know very much or think very far in order to see the
moral absurdity upon which we have erected our sanctioned enterprises
of violence. Abortion-as-birth-control is justified as a right,
which can establish itself only by denying all the rights of another person,
which is the most primitive intent of warfare. Capital punishment sinks
us all to the same level of primal belligerence, at which an act of violence
is avenged by another act of violence.
the justifiers of these acts ignore is the factwell-established
by the history of feuds, let alone the history of warthat violence
breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in justice or
in affirmation of rights or in defense of peace
do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation.
most dangerous superstition of the parties of violence is the idea that
sanctioned violence can prevent or control unsanctioned violence. But
if violence is just in one instance as determined by the state,
why might it not also be just in another instance, as determined
by an individual? How can a society that justifies capital punishment
and warfare prevent its justifications from being extended to assassination
and terrorism? If a government perceives that some causes are so important
as to justify the killing of children, how can it hope to prevent the
contagion of its logic spreading to its citizensor to its citizens
give to these small absurdities the magnitude of international relations,
we produce, unsurprisingly, some much larger absurdities. What could be
more absurd, to begin with, than our attitude of high moral outrage against
other nations for manufacturing the selfsame weapons that we manufacture?
The difference, as our leaders say, is that we will use these weapons
virtuously, whereas our enemies will use them maliciouslya proposition
that too readily conforms to a proposition of much less dignity: we will
use them in our interest, whereas our enemies will use them in theirs.
must say, at least, that the issue of virtue in war is as obscure, ambiguous,
and troubling as Abraham Lincoln found to be the issue of prayer in war:
Both [the North and the South] read the same bible, and pray to
the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other
of both could not be answered that of neither could be answered
American wars, having been both foreign and limited,
have been fought under the assumption that little or no personal sacrifice
is required. In foreign wars, we do not directly experience
the damage that we inflict upon the enemy. We hear and see this damage
reported in the news, but we are not affected. These
limited, foreign wars require that some of our young people
should be killed or crippled, and that some families should grieve, but
these casualties are so widely distributed among our population
as hardly to be noticed.
we do not feel ourselves to be involved. We pay taxes to support the war,
but that is nothing new, for we pay war taxes also in time of peace.
We experience no shortages, we suffer no rationing, we endure no limitations.
We earn, borrow, spend, and consume in wartime as in peacetime.
of course no sacrifice is required of those large economic interests that
now principally constitute our economy. No corporation will be required
to submit to any limitation or to sacrifice a dollar. On the contrary,
war is the great cure-all and opportunity of our corporate economy, which
subsists and thrives upon war. War ended the Great Depression of the 1930s,
and we have maintained a war economyan economy, one might justly
say, of general violenceever since, sacrificing to it an enormous
economic and ecological wealth, including, as designated victims, the
farmers and the industrial working class.
so great costs are involved in our fixation on war, but the costs are
externalized as acceptable losses. And here we
see how progress in war, progress in technology, and progress in the industrial
economy are parallel to one anotheror, very often, are merely identical.
nationalists, which is to say most apologists for war, always imply in
their public speeches a mathematics or an accounting of war. Thus by its
suffering in the Civil War, the North is said to have paid for
the emancipation of the slaves and the preservation of the Union. Thus
we may speak of our liberty as having been bought by the bloodshed
of patriots. I am fully aware of the
truth in such statements. I know that I am one of many who have benefited
from painful sacrifices made by other people, and I would not like to
be ungrateful. Moreover, I am a patriot myself and I know that the time
may come for any of us when we must make extreme sacrifices for the sake
of libertya fact confirmed by the fates of Gandhi and King.
still I am suspicious of this kind of accounting. For one reason, it is
necessarily done by the living on behalf of the dead. And I think we must
be careful about too easily accepting, or being too easily grateful for,
sacrifices made by others, especially if we have made none ourselves.
For another reason, though our leaders in war always assume that there
is an acceptable price, there is never a previously stated level of acceptability.
The acceptable price, finally, is whatever is paid.
easy to see the similarity between this accounting of the price of war
and our usual accounting of the price of progress. We seem
to have agreed that whatever has been (or will be) paid for so-called
progress is an acceptable price. If that price includes the diminishment
of privacy and the increase of government secrecy, so be it. If it means
a radical reduction in the number of small businesses and the virtual
destruction of the farm population, so be it. If it means the devastation
of whole regions by extractive industries, so be it. If it means that
a mere handful of people should own more billions of wealth than is owned
by all of the worlds poor, so be it.
let us have the candor to acknowledge that what we call the economy
or the free market is less and less distinguishable from warfare.
For about half of the last century, we worried about world conquest by
international communism. Now with less worry (so far) we are witnessing
world conquest by international capitalism.
its political means are milder (so far) than those of communism, this
newly internationalized capitalism may prove even more destructive of
human cultures and communities, of freedom, and of nature. Its tendency
is just as much toward total dominance and control. Confronting this conquest,
ratified and licensed by the new international trade agreements, no place
and no community in the world may consider itself safe from some form
of plunder. More and more people all over the world are recognizing that
this is so, and they are saying that world conquest of any kind is wrong,
are doing more than that. They are saying that local conquest also is
wrong, and wherever it is taking place local people are joining together
to oppose it. All over my own state of Kentucky this opposition is growingfrom
the west, where the exiled people of the Land Between the Lakes are struggling
to save their homeland from bureaucratic depredation, to the east, where
the native people of the mountains are still struggling to preserve their
land from destruction by absentee corporations.
an economy that is warlike, that aims at conquest and that destroys virtually
everything that it is dependent on, placing no value on the health of
nature or of human communities, is absurd enough. It is even more absurd
that this economy, that in some respects is so much at one with our military
industries and programs, is in other respects directly in conflict with
our professed aim of national defense.
only reasonable, only sane, to suppose that a gigantic program of preparedness
for national defense should be founded first of all upon a principle of
national and even regional economic independence. A nation determined
to defend itself and its freedoms should be prepared, and always preparing,
to live from its own resources and from the work and the skills of its
own people. But that is not what we are doing in the United States today.
What we are doing is squandering in the most prodigal manner the natural
and human resources of the nation.
in the face of declining finite sources of fossil fuel energies, we have
virtually no energy policy, either for conservation or for the development
of safe and clean alternative sources. At present, our energy policy simply
is to use all that we have. Moreover, in the face of a growing population
needing to be fed, we have virtually no policy for land conservation and
no policy of just compensation to the primary producers of food. Our agricultural
policy is to use up everything that we have, while depending increasingly
on imported food, energy, technology, and labor.
are just two examples of our general indifference to our own needs. We
thus are elaborating a surely dangerous contradiction between our militant
nationalism and our espousal of the international free market
ideology. How do we escape from this absurdity?
think there is an easy answer. Obviously, we would be less absurd if we
took better care of things. We would be less absurd if we founded our
public policies upon an honest description of our needs and our predicament,
rather than upon fantastical descriptions of our wishes. We would be less
absurd if our leaders would consider in good faith the proven alternatives
things are easy to say, but we are disposed, somewhat by culture and somewhat
by nature, to solve our problems by violence, and even to enjoy doing
so. And yet by now all of us must at least have suspected that our right
to live, to be free, and to be at peace is not guaranteed by any act of
violence. It can be guaranteed only by our willingness that all other
persons should live, be free, and be at peaceand by our willingness
to use or give our own lives to make that possible. To be incapable of
such willingness is merely to resign ourselves to the absurdity we are
in; and yet, if you are like me, you are unsure to what extent you are
capable of it.
is the other question that I have been leading toward, one that the predicament
of modern warfare forces upon us: How many deaths of other peoples
children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that
we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace? To that question
I answer: None. Please, no
children. Dont kill any children for my benefit.
is your answer too, then you must know that we have not come to rest,
far from it. For surely we must feel ourselves swarmed about with more
questions that are urgent, personal, and intimidating. But perhaps also
we feel ourselves beginning to be free, facing at last in our own selves
the greatest challenge ever laid before us, the most comprehensive vision
of human progress, the best advice, and the least obeyed:
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that
hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he
maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the
just and on the unjust.
Wendell Berry, poet,
philosopher, and conservationist, farms in Kentucky.
© Wendell Berry