Choosing War

Very few people choose war. They choose selfishness and the result is war. Each of us, individually and nationally, must choose: total love or total war.

Very few people choose war. They choose selfishness and the result is war. Each of us, individually and nationally, must choose: total love or total war.

by Dave Dellinger

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I have never personally met anyone who likes war. My military friends tell me they are as much against war as I am. I believe them. They see their mission as peacekeepers. Their aim, so they say, is to prevent war from happening. Only when it is deemed necessary will they fight.

This same attitude prevails among the police I've known. They see their duty as protecting the public, not hunting down unseemly characters. They want people to feel safe, and they are the first to know that guns fired, even when they do the firing, only increase fear and the chances of more violence.

Most people want a peaceful world. We prefer that conflicts be settled before fists fly. We prefer diplomacy to seeing our sons and daughters deployed to some battlefield. We would rather get along than shoot it out.

Now if this is true, why do we war as we do? In his book, Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink argues that western culture is deeply committed to what he calls the myth of redemptive violence. We believe that violence, force and coercion, if applied appropriately and with the right motives, has the power to bring about social redemption.

So perhaps we are, as some argue, violent by nature. We want peace, but can't help viewing the world and other people in terms of conquest. Perhaps we are wired to see things in terms of winning and losing, having and not having, us verses them, good guys and bad. I'd like to believe that it's due to genetics or certain social conditions. How else could we explain, let alone solve, our propensity to tackle conflict violently? As even the most cursory reading of history shows, we certainly aren't the first to try to make things right through the use of force.

I'm still not sure why we war like we do. Chalk it up to fear, scarcity, selfishness, injustice, a thirst for power, or even a noble desire to protect such ideals as freedom and justice. The fact remains, despite our abhorrence of killing, we too easily justify the use of violence.

By violence I don't only mean a howitzer. In subtle and not so subtle ways, we are not only prone to defend ourselves but find all kinds of ways to "do others in" whenever they make life difficult for us. We threaten, cajole, sue, file complaints, gossip, call the police, divorce, rage, kick and scream, and whatever else it takes to keep those we don't like away. 

When we say we want peace, do we really mean we just want order? As long as our self-interests are being served, we cry "Peace, peace!" We act decently towards others so long as they don't disturb the illusions we live by. As long as no one challenges our turf we are nonviolent. But once we feel threatened, once our domain is crossed, we fight back. 

A few years ago I was at a large rally in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the needs of children. Outside the Lincoln Memorial a communist came up to me and shoved some newsprint in my face. "Down with Corporate America," read the first page. I asked the man what he felt the main problem with America was. "The haves have more than they need, and the have-nots don't have what is rightly theirs," he replied. "Well, why is that?" I asked. "Private property," he said. "The rich use the law to protect property that actually belongs to all."  

Sympathetic to his argument, I went on to ask what turned out to be an unnerving question: "Well, then do you have private property?"  "Ah…well…yes," he answered sheepishly. "But," he immediately explained, "the main issue today is changing the system. The system has to change, or else nothing will!" And then he bolted off to the next fellow on the street.

It's hard to live consistently, but it is essential if we are to make our world a less violent place. Protesting against this or that is one thing, but living in a way that actually counters the very thing we are against is another. In fact, it's useless to protest war if our lives and lifestyles betray our rhetoric. If we're honest, most of us aren't very willing to give up the good life we enjoy. Consequently, we keep on fueling the very fires of war we wish to extinguish. We want to own what we have, enjoy our creature comforts, maintain our autonomy and modes of mobility, and make sure our bottom line is secure, even when the rest of the world suffers because of it. 

Not long ago I had a discussion with a group of college students. We were talking about the Kennan doctrine, on which American foreign policy is based. In 1948 George Kennan recognized that having only 6 percent of the world's population but 50 percent of its wealth means that the United States cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. To maintain this disparity would mean to forgo moral ideals and instead deal in straight power concepts. Many students expressed dismay over this. They also began to see why so much of the world resents our materialistic lifestyles and MTV culture. One young man piped up: "This means we will have to redistribute our wealth. But that's impossible!"

Is it? It's impossible only because we are unwilling to give up our consumer lifestyle. Sharing property with others in service, and in so doing redistributing wealth, is possible, but only if we want something truly different, only if we are resolved to secure a more peaceful world where millions no longer have to suffer want.

The question is: Do we really want to live in a way that makes it difficult for others, let alone ourselves, to war? Are we ready to have our desire for more converted into ways of being that assure life for all? Are we ready to wage peace? Are we willing to war against all that divides and separates? If we are, we will have to do a lot more than protest. And we will have to go much further than pacifism. Rejecting war is simply not enough, unless it means doing a way with war's causes. If this is what we mean, then we'll be soldiers in a war that never ends.

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