Come, you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my handMasters of War, Bob Dylan
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly
War. (Good gawd, y’all)War (What is it Good For), Edwin Starr
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin.’ (Listen to me…)
I spent last week on a writing and planning retreat in the mountains of West Virginia, a place where my soul has always found a home. A place that has the ability to center me.
For a couple hours one afternoon I hung in a hammock by a small creek in the woods and dug into Rachel Held Evans’ book, Inspired. It was her last book before her death a little over a year ago, and though I’d been meaning to read it for some time, I wasn’t quite at the right place in mourning her passing until now.
One of her chapters, entitled “War Stories,” was particularly compelling to me. As an avowed pacifist, I’ve always struggled with so-called just war theory and especially with the idea that, because war appears in the biblical narrative, God must endorse it.
That there must be circumstances where the giver of life says it’s okay for us to take it.
Pete Enns’ excellent book, The Bible Tells Me So, helped me grapple with a lot of those issues.
By digging into historical context, Enns suggests (I believe correctly) that the reason God appears to sanction war, genocide, rape, and all sorts of other horrific acts is because ancient peoples, whose religion was largely barely a step above superstition, believed that their god or gods were responsible for everything that happened.
And so, if they won a battle, if they enslaved prisoners, if they took women as part of their plunder, then those acts had to have been divinely ordained.
They simply had no other way of looking at the world. So their stories reflected it.
Which got me thinking about how we think about war in general, and violence in particular…especially in this time of government-backed violence against our own citizens in the US.
As usual, this whole thought exercise led me to more questions than answers.
So I wanted to share with you, dear readers, some of the questions it sparked in me…and see what kinds of questions it might spark in you.
1. Does our glorification of war ensure its continuation?
We glorify and romanticize war. Every warring nation believes its cause is just, its position is moral, its ideals worth protecting through murder.
So when we look at war historically, regardless of outcomes, and regardless of which side we’re on, we look at it through the lens of righteousness.
For us in the US, that largely means looking favorably on wars that have protected, advanced, and furthered the growth of our capitalistic system.
Sure, we might say we’re fighting for “democracy” or “freedom,” but what we’ve really always fought for is to control the means of commerce.
It also means that what we have developed is a war economy.
Our military-industrial complex has become too big to fail…so our glorification of war ensures that we will always be fighting someone, somewhere, in order to keep the dollars flowing.
2. What about the heroes?
I get it. Part of what’s hard about taking an honest look at war is that we have built our glorification of the institution of war on the veneration of the people who have fought in them…and especially those who have fought and died.
They are our fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers. They are our sisters and cousins.
We need to know that their sacrifice was for something honorable.
It’s one of the military-industrial complex’s most brilliant maneuvers.
Opposing war can feel like spitting on your grandpa’s grave.
3. If we don’t fight, will evil really win?
Our fear that we will somehow be overtaken by evil forces runs deep in our collective psyche. We are trained to believe that the only way to overcome evil is by violence.
It’s part of the control/fear narrative that has been part of the Christendom project since its inception.
The fact that we still believe that with the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi not that far in our rearview mirrors is mind-boggling to me.
We’ve been given good examples to follow…we just choose not to do so.
It seems very obvious to me that non-violent resistance is the only way to combat systemic evil.
Violence has only ever led to more violence.
The only peace we’ve ever really sought is the Pax Romana, a peace kept only by force…which by its very nature oppresses and dehumanizes.
Meaning it’s no real peace at all.
I was having this conversation with a friend a couple of years ago, and his query was whether that was actually true…had non-violence ever led to a cessation of violence?
It was a good question.
Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer, because we’ve never really given it a chance.
The closest historical example we might point to could be the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, although even that was not altogether without its violent elements.
To borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that “the Christian ideal (of non-violence) has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (parenthetical note mine).
4. Can we confront the lies of war honestly?
We all know the cost of war. Lives lost, bodies maimed, families wrecked, nations torn apart. Billions of dollars that could be spent changing people’s lives are instead wasted on ending them.
And yet, we continue to blindly follow the masters of war.
My friend Fr. Steve Peck, a Catholic Universalist priest, sent me this video today as I was in the middle of writing this post. I want to leave you with it, in hopes that you’ll ask yourself some questions….
Especially whether it’s really worth it:
One thought on “Masters of War”
If there ever was a just war in US history, it was WWII. Would Nazi Germany’s evil intent have been stopped without fighting back? War should always be the last resort, but sometimes a necessity.