With the war party in power, peace doesn't have a chance


NINETY-FIVE YEARS ago, the American philosopher and psychologist William James observed that his country was divided, much as it is today, between what he called a "war party" and a "peace party."

These were not formal political organizations, with PACs and hacks, lawyers and lobbyists, so much as people brought together solely by their sentiments for or against the legitimacy and morality of war-making. Today they might be described as single-issue constituencies, though their issue encompasses most of what matters, life or death.

James wrote in the after-shadow of the Spanish-American War that "squalid" enterprise was instigated by ranting imperialist jingoes, among them William Randolph Hearst. James was a pacifist who perhaps found comfort because a peace party had actually coalesced in America. Maybe he saw it as an evolutionary change in the way men thought. Certainly, things weren't always that way.

From time immemorial, men made war. Their motives were simple and open: plunder, slaves and glory.

"History is a bath of blood," James wrote. "The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. ... Alexander's career was piracy, nothing but an orgy of power and plunder, made romantic by the character of the hero." Et cetera, down through the centuries.

James' essay The Moral Equivalent of War was published in 1910. He died in August of that year. The essay recently was republished in a collection titled The Best American Essays of the Century. It deserves another look.

War lovers had been around for centuries before the first peace lovers raised their heads. For men to go to war was thought natural. To the military mind, peace was a paradise for sheep. War toughened the fiber of men, stimulated patriotism, "trained societies to cohesiveness." Without war there is no heroism, no glory. War "is the romance of history," Mr. James wrote, the mother of all imagination and ambition. "It is a sort of sacrament ... an absolute good, we are told, for it is human nature at its highest dynamic."

No matter the horror, no matter the destruction, few arguments succeeded against it. Leaders, with hardly a nod to the citizenry, decided when, where and against whom to make war.

That a pacifist movement could emerge to challenge this historical orthodoxy and gather people to it who rejected the romance of war was remarkable. That it had little effect on events subsequent to James' essay (from World War I to Iraq) was not remarkable, just discouraging. But things did change, some: War in modern times had to be legitimized, justified, resorted to only as the last resort.

Rational reasons for it had to be adduced. Even the century's most abominable tyrant, Adolf Hitler, knew that. He told his people Germany needed space; they agreed. He overran Europe, and the people were thrilled by the Nazi glory. Hitler's war became the German people's war.

And that was the change, perhaps, that James had perceived in 1910: that the day had arrived when wars - even if they were for plunder, slaves and glory, as Hitler's indeed were - needed public support to legitimize them. Or at least a minimum of active resistance at home.

Pretexts, misrepresentations are always more easily sustained in dictatorships, which can control the information flow to the population and block contrary opinion and facts. In democracies, despite occasional attempts by governments to hide uncomfortable truths, people have other sources, other newspapers, less-biased television networks to turn to. Thus one might conclude that democracies could never go to war without public support.

Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn't, not for more than two years after the war in Europe began, though he ardently wanted to. The popular will in the United States was against involvement. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that.

President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted a military victory in Vietnam, so he manufactured his own "Pearl Harbor," an "unprovoked attack" by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on a U.S. warship in international waters. He went to Congress and got the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which enabled him to enlarge the war against North Vietnam. It was a famous lie. In the end, the American people turned against the war. Mr. Johnson departed political life under a cloud.

Today it is known that the justifications for the invasion of Iraq have proved false. There were no chemical weapons, no weapons of mass destruction. Even so, the American people have not turned against the war that President Bush unleashed in their name. Many don't agree with it; some don't care; the resistance level is low. It's the people's war now. Why? Well, to turn the president's own logic around, if you're not against it, you're for it. Indifference is a form of support.

Should William James return from nearly a century of deathly sleep and ask how things are going, what would I say? Maybe something like this: "The war party is still in charge. Go back to sleep."

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor and foreign correspondent of The Sun.

Columnists Trudy Rubin and Clarence Page are on vacation.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad