The Just War Delusion

Michael True is professor emeritus of English at Assumption College. As a respected authority on the United States’ history of nonviolence, he has written and edited 10 books, including An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995). Speaking in 1999 at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue (where I presently work), he said:
Since the time of Augustine, our culture — and some of the best and brightest among us — has spent volumes arguing and deliberating about what constitutes a just war and what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behavior in a war culture. The fact that every side in armed conflict regarded its war as "just" renders much of the language of the just war tradition ridiculous, particularly in a nuclear age.
The standard position among thoughtful people is that pacifism is something advocated only by those in denial about our world; ostriches with their heads in the sand. Yes. Maybe. It surely would seem that pacifism can't always be appropriate. But how often do we apply even a fraction of this "realism" and critical thinking to matters of war making or the use of violence as a tool for social or global transformation? Not often. In fact, the "radical pacifist" is most often nothing but a straw man trotted out whenever it's needed to make a weak or ideological argument for war look "reasonable" by comparison. To hear them talk, you would think pacifists are everywhere!

And let us also ask: How many wars that were argued as just going in turned out in retrospect to be that? Not many. Now we find that the favored tool of militarism is being sharpened once again, this time for possible use in Iran.

We live in a culture of war. How might a culture of peace emerge in these difficult circumstances? In his same talk at the Center, Michael True cited a poem by Denise Levertov called "Making Peace" as part of the answer to that question.

A voice from the dark called out,
"The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war."

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can't be imagined before it is made,
can't be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light--facets
of the forming crystal.

Denise Levertov, Breathing the Water (NY: New Directions, 1983)


  1. To many cultures, America is considered an oppressor and a major threat to peace. We need to back off, stop stage directing the planet, dictating behaviour and telling people how to think. Let it be.


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