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SPIRITUALITY, PACIFISM, AND THE ETHOS OF WAR
While speculating as to what a spiritual enlightened world might look like is always interesting, we don't currently live in such a world, nor are we likely to anytime soon. The fact of the matter is that the "real" worldas we like to call itis not only an at times a brutal place, but it can be positively dangerous. As such, throughout its long history, humanity has frequently found itself forced to engage in one of its most brutal manifestation of egoarmed conflict or, as it is more colloquially known, war.
But what is the "spiritual" perspective on this most pernicious of all human activities or, for that matter, is there one? Since war has had such a major hand in shaping human history and is the one single activity that so thoroughly drives the engines of both progress and destruction, it is an important question to consider.
It is generally assumed that spirituality is essentially pacifistic in naturean assumption which is undoubtedly a byproduct of the fact that many of the men we consider to be great beacons of spiritualityBuddha, Jesus, Gandhiwere men of peace. Certainly Jesus' admonition that those who live by the sword will die by the sword is a classic example of non-violence, while Ralph Waldo Emerson's statement that "peace cannot be achieved through violence but can only be attained through understanding" continue to ring as true today as when they were first spoken. However, it was probably Mohandas Gandhi who came closest to capturing the sentiment of pacifism when he said "I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent." As such, the assumption is that since it is inconceivable that any of these men would ever raise a swordeven in their own defensespirituality presumes that one would want to follow in their example and do the same.
While I applaud this perspective and believe that spirituality is, at its core, a philosophy of peace, I'm not at all convinced that such a position can be maintained with any degree of consistency, particularly in the world we live in today. We don't live in a peaceful world and imagining that it is possible to do so merely by embracing strict neutrality in all matters of state will not make it that way. In fact, I maintain that pacifism, especially when practiced in the face of a very real threat, can even be detrimental to spiritual growth, so it is imperative we consider this issue in more thorough manner.
First, I must confess to having been something of a military history buff since childhood. At one time, in fact, books about the Second World War comprised the bulk of my reading and was a major preoccupation of mine when I was a boy. I don't know where I got that fromI did not hail from a military background nor does my family have a military traditionbut it has been with me since my adolescence. I suspect it may have something to do with previous incarnations, but that's a subject for another time.
Once I embarked on a spiritual journey, however, I began to understand that militarism was not consistent with spirituality. I'm not saying they're opposites or that one can't be an element of the other, only that spirituality is not consistent with the concept of killing in general. Spirituality is about acquiring enlightenment and there are few things less enlightening than wholesale destruction and mass murder. Even if one somehow manages to maintain some degree of chivalry on the battlefield and meticulously abide by the Geneva Convention, the underlying fact that one has been mandated by the state to murder their fellow human being is unlikely to permit for much in terms of spiritual growth.
On the other hand, I contend that pacifismwhich I define not to mean peacefulness but the willingness to acquiesce to the demands of others for the sake of non-violenceis not all that spiritually enlightened either. To better understand where I'm going with this, let's start by examining the philosophy of pacifism.
Pacifism is essentially the willingness to surrender to a stronger opponent in exchange for avoiding bloodshed. It is the belief that might never makes right and that a person is better off living under an oppressive system or permitting the conquest of the weak by the strong rather than resist that system or challenge blatant aggression through the use of arms. A pacifist may still oppose what he considers to be an oppressive regime or military aggression, but he or she will generally do so through non-violent means (such as was seen with Gandhi's insistence on non-violent civil disobedience in India during the 1930s.)
The problem with pacifism, however, is that history is replete with examples in which one side would acquiesce to the demands of a more powerful neighbor in the hopes of avoiding conflict, only to see that neighbor come back later with ever more grandiose and unreasonable demands. The disastrous Munich Accord between England and Germany is probably the best example of this from modern history: in 1938 Hitler demanded that border areas between Germany and Czechoslovakiaknown as the Sudetenland (an area that had been ceded to Czechoslovakia as a result of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919)be returned to Germany. Czechoslovakia immediately appealed for help from France and England, who challenged Hitler's claims to the territory and threatened war if Germany took the land by force. For several tense weeks in the fall of 1938 it appeared that war in Europe was a very real possibility as both sides scrambled to find a solution. Finally, and apparently determined to avoid another bloody catastrophe like the one that had raged between Germany and the allies just twenty years earliertaking an entire generation of young men to their graves in the processthe allies blinked and, after a quick round of negotiations, France and England agreed to let Germany seize the disputed areas. While this averted the immediate crises, the allies' willingness to acquiesce to Hitler's demands not only demonstrated their willingness to give away that which was not theirs to give away-the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia-but it convinced Hitler that the allied powers were politically weak, thereby laying the foundation for his decision to invade Poland eleven months later and so igniting the very war the allied powers had been trying so desperately to avoid.
Clearly, the allies' desire to avoid another war in Europe was a noble one. Their intentions were for peace, which is always an enlightened goal. However, their efforts ended not only in a loss of sovereignty and freedom for the people of Czechoslovakia (who were to labor under the heavy hand of Nazi occupation for the next seven years) but encouraged the very sort of expansionist and military adventurism that was to result in the largest and most destructive war in human history. Had France and England stood up to Hitler in 1938even if that meant using force to prevent him from seizing the coveted lands in questionit's likely history would have played itself out very differently. Whether a show of force might have discouraged Hitler from pursuing his expansionist policies and so prevented the Second World War or whether the war would have simply started eleven months earlier remains unknowable (historians tend to be divided on the question) but that appeasementwhich is just another term for pacifismfailed to work is undeniable.
Another more recent example from history might be the Rwandan massacre of 1994, when literally hundreds of thousands of Tutsi citizens were slaughtered by their fellow Hutus in one of the most gruesome genocides of modern time. The Western powers, of course, had the means and resources to easily intervene and stop much of the violence at its inception, but the desire to avoid becoming involved in what was largely considered a tribal dispute was so great that no one was willing to send troops into the area in an effort to stop the carnage for several months. By the time the UN took action late in June of 1994, over half a million (some estimates put the number at closer to a million) Rwandans had been murdered by their fellow citizens and hundreds of thousands had been displaced. This wasn't a case of pacifism per se, but the general reluctance to get involved is a pacifistic mentality, and one that cost the Rwandan people dearly.
So what would have been the spiritual "thing to do" in these instances? Would going to war with Germany have been the "spiritual" option for England and France in 1938 and would sending a few thousand peacekeepers into Rwanda at the start of the massacre-even if it meant potentially having to kill some of the perpetrators in the process-have been the "spiritual" thing to do?
While spirituality is a peaceful pursuit, it takes into account that humanity is still fairly early on in its spiritual development and, as such, is still living largely in separation and darkness. As such, it recognizes that violence is still a part of the human equation, which means that while the spiritual person always prefers peace over conflict, the reality is that it is occasionally necessary to use even deadly force when confronting or attempting to restrain evil. This entails, unfortunately, the potential spilling of blood and the destruction of public property, as much as one might want to avoid that, but such may be occasionally necessary if the ultimate goal is protecting others from harm or liberating a people from bondage. To quote German peace activist and environmentalist Petra Karin Kelly: "A truly free society must not include a 'peace' which oppresses us. We must learn on our own terms what peace and freedom mean together. There can be no peace if there is social injustice and suppression of human rights, because external and internal peace are inseparable. Peace is not just the absence of mass destruction, but a positive internal and external condition in which people are free so that they can grow to their full potential." In effect, the lack of war is not in and of itself evidence of peace, especially if there are those that remain under bondage.
To serve in the armed forces and even to engage in combat, then, is simply to acknowledge this fact. It doesn't make the spiritual person less spiritual if they find themselves in combat anymore than it makes a police officer "unspiritual" for shooting a bank robber who has is threatening a hostage.
Paradoxically, it appears then that there are times when violence must be used to prevent even greater violence from taking place. And since there may be occasions when violence is the only tool available to restrain evil, one could argue that wars fought with the intention of liberating a populace from the bondage of tyranny and wars fought to defend one's own nation or that of another that lacks the means to adequately defending itself from a powerful and aggressive neighbor could be considered "righteous" in nature and hencein a wayeven "spiritual."
Of course, what constitutes a "righteous" rationale for engaging in armed struggle can be a matter of interpretation. The Germans thought they were justified in their invasion of Poland in September of 1939 because they were recovering territory that had been ceded to that country in the aftermath of the First World War. (This was the same rationale they used in seizing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia a year earlier.) The Soviet's obviously felt they were merely making an effort to better defend their country from German invasion by occupying the Baltic states in 1940, just as the Japanese believed their attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor was justified due to what they considered to be unfair and even crippling economic pressures being exerted upon them by the United States. Clearly, most countries can justify their use of force almost without exception, so how does one make a distinction between which are "righteous" wars and which are simply wars of aggression?
This is where the issue gets more difficult as each historical event is perceived from many conflicting perspectives and examined through a multitude of different prisms. Was America wrong for defending the South Vietnamese from Communism during the sixties and seventies or wrong for removing Saddam Hussein from power in the Iraqi invasion of 2003? Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in an effort to bring the Second World War to a quick end an example of enlightenment or an act of barbarity? Arguments could be madeand have beenthat both justify and condemn each of these actions, making the answer far more problematic than one might at first imagine. This, however, is an unfortunate aspect of the world we live in that we as spiritual men and woman have to wrestle with.
The issue was in many ways easier in the past. Prior to the last century, almost all wars were wars of conquest, with one country usually trying to seize colonies or territories from the other. This made the aggressor/defender roles more clear (though it should be noted that often the defender nation was defending territory it had seized earlier from another, usually weaker, nation, further muddying the waters.) Today, however, wars are rarely fought over territory (the 1982 Falklands Island war being one of the rare exceptions) but over political ideology or economic imperatives, which makes determining the "good guys" from the "bad guys" more problematic.
The question that each person must answer for themselves is whether there are times when violence may be the best of a host of bad options available. The spiritual person is a man or woman of peace, but it's not peace at any price. Freedom is not free and cannot be enjoyed if it comes at the cost of another man's personal liberties. In essence, the man of peace cannot enjoy peace if it means others must remain enslaved to a cruel and unjust government in order for him to avoid conflict. A person who worships peace cannot stand by and accept the wanton death of innocents at the hands of a brutal dictator in order to remain morally "pure." If human beings of good moral nature never stand up to the great injustices and atrocities of our age, who will? And, for that matter, what exactly does spirituality mean if one is willing to sacrifice the freedoms of others upon the altar of non-violence?
It's far too easy to use pacifism as a type of self-righteous window dressing or worse, a morally justifiable excuse for apathy or cowardice. It can, in its most hideous form, even be used as a means of acquiring a sense of moral superiority over others, at which point it stops being a manifestation of spiritual enlightenment and becomes instead a hindrance on the road to understanding. Additionally, pacifism simply doesn't work on an international level. Even the previously quoted Albert Einsteina man of peace all his liferecognized its impracticality when he proposed developing the atomic bomb to President Roosevelt in 1941 to keep such a terrible weapon out of the hands of the Nazis. Why would he do this unless he realized that despite his very heartfelt longing for peace, such a peace would never be possible if the enemies of mankind won the war? Apparently, even he understood the impracticality of non-violence at any cost.
However, while history is replete with examples of why pacifism doesn't work on an international level, I am convinced that it is possible on a personal level. Certainly, I believe that Jesus' words to not resist those who do you evil and to "turn the other cheek" were never intended to be taken for foreign policy strategies, but were intended for people. The problem lies in applying Jesus's admonishments for peace to the world stage rather than to the human heart. In effect, he understood that the decision to forgive others and practice non-violence could only be made on a personal level and would not work to apply it to others. Unfortunately, most pacifists do not see it that way, but consider pacifism to be a policy that must be practiced by all, and in so doing are frequently unwilling to acknowledge the consequences their philosophy may have on others. In essence, one may practice non-violenceeven up to the point of sacrificing their own life and freedom-but it is wrong to expectmuch less demand-that others do the same. In effect, one must never decide that they have the right to make decisions that affect other people's personal freedoms in an effort to remain morally pure and politically correct.
So what is the spiritual perspective on serving in wartime or engaging in combat? For that matter, is it wrong for a person who embarks on a spiritual journey to make the military a career, knowing that they could be called upon to take another life personally at some point or even lead men into battle?
It's always wrong to judge another's spiritual path base upon our own predispositions. It may be that a soul's agenda is that the incarnate personality it has generated experience the pain and horror of combat for some reason, making us presumptuous in our condemnation of a person's actions. In fact, could it be possible that the surest way of pulling a soul away from the darkness of violence is to let it experience the trauma of war so it might learn and grow from that experience? It's no accident that frequently the greatest men of peace are not politicians or scholars or academicians, but senior military officers who have tasted the bitter bile of battle first hand and know better than most the horrors and deprivation of war. It's also interesting to note that wars-at least in modern times-are rarely started by generals, but are almost always initiated by incompetent diplomats, kowtowing bureaucrats or ultra nationalistic political leaders more concerned with national pride and their "image" than with the common good. In fact, it could be argued that the most dangerous creatures on the planet are not generals, but politicians, as they are the ones who usually start the wars they expect the generals to win.
A good example of this was seen in the mobilization efforts of 1914 that made the First World Warup to then the bloodiest and costliest conflict in human historyinevitable. The push to mobilize millions of men was not the work of soldiers-many of whom had reservations about the prospect of going down the path Europe was headedbut of monarchs and Prime Ministers. In essence, it wasn't the militarists that were goading the world toward war (though some did have a hand in it) but the civilians who were behind one of the greatest travesties of the twentieth centurythe consequences of which are still being felt to this day. That's an important lesson to remember.
But what, then, of the spiritually sensitive man or woman who finds themselves in combat? How can they function as an effective soldier or pilot if spiritual enlightenment is their goal? For that matter, how could one service warplanes or fuel a warship or man a nuclear attack submarine and still be true to their own desires to be men and women of peace?
I can't answer that question. Men and woman of good conscience have to make that decision for themselves. However, were I asked what would be the attitude of a spiritually conscious soldier, airman, or sailor caught up in a military conflict, I suspect it would look something like this: they would do their job to the best of their ability, recognizing that their efforts are necessary to restrain some great evil. They would take no joy in destroying the enemy nor would they look for glory, adventure, or medals. They may kill, but when they do it would be not with satisfaction in their heart, but with great pity and sadness for having sent another piece of the Divine back into the abyss of the spiritual realm. They would never forget that their enemy is a human being like themselves and would respect them for it, which means they would never commit an atrocity or perform a wanton act of cruelty even at the risk of death or imprisonment for refusing to do so. Their primary desire would be for the enemy to lay down their arms and they would make every accommodation towards that end if possible, even to the point of putting their own life in danger to secure their surrender. Finally, they would watch out for their comrades to the best of their ability, follow the lawful orders of their leaders, and do whatever they can do to put a quick end to the whole affair. Then, when the war was finally over, they would breathe a sigh of relief and take a moment to remember the dead, both their own and the enemies. Such may not be perfect spirituality, but it's as close as we are likely to get for the time being.
A truly enlightened society, of course, would now nothing of war. In fact, it likely wouldn't even possess an armed forces, but in the world we live in today, such is not possible. I often try to imagine what the world would be like if all countries were genuine representational democracies in which basic human and civil rights were guaranteed to all citizens and respect for the rule of law held sway; it would not be strife free, I imagine, as there would still be extremists of all stripes to contend with and wanton acts of terrorism to deal with, but in a world in which divisions between nations could be easily handled at the negotiating table, the use of force would be rare. It wouldn't be a perfect world, but I suspect it would be one largely free of the sort of dangers we face today and one we would be proud to leave as a legacy to future generations.
As Buddha taught,
since all life is an illusion, war itself is part of the maya, and one that
will eventually fade like all the rest as humanity works its way out of its
obstinate darkness and into the light of divine love. Let's just hope the Buddha
is correct about that.
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