Three Centuries of U.S. Writing Against War

Every student of peace, sanity, or survival, every person interested in the possibility of the United States making its current wars its last seven wars, every believer in the value of wisdom and the written word should pick up a copy of Lawrence Rosendwald’s 768-page collection, War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing.

Looking for ways to improve the Pentagon that $600 billion a year just can’t buy? Did you know that Benjamin Rush not only signed the Declaration of Independence but also proposed that these words be hung over the door of the U.S. Department of War:

“1. An office for butchering the human species.
“2. A Widow and Orphan making office.
“3. A broken bone making office.
“4. A Wooden leg making office.
“5. An office for creating public and private vices.
“6. An office for creating a public debt.
“7. An office for creating speculators, stock Jobbers, and Bankrupts.
“8. An office for creating famine.
“9. An office for creating pestilential diseases.
“10. An office for creating poverty, and the destruction of liberty, and national happiness.”

Did you know there was collective nonviolent resistance to war in the Book of Mormon? Or that Henry David Thoreau long ago offered a more accurate depiction of a U.S. marine than has yet appeared in any television ad or Hollywood/CIA movie?

“A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy-Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments. . . .”

Looking for inspiring poetry? Check out Obadiah Ethelbert Baker, Herman Melville, Edna St. Vincent Millay, June Jordan, and many others. Wrote Melville:

“Of dying foemen mingled there —
“Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
“Fame or country least their care:
“(What like a bullet can undeceive!)”

Do you know the history of conscientious objection, from the earliest days to these? Here’s the diary of Cyrus Pringle, refusing to kill for Union in the 1860s:

“Two sergeants soon called for me, and taking me a little aside, bid me lie down on my back, and stretching my limbs apart tied cords to my wrists and ankles and these to four stakes driven in the ground somewhat in the form of an X. I was very quiet in my mind as I lay there on the ground [soaked] with the rain of the previous day, exposed to the heat of the sun, and suffering keenly from the cords binding my wrists and straining my muscles.”

Do you know the real story of Mother’s Day?

“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.”

It is writings that made it into War No More, not words as representations for the lives of authors. Included are numerous authors who did far more warmongering than peace making in their lives. We should learn from their wiser words nonetheless.

Paul Goodman’s speech to the National Security Industrial Association is a model for any global security advisor:

“. . . the best service that you people could perform is rather rapidly to phase yourselves out. . . .”

Looking for ideas whose time had not yet come but perhaps now has? How about that for a treaty among all nations banning military drafts?

The worst war in history, commonly known as “the good war,” receives a fair amount of attention in this collection, including Robert Lowell’s refusal to be drafted into the middle of it, following the mining of dams, and the “razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids.” Also included is Jeanette Rankin’s statement on why she voted against war on Japan, and Nicholson Baker’s reflections on the wisdom of pacifists who tried to end World War II and rescue the victims of Nazi camps.

“Nobody in authority in Britain and the United States paid heed to these promptings. Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, who’d been tasked by Churchill with handling queries about refugees, dealt coldly with one of many important delegations, saying that any diplomatic effort to obtain the release of the Jews from Hitler was ‘fantastically impossible.’ On a trip to the United States, Eden candidly told Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, that the real difficulty with asking Hitler for the Jews was that ‘Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’ Churchill agreed. ‘Even were we to obtain permission to withdraw all the Jews,’ he wrote in reply to one pleading letter, ‘transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.’ Not enough shipping and transport? Two years earlier, the British had evacuated nearly 340,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk in just nine days. The U.S. Air Force had many thousands of new planes. During even a brief armistice, the Allies could have airlifted and transported refugees in very large numbers out of the German sphere.”

Looking for the ideal hilarious response to pro-violence hypothetical questions re ticking time bombs, imminent and continuous threat drone victims, and what you would do if someone attacks your grandmother? Read “What Would You Do If?” by Joan Baez.

Wondering why the deep reaction to the death of Daniel Berrigan? Read his writings.

This collection includes very thoughtful writing on the powers and limitations of nonviolent activism. It includes a rich literature from and about prison — too much in my opinion. It may also go too far in stretching to include commentary from pro-war writers who have quibbles with particular wars. It includes a rather lengthy dialogue debating the use of violence in which you’ll find yourself waiting forever for the anti-violent debater to start making a case. It includes a speech by Barack Obama, for godsake, in which he argues, based on patent falsehoods, for war, for the U.S. civil war, for World War II, for war on Afghanistan, and for Iraqi WMDs, though opposing what would come to be the hallmark of his presidency: “dumb wars.”

Recent wars don’t come into the book. The book doesn’t look into the matter of falsehoods we’re told about wars, and the actual motivations and results of those wars. Focusing on going to prison, it offers much less on education and other forms of protest, and virtually nothing on envisioning a world beyond war, a world of diplomacy, aid, and the rule of law. Only a short excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich touches on creating a new movement for the total abolition of war.

Still, it is because of the wealth that was included in this book that I wish a bit more had made it in. We need to create a broader movement, but we do not need to do it alone. We would be foolish not to draw on this collected wisdom.

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