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Learning the Hard Language of Peace

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Why People Don’t Talk About War and Why We Should

This article appeared in our June 2004 issue.

As a teenage student of military history during the Vietnam War, I read with disdain the slogan “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” It made the group who promoted it, Another Mother for Peace, seem naive and weak.

In those days I dreamed of attending West Point and becoming an Army officer, but women were not yet admitted to the academy. Today, as I teach military history at West Point to future officers of the U.S. Army, that peace slogan seems to me undeniable. Reflecting on both my reactions helps me understand why war continues to exist despite its abysmal record for settling disputes.

War is not healthy for people or their environment. Its casualties include not only the dead, the maimed, the orphans, widows, and widowers, the impoverished, and the morally corrupted, but those who suffer the anguish of having killed, maimed, impoverished, and corrupted others. Technology is not the solution. That precision-guided munitions have rendered war less destructive is small comfort to those for whom the destruction was not precise enough. Moreover, the growing ability of the United States to wage war without the loss of American lives is inflicting a new kind of psychological harm on those who kill without accepting the risk of dying — and on the society that trains them to do so.

But William James wrote almost 100 years ago that pacifists do not convert militarists by pointing out that war is awful. Most people, even the most hawkish, know that. A pacifist himself, James acknowledged in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” that war was attractive to many and benefited the community. Because it allowed men to demonstrate their prowess and women to select mates, it had to be replaced, not simply abolished. His argument was widely respected because he demonstrated a thorough understanding of the institution he condemned.

Modern opponents of war may have a more difficult time being heard than James because today so few Americans are killed, because our soldiers are volunteers rather than draftees, and because our wounded are kept out of public view. To be heard, peace seekers must learn an uncongenial new language.

Sex and War

Arguably, the demographic group most likely to dismiss war as too awful to think about or irrelevant to their lives is the largest one: women. Although women now have important roles in the armed forces, most women in uniform have no desire to participate in combat or to see the United States at war.

James was not the first to point out that war allows men to express their masculinity. Indeed, a reputation for manliness is society’s traditional reward to young men who risk their lives in its defense. President George W. Bush’s hyper-masculine body language on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln deserves close inspection. In the same vein, one bizarre outcome of the war in Iraq has been the publication of a fulsome biography of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld describing its septuagenarian subject as sexy. Whatever National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has contributed to national defense, it will not win her the same reward. Samuel Johnson’s famous observation, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” is less universal today than in 1778, but it would be absolutely untrue were one to substitute “every woman.”

As I have found, the woman who studies war must inure herself to condescending, if not insulting, discussions of gender relations. Many students of war insist that the most important motivation for soldiers in combat is male bonding, the intense loyalty men feel to one another when they work together under extreme stress. Although the gender-integrated Army has redefined the motivation as “small-unit cohesion,” few claim that mixed-gender units are as efficient as all-male units. Many of the men are positively contemptuous of the idea that women can be effective, an attitude that does not attract women to the military.

Men are more likely than women to see soldierly values such as courage, loyalty, honor, and self-sacrifice as compensation for war’s horrors. For example, the famous military historian Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart found compensation for the sheer carnage of World War I: “Had it not been for the heroism of the millions who took part in it, it would have been utterly bestial.” Few women would have agreed with him. Honor is a loaded concept for women in wartime, because many societies equate a woman’s honor with her chastity while expecting male soldiers to enjoy sexual intercourse, willing or otherwise, as a reward for victory.

When women do think about war, they are more skeptical than men. Men tend to talk as if war had a life of its own, imposing itself on countries rather than being a result of human choices. Men are thus inclined to accept the argument that war brings its own ethical system. A war correspondent observed the comparatively well-behaved U.S. soldiers in Germany in 1945: “In war there is a reversal of the general code of the community of men. It is right to kill, and with this sanction comes a compulsion to reverse all other civilized injunctions: to steal, lie, blaspheme, and rape.”

Nor are women likely to equate war with sport. A veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima described the marines’ cheers as they saw the American flag go up over Mt. Suribachi: “It was as if their team had just scored the go-ahead touchdown in the most important football game of their lives.”

Those Who Don’t Go

Another demographic group that has generally abdicated its role in policy by refusing to learn the language of war is the politically liberal male graduates of elite colleges and universities. Men who can afford a college education without paying for it through military service, who go on to jobs more remunerative than soldiering, have powerful reasons to ignore war or denounce it. Pretending that war does not exist or rejecting it as wrong, they can leave the unpleasantness of military service to poorer and less squeamish citizens. And while those who choose peaceful careers risk the inferiority complex identified by Dr. Johnson, modern liberals, instead of thinking “meanly” of themselves, think meanly of war — in other words, as little as possible.

If some liberals push away war out of guilt, others act as if they are oblivious of military matters. Many such people apparently served in Bill Clinton’s White House, where they created unnecessary civilian-military tension. People who choose their words to respect the preferences of members of various political, social, ethnic, gender, and religious groups often show no such respect for military personnel.

God Talk and War

The antiwar voices of religious leaders also go unheeded today. Religious opposition to the U.S. actions against Iraq was enormous: The National Council of Churches, the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and many others opposed military action. As the Reverend John Wimberley put it, “When the Presbyterians start protesting, you know that things are serious.” But although the majority of Americans, including President Bush, attend the same Christian churches that urged the president to eschew war, religious opposition to the war has had little impact on popular attitudes or government policy.

Many religious Americans have learned to separate religion and national policy into distinct spheres. “Peace,” “forgiveness,” and “turning the other cheek” sound good in sermons, but outside of church these concepts promise neither security nor the satisfaction of vengeance. As long as religious objections to war ignore those needs, religious sentiment will not shape secular policy. And some Americans are so confident of God’s favor that they see the defense of the United States as divinely sanctioned.

Language cannot capture the enormity of war. People who have never seen war but speak clinically of policy objectives, military strategy, and body counts may call themselves warriors, claiming the authority to lead their people into the horror. These self-professed realists will denounce the contrary position as mere idealism. In such circles, “brutal realist” can be taken as a compliment.

One way to improve the dialogue for peace is for ordinary people to learn the warrior language themselves, thus breaking the monopoly and giving every citizen a greater say over the nation’s use of force. In the quest for peace, squeamishness about war can be costly.

How to Talk about War: A Peacemonger’s Primer

1. Policymakers will not heed those who reject war altogether as an unspeakable evil. Those who wish their government to fight fewer wars or none at all should acknowledge that force has served positive ends in the past and may be necessary in the future.

2. It is a mistake to believe that members of the armed forces, especially senior leaders, favor war, whether to prove the capabilities of their forces or to advance their own careers. In fact, military leaders, having fewer illusions about war's unpredictability and cost, are often more reluctant than their civilian masters to use force. The assumption that military leaders will be on the bellicose side of any debate insults their intelligence and professionalism and may push them into the pro-war camp. If consulted for their expertise, military leaders may provide arguments against war.

3. All conversations about the role of force in national strategy go better if a war's opponents can demonstrate fundamental understanding of the nation's military policies, the makeup of the armed forces, and the capabilities of the weapons at our disposal. Extreme ignorance inhibits conversation. It is simply too frustrating to talk to someone who cannot tell an aircraft carrier from an armored division or insists that the use of depleted uranium tank ammunition constitutes nuclear warfare.

4. Get to know members of the armed forces. The shrinking of the armed services since the Vietnam War and the elimination of the draft have narrowed the social groups from which soldiers come. Many civilians have no close contact with people in uniform. Worse, many in uniform believe that most civilians know and care little about them. Some even resent their obligation to defend a "liberal" culture they reject. Much of this civil-military dichotomy reflects ignorance on both sides. The more soldiers and civilians talk, the more they will discover shared values.

5. Debate will be more productive if both sides understand that attitudes about war reflect deeply held beliefs about human nature and gender. Condemnations of "warmongers" or "peaceniks" strike at fundamental value systems and self-image.

6. "War is not healthy for children and other living things," but it is not worse than any possible peace. As Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, "Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice." To claim the moral high ground, those who renounce war must propose realistic ways to change intolerably unjust situations. The moral equivalent of "too proud to fight" may condemn millions of people to concentration camps or worse.

7. Realistic and moralistic arguments are not incompatible. American foreign policy must have a moral component because our influence in the world depends on our behaving well as a nation. It may require great strength of purpose to reject tempting military action as incompatible with our national character.


Eugenia “Jennie” Kiesling, Ph.D., is Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she also coaches the crew. A civilian, she spent a summer in Afghanistan working to translate books for a new Afghan war college. She is the editor-in-chief’s big sister.


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