“War, rather than any foreign state, is the supreme enemy of country and mankind. One day citizens will covet for this nation the prestige of being the first to escape the shackles of war.” (Jessie Wallace Hughan, Founder of the War Resisters League 1876-1955)
Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday which “commemorates U.S. men and women who have died in military service to their country.” At the risk of coming under the condemnation of Mormon bloggers everywhere, I wish to register my objection to the deplorable sentiments underlying this holiday.
We can all agree on the magnitude of the sacrifice offered by American soldiers. They answered the call of the leaders of their country to go to war. They did this with the knowledge that their own lives might be taken. I am not one who looks upon military volunteers as being either bloodthirsty warmongers or poverty-stricken and brainwashed victims. Their brand of courage is not ordinary, and will never be ordinary.
I must, however, denounce the commemoration of lives destroyed by militarism. Instead of celebrating lives given up for war, I would mourn the lives snuffed out and stolen by our country’s participation in martial combat. It seems to me that Memorial Day might more aptly commemorate the lives of America’s great Peacemakers — people such as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Peace Pilgrim, Jeannette Rankin, A.J. Muste, Jane Addams, and a myriad of others.
“The job of the peacemaker is to stop war, to purify the world, to get it saved from poverty and riches, to heal the sick, to comfort the sad, to wake up those who have not yet found God.” (Muriel Lester, Social Activist, Gandhian Pacifist, 1883-1968)
Throughout history, nations have consigned their young men (and now women) to kill one another for reasons honorable or absurd. Often war was declared as a response to evil or oppression; other times violence came as political or economic conflicts that should have been resolved without violence. When the causes are just and when they are not, lives lost to war are sacred and full of promise and potential. Those who ponder these things can only regret that wars are still waged and lives are still lost. I wish that on the day which has been set apart as a “Memorial”, we would not only remember the courageous souls who were sent by their governments to die on battlefields, but rather we would regret and repudiate the conditions that lead some people to believe that offering their lives in military service is the best or only hope for peace, protection or patriotism.
“Indeed, conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others. The inhabitants of the other spots reason in like manner, of course, with the result that, from early infancy, the mind of the child is poisoned with blood-curdling stories about the Germans, the French, the Italians, Russians, etc. When the child has reached manhood, he is thoroughly saturated with the belief that he is chosen by the Lord himself to defend HIS country against the attack or invasion of any foreigner. It is for that purpose that we are clamoring for a greater army and navy, more battleships and ammunition.” (Emma Goldman: Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty From the 1917 edition of Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays)
Military indoctrination, by its nature, teaches the young that the enemy is unworthy of life.
Christian pacifists are often asked about Romans 13. [“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”] The Mormon counterpart seems to be our Article of Faith #12: [“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”] But I find my answer in Romans 12, which says to do good to your enemy and to overcome evil with good. In World War II, after all, there were many Catholics and Lutherans in Germany who used Romans 13 to justify fighting for the Nazis.
“Many people know the simple spiritual law that evil can only be overcome by good. Pacifists not only know it, they also attempt to live it.” (Peace Pilgrim, Philosopher, Activist, Ethical Vegetarian, Vegan 1908-1981)
A Memorial Day song in a new tradition, Hymn for Anzac Day, was sung for the first time at Mornington Methodist Church in New Zealand on April 29, 2007. Anzac Day is New Zealand and Australia’s version of Memorial Day. Notice the third stanza, where the brave who do not answer the call of war are also honored:
Weep for the places ravaged by our blood,
weep for the young bones buried in the mud,
weep for the powers of violence and greed,
weep for the deals done in the name of need.
Honour the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall,
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame,
branded as cowards in our country’s name.
Weep for the waste of all that might have been,
Weep for the cost that war has made obscene,
Weep for the homes that ache with human pain,
Weep that we ever sanction war again.
Honour the dream for which our nation bled,
Held now in trust to justify the dead,
Honour their vision on this solemn day,
Peace known in freedom, peace the only way.
(words by Shirley Murray, music by Colin Gibson)
I challenge supporters of the American military machine to demonstrate how war brings about peace. How does more killing honor the lives of those who have died? The world has been at war throughout recorded history, and never has war brought definitive peace to any generation. Violent resistance to violence always fails to bring about peace. Rather, it establishes a realignment of forces under principles of violence. War is rarely motivated by the high ideals that its supporters use to justify it.
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…. The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
In this day and age, with our weapons of mass destruction and our new and improved ways of torturing each other, war is insanity. It is destructiveness; it is immorality; it is total waste. Our goal today must be the end of war. Negotiation should be our commitment. Perhaps the best way to memorialize the sacrifice of those who have lost their lives in war is to strive for a mastery of peace — a better way of resolving conflict — a commitment to the transformational power of love.