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War According To William James

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In his work “The Moral Equivalent of War,” William James enumerates the reasons why war is destructive to society, as well as what could be an alternative to the martial lifestyle that the current culture so idolizes and reveres.

James begins his publication with the assertion that the people of the United States would vote willingly for war rather than a peaceful alternative to the Civil War. James believes that “hardly a handful of eccentrics” would vote to have the Civil War “expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present time substituted for that of all its marches and battles” (James, 3). This is an opinion that I very much have qualms with, as I am of the opinion that the vast majority (and not only a “handful of eccentrics”) of the population would jump at the opportunity to avoid death, bloodshed, and savagery en masse that was evident in not only the Civil War, but all wars in history (James, 3). I simply cannot see how James views humanity as so bloodthirsty and barbarous that we would wish war upon ourselves in favor of a peaceful and deathless alternative.

James adds, “Only when forced upon, … when an enemy’s injustice leaves us no alternative is a war now thought permissible”, another statement I take issue with (James, 3). Being published in 1910, James’ article was settled at an interesting point in history. 45 years post-Civil War, the United States was still in what some call the afterglow of reconstruction, a country feeling for the first time in years, united and patriotic. We were involved in conflicts all over the world, for instance the Spanish-American war a mere 12 years prior to this article, or even the Mexican border war 4 years later. Taking this into consideration, one wonders if James allowed his views as a self-proclaimed pacifist to alter his view of the rest of humanity (if not exclusively the people of the United States) to become one of barbarism and pugnacity.

Continuing his contrast of modern and ancient men and their respective wars, James lays down one of the primary assertions that this essay rests on, that “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect upon him. The horrors make the fascination” (James, 4.) While I might resign that yes, humanity undoubtedly has a morbid fascination with violence and yes, history can be considered “a bath of blood”, James is painting a picture of humanity that is unnecessarily brutal (James, 4). Some may consider this type of writing to be an appeal to emotion, but I find it to be at best gross exaggeration for effect, and at worst the type of hyperbolic writing found in tabloid journals. Regardless of my feelings towards his writing, his entire piece does hinge on man’s fascination with war. I feel that rather than considering it some inherent thirst for destruction, the continuous evidence of war through human history is rather a manifestation of the fight-or-flight response apparent in every human. Humans have one of two responses to threats, either showing aggression towards the threat, or showing fear and retreating. When forming larger, more rooted societies like nation-states or kingdoms, we lose the option to flee when facing a threat, and therefore resort to an adrenaline-fueled violent response. This is why I believe that history is filled with violence, and not because “our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bones” (James, 6).

The idea of a “moral equivalent of war” is further explored, when James asserts that until anti-militarists “propose [a] substitute for war’s disciplinary function”, the titular “moral equivalent” will never be achieved (James, 13). Essentially, what James seeks to find is the same kind of structure and discipline evident in the military, and apply it to industry, adopting the positive values in militarism while discarding the negatives, calling it “savage” and stating that it instills in its followers a “contempt for life” (James, 14). James does not consider the military to be wholly negative, but rather acknowledges their accomplishments, stating, “no collectivity is like an army for nourishing… pride” (James, 14).

In order to progress past the military-industrial complex that America seems to be so stuck in, James believes that “we must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings” (Joyce, 15). Essentially, James is suggesting we turn this military mindset and apply it to industry, making sure that the structure is maintained, “martial virtues must be the enduring cement… the rock upon which states are built” (James, 15). What James views as his ideal utopia is one in which all children are conscripted into some sort of public service, be it dishwashing, tunnel-making, or even coal mining in order to “get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas” (James, 17). In all honesty, this idea seems to be even more “savage” than the typical military experience (James, 14). To purposefully remove the innocence and wonder that lives within children rather than only out of absolute necessity (as is in the case of war) seems to be dystopian rather than utopian. While it is admirable that James would want “hardihood and discipline” to be “wrought into the growing fibre of the people”, it seems simply ineffectual and almost cruel.

Though it may be a stretch, James’ ideals seem to be eerily similar to the “Hitler Youth” programs of Nazi-era Germany. Both programs reinforce ideals of militaristic discipline, all while committing public works. James even states that his ideas are in one form or another eventually going to appear, going as far as to mention that “it is but a question of time, of skillful propagandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities” (James, 18). However many awful things he may have done, to call Adolf Hitler a “skillful propagand[ist]” or an “opinion-making [man] seizing historic opportunities” would be a massive understatement.

While I do not believe that James’ ideas are completely unfeasible, I simply think that he is far too optimistic that people would accept these ideas. James believes that “it is only a question of blowing on the spark till the whole population gets incandescent” (James, 16). It is not simply easy enough to espouse a belief system that would in theory work well, and then expect everyone to adopt it with only some minor nudging, or “blowing on the spark” (James, 16).

Be it my pessimistic disposition, or my lack of faith in humanity, but I disagree with James when he states that fear is not “the only stimulus known for awakening the higher ranges of men’s spiritual energy” (James, 20). I think fear is the stimulus that has motivated humankind thus far; fear of death led us to form hunter-gatherer societies, fear of conquering led us to strengthen our societies and eventually form nation-states and kingdoms. To be of the opinion that a martial working of youths in public service (an oversimplification though it may be) would eliminate war is, to me, misguided and shows either lack of insight into the human condition or optimism that nearly borders the childishness that James seeks to “knock out” (James, 17)

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