The drive for war

Mark Engler has just sent me and other friends a copy of his review of A history of nonviolence | Salon Books, by Mark Kurlansky. Kurlansky maintains (among other things) that "The case can be made that it was not the American Revolution that secured independence from Britain; it was not the Civil War that freed the slaves; and World War II did not save the Jews." Rather, all these goals could have been achieved more cheaply (in money and human lives) and efficiently by non-violent political struggle.

I agree with Mark Engler's conclusions. Kurlansky makes an interesting, even stimulating argument, but hardly convincing when applied to extreme cases. For example, the Nazi genocide in Holland, Ukraine, Poland and other countries could hardly have been stopped by the type of non-violent resistance that proved effective in Denmark. Perhaps American independence from Britain could have been achieved without war (after all, the Canadians managed it), but there are deep, ineluctable reasons why that option was not attractive to the most influential colonists in Boston, Virgina, Philadelphia and New York.

I recently read William James' Varieties of Religious Experience (see my note), which is one of the places where he talks about the "moral equivalence to war". James recognized a psychological need (among males -- he is very insistent on the "masculine" character of this impulse) to kill, destroy or at least to test oneself by undergoing physical hardship. Sea voyages and mountain climbing might do the trick, but James was more taken by monastic penitents, who forced themselves to undergo hunger or other forms of deprivation or pain.

As I think James would say, the violence of the American war of independence, or "revolution", and the other wars Kurlansky discusses, is the expression of some deep, "hard-wired" or instinctive need to strike out and to test oneself. Whether or not such violence is the best way of accomplishing some political goal is quite beside the point. As in Bush's totally unnecessary war on Iraq, the political goals are generally merely pious lies to cover the drive to demonstrate one's high testosterone count. More recently I've been reading Günter Grass, Dog Years (more on that in a later note) which seems to confirm this hypothesis. Especially, it helps understand why passive resistance to Hitler became almost inconceivable to many German men, even when they were dimly aware that the Führer was marching them to their doom.

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