War and the city

I, along with most of the people I’ve known in my life, have never directly experienced war. I think that’s probably a good thing. I thank God.

I think there’s also probably no human thing I’ve ever experienced that was not somehow indirectly touched by war or the possibility of war. A chunk of the taxes we pay goes to the military. The faces on our coins are what they are as a result of wars concluded many generations ago. The heritage coded in our genes reflects the tides of military campaigns and the migrations of the vanquished. The very fact that where I live is so utterly unwarlike is itself a result of past and ongoing wars. Wherever we live, history teaches us that we cannot be entirely sure we will not sometime be commanded by our government to go to war, or even, though to some the possibility will seem remoter than to others, to find our homes thrust into the midst of a war zone. Most immediately, we are always only one person away from being made the victims of violence. No matter how good the government and police and legal system may be (and we might start off not too confident on that point), if we’re in a place where people can be (which is, by definition, always the case for all of us), then we can never be completely sure we won’t wind up confronted by some person ready for or intent upon violence toward us. Generally, we prefer not to think much about that sort of thing, and rightly so, which means we can forget about it now and come back to the point.

I don’t think that war is everything. Some smart people have believed it, but I do not. War is never primary, is always secondary. But that isn’t the same as saying that it is dispensable or eradicable. As long as there is politics, there will always be the ever-present possibility of war, and that possibility will affect us to one extent or another in every part of our lives. Even if the world were to achieve a united global government at some point in the future, the possibility of civil war would be alive as long as there is any hint of freedom left.

I would gladly live in a world in which war was an impossibility as a result of a changed human nature. For me, the best of human life is not found in preparing for war but in study and community and art and worship. But that is not a world we could find ourselves in, I believe, on this side of eternity, barring some future in which, for instance, a practically omnipotent and omniscient AI has absolute control over us.

Growing up, I was a pacifist. I still today have friends who are intelligent and good-hearted pacifists. Currently, I cannot be that, and I cannot imagine being that. I believe Orwell said that pacifism is objectively pro-fascist, and I think I mainly agree. I haven’t thought this through as carefully as I would like to, but it does seem to me that violence authorized by a legitimate political authority (within means and for justifiable ends) is morally different from lawless violence.

What does all of this mean for me as someone who lives a life not directly touched by war? It’s hard to say. Some of it is clear; for instance, in elections where military policy is on the table, this conviction will inform my vote (and not necessarily in a militarist and blood-thirsty way; don’t hear me saying that). But is there a way that it should change how I live closer to home?

I don’t know. I feel that maybe there is. I’ve been trying to grapple with that feeling for some time now, and I still don’t have a great answer. But it’s an intuition that I can’t quite seem to escape, so I think I will continue trying to work through it in my thoughts in the months and years ahead.

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