Thursday, July 18, 2013


·      It is the first week of my first year of teaching.  I am nervous as hell.  Everyone keeps saying, “Don’t worry, the first year of teaching is always the hardest.  Just keep smiling.”  Easy for some not for me.
·         The kids show up for the first day.  Most are on their best behavior not sure what to make of me.
·         The first couple of days go OK but my lessons don’t go as planned.  A few kids sense my uncertainty.

I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·       I am supposed to plan my own curriculum.  “Don’t rely on a textbook, don’t stand up in front of the class and just lecture,” they tell me.  I am supposed to figure out a way to engage the kids’ interest.  In math!  Are you kidding!  I didn’t get interested until I was 27!
·        Of course, it is a new school and so we don’t have any materials or technology to create these wonderful lessons.  I am supposed to come up with them out of thin air.
·      I try something anyway.  It falls kind of flat.  One girl can’t keep her feelings to herself and pulls her group completely off task (they are dancing).

Once again I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·     I try again.  This time I really plan the lesson just like they taught me in teacher school (word of advice number one – don’t plan like they teach you in teacher school unless you have one of those devices that slow time down to an immeasurable crawl).
·         It is a really great lesson and I am looking forward to trying it.  I’m SURE it will work.
·        My timing is a bit off as I am laying the foundation for group work with instructions.  Dancing / singing girl is at it again in her seat.
·      One boy starts making snide comments at inopportune moments (he is really skilled at this).  Multiple kids are giggling.
·      What’s this?  Why is this girl getting up and walking toward me while I am talking?  She is standing right in front of me – who the heck taught this kid manners?  Suddenly, without warning she blurts EXCUSE ME, CAN I HAVE A PENCIL?  All those wonderfully insightful lessons, discussions, and readings about classroom management from teacher school just go out the window.  What do I do?  What would you do?
·     Needless to say that, under pressure, I don’t choose the optimal solution.  Another lesson down the drain.

Once again I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·     Honeymoon is over with the kids.  They have successfully probed my weaknesses and are exploiting them mercilessly.  They walk around the classroom, talk when I am talking, show absolutely no respect.  Of course, this is just a small group of trouble makers but their numbers are growing as they pull more and more kids off the path.
·      My lessons are becoming increasingly rigid because I see no other way to teach in an environment of such bad behavior.
·      Other teachers are struggling too.  Most are just as new at this as I am.  It is a new school and we are still figuring out what we call our systems, structures, and supports (word of advice number two, don’t take on a newly established urban school as your first teaching job unless you think you can survive what will surely be THE WORST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE).

Once again I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·      It is November and it just keeps getting worse.  My lessons stink, the kids are monsters, and I wear my anxiety and frustration on my face like a sign inviting all of them to exploit my weaknesses for their own pleasure.  I don’t like to fail at my job and am not used to doing so, yet I am failing here every single day.  Nothing saps my energy more than failure.  And they tell me that even the best teachers are still familiar with failure.
·         “Why am I doing this to myself?” I ask for the umpteenth time this year.

Once again I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·     Teaching is first and foremost about establishing relationships with kids.  At least that is what the high – priced consultant the school has hired keeps telling me.  That guy keeps coming into my classroom with his laptop, taking copious notes while I am making an ass out of myself and the kids are climbing the walls.  He then sticks around after class as I am catching my breath.  “So Tom, how do you think that went?”  What I want to say is:  “HOW DO YOU THINK IT WENT YOU IDIOT?”  What I actually say is, “Well, reflecting on my practice, I think...” (word of advice number three, don’t argue with the consultant, especially if your boss just loves him).

Once again I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·    The consultant is right, though.  Teaching is about building relationships with kids for the very simple reason that if they don’t trust you in some very basic way, then nothing you say to them will matter, nothing you do for them will matter, nothing you have to offer them will matter.
·   So it took me until December to figure that out.  Now comes the real challenge.  How do I build relationships?  I am 50 years old and white.  Most of these kids come from Haitian or Dominican families.  Most don’t know many men my age (they are all gone, dead, or in jail).  None of them care that I was a Navy Captain.  Few of them believe I have anything to offer.
·      And yet, there are glimmers of hope.  One day, a very quiet girl who is always so well behaved tells me when I ask her to recall something I taught in class, “Mr. Beall, you think I am paying attention to you when you are talking but I just can’t pay attention like that.”
·         So I make time every day to help her and it really does seem to help.
·       But there are only a few such glimmers.  Mostly every day is just one long grind, fighting to keep my cool in an environment in which those with whom I work, the kids, abuse me every day.
·      Eventually, I lose my temper and almost get fired.  That has never happened before.  Nothing saps energy like failure.

Once again I go home exhausted.  And I get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.
Eventually, however, the school year ends and summer rolls around.  With time to think and reflect, I realize I have learned a lot about teaching, about the kids, and about myself.

·      Now it is the first week of the second year of teaching.  I am a little nervous but not much.  Nothing could be as bad as last year.
·   My classroom is ready.  After an entire year struggling with the right seating arrangement (rows are frowned upon at our school) I come up with an ideal solution – desks in a circle with an opening that allows me to move freely, allows the kids to interact with each other, and allows no one to hide.
·     I post the classroom expectations – simple rules to live by.  I put up math posters – tools to use in our work.  I put up a lot of Navy items – a reflection of who I am that the kids will see right away.
·       The kids show up for the first day.  Most are on their best behavior not sure what to make of me.
·    The first couple of days go well.  Rather than start academic classes right away, we keep the kids in advisory – groups of 16 kids with one teacher who is their advisor throughout the year.
·    We spend a lot of time building community by getting to know each other and learning to trust each other.  We play a lot of games.  We have fun.  I like these kids.

I go home not so exhausted.  But I still get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·   Academic classes start right after Labor Day.  I have two unit plans – one Geometry, one Algebra – ready to go.
·    Geometry kids will learn all about ships as conglomerates of three dimensional shapes.  They will build and fill model cargo container boxes.  They will build model ships.
·      Algebra kids will learn about data collection and linear analysis by building paper rockets, launching them, and measuring altitude.
·       Although there are a few bumps along the way, the units go pretty well.  I discover that letting the kids do all the work by giving them projects makes their experience more enjoyable and my day easier.  We end up smiling a lot more.

I go home not so exhausted.  But I still get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·     We start each day with a 20 – minute advisory before the first class.  I run mine like a Navy ship.  My classroom clock rings every half hour, just as the boatswain on a ship rings the ship’s bell to signal the time.  I post a Navy – style plan of the day so the kids can read the schedule as well as any announcements.  A daily “duty officer” takes attendance and leads the activities.  Two advisory leaders, adorned with midshipman collar rank insignia on their school uniforms (bought at the naval station uniform shop) lead the group.  We do locker inspections once a month.
·         I also bring donuts once a month to celebrate birthdays.
·         Each day we share what we did the day before and what we are looking forward to today.
·         We almost always play a game.  The kids play the same game over and over.  It doesn’t matter, so long as they go off to class smiling.

I go home not so exhausted.  But I still get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·     I think I will try to teach the kids some navigation.  There is lots of Algebra and Geometry to be found in that.  I develop a unit plan around a voyage from the West Coast to and thru the Panama Canal, which also gives me the opportunity to teach them some history.
·    The final project is a scaled drawing of the cross section of one of the canal’s locks.  The drawing requires a lot of precision in measurement and scaling.  I am amazed at some of the results which are proudly displayed in the school’s main hallway.

I go home not so exhausted.  But I still get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·       Of course, behavior isn’t ideal but I can more confidently handle it.  If a kid swears in my classroom, he must give me five pushups.  If he refuses, I say to him, “OK, I can’t make you do pushups but the alternative is that I will send you down to the office to talk to the nice lady.  Together you will sit down to develop strategies whereby you can refrain from using words like that.  Which alternative would you prefer?”  They always pick the pushups.

·      One of the girls in my advisory has a serious problem with anger.  Most of the time she is really sweet but if you get on her bad side she can be vicious and vindictive.  One day she has been suspended for some really bad behavior but she won’t leave.  She is in the library screaming and crying.  No one can get through to her.  One of the administrators comes to get me saying, “She’ll listen to you.”  I sit down and talk to her – she is still screaming but gradually she calms down and agrees to go home.  When she comes back, it is agreed that if she gets angry in a classroom, she can go somewhere to cool off.  Normally they bring her to my classroom and soon she is smiling that sweet smile again.

·    Another girl in my advisory is very stubborn.  Like many of our kids, she has a very strong loyalty to family and clan.  If you are a member of the clan, then you are to be trusted, if not, you are not.  That is why teachers struggle with so many of these kids.  One day, insisting on the basic unfairness of school uniform rules, she gets into trouble.  We talk and I explain why things are the way they are with regard to rules.  She tells me, “I really hate it when teachers tell me to do things like this, except for you.  You are like family.”  Wow!

I go home not so exhausted.  But I still get up at 3:30 to plan my lessons, again, and again, and again.

·       My final project of the year centers on the World War II naval Battle of Midway.  We take a class field trip to the battleship Massachusetts in Fall River.  The kids love it – it’s like a giant monkey bars.  They also make a lot of connections to what we are learning in class.
·     The culminating event is a war game in which we refight the battle on the classroom floor using model ships.  One boy, who thus far has not been the best student, develops a design for the game board on the classroom floor.  He and another student build it together – it is remarkable, far exceeding my expectations.  Encouraging creativity encourages learning.
·       The kids really get into the game, which we play over four days.  It is not an electronic game but it does challenge them to think and solve problems.  David Burnham, one of our school’s founders stops by to visit and talks to some of the kids about his memories of World War II – enriching the experience.

I end the year exhausted but determined to go back and do it again.

What I’ve learned over the last two years is that teaching, especially in an urban school, really is all about building a relationship with the kids founded on trust.  To do that, I learned I must:

·         Be myself.
·         Uphold the rules so the kids will feel safe.
·         Let them play once in a while – they are still just kids after all.
·         Be calm and smile.
·         Be there every day.

The last is perhaps the most important.  It is why I got up each morning even when I was almost fired and I almost quit.  A teacher can do no more to show that he cares for his students than to show up and be there to greet them every morning.  I have yet to meet a single teacher who fails to do that.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bearing Witness

The critique of a blogger who strongly disagrees with my pacifism and specifically my previous post, asking my own question of me, "Captain Thomas R. Beall, USN (ret.): Are You Prepared To Do So?" has led me to reflect on why I continue to write in the face of criticism such as this.  In fact, I have found on some days that I am reluctant to go back into the bloggosphere for fear of finding harsh words or criticism.  No one likes to read that.  I certainly don't, even as I recognize it is the price of speaking out in this forum.  We all have strong views and feelings on this issue as on many others and, like this other blogger and me, argue our views with passion.  Still, I think I have always spoken respectfully and compassionately.  If I have not, I am sincerely sorry.

To answer my critic's question above, I will let my 25 years of service as a line naval officer speak for itself.  Enough said.

To answer his second question, "Why isn't the question directed to the pacifist?", I think a reading of my previous post will provide an answer.
To answer his third question, "Are you prepared to do nothing in the face of aggression?", pacifists and practioners of non-violence (not always considered the same thing) don't "do nothing in the face of aggression".  They simply do not perpetrate violence on the aggressor.  Many have acted non-violently and selflessly to aid victims of aggression.  Some have accomplished great things.  I am awed by their courage.
To answer the question as to why I write.  It is not because I think I will change anything.  My views are too much at odds with the great majority of opinion in this country.  When one is on the wrong side of a great majority, one can only ask of oneself, "Am I the one who is wrong?"  Maybe I am but I don't feel that I am and I feel strongly enough about this issue that I need to speak out.

Why?  Simply to bear witness to my beliefs - even if no one is really listening (and I am not so arrogant as to think many people read this blog).  Still, bearing witness in this fashion is one of the things I can do.  Believe it or not, just as I felt I was doing during my 25 years in the Navy, I feel I am serving my country by speaking out and bearing witness.  In this way, I feel I am embracing the moral buck, not passing it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Are You Prepared To Do So?

I honor those in the UU community who worked so hard to build the consensus that resulted in the statement "Creating Peace".  As a congregational leader, I came to understand the importance of building consensus on difficult issues - often, it is the only way to move forward.  This document, reflecting a consensus among the congregations of the UUA is truly a remarkable acheivement.

That said, the statement saddens me because it does not go far enough.  By affirming the view of those who "...bear witness to the right of individuals and nations to defend themselves, and acknowledge our responsibility to be in solidarity with others in countering aggression...(and who) believe force is sometimes necessary as a last resort...", UU's make it possible for themselves and others to justify a wide range of wars.  These include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which, it was argued by the Bush Administration and many others, were "wars fought as a last resort".  By affirming "the sometime necessity of war" UU's help perpetuate American militarism and the national security state that our once great republic has become.  This is not the way to create peace.

In writing this, I know that there are those who will disagree with me.  They will find my embrace of pacifism to be naive, foolish, and impractical.  They will argue that ours is a world in which, as our President has said, "...there will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."  They will argue that while they do not like war, they know it is sometimes necessary.

To those people, including our President, I say that I respect your views.  Clearly you have arrived at them after much reflection.  I only ask one thing.  When the necessary war comes about (and many, like our President, argue that our war in Afghanistan is such a war) I ask that you be among the first to volunteer, to serve, and to fight and that you ask your children to do the same.  I am not talking about supporting a decision by a child to make a career in the military.  I am talking about asking yourself and your children to put aside everything to, as Nathan Hale said, " your mortal body between (your) loved home and war's desolation."

If you truly believe that a war is necessary, I ask you to do this before you ask a young man or woman who may have volunteered for our armed forces because it was the only place in our society that offered him or her a chance to get ahead to do the same.  If a war is truly necessary and truly just, we should all be prepared to make this sacrifice.

Are you prepared to do so?

Saturday, July 3, 2010


This entry is written in response to a very thoughtful blogger's statement about whether or not he is a pacifist.

To my fellow blogger I say that I am the person who wrote, "Why can't we just say no to war?" only to be answered by someone, "Because war doesn't say no to us."

My view is this person makes an argument that has at its root a highly questionable self-perception many Americans share; that we are a just people who only fight when others thrust war upon us.  Our history, read objectively, says otherwise.  I cannot think of a single war in American history (and I include the Civil War, the war against Hitler, and the Global War on Terrorism) concerning which, at some point in the days, months, or years before the war, we could not have said "no" by choosing paths that led to peace.  There exists enough professional historical argument to support this view and to argue that the theory of "just war" has never truly been put into practice.  There exists enough professional historical argument to make the case for pacifism as an approach that is at least worthy of our consideration and effort.

The arguments you make in your blog entry are well considered and thoughtful but I still reject your argument that, in the world as it exists, war is inevitable and we must be ready to fight aggressors to reestablish peace and justice. War happens, as one of your commenters said, because man chooses to make it happen - and man can choose not to.  That is what John F. Kennedy said in his famous peace speech. I am not a deep theological thinker but I always thought ability to choose is what free will was all about.  If we, in fact, have free will then we can choose peace - always.

Many Americans argue, "Certainly we want a world that is at peace.  We only fight because THEY force us to!"  But do you really believe that there are any wars in American history (and again I include the Civil War and the war against Hitler) that we truly fought ONLY to end someone else's agression and / or establish peace and justice among men?  Do you really believe that in any of our wars there weren't selfish earthly reasons indellibly mixed up in the rationale for war; or that we really would have fought if selfish considerations of 'national interest' weren't involved?  Do you really believe that human beings have demonstrated in the past the inclination to choose war or peace on the basis of altruism and justice alone?  If mankind had thus far demonstrated the inclination to do so, I think I could support the theory of just war.  But if men, including Americans, had truly acted with justice and altruism in the past, I think they would invariably have chosen peace.  As you point out, many veterans argue for peace - and for good reason.  War, stripped of all the trappings of patriotism and justice, is just simply awful.

It is this awfulness that is the reality we must confront.  Many people make the argument that pacifism is an extreme separated from practicality and reality.  Again I disagree.  Pacifists confront the reality of war - in all its sheer awfulness - when they argue for peace.  I think it is those who hide themselves from this reality who find it so easy to make the case for war.

OK, so you don't have to agree with me - you don't have to agree that there is never a case for war.  But ask yourself this.  Doesn't making the case for "just war" make it possible for those in our society who support American militarism, the national security state, and the uncounted (literally) billions spent on the military, to continue on this path?  Doesn't this view make it possible for our political leaders to refuse to expend resources on the poor arguing that, "We can't pass on to our children so much debt!" while they refuse even to discuss how the expenditure on war and militarism, unsupported by taxes, is creating an unbearable debt burden for those very children?  Doesn't "just war" theory, by defining war as a just act under certain (unquantifiable) circumstances, make it possible for us to perceive all our wars as just acts; giving us permission to go on preparing for and making war while many other portions of our society fall into advanced decay?
I think so.  The "just war" argument gives us permission to avoid these fundamental questions - questions that go to the very heart of who we are.  The question we avoid is, "Are we truly a republic founded on justice and a desire to promote peace on earth or are we a national security state so wedded to war that we don't even discuss its impact on other segments of our society?"  Agree with me or not, this is a question we, as Americans, need to answer now before we pass an unbearable legacy on to our posterity.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Last of the Patricians

This morning I pulled a thin volume from a shelf in my library and looked at the frontispiece.  It is a picture of a distinguished man in a three-piece suit sitting amongst his books and papers.  On his lap is an open book.  The man, holding his eyeglasses, is sitting in a pose of reflection.  But for his modern garb, he could easily be taken for a Roman patrician and senator, a member of the ruling-class of one of the first successful constitutional republics - an exemplar of a governing system that our own founding fathers looked to for guidance in the forming of our own polity.

The man is United States Senator Robert C. Byrd and the book is a series of addresses he made to the Senate of the United States in 1993.  The issue before the Senate was whether to give the President the authority to strike out portions of a Congressional bill of which he did not approve while still approving the remainder of the bill.  This "line-item veto" authority was seen by many as a solution to out-of-control government spending because it would give the President authority to cut "pork barrel spending" out of a bill while giving members of Congress the political cover of voting for it in the first place.

Senator Byrd was appalled for two reasons.  First, the line-item veto would deprive him of the power to help the people of his state by directing Federal funds to their benefit.  Second, and most important to him, it would curtail Congress' power of the purse - the one power that Senator Byrd felt served as a check on the growing power of the "Imperial Presidency."

Rather than resort to the demagoguery so common then and today, Senator Byrd drew on his deep and profound understanding of history to instruct his colleagues in the dangers of their proposed course.  In this way, he was very much like the great Roman historians such as Pliny who wrote history to promote virtues they believed were being undermined in modern life.  Senator Byrd spoke of the fall of the Roman Republic into an imperial despotism as a warning that, by surrendering powers to the President as a matter of expediency, his colleagues were laying the groundwork for the American Republic to suffer a similar fate.  Congress heeded his warning and did not give the President this new power.

Senator Byrd continued his fight to protect the powers and prerogatives of the Congress against growing Presidential power to the end of his life.  Following 9/11 he was one of the few voices in Congress who argued against increasing Presidential national security powers at the expense of the other two branches of government - taking the long view that by doing so, we would do far more damage to our Republic than any terrorist would.  Like many of the Patricians of the late Roman Republic, Senator Byrd suffered ridicule and was marginalized in the post 9/11 environment of the national security state.  Fewer and fewer people listened to him.  And yet, briefly at least, as he is eulogized by his fellow countrymen, his warnings are being heard again.  I hope we heed them.  I hope that Senator Byrd will not be the last of the Patricians of a Republic that falls into a despotism not unlike that of ancient Rome.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Letter to Kathleen Parker, re: "What Blumenthal Might Have Learned from the War Zone"

Ms. Parker,

I always read your column because, even though I am on the left of the political and philosophical spectrum and you are on the right, I find your writings thoughtful, thought-provoking, and respectful.

In your 23 May column, you compare Richard Blumenthal with men who actually served in combat in Vietnam, stating that, "Real heroes never brag, and real Marines don't lie." For some time, I have been troubled by our use of the word hero to characterize the men and women who serve in the armed forces in "harm's way."

I am aware that the word hero, in the modern context, is used to characterize one who has been ready to sacrifice her / his life for the good of others. Originally, however, the word was used to describe a demigod with superhuman strength and ability. That definition still lingers today. All one has to do is look at how our serving men and women are most often portrayed in the media (whether movies, TV, or in recruiting materials) to perceive that we endow them with superhuman abilities and character. By making them gods, however, we separate ourselves from them and their experience. In so doing, we shield ourselves from the reality of what we are asking them to do - making it easier for us to ask them to do it again.

Like Mr. Blumenthal, however, all Marines (and Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, police officers, firemen, etc.) are all too human. They do brag about many things and they do sometimes lie. They are also all too human in their response to what we have asked them to do. Maybe most don't talk about it simply because it is too horrible to revisit.

Some do, however. Chris Hedges comes to mind. In his personal memoir and reflection, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he paints a vivid, inglorious picture of the horror and futility of war as he has personally experienced it. When I was Captain of a U.S. Navy ship just prior to the outbreak of the Iraq War, I insisted that my officers read it, saying to them, "You don't have to agree with his conclusions but if we go to war soon, I want you to get a sense of what you will be doing from one who has experienced it first hand." Maybe if more of us read books like his, we would be more hesitant to ask our service people to do this horrible thing again and again. As it stands, however, it is all to easy for us to consign our "heroes" to doing the dirty work for us as we shield ourselves from it. It is all too easy to put them on a pedestal and then leave them there alone.

Thanks for reading this and thanks for your column.


Tom Beall

Saturday, May 8, 2010

It Was Necessary to Keep Us Safe

It should not surprise any of us that we, the people of the United States, have secretly detained and tortured people who are at our mercy. According to so many of our leaders such acts are necessary to keep us safe:
Mr. Cheney said he also supported officers who strayed outside Justice Department rules and used unauthorized interrogation techniques, saying they did so to keep Americans safe.[i]
To many people, anything the government does is justified if it might save American lives. U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, put it baldly: "We should do whatever we have to do."[ii]
Even our current President, despite statements to the contrary, supports this view:
"Obviously you need to preserve some tools, you still have to go after the bad guys," said an Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the legal reasoning. "The legal advisors working on this looked at rendition. It is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice."[iii]
The argument that inhuman acts are necessary and acceptable when used against an evil enemy to preserve national security is not new. Adolf Hitler justified genocide of the Jewish community in Europe on the grounds that it was necessary to the survival of the German race. Soviet Leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev firmly believed that the millions sent to the Siberian Gulags were a threat to the Communist revolution and the Soviet state. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite confinement without trial, mental abuse, and physical torture have been and are today tools used by nation states (including the United States) in the name of their people to “keep them safe.”
I am sure that this statement will be challenged. “How can you compare us to Hitler and Stalin? Such hyperbole has no place in a rational debate!” I probably would have said the same thing not so long ago but, the more I think, read, and reflect on this, the more I have come to believe that comparing the United States to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia is not hyperbole. Our nation is becoming like those which we, at one time, fought to bring down because of the evil they let loose among humanity.
Recently I was reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, specifically the chapters in which he describes arrest and interrogation in Stalin’s Soviet Union.[iv] As I read his descriptions of interrogation techniques (all of which he describes as torture) I was struck with similarities I found with some of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT) described in the recently released report of the Inspector General of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on United States detention and interrogation activities since September 11, 2001[v]:
CIA EIT: In cramped confinement, the detainee is placed in a confined space, typically a small or large box, which is usually dark. Confinement in a smaller space lasts no more than two hours and in a larger space it can last up to 18 hours.
Solzhenitsyn: Prison begins with the box, in other words, what amounts to a closet or packing case. The human being who has just been taken from freedom, still in an inner state of turmoil, ready to explain, to argue, to struggle, is, when he first set foot in prison, clapped into a ‘box’, which sometimes has a lamp and a place where he can sit down, but which sometimes is dark and constructed in such a way that he can only stand up and even then is squeezed against the door. And he is held there for several hours, or for half a day, or a day. During these hours he knows absolutely nothing! Will he perhaps be confined there all his life? He has never in his life encountered anything like this, and he cannot guess the outcome.
CIA EIT: Insects placed in a confinement box involve placing a harmless insect in the box with the detainee.
Solzhenitsyn: In the dark closet made of wooden planks, there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bedbugs, which had been allowed to multiply. The guards removed the prisoner’s jacket or field shirt, and immediately the hungry bedbugs assaulted him, crawling onto him from the walls or falling off the ceiling. At first he waged war with them strenuously, crushing them on his body and on the walls, suffocated by their stink. But after several hours he weakened and let them drink his blood without a murmur.
CIA EIT: During wall standing, the detainee may stand about 4 to 5 feet from a wall with his feet spread approximately to his shoulder width. His arms are stretched out in front of him and his fingers rest on the wall to support all of his body weight. The detainee is not allowed to reposition his hands or feet.
Solzhenitsyn: Then there is the method of simply compelling a prisoner to stand there. This can be arranged so that the accused stands while being interrogated – because that, too, exhausts and breaks a person down. It can be set up in another way – so that the prisoner sits down during interrogation but is forced to stand up between interrogations. (A watch is set over him, and the guards see to it that he doesn’t lean against the wall, and if he goes to sleep and falls over he is given a kick and straightened up.) Sometimes even one day of standing is enough to force him to testify to anything at all.
CIA EIT: The application of stress positions may include having the detainee sit on the floor with his legs extended straight out in front of him with his arms raised above his head or kneeling on the floor while leaning back at a 45 degree angle.
Solzhenitsyn: The accused could be compelled to stand on his knees – not in some figurative sense, but literally: on his knees without sitting back on his heels, and with his back upright. People could be compelled to kneel in the interrogator’s office or the corridor for twelve, or even twenty-four or forty-eight hours.
CIA EIT: Sleep deprivation will not exceed 11 days at a time.
Solzhenitsyn: Sleeplessness was a great form of torture; it left no visible marks and could not provide grounds for complaint even if an inspection – something unheard of anyway – were to strike on the morrow.
CIA EIT: The application of the waterboard technique involves binding the detainee to a bench with his feet elevated above his head. The detainee’s head is immobilized and an interrogator places a cloth over the detainee’s mouth and nose while pouring water onto the cloth in a controlled manner. Airflow is restricted for 20 to 40 seconds and the technique produces the sensation of drowning and suffocation.
It is interesting to note that Solzhenitsyn does not describe waterboarding as one of the techniques used by Soviet interrogators.
Reading the above, it appears almost as if CIA interrogators took a leaf from Solzhenitsyn’s book to develop their program.
Hyperbole? I don’t think so.
The belief that “harsh measures are necessary to ensure our safety against a uniquely dangerous and evil threat” has made it easy for all of us to turn away from our principles to “promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” It has made it easy for us to live with and accept actions committed in our name which, because they deprive human beings of human freedom and dignity, undermine our society by undermining what we truly believe in. In this way, we are becoming like those who, in the past, turned a blind eye to what was being done in their names such as the vast majority of people who lived in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
As we are in danger of falling into this abyss I ask myself, “Where is our outrage? Why are we not, as a church, speaking and acting more effectively against this monstrous injustice that threatens the fabric of American society? Why are not Unitarian Universalists, collectively, at the forefront of those seeking to bring us back to those American values of freedom and justice that made possible the birth and growth of our church?” Granted, many UU’s have spoken out[vi] but this issue has been obscured and even lost among so many others in our desire to promote new ideas, foster open discussion, and respect all points of view. As history demonstrates, this approach is ineffective and self-destructive.
From his Gestapo prison cell in 1943, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of the failure of those who embraced the “reasonable, rational approach” to affect any change in Nazi Germany:
The “reasonable” people’s failure is obvious. With the best intentions and a na├»ve lack of realism, they think that with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has gone out of joint. In their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved. Disappointed by the world’s unreasonableness, they see themselves condemned to ineffectiveness; they step aside in resignation or collapse before the stronger party.[vii]
Just as Bonhoeffer's times demanded more of the voices of humanity and compassion among the religious in Nazi Germany, so do our times demand more of us. If we truly want to be “the religion for our time” as our new UUA President Rev. Peter Morales has called us to be, then we need to speak out and act against the injustices of secret rendition, detention without trial, and torture with more than just a few pages on a web site, more than just a few voices in the blogosphere, more than just a few activist Congregations. We need to speak out with one voice and act with one heart today and every day to end these injustices. As one angry woman said at a recent health care debate, “I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!” Well, I want my country back too, a country founded on values we as UU’s embrace as a matter of religious conviction.
So I ask myself again and ask all of you, “Where is the outrage?”
[i] Swarns, Rachel L. "Cheney offers sharp defense of C.I.A. interrogation tactics." New York Times, August 30, 2009.
[ii] Chapman, Steve. "Rationalizing torture." Chicago Tribune Online, August 27, 2009.
[iii] Miller, Greg. "Obama preserves renditions as counter-terrorism tool." Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2009.
[iv] Sohlzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1995). The gulag archipelago, 1918 – 1956: A literary investigation. Abridged edition translated by Thomas P. Witney and Harry Willets. London: The Folio Society, 2005.
[v] Central Intelligence Agency, Inspector General (2004). Special review: Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 – October 2003). Langley, VA: Office of the IG CIA, p. 15. Downloaded from the National Security Archive, August 31, 2009,
[vi] For example, see the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s statements on torture at:
[vii] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1943). "After ten years: A reckoning made at New Year 1943," in Letters and papers from prison. London: The Folio Society, 2000, p. 4.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is War Ever Just, Necessary, or Inevitable?

Good evening. I want to thank you for affording me the opportunity to speak to you. I must confess that I have come here with a feeling of trepidation. As a career naval officer, it was my duty to support the lawfully elected government of the United States, support government policies, and obey lawful orders. While I am under no such legal obligation now, old habits are hard to break. At the same time, in questioning American militarism, which I am now doing and which I will ask you to do tonight, I open myself up to the criticism of failing to support the troops and of being unpatriotic. Such criticism would be hard to take, even as I know it would be unjustified. I served with many good people during my military career. To this day I regard the United States Navy as one of America’s greatest institutions because it is the sum of the men and women who serve in it; sailors who at this moment practice the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment in the four corners of the Earth. I wish to do nothing to harm or dishonor my former shipmates.

So why am I here? I am here because over the years, and particularly since 9 / 11, I have come to disagree with those, like President Obama, who, while recognizing the evils of war, believe that (quoting the President), “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” [1]

Unlike the President, I no longer believe that war is ever just, necessary, or inevitable. I alone, however, won’t put an end to it. All I can do is what peace advocates have been doing for years and what those of you who agree with me can do today: bear witness to our beliefs and promote a meaningful dialog that might lead to a more peaceful approach to world affairs. Far from failing to support the troops, such advocacy honors them because advocacy is an American core value, one which I served to uphold and which they serve to uphold today.

So, who am I? I am a master of the science and art of war – literally. In addition to a career in military service, I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in military history, a Master of Science degree in military operations research and a Master of Arts degree in national security and strategic studies. Like most career officers, I have studied the history of warfare, the science of battle, and the politics of the national security state. I have read the great military theorists, including von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, written about Alfred Thayer Mahan, and have had published my own research on the mathematical modeling of naval combat. I am grounded in the theory of war and, as a naval commander, skilled in its practice. I am, therefore, both a scholar and master practitioner of death and destruction. This may not have been the most uplifting education but it has prepared me to question a paradigm virtually unchallenged in history – that theory of human affairs which states:

1. War, if practiced in accordance with certain broadly accepted rules, can be a just, even a noble endeavor.

2. War is practiced by just nations in self-defense and, therefore, is a necessary evil.

3. War is inevitable.

4. True peace, among all men and nations, founded on love, compassion, respect, and a profound sense of community is impractical and only embraced by un-pragmatic and foolish dreamers.

I have come to believe that this theory is false and that mankind can embrace a different path – one on which (paraphrasing journalist and theologian Chris Hedges) we put aside the myth of war as a force that gives us meaning and begin to build what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community on earth. This sounds awfully idealistic but, just as human history is littered with the folly of war, so it is also filled with examples of humanity’s efforts to seek a better, more just community – literally peace for all mankind. In fact, human history is a struggle between these conflicting views of man’s destiny. Perhaps this is the true battle between good and evil. How that battle is finally resolved has been and always will be up to us.

Those who would call me a foolish dreamer might consider reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Homeric epics, the literary foundations of Western Civilization, speak to us across the centuries of the utter folly and futility of war and of the promise of peace. Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, is motivated by a vain lust for glory, honor for his military prowess, and vengeance – and by nothing else. The opening lines of the poem say it all (1:1 – 5):

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds...[2]

Achilles and his fellow Greeks brutally kill their enemies and ultimately destroy the City of Troy, the archetype of the Greek city-state. In other words, they destroy human civilization as they know it – all for a lust for glory, revenge, and booty.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, bloody as it is, offers a promise of peace. Odysseus, whose Trojan Horse led to the downfall of Troy, is condemned to years of wandering and many trials before he can truly come home. As Chris Hedges writes in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, this odyssey is a metaphor for the personal journey all soldiers must take to transform themselves from warriors into civilized men once their wars are over.[3]  Odysseus’ goal is not glory but a peaceful death among those he loves (11: 153 – 156):

And at last your own death will steal upon you...

a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes

to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age

with all your people there in blessed peace around you. [4]
Having portrayed the reality of war in the Iliad, Homer offers us the promise of peace in the Odyssey. Together, his stories set the stage for competing visions of mankind’s destiny, one of war and the other of peace, that preoccupy us to this day.

Unfortunately, our civilization has often disregarded Homer’s cautionary tales mainly because, over the centuries, we have convinced ourselves that wars, particularly so-called just wars conducted ostensibly in self defense, are an inevitable part of the human condition and even necessary to human development. Rather than work actively for the eradication of war and the establishment of a just peace on Earth, we have institutionalized war in our laws, in our communities, and in our lives. To prove this to yourself, all you need do is examine employment statistics for Rhode Island. Defense and defense-related jobs account for over 7% of employment in the state’s manufacturing sector and as much as 50% of the state’s manufacturing wage base. [5] Even as jobs are lost throughout our state during the current recession, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport is expanding. Like most regions of our country, loss of the defense industry would have a very detrimental economic impact on our state and its citizens – in other words, you and me. We can’t do without the defense industry because it has become an integral and essential part of our livelihoods and, hence, our lives and our society. We are addicted to the industry and infrastructure of war and, hence, to war itself.

How did this happen? How did we turn away from Homer’s portrayal of the reality and consequences of war? How did we institutionalize human conflict to such an extent that we are addicted to it? And how can we break the cycle of addiction?

It happened because we fooled ourselves into thinking that war is necessary, inevitable, and, when practiced by a just people, is a just act. This myth of necessary, inevitable, and even just war goes back to ancient times, almost to Homer’s day. The ancient Athenians fought wars of imperial conquest under the pretext of enhancing their security by spreading democratic ideals (sound familiar?). Alexander the Great justified his war of choice on the Persian Empire by old arguments of Greek self-defense and by dreams of a peaceful world kingdom founded on Greek civilization. Finally, the great Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, who is justly credited with establishing the centuries-long Pax Romana, did so only as an afterthought, justifying a war that was little more than a naked power grab as necessary to bring peace and reestablish civil order. In this he succeeded but at the cost of a civil war that ravaged the ancient Roman aristocracy, laid waste to large portions of the civilized world, and nearly destroyed the fabric of ancient society.

While in the ancient world, wars were often justified as the means to spread or sustain civilization, Christian theorists developed a more insidious justification founded on their reading of early Christian theologians such as Saint Augustine of Hippo. According to these theorists, what matters is not so much the act but the motivation behind the act. Even though Christ enjoined his followers to “turn the other cheek” in response to being struck, Christians need not take this literally. Killing, when commanded by God or by a legitimate ruler who is carrying out God’s intent to restrain evil on Earth, is justified. [6] This theory of just war sanctioned by God is gained traction as justification for the Christian crusades to the Holy Land in the High Middle Ages. At that time, Gratian of Bologna theorized that:

The subordination of the individual to God allows (one) to resolve the apparent contradiction between war service and the precepts of the gospel, because...this subordination appears in man’s intent rather than in his deeds. The demands of the gospel which apparently tell against war service relate to the ‘preparation of the heart’...Wrongful individual conduct makes war service into sin: for example, a wrong motive such as hatred, or selfish behavior arising from greed for booty. Conversely, war service which seeks not personal advantage, but the good of the political community, is deserving of the highest praise. [7]

This concept that fighting for a just, God-sanctioned cause is praiseworthy was further refined by St. Thomas Aquinas into the Theory of Just War that is currently enshrined in international law and the United Nations Charter. The concept of just war is a logical theory embraced by people of good will and righteous conviction for centuries. I have embraced it and so have many of you.

And yet, I think you can guess where the logic of the theory breaks down. Since God very seldom offers guidance or direction on which wars we should fight and which we should not, it is left to men to make these decisions. Oliver Cromwell, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Hitler – our history is littered with leaders who spoke of a mandate from God to wage war, acting with justice to eradicate an evil they stated was offensive to God. Their peoples were convinced too – else they would not have kept their leaders in power. As David Hume said in 1740:

When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest (the enemy) under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. [8]

Or, in a more modern context, we easily convinced ourselves that the 9/11 bombings in New York and Washington were evil but “shock and awe” perpetrated on the people of Baghdad was an act of justice.

Just War Theory founded on self-defense against evil aggression, which Western leaders have used to justify their own aggression for centuries, which President Bush used to justify the war of choice in Iraq and which President Obama uses to justify war in Afghanistan is, therefore, founded on a false premise – that fallible men can be trusted to make the choice between war and peace on the basis of justice and compassion alone without any consideration of self or national interest. Recent American history demonstrates that, even in democratic societies, they cannot.

On reflection, I think that my own personal journey from ardent believer to one who questions the justice of American militarism began in 1992 when I was the Operations Officer of U.S.S. Worden, a Navy cruiser deployed to the Arabian Gulf. A Russian cruiser was also operating in the Gulf and, in the spirit of the new, friendly relations with our recent Cold War enemy, it was decided that our two ships would operate together for a period of time.

Now this Russian cruiser was of a type that was particularly feared in the U.S. Navy – a large, seemingly powerful ship loaded with weapons that could wreak havoc on our own naval forces. In fact, all of our training in the Navy in the previous thirty years had been geared toward fighting and defeating ships like this one which we had been taught was part of a fearsome and possibly superior Soviet Navy.

As my ship pulled into the port of Abu Dhabi where the Russian ship was docked, we saw her for the first time – looking as fearsome as we had expected. It was not until we tied up at the pier that we noticed that only the side in public view had been painted – the other side looked decrepit with rust streaks down the side of the ship. When we went aboard, we found that the crew shared the ship with a lot of cats – to take care of the rat problem. Much of the equipment, including the weapons and fire control systems, was of 1950’s vintage and very primitive. In other words, this ship was a paper tiger. If she represented the Russian Navy’s best (and she did, else the Russian Admiralty would not have sent her alone on an Arabian Gulf deployment) then perhaps the rest of their Navy was a paper tiger too.

It is hard for me to convey how profoundly revealing this experience was. For years, we had trained to fight the Russians under the impression that they were at least as capable as we were. We believed that the United States needed a large Navy, centered on multi-billion dollar nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, atomic submarines, and cruisers and destroyers with state-of-the art weapons and fire control systems to meet this threat. We believed that we needed to train, train, train (in the words of my first commanding officer) at sea with these ships if we were to have a hope of surviving combat toe-to-toe with the Russian bear. Now, having seen this Russian cruiser, I began to suspect that none of this was true; that the Russians were not nearly as powerful as we were; that our overwhelming military power – built at great cost – had not really been necessary to our national security. I also began to suspect that people in our own government must have known this – our intelligence services are not that inept after all.

Of course, I still believed that the Soviet Union had been an aggressive, expansionist power, even if their military was not as capable as we had been led to believe. I still believed that they might have unleashed their large army on Western Europe and their nuclear-tipped missiles on the United States to achieve their goals. I still believed that somehow they were different from us – we loved peace and freedom, they valued power and a world in which human freedom and dignity were sacrificed if they stood in the way of national goals. I still believed that the Cold War had been a necessary conflict and that our powerful conventional and nuclear forces had been a necessary check to their supposed aggressive nature. I still believed that our national security strategy, and the magnificent military that supported it, had as its ultimate goal the eradication of Communism and the establishment of a just peace on Earth. Following 9/11, I began to question these beliefs as well.

In 1948, George Kennan, a Soviet expert employed by the U. S. State Department stated that the Soviet leadership believed coexistence with the United States was impossible.

We have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken if Soviet power is to be secure...Impervious to logic or reason, (the Soviet Union) is highly sensitive to the logic of force. For this reason, it can easily withdraw – and usually does – when strong resistance is encountered at any point. [9]

Kennan’s thesis was very appealing to government and military leaders who mistrusted Communists in the first place and who had just witnessed the Soviet Union assert control over most of Eastern Europe following the Second World War. His thesis provided the rationale for the policy of containment which became enshrined in the United States national security strategy for the next forty years. It provided justification for massive monetary expenditures, institutionalized deficit spending, stockpiling of over 30,000 nuclear warheads, a U. S. government and military maintained in a permanent state of wartime alert, military bases and facilities in virtually every city and town of the nation – in other words it provided justification for conversion of our republic into a national security state – “a state in which nearly all aspects of political, economic, intellectual, and social life are dominated by considerations of national defense and the drive to maintain a defense establishment capable of protecting the state against all comers.” [10] If you don’t believe that we are such a state, just consider the distribution of discretionary spending in the U.S. Government budget today. Over one-half is allocated to military and military-related programs. [11]

These consequences might have been acceptable if the threat of Soviet aggression had been real and the goal of containment just. Modern research, relying on materials made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union indicates, however, that the threat was not real and that it was the American policy of containment itself that fueled the arms race of the Cold War. According to Pulitzer Prize – winning historian Neil Sheehan:

Preventing further expansion of the Soviet Union was sound policy for the United States to follow in the postwar era, but not from motives of fantasy and in an atmosphere of fear and irrationality that could bring excesses of its own. The idea that a man as respectful of American power as Stalin was would commit his badly wounded nation to a venture as foolhardy as the attempted destruction of the United States was ludicrous, but that is what many men in Washington wanted to hear. Having just triumphed over the expansionist monster Hitler and the forces of Imperial Japan, they seemed, unconsciously, to be seeking a new monster with whom to do mortal combat. The perception of Communism as some sort of contagion that could, by almost biological means, infect and destroy society was also widespread in the United States. If Russia was a society with a profound sense of insecurity...America was equally so. [12]

If the idea that the Soviets never embraced aggression is hard to accept, consider the Cold War arms race. Throughout, it was the United States that was always first with the newest technology – the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental bomber, intercontinental missiles, a practical submarine-launched ballistic missile system, etc., etc. Throughout, the Soviets simply tried to keep up and did so because they were afraid of American aggression, and with good reason. Twice since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Russia had been invaded and nearly destroyed by a Western power. In the years after the Second World War, the United States with its atomic bombs and the means to deliver them ringed the Soviet Union with air bases and battle fleets and warned there would be no sanctuary inside Russia. Writing of the first years of his father Nikita’s leadership of the Soviet Union in the 1950’s, Brown University Professor Sergei Khrushchev states:

...the Soviet Union was surrounded by U.S. military bases and their nuclear armed bombers were able to reach almost any point in the country. The United States itself was invulnerable. The Soviet Union had practically no nuclear warheads and did not possess a single airplane that could, even in theory, accomplish such a mission...Father (therefore) considered national security to be of the utmost importance...The Soviet Union had to acquire arms so modern that no adversary would even dream of invading. In those years policy was carried out only from a position of strength. However, the recent war had taught Father something else: hatred of war. He genuinely sought to avoid conflict. Throughout his life he retained vivid memories of dead bodies, the fetid smell of decomposition arising from battlefields, and ruins, ruins, ruins. [13]

I am not trying to argue that the Soviet Union was a just society, it was not. But it also was not an evil empire whose goal was to destroy our way of life by whatever means possible. Rather, it was a state seeking to defend itself. But if it was not an aggressor, then the Cold War was not a just war founded on self-defense but a war sustained in part by our own dangerous, paranoid, unrealistic understanding of the true motivations of the Soviet state.

Could this happen again? In fact, it did. We attacked Iraq in March 2003 with the expressed purpose of removing from power a dangerous aggressor who possessed weapons of mass destruction and planned to use them either himself or by putting them in the hands of terrorists who would use them against us. In fact, as suspected by many observers and analysts at the time, Saddam Hussein possessed no such weapons and only obscured that fact to protect his regime against what he perceived to be the likelihood of aggression by the United States. Again, Hussein’s Iraq was by no means a just society but it also did not pose the threat we used to justify our attack. The war was not a necessary act of self-defense. It was not a just war.

Could this happen again? Consider the case of Iran, a state that we have branded as part of an “axis of evil” and which we have declared is not to be permitted to develop nuclear weapons because possession of such will destabilize the region. Consider Iran’s perspective, surrounded, with an American army to the west in Iraq and to the east in Afghanistan, American military and air bases to the north and a powerful American fleet in the waters to the south. Isn’t it just possible that Iran might perceive us to be the aggressor? Therefore, would an assault on Iran be just?

No, not any more than the Cold War was just or our attack on Iraq was just. While we may convince ourselves that we act with justice, in truth, we go to war for, at best, coldly calculated reasons of national interest and at worst out of fear and paranoia. We have been no better at putting just war theory into practice than have powerful, aggressive states in the past.

But if the theory of just war cannot be put into practice by fallible humans, what are we left with? Simply war as Homer portrayed it – brutal, inhuman, and evil and, therefore, never an act of justice.

President Jimmy Carter has said that war may be a necessary evil, but no matter how necessary, it is always evil. I agree that it is always evil but is it ever necessary? Is it ever inevitable? Heinrich von Treitschke, one of the philosophical fathers of Hitler’s Third Reich thought so, stating in the late nineteenth century:

War is not just a practical necessity; it is also a theoretical necessity, an exigency of logic. The concept of the State is power...That war should ever be banished from the world is a hope not only absurd, but profoundly immoral. It would involve the atrophy of many of the essential and sublime forces of the human soul...A people which becomes attached to the... hope of perpetual peace finishes irremediably by decaying in its proud isolation... [14]

This idea that war is a necessary and inevitable consequence of human development is not confined to totalitarian states. National security advisors in the Reagan administration believed that, “war, not peace, is the norm in international affairs,” while George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy advocated preemptive war and spoke of a war on terror of uncertain duration. [15] Many of my students at the Naval War College firmly believed that war is inevitable. It is this sense of inevitability that has made it so easy for us to convert our republic into a national security state. It is what makes it so easy for us to justify the continued expenditure of vast resources on defense even as other important elements of our society enter into advanced decay. It is what makes our addiction to war possible. To end our addiction to war, we must convince ourselves that it is not inevitable.

Cynics will once again say that this is a pipe dream. “The world is a complex place,” they will argue. “We all want peace but it is not practical. You are being too simplistic.” Yet isn’t it those who make the case for war who often reduce complex situations to simplistic rhetoric? Does the statement, “Over time it's going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” adequately capture the complexities of the world as it is today or is it just political rhetoric designed to get ignorant people emotionally engaged in a war they really don’t understand? [16]

Peace advocates on the other hand respect our intelligence and appeal to our better natures in making the argument for peace. Far from being overly idealistic, many recognize the world for what it is and appeal to us to take practical steps to make it better. President John F. Kennedy did this in his famous peace speech at American University in 1963:

First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again...Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions -- on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems. [17]

Kennedy did more than just talk. He found practical ways in which we could advance the process of peacemaking. He negotiated the first meaningful arms control treaty with the Soviet Union. He consistently resisted calls by his generals to send ground combat troops into Vietnam, and he harnessed and channeled America’s competitive spirit into the peaceful Apollo Moon landing program – arguably mankind’s greatest achievement. Kennedy was not perfect and his record on war and peace is mixed. But, more than any other President in modern times, he embraced a vision that war is not inevitable, that mankind is not doomed, and that there is a better path for our country to take – one founded on peaceful solutions to mankind’s problems.

So, I have concluded that war is never just, never necessary, and not inevitable. The next step for me, the newly-minted peace advocate is to advocate. Gradually, I have been doing that and have found that many who disagree with me offer the following arguments to substantiate that sometimes war is just, necessary, and inevitable:

1. “We had to fight for our freedom from the British. Freedom isn’t free.”

2. “What about the fight to end slavery in the Civil War? Would you have just stood aside and let that continue?”

3. “Have you ever heard of a man named Hitler? Would you have just stood aside and let him take over and oppress the peoples of the Earth?”

These are compelling and emotionally engaging statements because they arise from a self-image of ourselves as a just people who fight to uphold the values and principles articulated in our Declaration of Independence and not to advance our own self-interests. While I would like to believe that we are that kind of people; our history demonstrates that we are not. Further, these statements also are founded on an interpretation of history that is certainly open to being questioned and debated. For example:

1. Yes, we did gain our independence from Britain through resort to arms. What if, however, we had chosen not to fight – a choice many Americans of that time advocated? Most of the remainder of the British Empire won its independence without fighting and many of those former colonies are prosperous, democratic societies today. Isn’t it just possible that we could have enjoyed that outcome without a bloody, brutal war?

2. Further, if we had remained part of the British Empire, isn’t it possible that slavery would have been outlawed in America in 1834 as it was in most of the rest of the British Empire, without a bloody and destructive civil war?

3. Finally, with regard to Hitler, many historians have traced the development of German history along the path that led to the Nazi regime. Implicit or explicit in their analyses is the argument that, at any point along that path, men and nations could have chosen a different path. As Kennedy put it, “Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man.” Hitler and Nazism need not have happened if, at some point in history, we had chosen to solve the systemic problems that led to Hitler in a different way than we did.

Of course, no one can predict the future but we can learn the lessons of the past. If we open are minds and hearts to the idea that war is not just, necessary, or inevitable, we can better ask ourselves how it could have been avoided in the past; setting the stage for a conversation about how it can be avoided in the future.

Not long ago, I attended a workshop at Channing Memorial Church in Newport led by the Rev. Richard S. Gilbert, a Unitarian-Universalist minister and long-time social justice activist. His example, and that of many others, has inspired me to advocate for peace even as the majority of my fellow countrymen honestly believe the wars we are fighting today are no less just, necessary, and inevitable than those great wars in our past. In the face of such overwhelming public opinion, it would be so easy for me to despair of my ability to bring about any change. As Rev. Gilbert reminded us at the workshop, however, (quoting peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan), “Despair is a luxury beyond my means.” Uplifted by those words and by the example of Berrigan, Gilbert, and many others, I’ve decided to advocate for peace. What I ask of you tonight is not to agree with me but merely to question whether war is ever just, necessary, or inevitable. I ask that we engage in this reflection and discussion before the next war begins. Thank you very much.
[1] Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, December 10th, 2009. Accessed online February 28, 2010 at

[2] Fagles, Robert (translator, 1991). The Iliad of Homer (p. 1). London: The Folio Society.

[3] Hedges, Chris (2002). War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (p. 12). New York: Public Affairs.

[4] Fagles, Robert (translator, 1996). The Odyssey of Homer (pp. 190 – 191). London: The Folio Society.

[5] Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (2006). The Defense Industry in Rhode Island: Economic Impact Report (pp. 12 – 13). Downloaded 06 July 2009 from

[6] Holmes, Robert L. (2001). "A Time for War? Augustine's Just War Theory Continues to Guide the West". Christianity Today Online (, Sept. 2001.

[7] Hehl, Ernst-Dieter (2004). "War, Peace and the Christian Order". In Luscombe, David and Riley-Smith, Jonathan (eds.). The New Cambridge Modern History, volume IV c. 1024 – 1198, part I (p. 220). Cambridge University Press.

[8] Hume, David (1740). "A Treatise on Human Nature." Quoted in Hedges, Chris (2002). War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (p. 1). New York: Public Affairs.

[9] Cited in Sheehan, Neil (2009). A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. New York: Random House, p. 82.

[10] "national security state." The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military, 2001. 23 Apr. 2010.

[11] Kogan, Richard (2008). “Federal Spending, 2001-2008: Defense Is a Rapidly Growing Share of the Budget, While Domestic Appropriations Have Shrunk”. Center for Budget Priorities Report accessed online 23 Apr 10 from

[12] Sheehan, Neil (2009). A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. New York: Random House, p. 83.

[13] Khrushchev, Sergei (2000). Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Penn State University Press, p. 42.

[14] Quoted in Shirer, William L. (1995). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (p. 109). London: The Folio Society.

[15] Bush, President George W. (2002). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington: The White House, September 17th, 2002. Downloaded July 10th, 2009 from

[16] Statement of President George W. Bush, November 6th, 2001. Cited in CNN article found online at

[17] Speech given by President John F. Kennedy at the commencement ceremonies of American University, Washington, DC, June 10th, 1963. Found at: