Sunday, January 20, 2008

"...ain't gonna study war no more"

In church today we sang one of my favorite hymns, a classic that is the second song I can recall knowing (the first being "Help!" by the Beatles). It's "Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield", and it has as a popular refrain the line I've used to title this post. It's a great song, a beautifully simple song about a soldier giving up the military life, giving up that burden (on one's soul, perhaps?), and working towards friendship with a wide variety of people, across all nationalities. It's a good song, a powerful song, and it has served for me as something of a touchstone, a point of familiarity, and my first entry into the large church, the whole hymn singing deal. (Lyrics here, and the UU hymnal replaces "try on my starry crown down by the riverside" with "shake hands around the world, ev'ry where I roam").

Today I found myself as moved as I ever have been by the song, and in the paradoxical situation of being one who studies war. A lot. And enjoys it.

I'm up hypocrite creek, as it were. Except, I'm pretty sure I'm not studying war in the context of the song's soldier. The soldier studies war as how to fight, as how to make his body and his weapons preserve his life and end that of his foe. The soldier's study of war is the study of kill and don't be killed, a concentrated course in ending individual human lives. At least, that's how the song implies it, and there is some truth to that.

That's not how I study war. I am a rather different sort of student, an academic about it, if I may assume that label. My focus is never on the direct killing of people (though awareness of that fact is a central part), but rather on the exercise of weapons and soldiers to prevent killing, to halt conflict, and to work in a way where the abuses of coercive power (as all military power is coercive power) ultimately amount to a world guided by the precepts of nonviolence and with a strong underpinning of justice. That's an over-reaching statement. I believe in international force, in the "shake hands around the world" method of dealing with the existence and the reality of war and armed conflict, and the hope that international means, such as the United Nations Peacekeepers, may help steer a world towards less conflict. I believe that no soldier should be burdened by the immorality of being forced to kill against his will, but I temper that with belief in small volunteer armies and drafted forces, so that avoidance of that burden helps dissuade countries from going to war. And I believe that weapons should be set down, kept but allowed to rust a bit, as with my stands on nuclear policy, arguing against the actual use of nuclear weaponry, provided that the weapons exist and their presence is alone enough to dissuade war.

But I'm going to keep studying war. Not entirely as preventive means, and not entirely limited by ideals and moral imperatives, but with an eye towards the amount of scholarship built around the precepts of Just War, the lesser jihad's allowance of "fighting against those who oppress you", and still unclear role of an international military. It's a conceit to keep this up, and its a big conceit, and its one of the very few fields that has the deaths of people not only as a consequence but as both a means and an end. It is a tricky arena, and one where disconnect from the reality of what is being studied is something close to fatal. And it's wholly contrary to the topic of the sermon, the examples and the power of nonviolence expressed. And it's inappropriate for the occasion, for the commemoration of the work and the power of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But here it is, the confrontation of an inherent hypocrisy, and hopefully a reminder of the greater moral imperative underlying what I'm trying to do. It's easy to forget that war is more than toy soldiers, and it's vital to see the role of social justice in philosophies behind the military, philosophies that struggle with problems of reality, and the failings of ideal states and stances. We're lost if we're stuck at either end of that spectrum.

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