Paying attention to the news today is a lesson in how far those who desire war will go to convince the rest of us that war is the best means to solve problems between nations. This is despite the fact that history shows us time and time again that war most often does the exact opposite. Indeed, not only does it rarely solve the problems being fought over, most often it creates even more problems, some even more difficult and devastating then the previous ones. The fact that war seems to be as old as human history itself does not validate its usefulness as too many of its champions claim. It does however amplify the possibility that those who wish to rid humanity of war should be given a much greater hearing than the one they get.
Historian, former Marine and peace advocate Charles Douglas Lummis’ new book War is Hell: Studies in the Right of Legitimate Violence addresses the issues of war and peace head on. In doing so, he summons the works of Hobbes, Thucydides, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Augustine, Aquinas and Clausewitz, to name just a few. The actual text begins with a discussion of the phrase “War is Hell” attributed to the US Union General Tecumseh Sherman, the man who burned down Atlanta in the US Civil War (of course, no war is actually civil). According to Lummis, Sherman’s statement reflects the absence of both morality and law; neither exists in hell and neither exists in war. Later in the text he states that all attempts to make rules for the waging of war are essentially nonsense, since war’s essential act is murder.
From this beginning, Lummis discusses the concept of legitimate violence, tracing its use to our belief that giving the State the right to this legitimate violence means that the State will use that violence to make our lives better and more peaceful. He then quickly points out that if this were true, then the twenty-first century should be a peaceful century, given the incredible violence of the previous one. Of course, the never-ending wars of the last couple decades belie that possibility beyond any doubt.
Moving beyond, yet also continuing the discussion, the author brings up the role of drill instructors (DIs) at boot camp–to teach a person to kill on command or, if that fails as a prompt, to kill because a soldier protects their unit, even though that unit wouldn’t exist if they weren’t a soldier. From the creation of this moral rupture the DI performs on the recruits before they are sent to battle comes the atrocities of war; murder of such a scale that even some generals are repulsed. Upon return to their previous lives, the former soldier is forced to either deal with the killing he took part in or to deny it through drugs, alcohol or another form of pretense. Or, they can continue their role as a killer for hire.
One reason Washington and its associates provide for the wars it involves itself in is that their entry into the war is of a humanitarian nature. This rationale became commonplace during the Iraq war and especially during the bombing of Serbia and the attacks on Libya. One hears strains of this refrain from those who support NATO’s war against Russia in Ukraine. Of course, war is never a truly humanitarian undertaking. Indeed, as Lummis writes, the more altruistic the self image of the warrior state, the more likely the carnage will be greater. As for anti-colonial wars and wars against extremely repressive regimes, Lummis makes the point that violence can destroy power, but it cannot create a just state in its wake. That, writes Lummis borrowing from Gandhi, requires a struggle against oppression that makes non-cooperation its strategy and means. Given that the oppressor depends on our cooperation to maintain its power and control, once that is removed, it makes the end of their reign ever more likely. It’s not that the non-cooperation will not be met with violence from the State. Given that we are ruled by those who are essentially little more than robber bands that happen to be more ready to use violence and force to gain our subservience, withdrawing that subservience takes away the power we have given them.
Certain books can be an extra challenge to review. This isn’t because they are poorly written or have nothing to say. Instead, it is because they are both well written and have many things of importance to say. War is Hell is one such book. Author Lummis engages the reader in an intellectual discussion, referring the reader to philosophers, warriors, poets and rulers in the discourse. The meanings of war and peace, justice and community are considered, all the while without arrogance or assumptions. The key to writing reviews of these books is to capture the essence of the author’s meaning. It seems fair to say that the essence of War is Hell is stated early on: “peace is the condition for being human.” It is our peaceful coexistence that allows us to continue as social beings and it is peace that ensures that continued existence. War is Hell is most convincing in arguing this point.
I read with pleasure Ron Jacobs’ “Making War Usually Means More War” (CP 28 March, 2023), which was a review of my book War is Hell: Studies in the Right of Legitimate Violence (Rowman and Littlefield, March 15, 2023). His title neatly captures one of the main themes of that book, that the situations that seem to allow no solutions but war are usually situations created by earlier wars, and the wars that are aimed at solving those situations create more situations for which war again seems to be the only solution. On short, war breeds war. But the corollary to this is that non-violent action, while not equally effective in all situations, has the unique power to create situations in which it is effective.
But I want to make a small correction to Davis’ review. He writes, “According to Lummis, Sherman’s statement [that war is hell] reflects the absence of morality and law; neither exists in hell; neither exists in war”. This is an assertion we often hear, but it is not the argument made in this book. Rather, the point I wanted to make is that what war and Hell have in common is not only their horror, but the fact that in each, the horror is authorized by the highest ethical authority in their respective sphere: In the religious sphere, hell is authorized by God, and in the secular sphere, war is authorized by the giver of law, the state. By claiming that it’s the absence of law and morality that brings about these horrors, we imply that the proper application of law and morality will mitigate or eliminate these horrors. But while hell is understood as a great evil, it is also, so the hell story goes, the place where evil meets its worst enemy, the place where justice is meted out to us sinners. War takes a different form, but it is similar in that puts law and justice in the service of actions our common sense understands as despicable. Ron Davis is right that the actions we are required to do to carry out a war ought to be declared illegal, but the fact is that they are not. War is legal, and that’s the problem: legitimate violence.