Study War Some More

When Carl Sandburg wrote down the lyrics for the traditional gospel song “Down by the Riverside” in his 1927 anthology, no doubt the refrain “Ain’t gonna study war no more” meant a great deal to the generation still reeling from the effects of the Great War of 1914-1918.

It’s the one part of that song I hate to sing.

Anyone who works for peace should feel the same way.

Encouraging people not to study war is a certain path to a future filled with violence and death.

I’ve had this conversation a number of times with leaders in peace and conflict resolution programs for whom I have offered to teach courses on the history of warfare. Over time, I have changed their expressions from the incredulous to the merely uncomfortable, but the response remains a polite refusal.

This is a serious mistake. Education is the best means we have to change our culture toward one in which fighting for any reason is a last resort, not just a casual choice. You can’t work effectively for peace if you don’t understand what it means to go to war.

I remember when I first taught a course (on live cable television) on the history of technology. Well-meaning colleagues told me I should not include more than passing references to technology and warfare or I would be accused of promoting militarism. That would mean trouble and I risked (as a contract employee hanging by the thread of departmental whim) not being rehired.

Somewhat bluntly, I refused the advice, saying I defied anyone to finish my course and conclude that war was a good idea. So, as planned, one-third of the course dealt with the subject. As the black and white images of the Great War battlefields faded away to the concluding chorus of Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda,” there were no militarists in the house.

In the years I taught the course (before the whimsical thread was eventually cut), I had not a single complaint either from students or from the community, just some very poignant moments. I will never forget the grand-son of the last German soldier to make it out of Stalingrad, talking to the grand-daughter of a British army veteran who helped liberate concentration camps about what it was like to study the Second World War together, as classmates here in Canada — both in tears.

So, we need to study war some more. The only way to avoid war is to ensure that everyone knows exactly what war means. In my experience, those who know the most about war are also the most likely to want to solve the world’s problems some other way.

It’s the people who know the least about war who are the most willing to start one.

As a society, Canadians are increasingly ignorant about war. The Great War veterans are now gone, and veterans of the Second World War are dying by the thousands each year. Before long, the personal memories of these two great conflicts will be found only in the archives. Without courses drawing on that history, without the commitment of scholars to research and teach it, it will be missing from the education of the next generation, who will grow up with video games they can win and movies where the war hero gets the girl.

If there is a useful domestic by-product of our involvement in Afghanistan, however, it will be the thousands of veterans, their families, friends and communities, who know what it really means to go to war.

It is, after all, about choices. There are other ways to resolve problems than fighting. We need to understand the implications and consequences of fighting a war if we want to be effective champions for peace in our generation. Ignorance is no asset – it is positively dangerous.

By a series of serendipities (if there is such a thing in a universe of relations), I found myself teaching, on contract, a one-term correspondence course on technology, warfare and society to Canadian Forces personnel for the Royal Military College. So, I offered potential essay topics on things like why nuclear weapons were stupid, figuring no one would choose them, but – though expecting to be fired for my temerity – also feeling the point needed to be made.

To my chagrin, I got thoughtful, reasoned and well-written essays that made the case as well as anything I could have written myself. Humbled by their wisdom, I was astonished to be asked to be the Subject Matter Expert for the redesign of the English version of the course — which promptly led me to include Ursula Franklin’s 1989 Massey Lectures The Real World of Technology as compulsory reading. (A pacifist and feminist, Franklin doesn’t pull punches!)

The revisions were accepted – and I was then asked to teach a graduate course on the same subject. Still pushing my luck, my (two) students and I submitted articles to the Canadian Military Journal, one critical of the CF18 refit, one critical of the concept of the computer-laden Future Soldier, and mine – which assailed the idea of asymmetric warfare and proposed a restructuring of the shape and mission of the Canadian Forces away from the American orbit of the time, aimed (under President George W. Bush) at world-wide intervention in the “global war on terror.”

We were published (and mine reprinted elsewhere). I was not only continued in my contract with RMC, but invited to apply for promotion to Associate Professor of History. Nine years, several articles, two books and well over a thousand students later, I am still there, marvelling every day at the academic freedom I enjoy to work for peace within an institution whose mission is entwined with the Canadian defence establishment. I have enormous respect for my Canadian Forces students, many of whom have become friends and colleagues, for their intelligence, their wisdom, their integrity and their self-sacrifice – and especially for their desire to find some other way than fighting to solve the problems that the world faces in our generation.

They understand war and what it means. Many of them have seen it up close and have put their lives at risk to honour their commitments to Canada. We have discussed and agreed many times that fighting may be a response but it is ultimately not an answer. At best, fighting protects those who are otherwise the helpless victims of war in order to buy time and space for the real political, social and cultural solutions to emerge.

Those other solutions come out of studying war, in all its facets. If we really want to work for peace, we need to study war some more. Much more.

So, check out your local high schools, universities, colleges. Count the courses on subjects related to war, especially in history. Identify the faculty who are researching and writing on the subject, as well as teaching it. See what different points of view are being expressed in the materials the students are studying.

You will find less and fewer than you expect.

I have stopped being reticent about telling people I am an expert in technology and warfare, or that I teach its history to Canadian Forces personnel. When I tell them it is on top of my day job teaching ethics and sustainability, or in addition to my other designation as an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada, the conversation tends to lag, as they look at me for signs of bizarre humour or evidence of mental instability. At the very least, putting these things together in my own life pushes other people to stop and think for themselves about the relationship between sustainability, ethics and war.

We need to see our actions for what they are: The military hardware we are exporting, in order to promote jobs at home, to places that need development assistance, not ammunition; the minerals and resources we are buying cheaply at the expense of the people and the places where they are produced, so we have more money to buy stuff we don’t need; the investments in tyranny and oppression whose returns pad our pension plans toward a comfortable retirement for us in a society where peace is expected, not unusual.

All these things are woven together into the global systems that are putting the Earth at risk for so many reasons.

To change these systems, we need both to understand them and how we have allowed them to continue unchallenged. The best way to do this is through education, whether we learn about it in school or on our own.

We must find other ways to live together that do not involve resorting to the catastrophic violence of war that our industrial capacity makes possible.

We must demand that our political leaders find another way, based on thoughtful, long term solutions and not merely on the casual expediency of the moment.

Those people who have committed their lives to the service of our country are trusting the choices we make. We owe it to them, and to our children, to base our choices on a clear vision of a just and sustainable society, in which violence of any kind is a last resort.

In order to have this clear vision, we need to understand the nature of war, absolutely — where it comes from, how it starts, how it is conducted, what happens in the end, what the aftermath of war means for those, if any, who survive it.

I wish I could say I was a resolute pacifist, but I can’t. In an imperfect world, there are times when fighting is the only response, when — because of our failures — we need to protect those who are otherwise helpless victims of the darkness that can lurk in the human heart. In the end, however, fighting is never an answer.

In a world teetering on the brink of an unsustainable future, as a global community, we simply cannot afford to fail yet again. We cannot afford to find ourselves in a place where another Great War is the indifferent response of the empires of our own time. War cannot be the result of their inability to resolve the inevitable conflicts that power and arrogance promote, or that incompetence and ignorance encourage.

So, go ahead — lay down your sword and shield, down by the riverside. It’s a good place to start, if you want to work for peace.

But then pick up a book, take a course, talk to a veteran, a survivor, a victim – and study war some more.