A Quaker's View of 21st Century War

Date: 19th July 2003

Brian Walker


Norman R. Morrison was a young, Quaker peace activist. He was a member of the Stoney Run Preparative Meeting, Baltimore, USA. On 2nd November, 1965, in protest against America’s war in Vietnam, Norman walked up the steps of the Pentagon in Washington. D.C. There he immolated himself - to death. Afterwards, his wife explained that our Friend had decided to take his own life because, “He felt that all citizens must speak their convictions about our country’s action.” (1)

The cultural institution we call “war” is an ugly, degenerate, immoral & unsustainable phenomenon. I chose those epithets with care, contending they apply to all wars, but especially perhaps in antiquity, & certainly in our own segment of history which dates from the Treaty of Westphalia.

We need neither religious nor spiritual insights to justify their use. Common sense & a deep commitment to humanity are cause enough. Signed in 1648, it was Westphalia which had ushered in the new idea of the sovereign state – just after George Fox had begun his life’s work.

War inevitably produces profound, although often unintended effects at the level of personal suffering - principally of innocents who suffer most. When nuclear weapons are deployed, damage is transferred genetically to unborn generations.

Modern war represents a serious rupture in collective human relationships. It epitomizes a lamentable failure to cope peacefully with political, economic or diplomatic crisis, especially when such crises are obdurate, self contradictory, or complex. The precious gifts of heart & brain tend to be underused. I say this not in the context of, “What shall we do?” in the days leading up to the outbreak of war – for that is always too late - but to the years which precede war.

In modern war the declared aims of the conflict are rarely attained.  Vietnam, Suez, the West Bank, India/Pakistan, Afghanistan & Iraq - each testifies to this stern judgment. 21st century war, on the whole, simply doesn’t work. It is redundant as a reliable tool, if only because it is not a sustainable process - this just as the concept of “sustainability” has sunk into the public consciousness as the touch-stone against which all human activity ought to be measured if we & our planet are to survive.

It was in support of this clear indictment that last year I was asked by PfP to consider the three most violent wars in the last 50 years. I started with World War Two, & Anthony Beevor’s scholarly analysis entitled, “Stalingrad”, then Robert McNamara’s cri-de-coeur on Vietnam, called “In Retrospect”, &, thirdly, the official UN analysis of the asymmetrical conflict in Rwanda in 1994. I called the resulting text, “The Anatomy of War”. Quoting exclusively, & fully within context the actual language of those charged with making & conducting war, the text illustrates, beyond argument, not only how inhuman is war, not only how its objects are rarely attained, but devastatingly how the planning & management of modern war is so contradictory, muddled & confused, as to verge on the unbelievable & even, were it not so tragic, the farcical. I hope this analysis will be made available to Friends in support of our traditional peace testimony.

Modern war posits a new grey area between old fashioned war - if I may use that term - & criminal activity. Was the recent war in Sierra Leone, or today’s war in the Congo, which is nearly 5 years old, involves 9 armies & has caused the deaths of 4.7 million people, to say nothing of cannibalism, really war? Or are they actually organised, hi-tech banditry pursued for personal gain? Are the wars in Chechnya or in Northern Ireland, really war, or extreme police action against a highly organised, motivated & armed mafia? If Friends have learned to live with an armed police force in Britain, do we deny the same for Russia, & if so, why?

If Friends condemn all conflict regardless of its purpose, shape, content, or roots, then we cannot avoid the moral obligation to define with equal truth how we would remove inhuman tyrants when peaceful ploys have failed - as in Burma, Cambodia, Chile, the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq.

Does the challenge posed by the concept of the “greater good” fall in the face of resolute pacifism? If it does, who remains responsible for the killings & the deaths of innocents? If warring factions have been separated, & to that degree pacified, as in Bosnia Herzegovina today, do Friends recognise any role for armed UN peace-makers & peace-keepers?

I don’t know how to answer these questions for anyone except myself. You, of course, must answer for yourself.

Nevertheless, I judge war, in the round, to be the prime social “cancer” within the body politic. It may have diverse roots in poverty, greed, perverse ideologies, or in the vain posturing of self - or class - or national - aggrandisement. But, whatever its roots, it is a social cancer with lethal potential.  Such judgement is strengthened when we project our analysis into the 21st century. Modern war offers no redeeming features to the human species, or its prospects. We should call it for what it is; morally wrong & capable of generating hell on earth.

Wilfred Owen, by far the best of our war poets, understood this. With hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers from both sides in the First World War he suffered monstrous privations on the front line. In 1918, at about 5.45am on the 4th November he was ordered to take a handful of men from the Manchester regiment, so as to man-handle a wooden pontoon across the Sambre & Oise canal. He crawled through the mud before swimming through a hail of German bullets. He was hit & killed. A week later his parents living in Shrewsbury celebrated the Armistice, unaware that their son was dead. The fatal War Office telegram arrived as the church bells were still ringing.

Owen’s finest poem, “Strange Meeting” - which Sassoon was to call his “passport to immortality” -  speaks for itself.

“It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, & stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless,
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, -
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend”, I said, “here is no cause to mourn”.
“None”, said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. What hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braded hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, & be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break rank, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, & I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, & I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up & wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds: not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in the dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed & killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath & cold.
Let us sleep now…..”

Time & again millions of men have known that they have been forced to endure what Wilfred Owen & his fellow war poets called, a “hell” on earth. That is - war. They knew, too, what was the “truth untold” by those in authority. It was the sheer pity of war, the pity war distilled, which foot soldiers are amongst the first to understand. Yet, as Owen confessed in the preface to his poems - “All a poet can do is to warn”.

300 years earlier, George Fox & his faithful few had also warned that war was an immoral method for resolving disputes between individuals, or between collectives of individuals representing nations or ideologies, including the absurd posturing of Protestants & Roman Catholics. The resolute conviction of the first Quakers was neither easy, nor straightforward – nor is it now. Modern Friends would do well to remember that moral absolutism produced the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Taliban, the militant Islamic Brotherhood, & since 1969, 34 years of civil war in Northern Ireland.

Michael Sheeran in his thoughtful analysis of the origins of Quakerism, (“Beyond Majority Rule”), quotes Rufus Jones (2) who had declared that in the beginning the “central idea was the complete elimination of majorities & minorities; it became the Quaker custom to reach all decisions in unity.”  Here in Westmorland all kinds of “masterless men” & women, had responded to the preaching of Fox & his followers. This motley array, drawn from the Seekers, Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Baptists, Muggletonians,  Fifth Monarchy men & the like, numbering about half the population of England, but who held little or no power, rallied to Fox’s call to “walk in the light of Truth”. (3) They were called, “the Children of the Light”.

Fox’s central message that men & women could find, & then foster within themselves the “light” of truth, had a profound impact on the development of spiritual insight - first for the Religious Society of Friends of the Truth, then for the nation, & eventually the world, not least - the United States of America, (through William Penn & John Woolman, especially). By “truth”, early Friends meant either a synonym for “Christ”, or the complex of Quaker ethical teaching - what has been called “the Quaker Gospel”.

 By mid century the Valiant Sixty, 12 of whom were women, had reduced Fox’s teachings to four cardinal principles - not dogma, certainly no cannon, but a way to be experienced in life – a commitment to discernment as to the meaning of truth with discernment giving way to clearness, & clearness to the leadings of the inward spirit, & so to the light itself. Such inward experience would temper the whole of life.

First, they said, there is “that of God in every person”; secondly, a “universal grace” is available to every person; thirdly, there is a universal call to moral perfection & religious union with God; & fourthly the convinced believer would discover “a progressive revelation of God’s will through the ages”. (4) Meanwhile, silent worship & prayer would provide the framework within which such experiences would be felt & understood. Personal integrity would become the outward & visible hallmark of that inward experience.

In 1661 as a consequence of the Fifth Monarchy uprising against the new King, “several thousands” of Quakers according to Fox (5), were arrested & clapped into jail. This led Fox & our own Richard Hubberthorne – “dear, innocent Richard”, as Fox christened him (6), to issue a declaration against “plots & fightings”. It would be presented to the King. However, the printing presses were seized by order of the King, & destroyed. Ten other Quakers promptly joined Fox & Hubberthorne to re-issue the Declaration. It advised the King that, “All Bloody principles & practices, we as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars & strife & fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world”. (7)

Michael Sheeran describes this as a “curious document”. (8) The twelve signatories had no authority from the rest of Quakers to issue their declaration in favour of pacifism. They acted alone. Two of them – Friends Howgill & Hubberthorne - “had advocated the use of force as late as 1659”. And although Fox had refused an army commission in 1651, he still felt free six years later to urge, “the inferior officers & soldiers” of the army to conquer Rome & Turkey. (9) Two years later during that terrifying period called the Year of Anarchy (1659), a number of Quakers were chosen as Commissioners for the Militia. Fox told them, “You cannot well leave them, seeing ye have gone amongst them: ….” (10),   (11).

Part of the dilemma, Sheeran suggests, was one of pragmatic, political necessity. The first Quakers simply had to distance themselves from the Fifth Monarchy uprising. This would also explain the uncharacteristic absoluteness of the language they used. Later, Barclay would summarise the consequences in more temperate language, “….there is no greater Mark of the People of God, than to be at Peace amongst themselves: whatsoever tendeth to break the Bond of Love & Peace must be testified against”. (12)

Whatever our precise origins, for 350 years Quakers have advocated the rejection of violence as a way of life. We adjure one another, in the context of our personal behaviour, to live “in the virtue of that life & power that takes away the occasion of all wars”. When “speaking truth to power”, we reject wars & rumours of wars as a tool for nation building, either for the State or the citizen. Many Friends strive to be absolute in their pacifism; others, with equal sincerity perceive the attainment of absolute pacifism in modern society to be unachievable. They follow the no less difficult path of conditional pacifism. We should not exaggerate differences between honest Friends, but watch over each other, tenderly, & devoid of judgement.

Here then is the corner-stone of our witness against war - then, now, & in the future. We believe the moral argument against war & violence, nurtured by the inward, contemplative experience of stillness, love & peace, is unimpeachable. “Preparing for Peace”, springs out of this rock; it is rooted in the same soil.

Before considering war in the 21st century, I want to make three further points.

First, Britain Yearly Meeting Quakers in the 21st century are a dwindling minority of rather less than 10,000 members plus perhaps the same or possibly more attenders. This is hardly a sustainable population. Yet at the same time the opportunity of persuading our fellow citizens to embrace peaceful ways has never been more potent. In April 2003, 58% of the adult population opposed the illegal occupation of Iraq & the illegal deposition of the tyrant Saddam Hussein. (13) This was neither a casual nor an emotional accident. Our protest was part of a thoughtful, measured, world-wide phenomenon. It represented a yearning for peaceful solutions to seemingly intractable problems. That potential remains available - perhaps for the first time in human history. We cannot, & must not, fail at this critical juncture in our witness. Our most effective role lies in being a catalyst for non-violence.

Secondly, pacifism per se, as distinct from non-violence, does not seem at the start of the 21st century to be the central issue. Friends have no prospect whatsoever of converting some 6 billion human beings to pacifism in the foreseeable future. Prof Gene Sharp, currently the President of Harvard’s Albert Einstein Institute, who has spent his entire career working for the abolition of war, declares that, “Mass conversions to pacifism are not going to occur”. (14) The opportunity we have instead is to secure the pragmatic abolition of war as a reliable political tool, &, as its natural corollary, witness a mass turning away from a violent response to disputes as first option, towards non-violent, coping solutions, which may include a measure of force, but which eschew violence.

The new tool, for the 21st century, is the evolution of International Humanitarian Law & its consequences. This has been the focus of Preparing for Peace. We recall Josef Rotblat’s opening words when he addressed us on the 15th of July, 2001 – “I am not a pacifist, but……”  He then spoke from the heart & the mind with such transparent insight that we recognised immediately the essence of our traditional Quaker testimony. He urged us to clarify the moral difference between “force” & “violence”. That particular task - conflict specific - is far from easy.

It was in this context, as I discovered late in life, that we may take a measure of comfort from the fact that many Generals are the first to insist that war must always remain a last resort. It is one they enter with considerable hesitation & doubt. The former Chief of Staff to the UN peace-keeping force in Cyprus, (UNFICY 1966-68), the late General Michael Harbottle, was instrumental in 1984 in founding what he called “Generals for Peace & Disarmament” (now the “Worldwide Consultative Association of Retired Generals & Admirals”). He spoke to many Quaker meetings & we became good friends. Michael & his colleagues sought from within their own experiences during the Cold War to find political & humanitarian solutions to world problems instead of military solutions. He tried to define what might be the civil role, within society, of the armed forces, as the first step towards disarmament. (15) Friends today need allies like Michael if we are to understand & influence events leading to war.

Israel & the West Bank, for example, is the focus of one of today’s most intractable of conflicts. The only serious opposition to Prime Minister Sharon & his violence based policy, comes from 24 retired Israeli Generals. Maybe they should be the focus of our Middle East work for peace. George Fox & the early Quaker leaders including the Fells, James Naylor & William Penn, provide the clear precedence. (16)

For most people of good will, war, in its strictly defensive mode, is considered to be morally different to aggressive attack. Are Friends sensitive to this distinction? Hugh Beach reminded us of the terrible civil war in Rwanda, in 1994, when ¾ million people were killed, & 2 millions were displaced in a period of only 12 weeks. The Canadian UN Commander - General Dallaire - called for additional peace keeping troops to prevent the pending slaughter. He was refused. Genocide followed. Was that morally the same as aggressive war, or different? Did Dallaire’s plea for more troops have moral resonance? I believe it did – provided his exit strategy was robust & realistic.

Thirdly, the God given strength of Quakerism lies in each Preparative Meeting where, first, the spirit moves.  When PM’s experience clearness, things happen & other structures including Yearly Meeting & Friends House play their proper role. If we try to function the other way round the spirit is too often & too easily thwarted. When we surround Britain Yearly Meeting with 65 sub committees, I fear we tax the spirit & distort the light. Structure, today, is more likely to be heretical than belief. Is there a case for Friends identifying, therefore, 4 or 5 insights which we have come to understand over three & a half centuries, the first of which would be our peace testimony, & then focus our strictly limited skills & assets in exploring those insights? Under the leadings of the spirit we need to re-capture the catalytic role we used to have in respect of our traditional peace testimony. That said, our peace witness can only be as effective as our clearness is grounded in love & peace & the diversity of truth within each Preparative Meeting. We need, I believe, a huge stirring on the Meeting House bench if we are to live up to our calling as Quakers.

I would like now to consider two ideas. First, how do the emerging characteristics of 21st century war add urgency to our traditional testimony? I shall make three points in that context.  Secondly, I shall attempt to identify the sure signs of hope, nationally & internationally, upon which we might fasten catalytically so as to realise our clearness that we can abolish war in the 21st century.

First, are the emerging characteristics of 21st century conflict. Two trends seem obvious. On the one side is the impressive science & technology of war & its effect on our peace testimony. The “engine of war” experienced by Wilfred Owen in 1918, has advanced with astonishing speed & far reaching complexity. Weapons of mass destruction are now thought to be available to some 34 of the world’s 200 countries. Hence, the entire planet is volatile, & to that degree, unstable. America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty exacerbates our fragility. Danger escalates in response to changes in science & international politics. Because we live in a global economy we cannot avoid either phenomenon.

Perhaps even more serious, a significant measure of thoughtless fatalism in the body politic has persuaded many people that the human animal is a creature of violence & war. Warlike policies feed off that assumption. Violence, it is widely believed, is programmed into the human animal heralding in extremis the end of civilisation & the demise of our species. This pessimism is entertained even by some scientists, many politicians, civil servants, the media, & countless, ordinary people. It is neither true nor scientifically rigorous. Quakers should never tire of saying so, individually & collectively.

In May 1986 at their world conference in Seville, eminent scientists, including biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, neuro- scientists, biochemists & the like, & including our own PfP friend, Robert Hinde, issued, “The Seville Statement on Violence”, (17) categorically denying the conventional, but unscientific, assumption that humans inherit from their animal ancestors a predisposition to make war & to behave violently. I quote, “It is scientifically incorrect that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature.” “It is also scientifically incorrect”, they continue, “to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than other kinds of behaviour”. Next, they assert that, “it is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a “violent brain”. Finally, they note that, “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by “instinct” or any single motivation.”  After attaching their own signatures to this statement as consistent with standard practice, an impressive range of eminent Scientific & Academic Societies also signed the statement during the following year. Finally, it was endorsed formally by UNESCO.

As every amateur botanist or gardener knows, co-operation & symbiosis are widespread amongst living things & Homo sapiens is no exception. Humans are not biologically doomed to violent behaviour. The indisputable fact that the culture of war is developing so fast, means that it is a product of culture & not of inherited, irresistible animal behaviour. Culture could just as easily teach non-violence - as it does in a handful of so called primitive tribes, where ritual mechanisms replace killing. Friends, surely, need to communicate these ideas in the wider community, in season & out of season. Hippocrates (470BC - 410BC) hit the nail on the head with a mere four words - “First, do no harm”. Perhaps that should be our slogan for the 21st century.

Supporting evidence is also emerging from the analysis of letters sent home from the front line & of diaries kept by front line soldiers. (18) It seems that whatever triumphant rhetoric politicians may use, many soldiers neither enjoy nor particularly want to kill their fellow human beings. Letters home often maintain a bright outlook - for obvious reasons. But, in the main, there is neither pride nor joy in the act itself. Rather the opposite. Nor is there any deep, personalised hatred of the enemy soldier.

Consistent with this, were the reports in the eighties of young Israeli troops sent to fight in Lebanon, who marched with youthful panache, but who, in the event, used their mobile telephones - available for the first time in war - to ‘phone home, urging parents  to get them out of Lebanon because war was so awful. This became so serious to Israel’s war aims that eventually the Israeli cabinet had to ban the possession of mobiles by troops on active service. In each of these scenarios there is hope for non-violence & the Quaker testimony.

If science & technology have created circumstances which strengthen our vision of the wisdom of working for a violent free world we would be wise to note, secondly, how the single most important change in the nature of war is that it is the civilian who is now in the front line. In fact, civilians in 21st century war are ten times more at risk of being killed than soldiers. Our lecturer, Paul Grossrieder, formerly Director General of ICRC, expressed this grisly fact in a slightly different way when he said, “Since 1945, 84% of the people killed in wars have been civilians”. (19)  To reinforce the point he reminded us that, “the average annual number of deaths has been over half a million”. (My italics).We cannot, should not, & need not, sustain an annual haemorrhage of half a million men, women & children, in modern war. That is altogether too bizarre.

These ratios hold broadly true in our own war in Northern Ireland where 3,007 civilians & para-militaries (who may call themselves soldiers) have been killed since 1969, compared to 498 British soldiers. (20) In the nasty little war fought by America in Somalia in 1993, it is estimated that out of the some 25000 soldiers committed by America, 18 were killed, 75 were wounded, & one was captured. Some 500 Somali’s, however, were killed in one night (October 3rd, 1993), & usually reliable estimates set Somali losses at +1,000 civilians. In the 2003 Iraq conflict provisional estimates advise that some 200 coalition soldiers have been killed (June 2003), compared to an estimated 20,000 civilians. In the parallel, but longer & more deadly war in the West Bank, over 500 children have now been slaughtered.

(select here for the second part of this document - "Does War Begin In the Minds of Man?")

Notes & References

1 “In Retrospect”. Quoted by Robert S. McNamara. Random House, 1995. Page 216.  >
2 “Mysticism & Democracy” Rufus M. Jones Cambridge Harvard University Press 1932. Quoted by Michael Sheeran “Beyond Majority Rule”, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting 1996. Page 3.  >
3 “The Journal” of George Fox. Cambridge University Press. Page 385.  >
4 “Wm Penn’s Religious Background”, William Wistan Comfort. Ambler Pennsylvania Upper Dublin United Monthly Meeting 1944. Page 12. Quoted by Sherran in “Beyond Majority Rule”. Page 11.  >
5 “Journal” of George Fox. Page 398. Quoted by Sherran “Beyond Majority Rule”. Page 14, who also quotes Braithwaite advising a figure of 4,230. “The Second Period of Quakerism” London: 1919. Macmillan Page 9.  >
6 “Second Period of Quakerism” Braithwaite.  London 1919. Macmillan Page 444.  >
7 “Journal” of George Fox. Page 398. Quoted by Sherran “Beyond Majority rule”. Page 14.  >
8 “Beyond Majority Rule”. Sherran Page 15.  >
9 “World Turned Upside Down”. Hill. Page 194. Quoted by Sherran “Beyond Majority Rule” Page 15.  >
10 “Second Period of Quakerism”. Braithwaite. Macmillan London 1919. Page 18.  >
11 See also “Gerard Winstanley & the Republic of Heaven”. David Bolton. Dale Historical Monographs.1999.  >
12 “The Anarchy of the Ranters”, Robert Barclay Philadelphia Joseph Cruickshank 1770. Page 72. Quoted by Sherran “Beyond Majority Rule”, Page 27.  >
13 Reported in the “Guardian” newspaper. Survey by the Economic & Social Research Council’s, “Democracy & Participation Programme”. 6th May 2003.  >
14 “Making the Abolition of War a Realistic Goal”. Gene Sharp. World Policy Inst. 1980. Page 3.  >
15 “What is Proper Soldiering?” General Michael Harbottle, 1991. The Centre for International Peace Building, & private correspondence.  >
16 “The Quaker Military Alliance”, David Boulton. Friends Quarterly. October 1997. See also “Real like Daisies or Real Like I Love You”, David Boulton, Dale Historical Monographs, pages 89 -101.  >
17 “The Seville Statement on Violence” 16th May 1986. UNESCO. See Rotblat J. & Hinde R. (1989) “Aggression in War”. Cambridge.  >
18 “The Imperial War Museum Book of the Somme” & ditto “Book of the Western Front”. Malcolm Brown. Pan. 1996.  >
19 “The Human Cost of War”. Dr. Paul Grossrieder, 13th July 2002. Preparing for Peace, Lancaster University lecture.  >

20 “An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Northern Ireland 1969-1993”.  Malcolm Sutton. Updated to 2001. <cain.ulst.ac.uk>   >














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