I recently watched the second installment of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. If you saw the first, you won’t be surprised to hear that this latest edition is mostly fun and games, the kind of confection that one expects in a summer blockbuster. But at least a few scenes struck me as deadly serious. The film features a number of pitched battles between the heroic Guardians and a fleet of spaceships belonging to the Sovereign, a highly advanced race of beings who, as it turns out, are scrupulous to a fault (and then some). Their skirmishes look and feel very Star Wars-esque until one realizes that only the Guardians have skin in the game. While the Sovereign are shooting to kill, they’re doing so remotely, from the comfortable confines of their planet. When one of their craft is gunned down, it’s merely “game over” for that particular pilot, who is then freed up to watch over the shoulder of another as he or she attempts to shoot the Guardians out of the sky. This would be just another playful twist if it were not so resonant with the real world.
In the first seven years of the Obama Administration, the US military initiated some 500 drone strikes outside areas of active hostilities—meaning this total does not even include strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria—that killed as many as 4,189 persons, several hundred of whom were non-combatants and at least seven of whom were American citizens (all of these numbers are disputed, with significant variance between official and non-governmental sources). The technology bears names that admit no reticence about its death-dealing power. Predator drones, controlled in one moment by a “pilot” on the ground in Kandahar and in the next by one in Las Vegas, launch Hellfire missiles at unsuspecting enemies. A generation-old partnership between the American military and the commercial gaming industry has yielded one long-sought outcome: the ability to conduct war on a virtual basis.
Of course, we do still drop bombs the old-fashioned way sometimes. The world got a vivid reminder of this when in April the Pentagon authorized the first-ever use of the 10-ton GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) in Afghanistan. The $170,000 bomb is so large that it cannot fit onto a drone or even a fighter jet. It has to be dropped out of the back end of a cargo plane. The sheer size of the MOAB was enough to evoke some consternation on social media and its nickname, the “mother of all bombs,” caught even the attention of the Holy See. “I was ashamed when I heard the name,” Pope Francis remarked. “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?”
War is going on. It is so interwoven into the fabric of contemporary life that civilians hardly notice it anymore. Sixteen years after 9/11, the United States remains embroiled in the longest war in its history in Afghanistan. This spring there are rumblings that the Trump administration is considering a new surge of American troops there. They would join the 200,000 U.S. soldiers already deployed abroad in some 170 countries. While the two major parties quibble on the finer points of military spending, the notion that the American war machine must remain the world’s mightiest is bipartisan orthodoxy. In 2015, the United States spent $596 billion dollars on its military, while the next seven biggest players—China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Britain, France, India, and Japan—spent a collective total of $567 billion. But even that is not enough for some. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength lamented “defense spending far below requested levels,” deeming the army “weak” and the rest of the branches “marginal.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Michael Kazin’s brilliant new book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918, lends credence to the old saying, “the past is a foreign country.” It tells the remarkable story of how, one hundred years ago, a diverse coalition of Americans struggled to keep the nation out of the Great War. Socialists and suffragists, white mainliners and black Pentecostals, northern Republicans and southern Democrats did not all agree about much, but together they powered a historic campaign for peace. Kazin uses the stories of four particularly influential characters—the socialist Morris Hillquit, the suffragist Crystal Eastman, House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin, and Republican Senator Robert La Follette—to open a window onto the life of this larger movement. Along the way, we encounter a variety of other activists too, including eminent personalities such as Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan, and Henry Ford as well as lesser-known lights like Kate Richards O’Hare, who, at an emergency convention of the Socialist Party of America in March 1917, thundered, “I am a Socialist, a labor unionist and a believer in the Prince of Peace first, and an American second.”
Few in the unwieldy peace coalition were willing to go so far as O’Hare, but as Kazin documents, two more basic anti-war rationales resonated with broad swaths of the American people. An idealistic vision of world peace animated some, ranging from Social Gospelers who believed the Kingdom was coming in their day to feminists convinced that the demise of patriarchy would bring an end to international violence as well. Still others sought to safeguard the (somewhat more) peaceable republic against the corrosive effects of militarism and war profiteering. It’s hard to fathom now but at the outset of hostilities in Europe, the United States army was anything but formidable, numbering fewer than 100,000 men. It was only in June 1916, more than a year after the Germans sank the Lusitania, that President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act, which almost doubled the army’s size, empowered the president to federalize the National Guard, created the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and authorized the White House to resort to conscription in case of war. Even at that point, the anti-war movement’s claim upon the popular imagination remained strong. Wilson won reelection, after all, with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” As late as January 1917 he gave a speech insisting that armies and navies should not grow so large that they could be used as “an instrument of aggression or of selfish violence.” But then, within a matter of months, the United States declared war on Germany and registered 24 million men for armed service. Four million of those donned the uniform. 116,000 died.
The anti-war campaign had not been quixotic, but its failure at the end of the day was nothing if not momentous. Once the American war machine had been constructed, it would not go away; and if the nation was transformed, so was modern world history. Kazin is not alone in asserting that the United States’ entry into World War I facilitated the most heinous of unintended consequences:
If the Allies, led by France and Great Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace treaty like that completed at the Palace of Versailles in 1919, no reparations that helped bankrupt the Weimar Republic, no stab-in-the-back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and his National Socialist Party. The next world war, with its fifty million deaths, would never have occurred.
Americans, who have tended to overlook the Great War altogether, have not often dwelt in recent years on the perils of victory. But especially given President Trump’s suggestion that “major, major conflict with North Korea” could be on the near horizon, such reflection is urgently needed.
Whereas Kazin illumines a singular turning point, two other recent books underscore the breadth of the American anti-war tradition. Myles Werntz’s Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, and Witness explores four varieties of nonviolent Christian response to the Vietnam War. Sorting through the different ways that John Howard Yoder (Mennonite), Dorothy Day (Catholic), William Stringfellow (Episcopalian), and Robert McAfee Brown (Presbyterian) envisioned the church and its call to nonviolence, Werntz argues persuasively that such diversity reflects not a scandalous disunity but rather “a common work of the Holy Spirit.” Christians who have taken on the seemingly Sisyphean task of practicing nonviolence “within a culture linked to war” can ill afford to perceive one another as the enemy. Each should instead seek to learn from the distinctive insights of the other.
All would moreover do well to peruse the rich trove of sources collected in Lawrence Rosenwald’s edited volume, War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing. While heavily weighted toward the 20th century, this thick tome also includes a wealth of earlier pieces by John Woolman, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and many more besides. Represented, too, are a staggering array of genres, ranging from poetry, fiction, letters, and prose essays to gospel songs, autobiographical reflections, and even a Supreme Court dissent. Rosenwald recounts that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was eighty-eight when in 1929—appalled at his colleagues’ opinion that Rosika Schwimmer could be denied American citizenship based on the fact that “she would not bear arms to defend the Constitution—he wryly declared, “I had not supposed hitherto that we regretted our inability to expel [our citizens] because they believed more than some of us do in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.” Gems such as this abound in a book full of thought-provoking turns and unlikely company (it’s not often that you find Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, radical anarchist Emma Goldman, and former president Barack Obama listed in the same table of contents). There is something for everyone to disagree with here, but there is plenty of wisdom too.
Whether any of it will penetrate as far into the national conversation as Guardians of the Galaxy seems doubtful. But for the sake of a world still riven by war, virtual and otherwise, one can certainly hope.