William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War”

“[M]odern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.”

―William James

I’ve been slowly working my way through a collection of essays by William James, and today I want to do something that I’ve been putting off for a long time, which is to wrestle a bit with his essay on The Moral Equivalent of War.

If you haven’t read this, go ahead and follow the link and give it a shot. It’s a pretty quick read and it’s got the clarity and wit that’s typical of James’s writing, and suffers only a little bit from its age (it is from around , I believe).

But if you’re impatient, or if it’s been a while, I’ll give you a two-sentence, paraphrased summary:

I agree with the “pacificists” that war must be abolished, but I think we are going about it the wrong way. It is important for us to recognize the positive virtues of war and of the military — both so that we may understand the mindset that supports them and, more crucially, so that we may invent an alternative institution that might support those virtues in the absence of war and the threat of war.

By the positive virtues of war, James doesn’t mean the potential gains of military victory: vanquishing a threatening enemy, claiming the spoils, striking fear into other rivals, that sort of thing. He means the way war strengthens attributes of the individual characters of the people (that is to say: men) who take part in it — fortitude, endurance, courage, heartiness, and other such things — and of the civic character of the nations that go to war — pride, selfless collective effort, patriotic obedience, that sort of stuff.

Non-pacifists, James posits, are dismissive of the pacifist position because they imagine that in the absence of war and the inevitable subsequent atrophying of the military institution, the nation would dissolve into a porridge of decadent, feminine milquetoasts with no sense of noble sacrifice or ideals worth struggling for.

I understand that James is trying to exercise the maximum of sympathy for the warrior perspective as a rhetorical technique — “to enter more deeply into [their] aesthetical and ethical point of view [so as to] move the point” — but his romanticization of war and the military is so over-the-top as to almost seem like parody, at least today. Maybe before World War Ⅰ, one could have such views without embarrassment, but they strike me as the sort of things people who haven’t had much contact with war or with soldiers outside of parades and memorial services and popular novels like to daydream about.

Take the bit from the first paragraph where he asks whether people would, if they could choose, vote to undo the whole of the American Civil War and replace it with a history in which the same effects were accomplished peacefully. No, he insists, they would not, for the Civil War is “the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out.” Well, to the people whose blood didn’t pour, maybe! Let the dead vote too and then make the tally!

The whole thing is revoltingly state-worshipping too. “All the qualities of a man acquire dignity when he knows that the service of the collectivity that owns him needs him.” “We should be owned, as soldiers are by the army, and our pride would rise accordingly.” Shoo, fly, don’t bother me, for I belong to somebody!

So I wasn’t able to take James very seriously. His solution, such as it is, is for us to invent a sort of mimic of the military institution and use it to conscript the youth (or the boys, at least) of the nation to do battle not against each other but against nature in ways that are equally vigorous and daunting and subject to authoritarian discipline, but don’t involve the repulsive evils of war.

This all reminded me much of Scott Ritter’s Waging Peace which I panned here a few years ago. He too thought the peace movement ought to organize itself along military lines and get down to brass tacks.

Not only do I think even less of Scott Ritter’s book now that I see it as partially-derived from James’s (better) essay, but I’ve also lost some of my respect for A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic which I had been much more enthusiastic about. A lot of what I thought were the innovative and bold underpinnings of Ayer’s assault on philosophy turned out to have been explicitly laid out in William James’s works on pragmatism much earlier.