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John Wright Buckham: The Heroisms of Peace


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

William James: The Moral Equivalent of War


John Wright Buckham
The Heroisms of Peace

No one who has read the article by President Tucker in the Atlantic Monthly for April, “The Crux of the Peace Problem,” can doubt that he has put his unerring finger upon the fundamental weakness of the peace movement. The morally sound man does not want a peace of inertia. He suspects “the ghastly smooth life, dead at heart.” The peace of the human mollusk is to him nauseating. He knows that life is not worth living, either for individuals or nations, unless it has in it conquest, sacrifice, achievement, and these have for ages been associated with war. If he can be shown that this association is merely adventitious; that the extermination of war is not an end, but a means;. that it is essential that war be abolished in order to open the way for larger conquests and to release forces that have been held back by its domination, he will be ready to meet the peace movement with a more whole-hearted response and commitment. It is not an easy matter to reverse the misconception of milleniums. Yet the demonstration of the bankruptcy of war is becoming indisputable, as the smoke of this worst of wars begins to clear away. William James, in those fatuous, purblind days before the war, sought to discover some, “Moral Substitute for War.” The very title now strikes us strangely. We are coming to see that war itself has been made the substitute – the rank, outrageous substitute – for something vastly more strenuous, difficult, heroic.

When the universe and himself have been given men to conquer, it is a costly irrelevancy to turn aside to light among ourselves.

There are inevitable collective tasks which challenge humanity and call upon it to leave the childish quarreling of warfare for more serious and rational enterprises. The first and easiest of these common tasks is the conquest of nature. Let us not think that this great task is already nearing completion. The conquest of nature does not mean the exploitation of nature. It means her deliverance ; and .it will not be accomplished until disease, poverty, disaster, and all our physical ills and obstacles are mastered. Here is a task that calls for a cool and intelligent heroism which makes that of the battlefield seem hectic and wasteful. With all the moving acts of heroism that have occurred in connection with the war, none have touched the general heart of the world quite so deeply as those that accompanied the loss of the Titanic. Pain and death must be faced in peace as surely as in war, and thousands of sick rooms daily reveal as fine a courage as the battlefield ever witnessed.

Another huge and heroic task that has been held back by war is that of civil government – so far as yet from its accomplishment, so complex and intricate, so full of danger and difficulty. To bring democracy to its fulfillment – what does not this involve of courage and intelligence, of sacrifice and service, of purpose and perseverance!

And then there is the kindred enterprise of the organization and moralization of industry. The problem of industrial peace cannot be hidden behind that of national peace, as President Tucker has pointed out. One must go far to find any stronger and subtler foe than human greed and selfishness as it lies intrenched in the plains of business. To drive such an enemy from its well-defended trenches calls for a campaign of unexampled skill and courage.

Close behind these two looms another mighty task – that of education. How feebly the twentieth century is still fumbling at it – giving to education its thousands while it gives to war its millions; studying military strategy, while it should be studying educational method; striding forward in the fiendish arts of war, while it lags feebly along in those of education.

Yes, and the stupendous task which lies so close to these – that of the moral cleansing and reconstruction of society – does any one think that campaign can be won with bird-bolts and brass bands? Here, if any where, is need of strategy, courage, perseverance.

Nor can I forbear mentioning another collective task not so readily recognized – that of the advance of human knowledge. I do not refer so much to science as to the search for those ultimate verities which lie so close to our human well-being – a task demanding hard, close, persistent, unselfish thinking on the part of men set apart to this task and of others who will rethink and interpret their thoughts?that we may penetrate, as far as may be, toward the heart of truth and disseminate it as widely as possible.

And this, of course, leads on to a still greater and more essential task – that of the cultivation of a free, vital, rational, religious life. This is no sinecure of a sleek and well-fed clergy. It is an enterprise for the church as a whole – for humanity at large. It calls for a militancy beside which militarism seems a childish anachronism. It requires missionaries, martyrs, apostles, men and women of vision and devotion, able to “subdue kingdoms, work righteousness, turn to flight
armies of aliens.”

Such are some of our common human tasks – tasks from which war has diverted us – war with its false claims, its waste of resources, its cursed crippling of powers, its degradation, its inevitable frustration of all true progress.

Yet to leave the matter here would be but half of the story. Life is an individual discipline as well as a common task, and its summons to conflict is absolutely inclusive and distributive. No single soul escapes this call to enlistment. Each has his own mission, his individual warfare, as well as his share in the common campaign. And there is no room for a debased pacifism in the business of right living. There is no place here for softness – except by a mean surrender. War is not needed to call out courage in one who is engaged in the struggle of daily living in the pursuit of a high ideal. That high vocation is inwrought with all true heroisms.

Men have always feared that they needed something more than plain, steadfast every-day living to harden their moral muscles. They have called in asceticism to make life harder and fruitfuller in daring and devotion. It is a mistaken notion. Life is no “moral holiday,” except for those who evade its plain duties – and they soon find it turning to the anti-climax in which a stolen holiday is sure to eventuate. Most men and women need no hardships other than those that come to them in the day’s work, provided they front these bravely. To resist soldierly the temptations of child hood and youth; to meet a man’s work or a woman’s mission with a steady hand and a brave heart; to keep the inner life tense and true ; to spend one’s self for the common good – here is ample test of one’s metal. The rearing of children is one of our chief modern heroisms. It calls for boundless pluck and patience.

The mischief has always been in conjuring up unnatural and fictitious bogies to fight with, in place of the evils that are fast embedded in life itself. It is because we shirk these, and are defeated by them, that we think we must have wars – creating artificial and bestial enmities – to stiffen our waning heroism. We think that our young men need disciplining. They do; but our army posts have never given any very conclusive evidence of furnishing it.

When you reach the heart and center of heroism, it is something inner, a quality of spirit, not physical prowess. Humanity will never become wholly brave, sacrificial, and strong until it turns from the childish and inhuman “arts” of war to the human tasks that demand wise, heroic, untiring devotion.

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