Wendell Berry’s Pacifism: Part II, 1970-2013

wendell_berry-351This is the fourth of a series of essays about Berry, whose wife was born in northern California. He admits a great debt to Wallace Stegner at Stanford U., where he studied writing after graduating from the University of Kentucky.

By 1970 Wendell Berry’s pacifist thinking, as indicated in an earlier essay, can be summed up as follows:

  1. He can no longer imagine any justifiable war.
  2. Violence has been present since the beginning of American history; and the Industrial Revolution and our corporate, technologically-driven, consumer capitalism has worsened the violence.
  3. Such violence is against our professed religious and political ideals, especially those expressed by Jesus Christ and Thomas Jefferson.
  4. Our continuing violence reflects a failure of the imagination.
  5. A peaceable life and peace activities should be based on personal responsibility, an appreciation of our oneness with other forms of life, and a strong love of land, household, and one’s community.

Since 1970 Berry has applied these ideas to evolving conditions. He has done so in essays, non-fiction books, speeches, and interviews. And he has reflected them in his fiction and poetry.

Among the most important in the first category are his:

Amidst his many novels, short stories, and poems, we shall examine in detail only a few, most significantly the short story “Making It Home” and the later novel Hannah Coulter (2004). Both are set primarily in Port William, a small fictional town similar to the Port Royal area in Kentucky, where Berry has lived and farmed for almost a half century.

We’ll begin by reexamining the five points made above to see how they have been addressed since 1970. We’ll end with a brief look at the pacifist sentiments expressed in a few of Berry’s stories and poems and then offer some reflections on the significance of Berry’s pacifist ideas.

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1. Being unable to imagine any justifiable war.

Berry wrote his 1991 essay (the works referred to just by dates are those indicated above) after a U. S.-led coalition conducted massive aerial strikes on Iraqi targets and then took the lead in a short ground war in Kuwait. He concluded that “we sent an enormous force of our young men and women to kill and to be killed in defense of our oil supply, but we have done nothing to conserve that supply or to reduce our dependence on it.”

Furthermore, he stated that “modern warfare is an absolute evil.” Innocent people suffer. “It is impossible to foresee or to limit its results.” It “cost too much in lives, in ecological health, and in money to be affordable.

He even addresses that question that “apologists for killing always ask: If somebody raped or murdered a member of my family, would I not want to kill him? Of course I would . . . . If asked, however, if I think that it would do any good, I must reply that I do not. The logic of retribution implies no end and no hope.”

His 1999 essay on the failure of war was reprinted soon after the World Trade Center bombing of 9/11, 2001. In it he doubts whether a successful war of so-called “national defense” is worth it “in life, money, material, foods, health, and (inevitably) freedom” since there “is a fundamental inconsistency between war and freedom.” In modern war “neither side can limit to ‘the enemy’ the damage that it does. . . . Modern war has not only made it impossible to kill ‘combatants’ without killing ‘noncombatants,’ it has made it impossible to damage your enemy without damaging yourself.”

He also mentions terrorism, which had become a more pressing threat in the 1990s. (See my An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces, pp. 3-6, 22-28, for a brief treatment of terrorism during the 20th century.) Berry writes that “the most dangerous superstition of the parties of violence is the idea that sanctioned violence can prevent or control unsanctioned violence. But if violence is ‘just’ in one instance as determined by the state, why might it not also be ‘just’ in another instance, as determined by an individual? How can a society that justifies capital punishment and warfare prevent its justifications from being extended to assassination and terrorism?”

Near the end of his essay, he asks, “How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace?” His answer is “None. Please, no children. Don’t kill any children for my benefit.”

Following  9/11, Berry wrote his 27-point essay dealing more specifically with terrorism and our so-called “war on terror.” He recognizes that following the Trade Center bombing “it is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult.” He warned against “national self-righteousness,” and indicated that we also have not been “innocent of making war against civilian populations.”

If our so-called enemies are “now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies. Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts, and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us.”

In Berry’s 2003 essay, he criticized President George W. Bush’s new National Security Strategy [NSS] of over 30 pages. He thought the key passage in it was: “While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists. . . .”

Berry believed that the new strategy was dependent upon “the acquiescence of a public kept fearful and ignorant, subject to manipulation by the executive power.” He insists that “to the extent that a government is secret, it cannot be democratic or its people free.” As for terrorism being distinct because it was defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents,” Berry again argues that the warfare of “technologically advanced nations” is not essentially different and does not spare civilians. He also faults the document for not trying to deal with the causes of terrorism, why people turn to it. And he warns that “because we must suppose a new supply of villains to be always in the making, we can expect the war on terrorism to be more or less endless, endlessly costly and endlessly supportive of a thriving bureaucracy.”

Berry quotes from a Bush speech a few days after 9/11 in which he said, “Our responsibility to history is . . . to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” But Berry counters that “to rouse the public’s anxiety about foreign terror while ignoring” domestic evils—and asking how the two might be “in any way related, is wrong.” Among the evils he lists are government support of “agribusiness corporations” and “genetically impoverished monocultures”; “dependence . . . on foreign supplies, such as oil from the Middle East”; and many more evils that he would identify again a decade later in his Jefferson Lecture (see below).

Berry then lists various contradictions in our foreign policy: advocating war-on-terror policies to bring about peace; calling for international cooperation in a globalized economy (about which Berry is very critical) while “maintaining a nationalist belligerence and an isolationist morality”: and advocating “the rule of law in the world,” but then proclaiming that we are above the law—the NSS document stated that the USA would not be impaired “by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept.”

Looking back at earlier wars, in his 1991 essay Berry raises serious doubts about the justifiability of the Civil War. “By its suffering in the Civil War, the North is said to have ‘paid for’ the emancipation of the slaves and the preservation of the Union. Thus we may speak of our liberty as having been ‘bought’ by the bloodshed of patriots.” To Berry that type of accounting “is necessarily done by the living on behalf of the dead. And . . . we must be careful about too easily accepting, or being too easily grateful for, sacrifices made by others, especially if we have made none ourselves.” Too often, Berry thinks, leaders “assume that there is an acceptable price” in lives to be paid. But that “acceptable price, finally, is whatever is paid.”

Later on, in his 2007 essay, Berry addresses the Civil War in more detail. He mentions lenity—“lenience or gentleness or mercy”—and writes “there was too little of it in . . . . our North and South from 1861 to 1865, and before, and after. Failing lenity in any conceivable form, relishing its differences, savoring its animosities and divergent patriotisms, the nation divided and went to war.” Berry values the emancipation (see here for his views on slavery and racism) and maintaining the Union, but thinks too little consideration has been given to “dead boys . . . undiminished by whichever half of the national quarrel they died for.” He believes “the dead are made hostages of policy to sanctify the acts and intentions of their side.” They are said to “have died in a holy cause; that they may not have died in vain, more must be killed.” He thinks that the “North’s . . . . gain was more modest and more questionable than is customarily said.” He adds that “Martin Luther King and his followers, by refusing to answer violence with violence, did more to alter racial attitudes in the South than was done by all the death and damage of the Civil War.”

In “A Girl in the Window,” in his 2012 story collection A Place in Time, Berry furnishes an unfavorable description of both sides in the fictional Port William during the Civil War. He writes of their “routine recruiting or kidnapping, arresting and stealing”; their “barn-burnings and other acts of vandalism”; and their “threats . . . delivered openly to housewives standing in their doorways.” His descriptions here reminds me of the “a-plague-on-both-your-houses” feelings among Russian peasants about both sides in the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), as they both seized food and other supplies and perpetrated other violence against the peasants.

The war Berry treats most frequently in his fiction, however, is World War II, about which more later when we look at Berry’s fictional portrayal of war more carefully. Here we merely need to note that in his recent 2013 Dayton speech, he quoted from David M. Kennedy’s, Freedom from Fear: “But by August 1945 the atomic bombs hardly represented a moral novelty. The moral rules that had once stayed men’s hands from taking up weapons of mass destruction against noncombatants had long since been violently breached in World War II, first in the aerial attacks on European cities, then even more wantonly in the systematic firebombing of Japan.” Berry then added that many other instances of such breaches, from all sides, could be mentioned. He also noted our general lack of compassion regarding enemy deaths—one thinks of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the hundreds of thousands of children’s deaths resulting from U.S. led sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s (see here for more on that subject).

2. Violence and American history

Prior to 1970, Berry had written much about the violence of American history in his essay collection The Long-Legged House (1969). There was the violence against the land, Native American Indians, and Afro-Americans, much of it attributed to the rootlessness of a frontier society. After the Civil War, there were also “exploitive industries,” the “destructiveness and wastefulness of the economy,” and twentieth-century wars such as in Vietnam.

His The Unsettling of America (1977) addressed many of his concerns about violence in a book that continues to exert influence up to the present. “If there is any law that has been consistently operative in American history, it is that the members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become ‘redskins’—that is, they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation.” He mentions the small class of independent farmers that “has been exploited by, and recruited into, the industrial society until by now it is almost extinct.” He writes of “an industrial economy preying upon the native productivity of land and people” and “how deeply rooted in our past is the mentality of exploitation.” We could, he states, “divide our history into conquerors and victims,” or better yet into exploiters (e.g., strip miners) and nurturers (e.g., small, independent farmers). “The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.” (Decades later, in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he describes the divide as one between “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers “pillage and run”; they are “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” Stickers “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”)

What soon becomes evident reading his 1977 book is how sweeping and radical his criticism of modern history is. His pacifism flows from his being a farmer and embracing what he believes are basic agrarian values. (See below under Point 5 for more on the basis of his pacifism.) Unlike the overwhelming percentage of Americans, he is extremely critical of the consequences of the nineteenth-century century Industrial Revolution and the increasing urbanization, specialization, and exploitation that followed—a recent essay is even titled “Other Kinds of Violence: Wendell Berry, Industrialism, and Agrarian Pacifism.”

In his 1991 essay, he writes:

We are at present completing the economic destruction of our rural and agricultural communities. We are destroying our farmlands, our forests, our water sources. We are polluting the air, the water, the land. . . . Our professions have become greedy, unscrupulous, and un-affordable. . . .

. . . This society is making life extremely difficult for the unwealthy and the unpowerful: children, old people, women (especially wives and mothers), country people, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. We are failing in marriage and failing our family responsibilities. The number of single-parent households is increasing. Our children are ill raised and ill taught. . . . Our highways, shopping malls, nursing homes, and day-care centers are full; the homeless are everywhere in our streets; our homes are empty. We are suffering many kinds of damage from sexual promiscuity. We are addicted to drugs, to TV, and to gasoline. Violence is literally everywhere. While we waged war abroad, an undeclared civil war was being fought every day in our streets, our homes, our workplaces, and our classrooms.

Two decades later matters seemed little better. In his Jefferson Lecture, he identified “our present industrial system” with “pillage and indifference,” and “permanent ecological and cultural damage.”

Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. . . . Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it . . . ever has given precedence to the common good. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it . . . can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils . . . whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle . . . thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

3. Violence as opposed to our professed religious and political ideals.

In his 1968 anti-Vietnam-War speech Berry mentioned the claim that we are a Christian and a democratic country, but that he found “nothing in the Gospels or in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution to justify . . . our slaughter of women and children.” In his 1991 essay, he wrote: “Ignoring the Gospels’ command to be merciful, forgiving, loving, and peaceable, our leaders have prayed only for the success of their arms and policies and have thus made for themselves a state religion—exactly what they claim to fear in ‘fundamentalist’ Islam. But why God might particularly favor a nation whose economy is founded foursquare on the seven deadly sins is a mystery that has not been explained.” He also insisted that “the idea of peaceableness toward enemies is a religious principle.”

In his 2003 essay, coming after we proclaimed “war on terror,” Berry wrote, “The only sufficient answer is to give up the animosity and try forgiveness, to try to love our enemies and to talk to them and (if we pray) to pray for them.”

But it was in his 2005 “The Burden of the Gospels” that Berry made his strongest case for “the proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships that are acceptable to God.” That same year he included the essay in his book Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ’s Teachings About Love, Compassion and Forgiveness, which consisted mainly of excerpts relating to peace from the writers of the four gospels. In his Introduction he writes of the “monstrous history of Christian violence,” so contrary to the gospel teachings. He maintains that the gospel “passages gathered here deny the acceptability of the usual justifications for violence, official or otherwise.” In many ways, as I hope to clarify in a future essay, Berry’s ideas at this point in his life resemble those of Leo Tolstoy in his later years, not only on non-violence, but also on many other subjects.

About peace’s relationship to our democratic political ideals Berry has less to say, but he has most often quoted Thomas Jefferson, whom he believed stood for “the agrarian vision” and who in 1786 stated that “Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy.”

 4. Violence as a reflection of a failure of the imagination.

In his anti-Vietnam-War speech Berry had said, “We have been led to our present shameful behavior in Vietnam by this failure of imagination, this failure to perceive a relation between our ideals and our lives.” About a quarter of a century later in his 1991 essay, he wrote: “The Gulf War, our latest failure to be peaceable, was thus linked to a much larger failure: the failure of those who most profit from the world to be able to imagine the world except in terms of abstract quantities. They cannot imagine any part of the world or any human community in any part of the world as separate in any way from issues of monetary profit. . . . Modern war and modern industry are much alike, not just in their technology and methodology but also in this failure of imagination. It is no accident that they cause similar devastations. . . . One thing worth defending, I suggest, is the imperative to imagine the lives of beings who are not ourselves . . . animals, plants, gods, spirits, people of other countries and other races, people of the other sex, places-and enemies.”

In the final section of his 2003 essay, he faults our national leaders for a lack of imagination. In the decade between the Gulf War of 1991 and 9/11/2001 “we did not alter our thinking about peace and war . . . we continued to punish the defeated people of Iraq and their children.” We continued our unimaginative policies toward our land, our people, and the “rest of the world.”

Four years later in his 2007 essay on the Civil War, Berry addressed how a failure of imagination both led to the war and prevented all the bloodshed from ending sooner once it began. “I have been describing an enormous failure, and to me this appears to be a failure of imagination.” Earlier, he stated that “it seems that the resort to violence is the death of imagination. Once opponents become enemies, then the rhetoric of violence prevents them from imagining each other. Or it reduces imagination to powerlessness.”

In the final pages of his essay he has much more to say about imagination. He writes of present-day leaders “in government, in the corporate economy, in the universities” that are “utterly lacking in imagination, local loyalty, and local knowledge.” If our country “does not become real in imagination, then it never can become real to us. .  . . The particularizing force of imagination is a force of justice. . . . It is the power that can save us from the prevailing insinuation that our place, our house, our spouse, and our automobile are not good enough. . . . If imagination is to have a real worth to us, it needs to have a practical, an economic, effect” Berry ends his essay by paying tribute to the imagination of Ernest J. Gaines, who through his writings brought to Berry a greater understanding of the lives of southern African Americans. It is also worth noting that Berry’s Civil War essay is printed in a volume of Berry essays which he entitles Imagination in Place and that in his 2004 novel Hannah Coulter (see below) he has some powerful words to say about imagination.

He also has a great deal to say about it in his Jefferson Lecture. “For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place . . . to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. . . . By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world.”  Industrialism ushered in statistical knowledge, which Berry believes has led us further “from actual experience of the actual world. ‘Remote control’ is an unquestioned fact . . . and we have remote entertainment and remote war. Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life. . . . It is by imagination that knowledge is ‘carried to the heart.’”

In his lecture, Berry hardly mentions war or peace directly, but he does say, “To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we ‘know’ that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined.” As we will see near the end of this present essay, he does convey with great power the impact of one death in his 2004 novel Hannah Coulter. (For a quote from British novelist Ian McEwan that mentions the “near-infinity of private sorrows” resulting from WWII, see here.)

5. The basis of a peaceable life and peace activities.

In his 1977 The Unsettling of America Berry states that “one must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.” In the same book he analyzes Homer’s Odysseus. He thinks that it is profound “in its understanding of agricultural value as the foundation of domestic order and peace.” It “begins in the world of The Iliad, a world that, like our own, is war-obsessed, preoccupied with ‘manly’ deeds of exploitation, anger, aggression, pillage, and the disorder, uprootedness, and vagabondage that are their result. At the end . . . Odysseus moves away from the values of that world toward the values of domesticity and peace.”

Beginning with adopting peaceful personal ways and trying to apply his cherished agrarian values to the land he farmed and his community was a natural starting point for Berry’s pacifism.

In his 1991 essay he indicated that peaceableness “must rest on the changed lives and economies of individuals, families, and neighborhoods.”

He ends his 2001 essay thus: “An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.” He also asserts that “what leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being.” Writing after 9/11, he stresses the importance of education and writes: ‘If our enemies are now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies. Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts, and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us.”

As before 1970, Berry continues to stress a personal rather than political approach to peace. In a 2012 essay for the Progressive magazine, he wrote that the three acts of civil disobedience he had committed himself to during his lifetime were “by any practical reckoning, pretty useless.” As so often, Berry writes here from his personal experience. He is not trying to discourage other people from acts of civil disobedience—he admires Gandhi and Martin Luther King too much for that. But his own method has been to encourage it primarily by trying to live a peaceable agrarian life and by his speeches, interviews, and writings. Having already considered his non-fiction, we now turn to his fiction and poetry.

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Although Berry’s prolific fiction and poetry exceed his non-fiction, we have space here to consider only several examples of each that reflect his pacifist concerns. In his short story “Making It Home” (from a 1992 collection), he writes of the ex-soldier Art Rowanberry coming back in 1945 from Europe to the fictional Port William. “He came from killing. He had felt the ground shaken by men and what they did. Where he was coming from, they thought about killing day after day, and feared it, and did it. And out of the unending, unrelenting great noise and tumult of the killing went little deaths that belonged to people one by one.” There is much more about the horrors of war here: “Whatever you want to hit, you want to make dust out of it. Farms, houses, whole towns. . . . He had seen tatters of human flesh hanging in the limbs of trees along with pieces of machines. He had seen bodies without heads, arms and legs without bodies.”

About the government, Berry states, “Now that the war was coming to an end, the government wanted to speak of their glorious victories.” Art thinks that government people “talk about victory as if they know all them dead boys was glad to die. The dead boys ain’t never been asked how glad they was. If they had it to do again, might be they wouldn’t do it, or might be they would. But they ain’t been asked.”

In his Hannah Coulter (2004), Berry portrays the effects of World War II on Hannah and her husband’s parents after he (Virgil Feltner) is reported missing in action in Europe and never returns. Their grief was so great they could “not mention [it] without being overpowered and destroyed.” Left with an infant daughter, Hannah copes as best she can and eventually marries another Port William young man, Nathan, who fought in Okinawa. Many decades later, after his death, she tries to understand his Okinawa experiences, which he had always been reluctant to talk about. Berry once again writes insightfully about imagination:

It is hard to live in Port William and yet have in mind the blasted and burnt, bloodied and muddy and stinking battlegrounds of Okinawa, and imagine another. But imagination is what is needed. Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination.

 Hannah went to the library and learned more about Okinawa.

Before that spring, Okinawa had been a place of ancient country villages and farming landscapes of little fields perfectly cultivated. The people were poor . . . but peaceable and courteous, hospitable and kind. They hated violence and had no weapons. They made music and sang when they rested from their work in the fields. . . . The people made beautiful things with their hands. . . . They had survived conquest, poverty, storms and drouths, disease and hunger, but they had met no calamity like the battle of 1945. It killed 150,000 of them as the fighting drove them out of their homes and they wandered with their children and old people into the fields of fire.

Through her reading and imagination, Hannah is able to imagine Nathan’s feelings: “You were there to kill until you were killed. . . . Mortar shells are coming in. . . . The friend beside you is hit, his head blown off. His brains spatter your clothes and your food. . . . You have killed your enemy. You have seen his face as he died, the face of a living young man dying. You cannot forget this.” Reflecting on this and her love for Nathan, Hannah thinks, “You can’t give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. . . . You have given yourself over to the knowledge of suffering in a state of war that is always going on. And you wake in the night to the thought of the hurt and helpless, the scorned and the cheated, the burnt, the bombed, the shot, the imprisoned, the beaten, the tortured, the maimed, the spit upon, the shit upon.”

Berry’s poetry also often speaks of war and peace. This was true before 1970—see e.g., his “Against the War in Vietnam” (in his New Collected Poems [NCP] and “The Peace of Wild Things”—and after, down to the present. In The Reassurer” (from a 1994 volume), he writes satirically of the President who “reassures the Chairman of the Board of the Victory / and Honor for Profit Corporation of America, who / has been wakened in the night by a dream of the / calamity of peace.” In a 2002 poem (see This Day collection ) he writes of “war, the killed peace / of the original world.” In several 2003 poems in the same collection, he refers to the “Lords of War.” One of these poems, “Look Out,” is especially good in contrasting the beauty of nature and domestic peace with the “shadow of its destruction by war.”

In “A Speech to the Garden Club of America,” a 2009 poem in The New Yorker, Berry states: “Burning the world to live in it is wrong, / As wrong as to make war to get along /And be at peace.” And “Questionnaire,” a poem from a 2010 collection (NCP), ends like this:

State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Berry read that poem not far from his home at the June 2013 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Louisville.

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One does not have to be an absolute pacifist to find merit in Berry’s pacifism. Especially significant is his belief that modern war reflects a “failure of imagination.” World War II’s General Omar Bradley once said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” We could paraphrase Bradley by saying, “We are imaginative infants. If we fail to become more imaginative in regard to peace, our technology may be our executioner.”

Our leaders have sometime been imaginative. Franklin Roosevelt was in devising programs to lift our nation from the depths of the Great Depression. John Kennedy was in creating the Peace Corps and, the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in delivering an inspiring peace speech at American University. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were in developing non-violent resistance tactics.

What King combined so well was not only an imagination that was concrete enough to develop such tactics, but also one that could dream great dreams. (I’ll address the value of various dimensions of imagination in a future essay.) When his powerful resonate voice was at its best, no one could be so inspiring—experience, for example, his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The following year he delivered another speech in Oslo (text here) upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently more constrained by such a formal atmosphere, however, his speech failed to soar like his more famous one of the previous year.

Yet it still contained some of the cadences of the earlier speech, as he repeated such phrases as “I refuse,” “I believe.” Among his words (see 6:28-8:33 of video) were the following:

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. . . .

. . . I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”

I still believe that we shall overcome.

Forty-five years later, President Obama also received a Nobel Peace Prize, and he referred to both Gandhi and King in his acceptance speech. But he added, “As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. . . . force may sometimes be necessary.” He makes a legitimate point, and adds some thoughtful remarks about the burdens of power in our imperfect world with plenty of evil in it.

Nevertheless, I recall a passage from Michael Brenner’s review in the Huffington Post of Obama’s Wars. Brenner wrote that “one comes away from this dispiriting story with a keener appreciation of Obama’s limitations. He is a remarkably conventional thinker who defers to established opinion and persons. He instinctively gives the benefit of all doubts to those who embody a conservative perspective. He lacks the imagination and forcefulness to fashion his own conception of what a situation is.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

At the time, 2010, I paid too little attention to Obama’s insufficiency of imagination. But now, after reading Berry, I am convinced that world political leaders, including Obama, are way too unimaginative when it comes to peace. So too are the rest of us. Blame it on our cultures, with their constant depictions of violence. Blame it on peace being “boring” as compared to war. Blame it on our bookstores and universities that give ample space to military history, but provide little of it for “peace studies.” Blame it on our frenzied focus on entertainment, sports, celebrities, and constantly changing gadgets and apps. Blame it on our preoccupation with so many other causes. But we’re all at fault.

At the end of Berry’s 2003 essay, he asks us “to imagine our enemies’ children who, like our children, are in mortal danger because of enmity that they did not cause.” And he exhorts us to work for peace “as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully, and bravely as we now prepare for war.” Good advice, all of it.

Walter Moss

Published by the LA Progressive on December 2, 2013
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm