Wendell Berry’s Pacifism: Part I, The Late 1960s

This is the third in a series of essays on Berry that Walter Moss wrote for the LA Progressive. For the first two, see here and here.

Wendell Berry Pacifism

Wendell Berry

On this day, November 26th, it seems appropriate to write of Wendell Berry’s pacifism. One of his early poems, printed in The Nation, was entitled “November 26, 1963,” and it dealt with President Kennedy’s funeral the day before. And Berry’s first major pacifist declaration was (five years later) against the war in Vietnam, a war that Kennedy had led us into before President Johnson then escalated it.

In Chapter One of The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq, John Gittings begins with a quote from Kenneth Boulding. As I abridge it here, it applies perfectly to Berry’s pacifism—“Peace is ploughing and sowing and reaping and making things . . . and getting married and raising a family and dancing and singing.” A later quote from the Greek playwright Philemon also is fitting about peace bestowing “Weddings, kindred, children, friends, / Wealth, health, wheat, wine and pleasure.”

Berry’s concept of peace is much more than just the absence of war or the killing of other humans as in capital punishment. To him, peace implies a whole way of life including reverence for our environment and harmony in our communities and with the rest of the world. He abhors war not just because of all the deaths and wounds (both physical and psychological) caused by military means, but also because of the effects of wars on “home fronts.”

Some of these effects are achingly felt in Berry’s 1967 novel A Place on Earth, which he later revised.  Set in a fictional area much like his own of Port Royal, KY, it portrays the effects of World War II on the small community, including parents and a wife (Hannah) of one of their sons, Virgil Feltner, who was reported missing in action, but never returned. Virgil’s uncle Ernest was earlier crippled during World War I and reflected on “the implausibility of the fact that something so vast as a war had picked out and defeated so small a thing as one man, himself.” (34) Late in the novel Virgil’s father hears news of the bombing of Hiroshima; and thinks that the war had “long ago outdistanced its cause, and had now escaped comprehension. It “seemed to him that the years of violence” had “arrived at what, without his knowing it, they had been headed for, not by any human reason or motive or wish but by the logic of violence itself.” (259 revised ed.)

But for Berry’s pacifism 1968 is the pivotal year, one I have referred to elsewhere (borrowing from Dickens) as ‘the best of times . . . the worst of times.” Four years earlier Berry had bought a farm near Port Royal and soon afterwards had begun farming there. But he also commuted from it to teach at the University of Kentucky. In a 1968 essay, “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt,” he paid tribute to Pratt (a student before being imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military). In it he also wrote:

“How can a man hope to promote peace in the world if he has not made it possible in his own life and his own household? . . . To corrupt or destroy the natural environment is an act of violence not only against the earth but also those who are dependent on it, including ourselves. To waste the soil is to cause hunger, as direct an aggression as an armed attack; it is an act of violence against the future of the human race.” (In Berry’s 1969 essay collection, The Long-Legged House, 85; the speech referred to below is also there, as well as other Berry essays of this time.)

 Berry’s first major pacifist declaration came just months before in a February 1968 speech, “A Statement against the War in Vietnam.” Here in Part I of my article (Part II to be posted later), we shall examine it thoroughly, as well as the Pratt essay and a few others, and a poem that appeared in his poetry collection (Openings) of that same year.

Berry spoke out against the war in Vietnam because it was against American ideals, as well as his own. In his speech, he said: “We say that America is a Christian and a democratic country. But I find nothing in the Gospels or in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution to justify our support of petty tyrants,” or destroying people’s villages and crops, or placing civilians in concentration camps.” (68)

Regarding his own ideals, Berry said he was against the war both as a teacher and a father.

I am unable to teach on the assumption that it is part of my function to prepare young men to fit into the war machine—to invent weapons or manufacture them or use them, to write the oversimplified language of warfare or to believe it. As a teacher, I reject absolutely the notion that a man may best serve his country by serving in the army. As a teacher, I try to suggest to my students the possibility of a life that is full and conscious and responsible, and I am no longer able to believe that such a life can either lead to war or serve the ends of war.

As a father, I must look at my son, and I must ask if there is anything I possess—any right, any piece of property, any comfort, any joy—that I would ask him to die to permit me to keep. I must ask if I believe that it would be meaningful—after his mother and I have loved each other and begotten him and loved him—for him to die in a lump with a number hanging around his neck. I must ask if his life would have come to meaning or nobility or any usefulness if he should sit—with his human hands and head and eyes—in the cockpit of a bomber, dealing out pain and grief and death to people unknown to him. And my answer to all these questions is one that I must attempt to live by: No.” (75)

By 1968, the son and daughter of Berry and his wife Tanya were still too young for any type of military service, but in an anti-Cold-War poem of this time, “To a Siberian Woodsman,” Berry wrote:

There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

 Simply put, Berry valued his children more than any “national glory.” And he did not believe that good citizenship required their being sacrificed for it. In his essay on citizenship in honor of Pratt, he wrote that it “begins at home. Its meanings come clearest, it is felt most intensely in one’s own house.” As the circle widened from his small community (Port Royal, KY), to his county, state, and country his devotion grew paler. But he believed that he must at least try to care as much for the world and its environment as for his household and nation. To place any national allegiance before one’s duty to household and earth “is to invite a state of moral chaos.” (76-78)

Already in 1968, we see the link between his ideal of a good society and his criticism of the U. S. government and the consumer culture it promoted.  It was difficult in 1968 and it remains so today to pigeonhole or label Berry’s politics, but that is because he is an original thinker, whose ideas stem from his own experience and not from some political party or platform.  One writer on his pacifism, Bill Kauffman, referred to him as “the rural anarchist, the reactionary radical.” Author Wallace Stegner wrote to Berry: “Your books seem conservative. They are actually profoundly revolutionary.” Berry greatly admired Thomas Jefferson. But the two twentieth-century individuals he reminds me most of are two I have written much about: the self-described non-violent anarchist and pacifist Dorothy Day and the economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful.  (About Day, Berry once wrote: “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling. . . . When I think of the kind of worker the job requires, I think of Dorothy Day . . . a person willing to go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem.”) Berry also reminds me a little of another one of my favorite twentieth-century people, the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.

Lines such as the following from Berry’s Pratt essay: “I do not remember a day when the thought of the government made me happy, and I never think of it without the wish that it might become wiser and truer and smaller than it is” might suggest that he is a conservative. But the pacifist anarchist Day also distrusted “big government,” as did Schumacher, whose daughter Barbara described his socialism as one “that did away with the concentrations of economic power, a socialism which gave people work that allowed them to be fully human. . . . Small-scale technology, small-scale enterprise, workshops and small factories serving a community and served by a community; that was real socialism in action.” (See here for source of quote.) This emphasis on “small-scale” and serving a local community would also characterize Berry’s life and thinking, but he differed from Schumacher in primarily stressing small-scale farming. As he indicated to his readers in the Pratt essay, he rejected the “dependences and the artificial needs of urban life,” to “live on and use and preserve and learn from and enrich and enjoy the land,” to raise on it “enough food for my family.” (88)

Berry added, “I am writing with the assumption that this is only one of several possibilities, and that I am obligated to elaborate on this particular one because it is the one I know about” and find attractive. (89) This is an important statement. Berry does not write as a political scientist or an academic philosopher, but more as an individual trying to communicate and apply what his own life has taught him.

Reflecting on his life in another essay, “A Native Hill,” in his 1969 collection, he wrote:

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the realization that my people [in Kentucky] established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by the evidence of their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households. (178)

In this same essay, he attributed much of the violence in American history to the rootlessness of a frontier society, attacking both Native American Indians and the land with vehemence in order to extract from them all that could be had. In his Pratt essay, Berry wrote that “American history has been to a considerable extent the history of our warfare against the natural life of the continent.” And he added that “our violence against the earth,” our exhausting the soil and then moving on, “has made us a nation of transients, both physically and morally.” He also criticized the “the nomadism and violence of our society,” corporations buying up land, “exploitive industries,” and the “destructiveness and wastefulness of the economy.” If we wish to live a peaceful life, he suggested we should “learn to need less, to waste less, to make things last, to give up meaningless luxuries, to understand and resist the language of salesmen and public relations experts, to see through attractive packages, to refuse to purchase fashion or glamour or prestige. . . . to refuse meaningless pleasure and to resist meaningless work, and to give up the moral comfort and the excuses of the mentality of specialization.” (85-88)

Writing his Pratt essay just shortly after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr., Berry says that King “lived as only the great live, in humble obedience to the highest ideals.” (80) But the country as a whole had failed to live up to the ideals of people like Jefferson by its violence against the land, Native Americans, slaves and other African Americans. And during the twentieth century, it had also failed by overemphasizing technology, military power, urbanization, centralization, bureaucratization, specialization, success, and abstract solutions.

Following up on his expression of ideals and criticism that the U.S. government and society had fallen far short of them, Berry maintained in his Pratt essay that “the main objective of any expression or demonstration by peace groups should be to articulate as fully as possible the desirability and the possibility of peace.” He cautioned the peace movement not to “become merely negative, an instrument of protest rather than hope.” (73) He did not “believe very much in the efficacy of political solutions. The political activist sacrifices himself to politics. The problems of violence cannot be solved on public platforms, but only in people’s lives.” Too many people, he thought, were “expending themselves utterly in the service of political abstractions.”  (83-84) And “political activity of any kind is doomed to the superficiality and temporariness of politics, able only to produce generalizations that will hold  conflicting interests uneasily together for a time.” (91) His basic thought is that if we want peace, we must first change ourselves by becoming more peaceful, leading lives more conducive to a peaceful relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, and our environment.

In his essay “The Loss of the Future,” he agrees with Sen. William Fullbright’s contention that in Vietnam and beyond the United States was guilty of the “arrogance of power.” (This 1968 essay can be found in two parts, here and here, in the journal Manas, to which Schumacher also contributed.) In regard to the increasing powers of the federal government, Berry thinks the development was more likely due to failures of proper citizenship at lower levels than because of any power grab by the national government. If states would have acted responsibly, “the recent civil rights legislation would not have been necessary; if doctors had been more interested in service than in earnings there might have been no need for Medicare.” He also states that “in the minds of increasing numbers in the businesses and professions, the ideals of service and excellence have been replaced by the ethic of success, which holds that the highest aims are wealth and victory. To an alarming extent our schools and colleges are geared for the production of that kind of success, and are turning out graduates who not only do not desire any other kind but cannot recognize any other kind.”

In summary, in 1968-69 Berry’s pacifism is primarily directed against the war in Vietnam, but in a nuclear age he can also no longer imagine any justifiable war. Furthermore, his pacifism extends far beyond opposition to wars, but also includes criticism of violence in other forms, especially against the land and environment generally. His idealism embraces a strong love of land, household, and community, and he emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility. He believes that the USA has deviated far from these ideals, that militarization has harmed the USA in numerous ways, and that citizens can best work for peace by living simple lives that respect nature and other people, especially in one’s own community, but also in other parts of the world. The pacifistic, agrarian, environmental, localistic emphasis has continued to characterize his thought until the present day.

walter moss

Walter Moss

One final sentence from his 1968 speech is worth pondering before we consider (in a future posting) his subsequent pacifist thinking: “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.” (67) A failure of imagination is a subject he will return to later.

Walter G. Moss

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