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War And What Price Freedom
By William Stuart Nelson
In 1928 Mahatma Gandhi wrestled with the problem of war not simply as a theory but as an institution in which he had participated on three occasions as a noncombatant. He wrote: “I know that war is wrong, is an unmitigated evil. I know too that it has to go. I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom.”
This statement strikes many unfree men as a hard saying. Has not freedom, they ask, almost always been won by wars or some more subtle form of violence? Are we to believe that what was achieved at so great a price in reality was no freedom? Gandhi himself anticipated this scepticism and cited the French and Russian revolutions in defence of his thesis. Deeper hatred, counter-hatred, vengeance, he characterized sixteen years later, as the fruits of violence. War, for him, in summary, is an unmitigated evil. Indeed, freedom won by violence is no freedom.
Such convictions are politely attributed by some to the visionary. On the contrary, the current record attests to a different trend. Adlai Stevenson had once described war as containing the possibility of escalation into annihilation of all or most of mankind. Such an authority as the late General Douglas MacArthur spoke of “....the utter futility of modern war―its complete failure as an arbiter of international dissensions”. To this may be added General Eisenhower's commentary on “the sterile, stupid business of war and preparation for war”.
As late as June 1964, the President of Columbia University in New York City warned the more than six thousand graduates of that institution that “...we must restrain ourselves from the emotionally gratifying but socially dangerous tactics of violence to achieve our ends”. Even though we no longer have with us India’s late Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the votaries of peace can find comfort and perhaps incentive to greater action in his testimony on the futility of hate and violence: “The lesson of history, the long course of history, and more especially the lesson of the last two great wars which have devastated humanity, has been that out of hatred and violence, only hatred and violence will come. We have got into a cycle of hatred and violence, and not the most brilliant debate will get you out of it, unless you look some other way and find some other means.”
The psychiatrist himself is puzzled at what he calls the paradox of serving life while relying upon weapons of death. Dr. Roy W. Menninger, a noted American psychiatrist, suggests that reliance upon weapons of final destructiveness will be abandoned only “when people discover that strength means other things than the capacity to destroy. In the lives of most of us, ‘strength of character’ is recognized as being stronger than the gun carried by the fearful insecure adolescent. By what means such concepts as ‘strength of character’ can be translated into national terms and then suffused into national behaviour is a question for which I have no answer. But it seems apparent that the failure to find a lasting belief in sources of strength other than weapons alone can lead only to the devastating outcome that all of us consider so possible.”
Why do nations fight?
Why do nations fight? Particularly, why do nations prepare to fight with weapons that are patently death-serving to all or nearly all who are involved, directly or indirectly? Eric Fromm, the eminent German psychologist and psychoanalyst, searching for an explanation of war, develops the thesis of the necrophilous person―a lover of death. But even Fromm, in suggesting such an unlikely hypothesis, makes this generalization: “Any glorification of violence is not only dangerous, it is based on untruth. Dying is never sweet except for the necrophilous pervert, and killing never leads to the realization of what is human. Killing is always a violation of what is human, both in the killer and in the killed. It is condoned by many as being in the service of life, but it must always be atoned for because it always is a crime against life; it always hardens the heart of the killer, it always violates humanity.”
The great dilemma which faces a morally sensitive nation today is, on the one hand, the sense of war's futility or, at least its dreadful cost, and, on the other, the fear of risking unilateral abandonment. The will to live is powerful and yet men would often rather die than bear the taunt of cowardice. What, then, is required to build an anti-war sentiment in a country? That the task is formidable is suggested by the confession of Gandhi that he was unprepared to chart the course to a warless society. His resourcefulness was consumed in fashioning an instrument for freeing Indians from colonialism and its multitude of miseries. He did, however, bequeath to us a principle tested on a limited stage. How may we now persuade men to test it on the international stage when the defence of “honour” is still an applauded ritual? Let us examine some possibilities.
The world recently took special notice of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife. The word Sarajevo, city of that event, still excites a train of memories as tragic as any the world has ever known. There is the macabre succession of World War I, World War II, fascism, nazism, communism, Japanese militarism, the nuclear age. There is resurgent nationalism with nation-states seeking more and better armaments. Here we deal not with theory and speculation but with facts which have developed within the lives of millions now alive. As the race of man, we have no right to forget this procession of tragedy. We owe to the future the duty to keep it burning on the memories of mankind; perhaps that will give us pause and will forestall the fatal act.
We have, however, other persuasive grounds for looking elsewhere than to war for the solution of international problems. One of these is rooted in the nature of man, witnessed to persuasively by eminent thinkers in a wide diversity of fields.
On 3 July 1964 President Lyndon Johnson of the United States signed the bill passed by the Congress known as the Civil Rights Bill. In it’s widening of rights for Negroes as American citizens it is judged as second in importance only to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation signed one hundred years ago. President Johnson closed his statement at the signing ceremony with the following resolve: “Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of all.” Here we have the President of a nation for centuries deeply divided on racial lines evoking a spiritual law pronounced for millennia by prophets and seers and reiterated through the centuries by wise men without number, namely, the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Millions of men today worship at the shrines of religions which teach the oneness of their Creator and the consequent brotherhood of the created.
Brotherhood―The Need of the Hour
The teaching of man’s brotherhood has not remained, however, the exclusive province of the seer and prophet. The poet-clergyman, John Donne, brings his convictions down to earth and reminds us: “No man is an Island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” The Greek author, Nikos Kazansakis, in his novel The Greek Passion, has one of his characters say: “Every man hangs around the neck of all of us.”
Walter Lippman, leading essayist in political and moral philosophy, in his book The Public Philosophy has come to grips with the basic question of man’s inherent relations to man. When, says Lippman, Jean Paul Sartre declares that God is dead, he is not simply giving up an anthropomorphic God but an a priori meaning to life. He is denying that beyond our private world there is a public world and declaring that what is good and right and true is what each of us chooses to invent. This view takes us “outside the traditions of civility. We are back in the war of all men against all men. There is left no accommodation among the variety of men, nor is there in this proclamation of anarchy a will to find an accommodation.” Bertrand Russell, Lippman points out, has recognized that this way leaves us without a check on pride and puts us on the road to an intoxication of power and to the danger “of vast social disaster”.
Even Voltaire, to whom we cannot impute starry-eyed gazing or sentimentalism, defines in terms of signal horror an act of fatal violence against one’s fellowman. He writes: “Twenty years are required to bring a man from the state of a plant in which he exists in the womb of his mother and from the state of an animal, which is his condition in infancy, to a state in which the maturity of wisdom begins to make itself felt. Thirty centuries are necessary in which to discover even a little of his structure. An eternity would be required to know anything of his soul. But one moment suffices to kill him.”
Joining this eminent chorus, Sigmund Freud observes: “All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve as war’s antidote....The psychologist need feel no compunction in mentioning ‘love’ in this connection. The other bond of sentiment is by way of identification. All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.”
Each of us on the basis of each day’s experience can testify to man’s commonality. We all know that mankind is supported by one universe―the same earth feeds us, the same sun warms us, and the same stars shine upon us all. There is a common quality in our basic emotions. Not only one joy but one sorrow unites us. The emotions of the mother in Calcutta at the death of her child differ little or not at all from the emotions of the mother in New York or Sydney or Moscow at the loss of her child. In the presence of birth and death, sickness and health, youth and old age, triumphs and defeats, we experience feelings that differ in no fundamental way. We meet these events with joy and sorrow, courage and cowardice, love and hatred. We walk the path from birth to death with basically the same desires―happiness, self-realization, social fulfillment. Certainly, from nation to nation, race to race, family to family, individual to individual our experiences come in sundry forms, our emotions are expressed differently, we seek fulfillment in a variety of ways; but the basic quality of our emotions and the basic direction of our natures are the same. We are one people.
It may appear strange and yet it is true that all this in man’s history―fear of death, the voices of prophets, poets and philosophers, the assurances of scientists―has not sufficed to prevent the tragedy of slaughter through war. We have been warned, however, by the American philosopher, William James, that men will not be persuaded easily to abandon war, that war against war is no holiday excursion or camping party.
James saw no hope of avoiding war except by inventing its moral equivalent. He would have the government conscript youth to wage a war against nature. These youths would work in coal mines, on fishing fleets in winter, on the frames of the tallest buildings, all according to their choice. “Such a conscription”, he wrote, “with the state of public opinion that would have required it, and the many moral fruits it would bear, would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace”.
No nation, I believe, has followed James’s prescription but the title of his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War”, remains to haunt us. We, in our time, must discover that equivalent. The first step is to create a national character which is antithetical to war and the qualities which breed war. This suggests not simply a struggle with nature; as James proposed, but a struggle with the anti-social manifestations of human nature.
The purpose around which a struggle can be mounted is that of making one’s own nation a nation of justice in which mutual confidence and concern dominate, rather than suspicion and hate. This means a land, for example, where politics is a spring of well-being rather than a stage on which a struggle for power and power alone is waged; where commerce exists to serve the whole people rather than to create profits for the few; where religious institutions are the bearers of truth rather than the seats of theological and organizational divisiveness.
Gandhi laid great store by his constructive program. For him it was not an embellishment but an essential to the struggle for freedom. He saw freedom from colonialism as an illusion without the character, the national solidarity inherent in a spirit and program of mutual helpfulness among the people. “....we can never reach Swaraj”, he said, “with the poison of untouchability corroding the Hindu part of the national body”. Freedom under such a circumstance he called a meaningless term. It would appear clear that only the discipline productive of internal harmony can bring a people to oppose an external enemy nonviolently ―discipline which has withstood abuse, alienation, perhaps even death, but also discipline which has turned hatred into fraternity, combativeness into cooperation, suspicion into mutual confidence.
Facing the difficulties of bringing a people to the mood necessary for unilateral disarmament, the devotees of nonviolence must understand the problems of the political establishment which seeks by slow and even halting steps, political in nature, to lay the foundation of peace with another nation or nations: a treaty here, partial disarmament there; cooperation in some international understanding; building bridges of understanding between even small segments of their country with another. Politicians are not miracle workers; they are heads of states, not saints. They do not operate from ashrams. They are leaders but also they are subject to the dictates of the people. Devotees of a nonviolent world bear, in relation to them, three responsibilities: themselves to be unfailing examples of nonviolence; to stand in judgment upon such leaders of the state but not in pious, intolerant judgment and to press the nonviolent ideal upon them with clarity and vigorous insistence; by example and preachment to win so large a segment of the populace to this conviction that the leaders need no longer fear to take the nonviolent step but will fear not to take it.
During the process of national spiritual discipline unilateral disarmament may appear plausible. So wise a man as the late President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, has proposed that in such a case the world would not permit a country so venturing to fall a victim to aggression. This would be a risk, but in its favour is the effort to establish a moral principle of incalculable dimensions―performance, as Gandhi called it, of “a perfect act” enshrining “an eternal law”. It would have in its favour the fact also that if a country were overrun this would not be necessarily at the cost of national suicide. Since time immemorial conquered peoples have borne their misfortune bravely and once again have flowered. What they failed to achieve by force of arms they have accomplished in relation to their conquerors by moral and cultural dominance.
War is too great a price even for freedom. The freedom which it appears to win is illusory. On the contrary the offering of life on the moral altar by the individual or the nation is redemptive. It is the act called by Gandhi “a perfect act” enshrining “an eternal law”.