A May 2022 Associated Press article reported that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, painted a grim picture of a world that is becoming more unstable, with great powers intent on changing the global order. He told graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy that they will bear the responsibility to make sure America is ready. “The world you are being commissioned into has the potential for significant international conflict between great powers.”
A call to be ready to go to war again. And again. And again. As if war accomplishes anything but destruction of the soul.
In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote and sang Masters of War which includes these lines:
You fasten all the triggers / For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch / When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion / While the young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud
Let me ask you one question / Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness / Do you think that it could?
I think you will find / When your death takes its toll
All the money you made / Will never buy back your soul
The song condemns those who initiate and fashion war. He wrote the song to speak specifically to the world's power brokers and the way they manufacture international conflict. In 2001 Dylan proclaimed: "It is not an antiwar song. It's speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency." The event Dylan referred to occurred on January 17, 1961, when President Eisenhower gave his farewell from the Oval Office. In the speech Ike warned, "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex."
Author James Lee Burke in his 2001 book, Last Car to Elysian Fields, made similar comments about how people declare war who never have to fight them: “Politicians who themselves had avoided active service and never had listened to the sounds a flame thrower extracted from its victims, or zipped up body bags on the faces of their best friends, clamored for war and stood proudly in front of the flag while they sent others off to fight.”
Stephen Crane describes war as “the blood-swollen god” in his 19th century classic, The Red Badge of Courage. A soldier in Vietnam witnessing atrocities in Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse affirms the soul-destroying nature of war when he thinks, “Could anything be so important that they could cast aside their humanity?”
In 1970 the popular singing quartet, The Temptations, released the protest song, War, which includes these words:
War, what is it good for? / Absolutely nothing, just say it again
What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing, listen to me
It ain't nothing but a heart-breaker / friend only to the undertaker
War it's an enemy to all mankind / the thought of war blows my mind
I’m not suggesting that there are never situations where a call to arms is necessary. For instance, the need to stop tyrants like Hitler or Pol Pot. Gen. Milley’s counsel to the West Point graduates assumes that possibility. But history clearly reveals that the majority of wars need never have happened. All too often leaders have initiated armed conflict either for nefarious purposes, or for conflicts of interest that could have been settled with words and concessions instead of guns.
The second president of the U.S., John Adams, penned a 1797 letter to his wife, Abigail, as he strove to keep the country from going to war with France. In that letter he wrote: “Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” War virtually always wounds – and in many cases kills – the soul. That being the case, political leaders best be absolutely sure that there is no other option before sending young men and women to lose their lives . . . or souls.