He's No Gandhi
War is wrong, Mahatma Gandhi wrote. It has got to go. Peace will never come until the great powers courageously decide to disarm themselves. Unless the world adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for humanity.
Gandhi insisted that though history records an endless array of wars with countless millions slaughtered, we have survived because of the largely untold underlying spirit of nonviolence. If we dare organize that power of steadfast nonviolence, Gandhi saidas he demonstrated in his campaign to win India’s independence from the British empirewe can not only end wars in the Middle East and Africa, we can abolish war forever.
Lately, I’ve been reading the 100 volumes of Gandhi’s collected writings for a book of his selections that I am editing. While reading Gandhi, I received The Invention of Peace, by the noted military historian and Yale University professor Michael Howard, which has attracted attention in England for its brief but sweeping survey of the past 2,000 years of European-based warmaking.
It has been quite an experience to ponder the message of Gandhi while also reading this study of war. Howard’s panoramic glance over the major trends of war does not so much reveal the invention of peace as the ongoing re-invention of war. And it is quite sobering. As Howard makes all too clear, every few years a new king, emperor or president announces a new world order and then proceeds to defend his state’s imperial domination with the latest technique for mass murder (as we witness these days with the U.S. bombings and sanctions on Iraq).
Unfortunately, from the beginning Howard accepts the basic premise that war is just and not only sometimes necessary, but actually helpful. He speaks then of the institution of war and the necessary rationalization of war. While his survey spotlights the reality of humanity’s long love affair with war, in the end, The Invention of Peace disappointed me because there was no serious analysis about how we can get ourselves out of this self-destructive addiction to war. Indeed, he concludes that there is little hope that we will ever be free of war.
What we need instead is a real history of peace, a study of those extraordinary historic episodes when war was averted or ended through creative nonviolent alternatives and negotiations and of those states, such as Costa Rica, which actually refuse to have a military. From such studies we can learn how to avoid war and one day begin the process of disarmament, the commitment to nonviolent alternatives to international conflict and the invention of a true peace based on social and economic justice.
As Christians, we know that such a peace, in the end, as the U.S. bishops wrote, is a gift from God. It requires following the commandment, Love your enemies, don’t bomb them. With over 35 wars currently being fought and the maintenance of 30,000 nuclear weapons while millions starve, the question of peace remains as urgent as ever. While some may find Howard’s book useful to reflect on our historical preference for war, I will continue studying Gandhiand Jesusfor insights into nonviolence so we can make a real preferential option for peace.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “He's No Gandhi,” in the April 9, 2001, issue.