On War

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Dear Friends,

I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you about war. The bad news is numbingly familiar.  The good news, however, is heartening.

Some familiar and numbing statistics: The United States now spends $700 billion per year on our military, more than all other nations combined.  We still have 1,700 strategic nuclear weapons deployed at the ready, with another 3,000 stockpiled in waiting. Twenty-seven active armed conflicts currently rage throughout our world, with 300,000 American troops stationed oversees to enforce our foreign policy. 350,000 tons of landmines and explosives remain lurking in former war zones.

Since 2001, over two million US service members have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, with 600,000 having served multiple tours. Twenty percent of these veterans return home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans are twice as likely as their peers to be unemployed, and they make up a third of the homeless.  Twenty percent of suicides are committed by veterans – in a nation that loses over thirty people every day to gun violence. Since 2001, over 6,400 US servicemen and 1,530,000 civilians have died in our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The good news is we clearly have the power to turn this around. Since the beginning of our faith, Quakers have heeded the advice of George Fox (1651) to “… come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.” We seek to continually tap our internal resources for peace making, which we feel running just as deep as our internal resources for violence.

Renowned Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, exhaustively documents the growing potency of peace making throughout the course of human history. In his examination of sweeping archives of historical data, Pinker asks, “What are the chances that a person died at the hands of another person rather than passing away by natural causes?”  He finds that across twenty-two pre-state cultures worldwide from 14,000 BCE to 1770 CE, the average rate of death by human violence was 15%. With the rise of state-based societies, that figure plummeted. Even in the two most violent centuries of the past half millennium – the 17th and the 20th Centuries, the rates of violent death were 2% and 3% respectively.  In our own time, Pinker tallies all violent deaths documented worldwide in 2005 (including the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq), multiplies that number by 20 just to be conservative, and still determines that violent acts accounted for less than 1% of all deaths worldwide in 2005.

From the perspectives of cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology, Pinker attributes these trends to social forces that increasingly promote empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason in individuals.  The good news: these processes are working.  And while it’s helpful to describe them academically, the real Good News is that we already know these processes from our own faith experience. We are familiar with our own capacity to resolve conflicts justly; we know that our capacity to do justice hinges on kindness; and we know that kindness is discovered by patiently waiting for guidance from the Spirit, if only sometimes by counting to ten.

In Peace,

Mary Klein