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"Word Makers of War"--A Plea for Pacifism

Think about this:

On Page 2 of Nicholson Baker's profoundly counter-intuitive book "Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization" we find this, the opening lines of a pacifist play, Jeremiah, by Stefan Zweig:

"I had recognized the foe that I was to fight--fake heroism that prefers to send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of the conscienceless prophets, both political and military who, boldly promising victory, prolong the war, and behind them the hired chorus, the 'word makers of war' as Werfel has pilloried them in his beautiful poem."

Word makers of war. I love it, and seek out Franz Werfel and his poem. Werfel, a pacifist charged with treason, published a book of poems in 1919 entitled Der Gerichtag (The Day of Judgement) which contained a poem with this title. (Another possible translation is "Propagandists of War" but I like "word makers" better.) I think of jingoists and sabre-rattlers, and the purveyors of death myths, starting with Homer--"It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country."--and including Rupert Brooke --"There shall be/ In that rich earth a richer dust conceal'd."

Werfel's poem, clumsily translated, contains these lines:

"The fools are babbling and the overambitious are croaking
And they call manliness their old excrements.
Just so that the fat women are yearning for them,
The chest full of medals
Is vaulting into dawn."

Another more powerful poem, called "The War," was written in the first months of WW1:

"On a storm of false words.
The head wreathed by empty thunder,
Sleepless from lies,
Girded with deeds which only do themselves,
Bragging with sacrifices,
Unpleasing, terrible for Heaven--That's the way you are going down,
Time . . . "

And I think of the Christie Blatchfords of the world, filling the heads of infantrymen on the way to Afghanistan with "empty thunder" and praising the generals (and presumably, the politicians behind them) who lead our soldiers to war, and to death, on foreign soil. Word makers of war.


And here is Chris Hedges, reviewing a new book, The Photographer, in the New York Times Review of Books:

"It is impossible to know war if you do not stand with the mass of the powerless caught in its maw. All narratives of war told through the lens of the combatants carry with them the seduction of violence. But once you cross to the other side, to stand in fear with the helpless and the weak, you confront the moral depravity of industrial slaughter and the scourge that is war itself. Few books achieve this clarity. 'The Photographer' is one . . .

"The disparity between what we are told or what we believe about war and war itself is so vast that those who come back, like (author Didier) Lefebvre, are often rendered speechless. What do you say to those who advocate war as an instrument to liberate the women of Afghanistan or bring democracy to Iraq? . . . How do you explain that the very proposition of war as an instrument of virtue is absurd?"

Maybe we would have more clarity and honesty about war as "an instrument of virtue" if the word makers, the writers and combat correspondents, embedded themselves with the powerless, rather than with the soldiers. Alas, embedding with the victims isn't sexy, and it exposes one to the real mortal danger of war.


The virtuous war, the good war, is a pervasive myth. WW 2 was "good." Vietnam was "bad." (All lost wars are bad.) Equally pervasive is the myth that war is necessary.

Here is an excerpt from Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War". A war, by the way, that left 620,000 men dead on the battlefields, more than the combined dead of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, WW1, WW2 and the Korean War.

"Death created the modern American union--not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments . . . Americans had to identify--find, invent, create--the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss. How they accomplished this task reshaped their individual lives--and deaths--at the same time that it redefined their nation and their culture.

"The work of death was Civil War America's most fundamental and most demanding undertaking."

Note the message behind these sweeping sentences: War creates a sense of nationhood. Is this true? It's an unsettling thought: Nationhood at a cost of half a million lives. And what kind of nation does this blood-flood produce? A nation of graves? A nation, perhaps, that embraces war as a viable instrument of nation-building? Destruction as a means of creation. "To save the village, it was necessary to destroy it." It's the kind of logic one wants to run away from.


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