Tuesday, November 10, 2015

We Who Dared Say No to War

We Who Dared Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now
© 2008 Murray Polner, Tom Woods
368 pages

The image of anti-war protesters in America is of the left, especially the student left, haranguing the government for overseas debacles, bloodbaths like Vietnam and Iraq that seem to rival the Trojan War in their length. As We Who Dared Say No to War demonstrates, however,  bipartisan public outcry against government bellicosity has been around since the creation of the Republic.  The joint work of a progressive and a libertarian,  this anthology of anti-war literature demonstrates that war is the enemy of us all, destroying lives and turning governments into monsters.

I'd planned to buy this work years ago purely on the face of it, especially given its unlikely neighbors: Howard Zinn and Russell Kirk, both of whom are represented here. Aside from some more famous names, like President Eisenhower , most of the contributors are nigh-anonymous, largely forgotten by history. Their motivations for opposing war are diverse, but of this collection there are two predominant objections, moral and constitutional.  Arguments opposing the war from the perspective of Christian pacifism pepper the work, from an early piece written to the Confederate president maintaining that Christians cannot be forced to fight a war against God's commands, to the Berrigan brothers (both Catholic priests) who raised a righteous ruckus during Vietnam, at one point sneaking into a courthouse to burn draft documentation.  Another well-represented motive is Constitutional corruption; both authors decrying the fact that the president has forced the country into war despite the fact that this is Congress's purview, and those warning that wars are the lethal enemy of democracy and republican government, reliably leading to a worship of the State and the severe curtailing of liberties both civil and political.  Political objections to war run the gamut, from conservatives like Robert Taft denouncing it a menace to public health, to conservatives in the person of Eugene Debs pointing out that wars are invariably fought by a subject class who gain nothing from it but families destroyed and survivors haunted by the horrors of the battlefield.

The book covers every conflict from 1812 'til the present day, if not by name then by association: The War of 1812, the invasion of Mexico, the Civil War,  the Spanish-American war, the world wars, the "Cold War", Vietnam,  and the War on Terror, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.    Early on, a fair bit of the moral objection is patriotic: authors see in the United States an unstained and free republic, one which has never raised the sword except in its own defense.  Do not reduce us, they plead, to the level of the old world,  constantly invading and advancing the flag of conquest. May the stars and stripes, they pray, remain free of the imperial eagle. Alas for them, between Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines,  under the swagger stick of executives like McKinley and Roosevelt, the great experiment deferred to the familiar path of empire -- and even after a momentary retreat during the Depression, it came back for a vengeance after World War 2, and remains with us today.  Of all the wars covered here, World War 2 is addressed most lightly; one author maintains he's sitting this one out because history seems to indicate the futility of it. How many resources were poured into Europe to defeat the Kaiser in an alleged crusade to make the world safe for democracy, only to release a fouler creature?  We traded Hohenzollern for Hitler;   dispatch him, and what fresh hell do we risk?    There is slight drift from idealism to resignation within the book; the authors are not oblivious to the fact that they were preceded in their arguments by other generations, and eventually one wonders if we're not damned to the same mistake over and over again.  Our enemy, one author writes, is not fascism,  or even materialism, but the beast within man. Til it be tamed with reason -- til, as Plato mused, the love of wisdom commands cities -- we will defeat one enemy only to create another.

This is a work brimming with quotability, with utterly delicious surprises.  We find, for instance, Abraham Lincoln denouncing a war started on suspicious grounds only a decade before he becomes the author of a similar conflict.   Later on, a Democratic presidential candidate,  George McGovern, hails the virtue of paleo-conservative arguments against war and chastises Congressional republicans by quoting Edmund Burke and declaring that the legislative chamber stinks of blood.  Though most of the material is primary sources -- essays, poems, and songs --  Woods and Polner also provide some narrative introduction to each chapter that provides some cohesion and historical analysis -- decrying, for instance,  the rise of liberals eager to wage war in other countries for Wilsonian ends, and the rise of neo-conservatives who abandoning contempt for interventionism and profligate spending to play war across the globe.

Although the subject  here is American anti-war writing, the book commends itself to general reading. The motives and consequences of war affect other nations no less than the United States, a fact born out by the fact that many of the contributors here point to examples in history. The role of war in centralizing power, in corrupting a nation -  enriching defense contractors with the right connections, forcing a disconnect between the morality of home and the  desire of the state -- in turning perfectly friendly people into frenzied madmen -- is a universal human problem, particularly so in that there is no easy fix. Fighting  is second nature to us,  though at the level of state versus state it is virtually indefensible.  Beyond war,  We Who Dared Say No communicates important values;  moral authority and a state that is kept within its limits by the people.   Unfortunately, it is a work that will never lose relevance...at least, not this side of a coronal mass ejection.  While we can never stop the state's wars, we can refuse to participate, awaken others to its obscenities, and sap ever so slightly its power.  This is invigorating and encouraging,  demonstrating that parties that disagree on other subjects can come together to resist  and overcome the beast that is war, and the beast it makes of those who surrender themselves to it.


  • Weapons of Satire, Mark Twain. A collection of Twain's rebuke of American imperalism in the wake of the Spanish-American war.
  • Voices of a People's History, ed. Howard Zinn. An anthology of first-hand accounts railing against imperialism among other subjects. 


  1. Something from one of my TBR piles that you might like:

    To End All Wars - A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War by Adam Hochschild.

  2. Good call - I read this a few years ago, when it first came out and remember it favorably.



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