Today my son posted a link to an article that Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas wrote in response to the events of September 11, 2001. The piece was apparently published in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 2002. Hauerwas was appalled and saddened by the loss of life, but also saddened by President Bush’s decision to declare war in response. He remained steadfast in his pacifism, stating, “I should like to think pacifism names the habits and community necessary to gain the time and place that is an alternative to revenge.” He added, though, “But I do not pretend that I know how that is accomplished.”

Stanley Hauerwas

What I particularly appreciate about the piece is Hauerwas’s critique of war-making as an American proclivity. He suggested that the declaration of war was born of a desire to reassert control after experiencing a profound loss of control. He believed that war-making gives Americans a sense of comfort and normality: “War is such normalizing discourse. Americans know war. This is our Pearl Harbor. Life can return to normal. We are frightened, and ironically war makes us feel safe. The way to go on in the face of September 11, 2001, is to find someone to kill.”  Americans do seem quite content with being at war.  Seldom is public discourse disturbed by any sort of reminder that war is a bad thing, after all, and we should be trying hard to end our current conflicts. 

The passage I found most thought-provoking is this:

“War makes clear we must believe in something even if we are not sure what that something is, except that it has something to do with the ‘American way of life.’ What a gift bin Laden has therefore given America. Americans were in despair because we won the cold war. Americans won by outspending the USSR, proving that we can waste more money on guns than they can or did. But what do Americans do after they have won a war? The war was necessary to give moral coherence. We had to cooperate with one another because we were at war. How can America make sense of what it means for us to be ‘a people’ if we have no common enemy? We were in a dangerous funk having nothing better to do than entertain ourselves with the soap opera Bill Clinton was. Now we have something better to do. We can fight the war against terrorism.”

The declaration of war did give the nation a sense of purpose. The mission seemed noble; terrorism needed to be defeated. Of course, terrorism isn’t an enemy that can ever be defeated once and for all, so to declare war on terrorism was in fact to announce a perpetual state of war. After ten years, though, the benefits of war no longer seem as clear, and the nation is weary with the loss of American lives, the expense of maintaining the military apparatus, and the persistence of the enemy. Might peace eventually break out?

There is much more to Hauerwas’s critique. The entire article can be found here.