A few weeks ago, my curiosity in poetry led me to go to an area library for a poetry reading about the poems of William Stafford, who was Oregon’s fourth poet laureate, from the outgoing sixth poet laureate of Oregon, whose poems were not quite as enjoyable to me as the elegant and simple and yet very thoughtful poetry of Stafford . At that particular evening there was a sheet passed out for a follow-up movie showing at the library for a short documentary called “Every War Has Two Losers,” which examined the pacifist views of this particular poet, an area that has made this particular poet a favorite among peace activists even in the present day . Given that I am a very untypical pacifist myself , I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss these aspects of his thoughts.
During World War II, William Stafford was a conscientious objector to war and spent his time at various work camps as a sort of prisoner performing various service at home in lieu of military service abroad. A couple decades later, my father too, a student at a small non-accredited religious college in East Texas ineligible for an academic deferment declared he was a conscientious objector when he was drafted for Vietnam and spent four years in service at a farm. Stafford’s experiences cut him off from his background from a Midwestern farming family, and put him on a path that would lead him to become a poet and a literature professor at Lewis & Clark college in Oregon. He spoke and expressed often the decisive path his life took thanks to his principled stand. My father, in contrast, did not talk to me at least much about those years of his at the farm where he found his own academic ambitions (such as they were) to be frustrated, leading him to become further embedded into his farming family from Western Pennsylvania and closed off from his own goals for education. The same experience opened up life to one man, and yet the same conditions closed off another man from the wider world of thoughts and ideas, despite the fact that both made the same decision and paid the same price in similar times.
William Stafford, like many principled opponents of warfare, reflected greatly on the damage that warfare caused. Military thinker Carl von Clausewitz saw that war was politics by other means and that no plan survived first contact with the enemy. The fact that military matters are an extension of politics suggests that militarism is not merely a problem with the military itself, but about the willingness of a political culture to expend large amounts of blood and treasure for often dubious aims. Notably, we see in our republic a tendency for one of our main political parties to be torn between a desire to co-opt those who are pacifists for monetary and political support while engaging in frequent military actions in foreign nations for political purposes. Likewise, we see in the other major political party in our republic a desire to co-opt Christians while also engaging in frequent military actions for political purposes. Those Christians whose faith is more nationalist tend to be more aligned with one party, while those whose faith is more pacifist tend to align with the other political party. Yet neither political party supports or engages in either the sort of military action that is legitimate according to scripture (namely military action taken defensively, without a reliance on foreign treaties or military technology, and in a government and society organized according to God’s laws and ways) or according to the peacefulness and respect and love for others that marks the consistent biblical ethic, where war is something to be lamented rather than celebrated.
There are several ways where war makes losers of both sides. Obviously, in a war where there is a clear verdict in favor of one side over another, it is easy to understand how the loser of the conflict is a loser. Such sides suffer visibly and obviously from defeat in the destruction of their political order, the death of many of their men, the destruction of their homes and civil infrastructure, and the imposition of peace terms that are often harsh and draconian, all of this leading to decades or even generations of discontent and hostility towards the resulting order. It is easy to see how such people are losers in many senses as a result of such experiences. In less geopolitical terms, one can see how the suffering of injustice of cruelty causes great damage to survivors. That said, there is often a profound degree of loss even on the sides of ‘victors’ in conflict, such as those survivors who are reflecting upon Holocaust Day and the horrors that they endured, or those who have endured more domestic horrors in their own families and personal backgrounds.
Yet war often causes substantial losses even to those who are viewed as victors. The loss of blood and treasure and the deaths of loved ones surely damage even those who have won wars, as that which could have been dedicated to peaceful pursuits has been diverted and wasted to destructive purposes. Likewise, there is a great damage to the lives of those who survive in terms of what they had to do in order to win, in the cruelty and hatred that they felt and acted on in order to win. Such damage affects us long after the shooting and arguing stops. This is true, again, whether our wars are fought with bullets or merely with words. Our quarrels and wars may lead our nations, families, churches, and other institutions to be bitterly divided, and whether we win or lose in terms of the arguments or the matters at stake, we are losers when our own behavior has become more coarsened and especially when it has damaged our relationships with others and made us more isolated and more hostile and less connected to others in respect and love. Such losses have been all too common in my own life, regardless of my skill or success in argument and debate. Yet I find, however much this may be to my credit, that those whom I disagree with passionately I cannot yet bring myself to hate because I see them as human beings with longings and fears and concerns not unlike my own, however we may disagree or stand in opposition because of where we stand in particular situations and on particular issues.
It is immensely unrealistic to expect to be able to resolve conflicts by eliminating disagreements or differences between people, as these disagreements come about because of the variety that makes life full of variety and that also provides for progress in the common difficulties that we face as human beings. That said, how we address such difference and disagreement as exists honestly ought to handled in such a way that provides for less intense and destructive conflict. At the heart of such different ways of behaving require a common set of issues and concerns. For one, honest and open and loving communication needs to be present as a way of providing to both sides existence that everyone is acting in good faith, if not always consistently good results. Likewise, love and respect needs to be felt by all sides for the others as well as shown in actions, and recognized in the actions of others. This requires a change of our focus and attention so that we see where others are coming from, see where others are aiming at, and are able to take appropriate action to make sure that we make all possible genuine friends and avoid all necessary enemies. If such a state is far easier said than done, at least it provides us with the chance of avoiding suffering or inflicting any unnecessary losses and wounds on others. We all suffer enough as it is for necessary reasons. Why add to that suffering carelessly and heedlessly?
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