Book Review: Every War Has Two Losers

Every War Has Two Losers, by William Stafford

This book, collected and edited posthumously by the author’s son Kim, is a strong and straightforward demonstration of William Stafford’s commitment to peace, reconciliation, justice, and a strong defense of his pacifist behavior during World War II and afterward [1]. In its contents, the book (like much of Stafford’s literary work [2]) is a combination of various materials with a thematic organization. The book, after beginning with a well-known poem “These Mornings” and an introduction by Stafford’s son, contains four unequal chunks in its main body. The first chunk is a chapter from his book Down In My Heart that deals with a time the author nearly died in a lynch mob (speaking from experience, that is not enjoyable), the second a collection of random but chronologically organized thoughts relating to war and politics called “Citizen Here On Earth,” selected from Stafford’s daily writings, the third a large body of poetry called “A Ritual To Read To Each Other” that has probably also been published elsewhere (though I had not read the collection in toto before), followed by some questions about victory notes, statements, and interviews on pacifism, followed by some thoughtful notes to some poems and a short biographical sketch of the author.

On the one hand, as a conscientious objector who has a rather ironic history when it comes to military matters myself [3], this is a book that I appreciate for its principled stance on seeking reconciliation (even though it is difficult) and seeking to avoid entanglement in the violence and injustice that fill our world. Likewise, there is much to admire in the distance that Stafford consistently sought in his life from the jingoist feelings of the crowd as well as from the corruptions of power and authority in the United States and every other nation on the face of this earth. He considered himself a citizen of the world, in a way that is fashionable among leftists who are not particularly patriotic to their own nations, but if he had been a more religious sort of man he would likely have considered himself first a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and devoted to the ways of God, speaking truth to power here on earth. The pacifism of the author and my own is not so different, although it springs from very different premises, and therefore there is much in this book that is worthy of appreciation, including the author’s insistence on subjecting everything, including ourselves, to intense scrutiny but also giving everyone a great deal of understanding and compassion.

That said, there is a side to this book, and to the thinking of Stafford as it is shown in these pages, that is far from praiseworthy and is in some ways contradictory to the ideals professed by the poet and thinker. The contradictions of this work are deep. For one, the author professes a great passion for peace and justice, but has little apparent loyalty to the ways of God that lead to both peace and justice, believing in some sort of vague humanitarian spirit that is cut off from those ways that serve to reconcile mankind with God and with other beings created in His image, even as the author proclaims devotion to Christ, as well as Ghandi and others. Additionally, the author shows a great deal of disdain for militarism as well as big government (which he rightly considers a constant threat to tyranny) but at the same time comments frequently on his total hostility to Republicans, even to the point where he apparently did not know a single person who voted for Reagan in 1980 or 1984, which means that he needed to get out of the left-wing ivory tower and meet some real people.

This doublespeak when it comes to politics is, lamentably, all too common on the left. It is one thing to claim that one desires peace and justice and that the politics and ways of this world are greatly corrupt. It is one thing to claim to desire the participation of a wide population of the people and to seek eloquently for minority rights. However, those sort of noble claims evaporate quickly when one engages in blatant partisanship and has little understanding of the range of opinions that exists, or that a man who claims not to have enemies and to see the good even in his adversaries ought not to be a strident and narrow partisan whose work is full of cutting comments that do not cut remotely close to evenly. The fact that this work is published by a Progressive (read: leftist) press only adds to the layers of contradiction inherent in a work, that those who seek the largest and most oppressive and unjust governments possible consistently seek to appeal to a rhetoric of freedom and justice and peace. So, there are elements of this book that are likely to complicate any just appraisal of the thinking and behavior of Stafford given his own tension between a desire to be fair and just and a largely unadmitted and unexamined partisan bias that prevented him from behaving in the peaceful manner that he claimed as an ideal. Of course, we all struggle to live up to our ideals, and so it is best to appreciate what is good and noble and beautiful about this work, and to give the same sort of graciousness to the author’s errors that we would seek for our own.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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