When gunpowder became commonplace on the battlefield sometime around the Napoleanic Era something irrevocably changed about warfare. It's right around this time that world history loses much of its appeal to me (and I minored in history). The gun is a devastatingly powerful weapon in terms of both accuracy, range, and damage. I don't think it's prosaic to say that its widespread use and the invention of even deadlier weapons have forever altered the course of human history.
Most disturbing to me is the gun's dehumanizing effect. Modern soldiers never see their enemy face-to-face, allowing us to more easily overlook individuals obliterated and become innured to the sheer numbers of lives lost. It used to be that you would stand toe-to-toe with your opponent in a match of skill, strength, and stamina. You needed to know something about them, which sometimes led to respect and admiration, if ancient literature--which often extols the virtues of a "worthy opponent"--is any indication. Today, in our efforts to minimize American casualties, we've developed technologies so advanced that we can now send an unmanned plane to level a building, push a button to bomb a city, or snipe a "target" from a mile away. I used to know an LDS artilleryman who had served in Desert Storm and wasn't sure if or how many he had killed, but was haunted by the fact that he may have hit innocent bystanders. Modern warfare is both strange and tragic; no wonder much of the literature about it is bleak, depressing, and hopeless.
Because war, by definition, is the systematic destruction of another group of human beings and their livelihoods, it should never be treated lightly. Naturally, I'm troubled with the many organizations, such as today's Al-Qaeda, and nations, like Nazi Germany, who wantonly dole out death to accomplish their aims, as if it were the primary solution to any problem.
But what of us? We're certainly not the killers that some groups are, but I wonder if sometimes the United States is either too hasty or too inconsistent in going to war. For over 70% of the 20th century, the United States was engaged in some type of warfare, from territorial wars in Latin America to the two World Wars to Cold War conflicts and, finally, to Desert Storm. While we have long since abandoned wars for territorial acquisition, our more recent justification for war usually falls somewhere between protecting American interests/survival and spreading democracy. But are we unwavering and honest in these endeavors?
We have become a policing nation in the sense that we go to war to right international wrongs and bring unethical ideologies down. But we do so inconsistently and often overlook the most heinous of crimes against humanity. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, killing about a thousand Kuwaiti civilians, we began a seven-month conflict to liberate the overrun country. Just three years later, between 500 thousand to a million people were killed in the Rwandan Genocide while the United States looked on, actually lobbying, just after the fighting began, that all UN troops leave Rwanda. The genocide in Darfur is making headlines today, but little is actually being done about the conflict with fatalities now numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Some promote our role as the global enforcer for democracy, but we are variable in our dedication. The United States went to war with factions in Korea, Laos and Vietnam in the 1950s and 60s to halt the spread of communism, a sort of political preemptive strike. But we never made similar attempts in Russia or China, probably because wars with superpowers would have been disastrous for us. Today, we ignore the newest communist leanings in countries like Moldova and others. With the possible exceptions of China and North Korea, communism has almost become a joke, synonymous with poverty and backward thinking.
No, terrorism and tyranny are the modern manifestations of political evil. Americans believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and went to war to stop the perceived threat. Years and many casualties later and we know now that Iraq was merely posturing in an attempt to look more powerful. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be found and no evidence that there had been any. Some say that we ousted an immoral and threatening head of state and, therefore, did the world a favor, but was that justification enough to go to war? If it is then we have a long list to tackle, including Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and others. Certainly ousting each one would stretch our military resources very thin, and is therefore impractical, but I still don't understand our rationale. Why Hussein now and Ahmadinejad later?
As with all other moral concerns, I look to my religion for answers and guidance. Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle of the Church, described war as the "most satanic and evil state of affairs that can exist [...]. It is organized and systematic murder" (Mormon Doctrine). Under what circumstances then would the Lord permit such evil?
The Book of Mormon is rife with war, especially as the events wind down to the genocide that wipes out the Nephite civilization. In fact, primarily as a result of studying the Book of Mormon, I ruled out preemptive strike as a justifiable reason to go to war. If we are meant to liken the Nephites to ourselves, then their account becomes very relevant to this discussion. One LDS blogger's take on war goes as follows:
"[N]ever in the whole of the Book of Mormon can there be found a single instance of any group, who is identified as righteous, launching a war or invading enemy territory even when they had clear and compelling evidence that they were about to be attacked. [...] According to the Book of Mormon there are several conditions, all of which must be met, to justify war: 1) Life and land and rights must be threatened by an enemy that wishes to take them away by forcible subjection (Alma 43:9-10, 43:46-47). 2) The enemy must actually have the power to follow through on their threat to deprive the conquered of their rights, land, and life (Alma 43:14, Alma 48:4). 3) War should be in defense against invaders (3 Nephi 3:21)."
Additionally, the Nephites are divinely instructed not be "guilty of the first offense and neither the second" (Alma 43:46). When the Gadiation robbers, who have some similarity to modern terrorist groups, threatened the Nephites, the Nephite response is instructive: "[...] if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands" (3 Nephi 3:21). If preemptive strike is unacceptable for the Nephites, then what of us?
Initially, then I was confused in rereading comments on the current conflict in Iraq. Church President Gordon Hinckley said in April 2003 that "as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders. They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally." Then again, bearing in mind that the Church is an international organization, his comments were directed to all members under various leaders with different opinions on war. Additionally, I wonder if Church members are as willing to accept President Hinckley's comment today, now that we have a new administration with a different outlook on war. I believe we are still beholden to "being subject to [...] presidents."
Other religious leaders also possess spiritual insight. Last year I read a biography on Gandhi and was very impressed with his life and mission. Gandhi taught that non-violent protest is more powerful than war because it converts an enemy's soul, instead of destroying it. I'm also interested in the idea the apostle Dallin Oaks outlines, that Jesus did not attempt to oust the tyrannical Roman Empire but taught his followers to be good citizens and peacemakers. In fact, Christ was rejected as the Messiah partly because the Jews had "missed the mark" and thought the Savior would fight their battles and liberate them politically.
Finally, I am comforted by the teachings of Elder Oaks in his talk entitled "World Peace." He espouses the idea that peace is not the absence but the opposite of war. In order to promote global peace, we must become local peacemakers. Praying and hoping for world peace is insufficient. Healing our relationships, forgiving quickly, and helping others is also necessary. If everyone really did that, all wars would cease.