I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield
Study war no more.
(African- American spiritual)
As a student at Columbia University (2013-2017), I often proselytized the benefits of conservatism and libertarianism to my professors and classmates. Sometimes, after a particular class, my moral compass would move slightly to the left when a liberal professor made a compelling case about civil rights, slavery, or America’s long history of war. To be clear, regarding my leftward drift, I do not mean today’s “progressivism,” which is obsessed with race, white supremacy, and white fragility and seeks to divide the working class up into a neverending array of oppressed groups. The liberal sentiments I am referring to is the anti-war stance of the 1960s New Left, which abhorred and distrusted big government and war.
Schor divides the book into two sections. Part I, entitled The Individual Voices of Peace Advocacy, conveys peace advocacy and anti-war sentiments from an individual perspective, ranging from the widely known (Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King) to the lesser known (Cindy Sheehan and Alice Herz).
Part II, The Collective Chorus of Peace Advocacy, focuses on group efforts (Wobblies, Witness for Peace) and organizations (draft resistance against the Vietnam War). Schor examines “the specific socio-historic circumstances within which these peace advocates and organizations operated and their resultant achievements and failures, and the kind of politics that perpetuate war and those that offer a challenge to that perpetuation.” Shor and many peace scholars divide peace in two ways, and while they are similar, there are subtle differences. Negative peace can be described as a world with an absence of war and a type of peace that can be destroyed at any moment due to unresolved tension via racism, sexism, etc. Positive peace is based on the Aristotelian concept of thriving and non-violently addressing the needs of all parties concerned. To quote John Updike, although in a different context, how Shor thinks this will ultimately happen is touched on with “a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter, of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.” Shor asserts that America’s wars of the late twentieth century (and war in general) were made possible by white nationalist or fascist movements and “phallocentric” individuals who worshipped at the altar of Ronald Reagan, Hitler, and Mussolini and whose toxic masculinity was regenerated through violence and ‘feeding off of the right-wing tropes circulated in the media’ and by neoconservative politicians like Reagan. By the end of the book, I would argue that Shor was also the purveyor of some tropes. In the fantasy universe that he appears to inhabit, the threat of communism was perhaps not as grave a danger to humanity as the ” war machine” presented it to be, even though by famine or murder, the ideology is responsible for the deaths of over one hundred million. The self-immolators, folk-singing communist party members, and people with anti-war stances held a clear moral high ground over those who waged or fought in wars and, in hindsight, overestimated the threat communism posed to the United States and perhaps waged war only to enrich themselves and consolidate their power. All this notwithstanding, Shor’s book is provocative and caused me to undergo some serious introspection as much of the autobiographies resonated with me, especially Albert Einstein’s life story.
My closest friends know I raised my thirty-one-year-old niece since the day of her birth in 1993. Recently, she had to make a decision which would impact her life forever. Before doing so, she had the respect to inform me of her situation and ask my opinion on the correct course of action. I told her that at the beginning of every period of my life, I thought I had the answers to everything and life figured out. From when I was twenty-one until today, at age sixty-one, I radically altered my views when contemplating my beliefs every ten years or so. I advised her that whatever she decided to do, she would consider what I told her. I am in good company, as Albert Einstein underwent something similar regarding his worldview. As Shor illustrates, Albert Einstein was a committed pacifist who underwent three types of pacifism. As a young man, Shor describes Einstein’s pacifism as militant, meaning his life had no place for war and violence, and it was never justified under any circumstances. Einstein’s pacifism was best described as pragmatic in his middle years and the advent of an Adolph Hitler-led Germany. He did not abandon his anti-war stance but readapted and repurposed his worldview for the nuclear age, even endorsing conscription and urging President Roosevelt to work towards the development of an atomic bomb before Germany built and used one. In his final years, his pacifism became melancholic. Rather than this having a debilitating effect on his pacifism, it was the opposite. He knew, perhaps better than any man of his time (and even the present era), the world-ending possibilities of nuclear war, and he worked tirelessly and unsuccessfully until his death to seek an end to the expansion of imperialism and militarism.
Much of Einstein’s worldview was shaped in his youth. Between the years of 1884 and 1887 at the Peterschule catholic elementary school, he witnessed widespread antisemitism, hatred, and violence. Encountering aggression and violence at an early age had a similar effect on me, and how, over the years, I, like Einstein, have changed once intransigent stances. In many ways, like Einstein, I learned everything I needed to know about how the world works when I was a child. One morning in 1968, when I was six, the neighborhood bully, who was three years older than me, punched me in the stomach for no reason. Observing the incident from their bedroom window were my neighbors Mike and Joe, two twin brothers who were the same age as the bully. They ran out of their house, chased the bully down, and brought him to me. While Mike held the bully’s arms in a full nelson, Joe urged me to punch him in the stomach in our small-town version of lex taliones. As much as I wanted to throttle him, I knew that at a later date, the bully would not forget my retaliation, and he would want revenge.
I let Mike release the bully unharmed as he ran away with great haste, believing that my decision to refrain from violence was the right one. Years later, in 1976, the bully was back to his old ways, and every day, while walking past my school locker, he shoved me into it from behind with great force. I endured this multiple times a week for months, but I did not deviate from my nonviolent approach. By the summer of 1978, things were about to change. I started working out with weights, not because I wanted to impress females with my buff body. I was simply tired of being picked on. One afternoon, the bully grabbed a close female friend in a headlock, which was causing her great pain for no other reason than to provoke me. I could no longer be passive and nonviolent. I beat him mercilessly in front of a crowd of onlookers with a rage I did not know I possessed. From that moment on, everything changed. He never picked on me again, but more importantly, we became friends, and to this day, we still are.
Moreover, I never raised my hands to anyone for the rest of my life. Most importantly, while I was never anyone’s personal punching bag, the entire student body looked at me in a completely new way and tread cautiously when around me. It is important to note that individuals like the neighborhood bully I encountered early in life exist worldwide. Some of them go on to lead great and powerful nations. The individual who taunted me throughout my childhood and punched me in the stomach in 1968 did not want to talk about the ideas expressed in Kant’s Perpetual Peace. He had no interest in debating the pros and cons of conditional deontological pacifism. The experience taught me that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of violence, aggression, and war, and efforts toward diplomacy must take precedence over declarations of war. My personal experience with the bully, my decision to move away from pacifism to remedy the violence meted upon my female friend, and how I dealt with him is a powerful metaphor that depicts the intricacies of conflict and war. Sometimes, our leaders make the wrong decisions, and when they do, the consequences are more significant than two prepubescent boys fighting in a small town in New Jersey.
In summary, Francis Shor has written an excellent book about war, those who have tirelessly opposed it, and the power of solidarity. After reading it, my libertarian/ Rothbardian view that militarism and conscription are instruments of mass slavery and mass murder was reaffirmed. I would argue that individuals and groups presented in Shor’s book might be considered radical by some but have views more closely aligned with America’s Founding Fathers than many of America’s so-called “patriots,” and we are indebted to them.