[Latest News] [Who are the PEACE TAX SEVEN?] [What have their consciences led them to do?] [What are the moral arguments?] [What are the legal arguments?] [What are the alternatives?] [The History of War Tax Resistance] [Contempt of Conscience - Documentary Film] [Links]
The Peace Tax Seven

War is Weakness

Simon Heywood on why war is a failure

“War has NEVER solved anything … except for the end of fascism, slavery, communism, and the Holocaust.”

This recent slogan, from Iowa, USA, robustly states that war might be the only way to prevent something worse. This is the only plausible justification for war, and it is a fallacy.

A first clue as to why, and how, is that the slogan is interested only in “the end of” various evils, that is, their violent curtailment; not in their beginnings, that is, their causes. But evil has causes. In reality these evils were enabled, often more or less entirely caused, by war. Let us begin by looking at them more closely: (US)slavery, (Soviet) communism, (European) fascism, and the (Nazi) Holocaust.

Slavery and the US civil war

The North did not go to war in order to end the institution of slavery, nor did the South go to war in order to save it. There were four slave states on the Union side (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland), and most Southerners owned no slaves. But the Confederacy (reasonably) feared economic and political domination by the North. In context, they saw northern opposition to slavery, not as an intrinsic good, but as a further assault on the already weakened Southern agricultural economy. Meanwhile, the actions of Unionists throughout the US civil war are wholly consistent with Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter of August 22nd 1862 to the editor of the New York Tribune. Lincoln wrote:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Accordingly, the Union side was not at all consistent on slavery in terms of principle. Early in the war, Union troops returned runaway slaves to their owners. Overall, the war was not fought in order to free the slaves; the slaves were freed (eventually, by both sides) in order to win the war. War also played a pivotal rôle in creating and maintaining the global colonial and economic system which made slavery possible and apparently profitable, including the genocidal dispossession of the indigenous former occupants of the land on which the slave plantations stood. In the wider context of ongoing competition and violence, the stances of both sides need not command approval, but they are certainly comprehensible. Also, it is possible to imagine ways in which slavery could have been ended nonviolently, without destroying the Southern economy, or destrying trust between the states. In Britain slavery was abolished by Parliament after decades of sustained advocacy by concerned citizens. This process was slower, but less destructive, than war.

The Holocaust and the Second World War

Many historians once again now blame German aggression for both world wars. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this accusation in immediate terms, it seems clear in both cases that the wider European context of colonial competition is central, and this context was not of Germany’s creation. From the 1700s,
Germany’s future enemies, Britain and France, had been strong unitary states, aggressively acquiring colonies and pursuing supremacy - including, at times, supremacy over Germany.

Arguably, colonial “catch-up,” allied to illiberal régimes, is a repeating pattern in European and modern history. Britain’s global presence began in the 16th century, with England consolidating its dominance of the British Isles and embarking on a game of “catch-up” to overtake Spain and Portugal. Britain’s global supremacy was confirmed by 1815 and was beginning to founder around 1900. During these three centuries, the British state was no more democratic, in the modern sense, than Soviet Russia. It practised conquest, genocide and man-made famine among perceived inferior races in Ireland, North America and Australia. It deported (“transported”) unwanted persons, for trivial or imaginary offences, to slave labour camps in the territories thus obtained. It engaged in systematic violation of the human rights of its own citizens, killing, deporting and at times extrajudicially mutilating political opponents as well as actual criminals. Also, it consistently used warfare to project power externally over the world and internally through British society. It suffered a major setback, the split with the United States, but the US immediately continued the same programme, privileging a minority of rich males and eventually coming close, so to speak, to exterminating one race in order to enslave another.

Meanwhile, Britain undermined and brutally suppressed many realistic movements for reform, from the Levellers to the Chartists. British political life fetishised a form of absolute monarchy, with the extensive political powers of the crown delegated, more or less untrammelled, to a prime minister elected by a small minority of wealthy males. Britain used extensive state power to transform production through technological innovation: arguably, the industrial revolution was a war effort. It is true to say that in doing so Britain was simply adhering to a common standard and assumptions of the time, but this is, precisely, the point: it was British policy, rather than the numerous more humane alternatives, which constituted the typical standard.

Only when the resulting prosperity and hegemony had been locked in for a century, and the means of their acquisition forgotten or explained away, did Britain enact limited humane and liberal reforms, adopting a form of democracy piecemeal up until the 1920s, and abolishing judicial killing only around 1960. This was a late and and reluctant process, associated with getting rid of the empire, without sacrificing the profits. Seen in this context, twentieth-century totalitarianism in Russia, Japan and Germany appear clearly as imitations of Britain’s own rise to global prominence in the preceding two centuries. If they were not morally equivalent to British imperialism, they were clearly the same sort of thing. If the similarity is not exact, it is at the very least far too close for comfort. Therefore, although it is comforting to see Nazism as a random, inexplicable aberration, it arose from a context, within which it is congruent, if hideously extreme.

Up till the 1870s, Germany was still striving (through war) to transform itself from a patchwork medieval empire into a unified nation-state. By proceeding after 1871 from national unification to imperialism, Germany plunged into a game of “colonial catch-up,” perceiving, probably accurately, that a refusal to do so would make the new German nation-state dangerously uncompetitive, or even vulnerable to further direct aggression.

First come first served: the British Empire after World War 1
Scrabbling for the leftovers: the German empire, c. 1914 (brown); c. 1941 (blue) freezing Germany out of postwar recovery

The rise of Nazism followed the belligerents' humiliation of Germany at Versailles in 1919 (opposed by the US), and the economic shocks of the 1920s and 30s (themselves caused partly by nationalist fiscal policies). Nazism proved, in effect, to be a final, desperate attempt to match or outflank the competition in the long, unrelenting contest for global imperial hegemony. Clearly the Allies share responsibility for the background ideology of competitive nationalism and pseudoscientific racism, and for the general escalation, unique in history for scale and totality of violence, of which the Holocaust was a feature. It is a commonplace that Hitler admired and copied eugenic legislation from the southern US states, and industrial mass discipline from the Northern ones. Before the war, Hitler was admired and supported as a bulwark against Communism throughout the west, by aristocrats such as Edward Windsor and Wallis Simpson, and tycoons such as Henry Ford and Prescott Bush (ancestor of the Georges, and business partner of the Nazis
until 1951), in return for huge profits and/or public honours. Without this support and legitimation at the highest levels of wealth and power, it is quite possible to see how Hitler could have been stopped and/or nonviolently opposed at many points up to 1939. But the political will to do it was lacking. Too many rich and powerful people liked, or tolerated him.

War broke out in 1939, not because of the Nazi human rights record, but over a long-predicted crisis precipitated by aggressive German foreign policy. The relationship between the Final Solution and the Second World War seems complex. Both the documentation and the actual implementation of policy seem
deliberately evasive. But, certainly, the war did not prevent the Holocaust, and may have caused it. Hitler had referred to “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” in a speech of January 1939, and there was early wartime persecution of Jews, involving mass deportation and imprisonment as well as mass murders. Mobile mass killing squads were at work in occupied Poland and Russia and in the Baltic from 1941. It is likely that full genocide was an aim from early on, and had been decided on by the Wannsee conference in
January 1942, when Germany was apparently still in the ascendant, before the turning points at el Alamein and Stalingrad, late in 1942. If this interpretation is correct, the will and the opportunity to exterminate European Jewry were both associated with military success in wartime; they could not have been the result of the desperation and narrowing options of encroaching defeat. But the unique crimes - industrial genocide involving gas chambers, and camps for extermination rather than labour or concentration - are features of the years of reversal, from early 1942. It is hard to imagine that the brutalisations of war did not play a part. SS doctors' medical experiments on camp inmates seem more often related to the war effort than to Nazi race theory for its own sake.

January 27, 1995: Eva Mozes Kor, a former Mengele twin, and Hans Münch, a former SS doctor, lead a ceremony of truth and reconciliation at Auschwitz]

What is clear is that the Second World War was not fought in order to oppose the Holocaust. The Allies did not protest at the treatment of the Jews. It is conceivable that the war motivated the Holocaust in a specific way. More deeply, it seems certain that there was a general link between the Holocaust and the world beyond the borders of Nazi occupied territory. Nazism was an extreme development of pervasive tendencies in wider European culture and history. What is also clear is that a genocide of six million people was opposed, if it was not partly caused, by a war which additionally killed between 35 and 50 million people, over and above Holocaust victims, and including 24 million other civilians. To imply that the Second World War was a straightforward “success” in these terms is effectively to say that it was worth killing four civilians and three conscript soldiers to save one victim of race hatred - without inconveniencing Hitler's many, highly-placed collaborators throughout the military, industrial and political establishments of pre-war Europe and the US.

The Second World War is often remembered, in Britain at least, as a time in which the people were united in adversity, in what Churchill called their “finest hour.” It is often asserted that rates of depression, suicide and crime fall during wartime. The implication is that war is, and World War 2 was, good for the individual and collective mental health and well-being of the people.

Even if this were the case, it would hardly be worth sacrificing of tens of millions of European lives in order to reduce levels of depression and burglary in suburban Britain. But in reality war had no such beneficial effect. In a little known book, Raynes Minns describes the psychological effects of Word War 2 on the British “home front.” Childcare, parenting, education, and family life, social cohesion and simple humanity were were all seriously and chronically disrupted or eroded.

Most obvious, and perhaps worst, was the psychological trauma directly inflicted by the violence of war. At the sound of distant gunfire, one child would turn, in the words of one nurse, “dumb through terror, whimpering like a puppy, stiff as a ramrod and mouth open but no screams” (p. 189). Scarcely less destructive was the rise in what might be called the background level of common-sense acceptance of extreme brutality. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, Orwell imagined British society pervaded by a menacing sense of extreme violence being briskly taken for granted as normal. In this he was apparently writing from direct experience. Through organisations such as the Scouts and the Home Guard, children were used in the war effort, for tasks such as message-bearing under fire (often returning with mangled bicycles), and training for lethal sabotage against the expected German occupation. Structures of authority were used to make people more violent. A government leaflet for general distribution gave counsel to members of the future British resistance, imagining German army vehicles driven by British hostages used (as we would now say) as human shields.

"If you happen to be standing in a ditch or behind a tree or some other position of safety, and you have some kind of grenade or bomb in your hand, and a car comes along with enemy officers, driven even by your best friend, YOU MUST LET THEM HAVE IT. It is what your friend would want you to do."

During and after the war, there was more poverty, prostitution, juvenile delinquency and petty theft, often accompanied by unnecessary and even lethal violence. Women were murdered for their purses, a commonplace which caused one nurse to reflect, “better to die as the result of action of a brave foe than at the hands of a greedy petty thief.” Deliberate violence was also accompanied by breakdowns in normal systems of care and protection. As a result, serious or fatal domestic accidents, by fire, cot death, or road traffic, rose. Diseases such as impetigo, lice and scabies reached epidemic proportions, and resistance to other disease was lowered. Standards of education delivery and attainment virtually collapsed. After the war, over half of junior school children were backward readers.

All these problems occurred, even though there was no actual land war on the British mainland. Also, they outlasted the bracing effect of the famous “wartime blitz spirit,” which was in any case a transitory phenomenon, disseminated by propaganda and cultural norms of obedience, and psychologically necessary for for simple day-to-day survival. Long after the war ended, people who had been buried alive in air-raid rubble for days suffered from extreme phobias and “would fling open doors and windows even during gales” (p.187). Evacuation had broken families up for six years, and the infants of 1939 returned as adolescents, to unfamiliar and devastated cities. They often had unexpected new half-siblings. Their fathers, if alive, were often still overseas. The fathers if repatriated, were often no longer physically at home. If at home, they were often traumatised and unsettled. Both parents were often strangers to each other and their children. Either parent might be physically maimed and/or psychologically disturbed. Men socialised into a nomadic life of extreme and unalleviated violence returned to static, repetitive factory and office jobs. Women newly accustomed to a range of career work and wage labour returned to housekeeping and parenting. Either might be guiltily missing wartime comrades and/or lovers. Adults caring for children (and other adults) were warned to expect nightmares, sleepwalking, rage and physical violence. Grown-ups turned to alcohol and nostalgia for wartime camaraderie, children to ”bed-wetting, pilfering, playing truant from school and home ...misery, discontent and loss of appetite” (p. 190). Mothers were advised to practise affirming phrases beginning “If Daddy were here now ...”, and/or explanations such as “Daddy prefers to live with Alice. He loves her and is happier with her.”

Without prejudice to the enormous courage shown in wartime, and the heroic achievement of the many ordinary people who lived though it with their humanity intact, it is clear that British society was affected by war in the same ways as any society - that is, by enormous, chronic, and barely recompensed suffering and damage, in almost every conceivable sphere of experience and activity. The reason why the collapse of British society was not total or chronic was because the war was relatively short and confined to the air;because victory was conclusive; and also because the great powers decided for well-supported, swift and thorough reconstruction in Europe, rather than further destabilisation on top of already chronic disruption, as in Africa. There would be little other obstacle to Britain ultimately suffering the fate which has befallen central America or west Africa, and becoming an environment congenial to figures such as the present-day Liberian warlord given to “the use of human intestines as checkpoint barriers.”

Leslie Groves

Atomic and nuclear “deterrence”

On the purposes of the US atomic bomb point we have the testimony of Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project which created it:

There was never, from about 2 weeks from the time I took charge of this project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.”

It is now clear that by 1945 the Japanese were willing to surrender before the atomic bombings, on terms identical to those they accepted after them. The anti-Japanese racism which justified the attacks is now documented as such in US undergraduate anthropology textbooks. To really understand Japanese imperialism, we must look again to the wider context of competitive global violence. For centuries, the rulers of Japan had turned their backs on a world increasingly dominated by the west, partly from horror at its weapons, until those same weapons (western gunboats) forced them out of isolation in 1854.

Thereafter, Japan was swiftly victimised by Britain, Russia, France and the Netherlands. Political and economic turmoil followed immediately after two centuries of stability, and the Japanese concluded that if they were to survive, and avoid the subjugation inflicted on China, Indochina/Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia, and the Philippines, they needed to match the masters of the world at their own game. So began another round of “colonial catch-up,” in which Japan and the US competed for imperial dominance of the Pacific. Everyone knows the Japanese bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Fewer people know that the base was there as a result of the unprovoked, aggressive invasion of Hawaii by the US in the 1890s, for which the White House formally apologised in 1993.

A Westerner in the 1850s. A Japanese view of the men who opened the country up at gunpoint to trade and naval subjugation]
Liliuokalani, deposed from the throne of Hawaii in the US invasion of1893
A century later, the White House apologises

Japan was already beaten by August 6th 1945. Effectively, the atom bomb was an indirect opening move in the Cold War. Soviet-style “communism,” famously unrecognisable as the communism advocated by Marx and Engels, was not an attempt to enact communist principles, since this attempt was deferred by the infant Soviet state in an attempt to win the post-revolutionary civil war - and in another round of “catch-up” with a more modern, powerful and hostile west. It was not at random that the tyrant Stalin said, of forced Soviet modernisation, “Either we do it, or they crush us.” Given that Soviet communism and western democratic capitalism are both essentially war systems, it is not surprising that the Cold War is cited as a victory for warlike methods - namely, nuclear deterrence under the threat of mutually assured destruction. But this is another falsehood. The doctrine of nuclear deterrence involves two related ideas: firstly, that aggressive nuclear war is by common consent unwinnable, and secondly, that holding nuclear weapons is therefore a defensive strategy. In reality, neither superpower subscribed to either idea: they rejected the first, and so made a nonsense of the second. Analysis by Paul Rogers of evidence obtainable since the fall of the Iron Curtain shows that both sides stockpiled weapons and planned to escalate conventional conflicts aggressively, in the hope of winning all-out nuclear war. Brinkmanship and error nearly led to apocalypse on many occasions: over Korea (1950-3), over Vietnam and Taiwan (both 1954), over Cuba (1962), over Israel (1973), and over Europe, by error and mistrust in the course of the NATO exercise "Able Archer" (1983). In retrospect, Fred Iklé, Ronald Reagan’s hawkish strategist, has ascribed the world’s survival, in the face of the Cold War nuclear threat, to “accident.” And, at any rate - as the above examples also serve to show - during the Cold War, violence was not prevented so much as outsourced, as millions continued to die in superpower proxy wars.

It is crucially important to understand the logic of the Cold War, because it is still operating. US missile and satellite armament (misleadingly termed missile “defence”) is a continuation of the logic of seeking to maintain military supremacy, by massive developments in technology. By definition this is not a defensive strategy. Effective "deterrence" depends on the enemy knowing you really would do it. Otherwise, the most powerful technology is no more use than a cardboard tank. In crisis situations, as we see every year, there is no hard and fast line between "retaliation," "pre-emptive defence," and "aggression." To hold such a distinction in practice, you would have to trust the enemy totally, to act entirely according to your wishes, and by your understanding of fair play and reasonable behaviour. Of course you never do trust enemies this far. If you did, you would not be enemies. We remain in a world where the most powerful governments are happy to provoke powerful enemies, in the belief that they can then maintain security by responding with the sincere threat of total violence. Success and failure in this attempt are equally horrible to contemplate.

Rearmament: US air base at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire Rearmament: US air base at Menwith Hill
Rearmament: Probable depleted uranium effects in Iraq Rearmament: Probable depleted uranium effects in the USA - Gulf veteran’s child)


We have sought briefly to imagine the predicaments of some of “our” historic “enemies.” It seems that “they” were probably a lot like “us.” This does not disguise or excuse the fact that they were often at fault. But so were “we,” and reality compels “us” to dispense with any comforting selective amnesia, and acknowledge shared responsibility for results which were at times inexpressibly evil.

Reality also shows that the basic assumptions justifying war are entirely and manifestly false. The basic assumption of war and violence is that one cannot understand or enter into any kind of meaningful relationship with potential or actual enemies. “Our” views and actions are seen as rational and comprehensible; “their” views and actions are seen as irrational and incomprehensible. Effectively, “they” are misleadingly re-defined as less fully human than “us.” “Their” actions cannot therefore be predicted or managed, and “they” can only be opposed, as aggressive animals are opposed, with overpowering violence. Attempts to acknowledge or understand the coherence of an enemy’s viewpoints or motives, even as coherently motivated wrongdoing, are angrily condemned as expressions of tolerance or even support for “the enemy.”

Up to a point, this is simply the shallow logic of armchair generalship. Real military commanders stress the importance of deep understanding of an enemy’s point of view: strategists must know their enemies intimately, precisely in order to exploit their vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, understanding that “the enemy” has a coherent viewpoint leads naturally to frank recognition of common humanity with “the enemy.” Often, too, it leads to equally frank recognition of forgotten crimes and partial irrationalities of “one’s own” side.

Being a peace campaigner, the challenge for me has been to accept that this applies to my relationship to those with the power, especially those who are on what they would expect me to call “my own side.” Peacework, like war, has its own temptations to irresponsible rage, fantasy, and hypocrisy. I find it increasingly easy to sense common humanity with serving members of all armed forces, whose knowledge and sincere loathing of war is often so great. I struggle harder with those who profit, commercially and politically, from war and “reconstruction.” There are those in the corridors of power who sometimes seem to have nothing good in them except the unearned and unfulfilled potential of their biological humanity. But I come too close here to imagining that individuals have dehumanised themselves, when it is perhaps I who am dehumanising them in my own thinking.

Clearly, recognitions of common humanity are fragile. They do not guarantee friendship, justice and safety. But they do arouse the instinctive human desire for nonviolent means to resolve likely tensions and competitions as they emerge. So, in a sense, supporters of war are right to feel nervous if others “on their own side” venture to argue that an enemy’s actions are coherently motivated even as wrongdoing, rather than simply unreasoned psychopathy. Even that limited step towards empathy is enough to expose the absurdity of the war-maker’s sincere, well-intentioned and seductive assertionof the non-humanity of other humans.

This in turn suggests that it is potentially possible to enter into a meaningful, rational relationship with potential or actual enemies, based on the recognition of shared humanity and fallibility. Beginning such a relationship creates the potential for nonviolent solutions to the problems of evil. By itself it does not guarantee successful solutions. Like other evils, war does not come from nowhere. It is one of a number of possible human responses to real conflicts and tensions, such as those caused by greed, injustice, cruelty and exploitation, and solving these problems is always difficult and uncertain. Moreover, those evils will continue to exist, in some form, even in the absence of war. The point is that war always makes things worse, and, indeed, is often the direct cause of the ills it is supposed to “cure.” The only way forward is to find nonviolent replacements for war, which deal with the problem of evil in ways which are as specific, as
complex, and as practical as war, but which really do promote - and do not further erode - contentment, justice, prosperity, health, and freedom.

If nonviolence sounds too impractical, and uncertain in its outcome, consider a final illustration of the nature of war. The “dambuster” bombing missions of May 1943 were intended to destroy German industry, by demolishing three hydroelectric dams and flooding industrial areas in the Ruhr. Bomber crews flew by night from bases in Lincolnshire. On the low final run over the water, at a specific distance from the dams - measured by sighting up the dam towers against nails knocked at carefully measured distances in a piece of wood stored in the plane’s cockpit - the crews discharged bombs in such a way that they struck the water while spinning rapidly, and so bounced, like skimmed stones, over the defensive netting, before coming to rest at the foot of the dam, and detonating. The operation depended on placing heavy bombs with minute
precision across half a continent, in conditions of darkness and constant, lethal artillery fire, without touching the ground. Eight out of 19 planes were lost and 53 out of 133 aircrew were killed. Casualties on the ground were substantial, including many Russian prisoners.

As a method of resolving disagreements, how impractical and uncertain would peaceful methods have to be, to be more bizarrely impractical and uncertain than this? The point is that the “dambuster” missions succeeded. The dams were destroyed. If a fraction of the courage and intelligence - and money - had gone into understanding, developing and practising the demanding complexities of the art of peace, rather than those of war, then we really would have grounds for unmingled pride in the civilisation which we would then have created.

2003: The 617th “Dambuster” squadron celebrates its 60th birthday on active service in the Middle East
The implication is clear: humanity can do a lot when it feels it has to. War is now so totally destructive that peace is something we have to do. There is a lot of catching up to be done, but plenty of scope for optimism about radical improvement. After all, so far, we haven’t really been trying.


Crisis Management
Long Term Peacebuilding
Further reading and research