Memorial Day was established shortly after the Civil War to honor and remember those who had died for their country in the Civil War. It was, for those who established the holiday, the Civil War, the war fought by the north against the south, who did not celebrate the northern Memorial Day but established their own. Nor did they call it the Civil War. When I was in Richmond, VA, once, being given a quick tour of the town, we passed a small park, established in memory of the Civil War. When I saw the sign I assumed that it was maintained by the Federal Government, and looking at the small print I discovered that I was quite correct. Even today, had it been a state or local park, it would probably have commemorated the War Between the States. As later wars added their dead to the roll of honor, as southerners fought beside their northern brothers — and now sisters as well — Memorial Day came to be celebrated on the same day in what had been the Confederate states as in the rest of the union.
In part the name differences for the war went back to the argument that almost scuttled the effort to frame the Constitution. Was the United States to be a single country with a strong national government or was it to be a mutually supportive coalition of independent states? The northern and southern names of the conflict reflect this difference. The southern argument was that states’ rights was all that it was about, and that their insistence on secession was that they were not allowed the sovereignty that they should have. They argue this the more strongly in that southerners do not want to believe that their ancestors were fighting to maintain the institution of slavery. Some of them, I believe, were not. I have read that their great general Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery on principle, but that his loyalty to the idea of states’ rights and to his own state was of higher value to him. However, as the free state/slave state compromises that attempted to stave off the final conflict attest, the right that the southern states were primarily interested in was that of maintaining the last remnants of a moribund feudal system which included slaves to serve the land and its owners.
Recently I have heard a third name used for this war in which literally brother fought brother. In my own family one of my great-great grandfathers actually fought on both sides himself, first for the south and then, after he was captured, for the north. You might think that this was mere self-interest, but from what my father told me of continuing family arguments over the supper table, his change of heart was from conviction. Anyway, someone writing in support of a proposed new Florida license plate which would sport a picture of the Confederate battle flag called it “The War for Southern Independence”. A war for independence certainly seems a lot more justifiable than most. After all, that’s what we fought for in the Revolutionary War. The Fourth of July’s official name is Independence Day. The names reflect the importance of believing that this war, Civil War, War Between the States, War for Southern Independence, was a just war.
Just War Theory is an established twig on the Ethics branch of philosophy. Those who have not spent much time studying philosophy may not be aware that it is a formal discipline with certain categories and sub-categories. Once all disciplined knowledge was considered philosophy which, as you know, is made up of Greek words meaning the love of wisdom. What we call science would once have been called natural philosophy. Just War Theory, having been around at least since Cicero was writing, has been refined to an outline, each heading of which must be addressed before a war can be pronounced to be just or unjust. One problem with that, of course, is that no matter how carefully you may argue, different interpretations may be placed on the facts that are ushered in as evidence. Nevertheless, they do the best they can. There are three main parts to the theory, the third one being a fairly recent addition to the first two. The first is justification for going to war in the first place. The virtue of the cause is one part of it, but only a part. Others might have to do with such things as resources and outcome — that is, do you have enough resources to win. The implication is that to fight in however noble a cause with no chance of success makes the conflict ineligible to be considered just. There are several other aspects such as the nature of the combatants, but I’m not going to go there just now. The second part is about how a just war is to be waged, and the third, a quite modern accretion, is about how to deal with the aftermath.
Not everyone by any means subscribes to the theory of just war. There are those who believe that to talk about justice in regard to the relationship of nations is as irrelevant as talking about a just universe. The foreign policy of nations must be based strictly on questions of security and self-interest. Enlightened self-interest, I would assume. That was certainly the point of view taught by the University of South Florida when one of my sisters and one of my brothers-in-law were majoring in political science there. They found my fulminating about right and wrong in regard to matters of foreign policy and particularly warmongering to be as irritating as it was pathetic.
There are also, of course, the pacifists who believe that war can never be justifiable — much less just. There are those who, partly because of our often finding common cause with the Friends Service Committee (Quakers being notably pacifist), but mostly because of our widespread passion against the war in Vietnam, think of Unitarian Universalism as a pacifist religion. Historically this has never been the case. Although more than one wealthy Unitarian made his money in the slave trade, and at least one to my certain knowledge preached for the maintenance of slavery based on Biblical justification, Unitarians and Universalists were both heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement and supported the civil war with the hope of ending that evil. Since we far more often reflect our society than go against it, much as we would like to believe otherwise, I suspect that we were as jingoistic at the time of the Spanish-American war as the rest of the American people, and John Haynes Holmes, one of our most famous ministers, was almost fired from the pulpit of the Community Church of New York because he was opposed to World War I. Although we did set up an office to certify our young people as religious conscientious objectors our opposition to the Vietnam War was not because we were, as a whole, pacifists but because we considered that particular war as being wrong in itself. In effect, unjust.
I am not sure formal Just War Theory as applied to that war or the present conflict or any of the ones in between would make much difference as to how I would think about them. It is even possible that the terms could be stated in such a way that any of them, even those I most strongly opposed, could be found to be just — the same facts can be interpreted in more than one way, and the story winners tell, though based on the same events, is very different from that of the losers. Though logically it seems that a comprehensive theory with explicit terms should make deciding on the justice or injustice of a war simple, I suspect that most people are likely to make up their minds on any one conflict the way I do, which is to look at what facts I have and simply decide that it is right or wrong. I can even, despite just war theory that says it must not be, imagine passionately supporting a hopeless cause, one doomed to defeat, simply because I found it to be right. Yet the young dead soldiers do not speak. Can their sacrifice be justified if it is not our own?
There is another theory of war that says that it is actually a good thing. It is our nature as human beings to fight wars and it is during wartime that our advancement in ways to alter and control our environment is most often made. It is an argument that has been made — I read it, somewhat disguised, quite recently in Newsweek. Microchips that enable every desktop to have a computer and all the information on the internet to be at our fingertips came as a result of our fear that our enemy the Soviet Union would dominate space. I read an article not long ago about incredible advances in research on the regeneration of human body parts as a consequence of the many mutilated bodies coming home from Iraq. Advances in medical trauma techniques have made it possible for more of our maimed young people to survive. Some of us may find this to be pragmatism carried to an extreme….
Although I am not a pacifist, though I think that there are times when one must be willing to fight, that there are things that are worth fighting, even dying, for, it must surely somehow be possible to make war unnecessary. Those of us who have not experienced it firsthand can’t really know its horror, and those who have are usually aware that they cannot convey it to us. Yet we know enough to know that though we honor those whom we have sent to die for us there must be a better way. Peace must be possible.
Human beings have been fighting since before there was history, probably before there was language. Even tribes in which there is no ownership of land or property are territorial. I suspect that on an individual basis there is little difference in human beings from our most primitive ancestors in our basic instincts and reactions. Yet societies and cultures do change and sometimes they can change quite quickly.
Many people are unaware that many Oz books were written after the initial popularity of The Wizard of Oz, only fifteen of them by L. Frank Baum. I was looking at some of the books and noticed one called Captain Salt in Ozwritten by Baum’s secretary, Ruth Plumly Thomson, in 1936. Actually in this one the hero wasn’t in Oz at all. When he had saved Oz from his former crew of pirates in a previous book Princess Ozma had named him royal explorer of Oz and had given him the task of discovering and claiming new territory for Oz. It was quite matter-of-fact, just as, I suppose it had seemed to the Pope when he divided the non-European world between Spain and Portugal. A developed society finds one less or at least differently developed and claims it as a matter of right. It was only seventy-two years ago that Captain Salt was written, a mere eye blink in human history, yet our attitude has completely changed. It is unimaginable today that we would so casually assume the right of one people to take over another’s territory simply because they hadn’t previously known it was there.
Perhaps it is even changing attitudes toward war that made the addition of a post-war section of Just War Theory important. War used to be quite often just blatant land-grabbing. It was considered a glorious achievement, something to be admired, when one country decided to increase its territory by conquering another. It was the motivation of both Germany and Japan in the Second World War. Now, though that may be an unstated motivation, it is no longer respectable, and a country that does it is considered an outlaw — at least for a while. Now when we fight wars it is for our own security or for the good of the people of the country we are fighting, and the aftermath must include cleaning up the mess and somehow establishing a peaceful, independent country in order for justice to prevail.
Social attitudes and values can change, whether for better or for worse. We are not bound forever to the past and the sins of the past, though memories of ancient hatreds seem longer than any other, and we are still killing one another in the name of patriotism. Memorial Day is the day when we rightly honor those who have given their lives in the wars that we have fought, young people who have answered the call of their country. Whatever our attitude toward war in general or the particular ones in which they fought, we can do no less than honor their courage and their loyalty. We can do no less than to mourn their loss. We must, however, find a way to do much more. There must somehow be a change in attitude and values so deep and so systemic that the violence of war will seem as archaic as the idea of claiming land belonging to others, as aberrant as public beheadings or torture, a change that is worldwide. Societal change can happen and does happen. How can we make it happen in such a way that even Just War Theory will be archaic because there will be no war, and Memorial Day will honor no one whom any of us living remembers?