Hell Is Other People’s Thinking About War

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, March 30, 2023

The flyer described the author like this: “Ex-Marine Charles Douglas Lummis has written extensively on the topic of US foreign relations, and is a vocal critic of US foreign policy. His works include Radical Democracy, and A New Look at the Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Susan Sontag has called Lummis ‘one of the most thoughtful, honorable, and relevant intellectuals writing about democratic practice anywhere in the world.’ Karel van Wolferen has referred to him as an ’eminent observer of the American-Japanese vassalage relationship.’” I knew these things about him already, and yet I still struggled with picking up the book, and not merely because it was in electronic form.

The book is called War Is Hell: Studies in the Right of Legitimate Violence. The author assured me that it did not argue in favor of violence. He was right. I’ve added it to my list of great war abolition books (see below) and consider it the best book I’ve read recently. But it comes at its conclusion gradually and methodically. It’s not a slow book. You can read it in one go. But it begins with traditional militarist ways of thinking and moves step-by-step to something wiser. Early on, dealing with the concept of “legitimate violence,” Lummis writes:

“We know these things, but what does this knowing mean? If knowing is an act of the mind, what sort of act is it to ‘know’ that a military bombing is not murder? What are we doing (and doing to ourselves) when we ‘know’ these things? Is not this ‘knowing’ a form of ‘not knowing’? Is it not a ‘knowing’ that requires a forgetting? A ‘knowing’ that, instead of putting us in touch with the reality of the world, renders part of that reality invisible?”

Lummis leads the reader ineluctably to question the idea of legitimate war, and even the idea of legitimate government as we currently understand governments. If, as Lummis argues, governments are justified by prevention of violence, but the top killers are governments — not just in foreign wars but in civil wars and repression of uprisings — then what is left of the justification?

Lummis begins by suggesting that he doesn’t understand what allows people to see violence as something completely different. Yet he demonstrates through the course of the book that he understands it very well and is trying to move others to do the same, to follow along through numerous examples and arguments, culminating in an understanding of how Satyagraha or nonviolent action transforms murder back into murder through the refusal to act on its terms (as well as how it suggests the need for a federation of sovereign villages).

I don’t think viewing something as completely different from what ordinary observation might suggest is a rare phenomenon at all.

A movie now in U.S. theaters called A Man Called Otto — and the earlier book and film A Man Called Ove — [SPOILER ALERT] tells the story of a man whose beloved wife has died. He repeatedly attempts suicide in what he describes as an effort to join his wife. The sorrow and tragedy of that description only heighten the concern of others to prevent the disaster of Otto/Ove killing himself. In other words, some or all of the characters in the film, including the protagonist, know perfectly well that death is death (otherwise they’d all be encouraging and celebrating the joyful reuniting of the happy couple in a magical land). But at least one of them is able to “believe” to some extent that death doesn’t actually end life.

When we tolerate, or approve of, or cheer for killing in war, or by police, or in prisons, we go beyond the distancing of the carnivorous diner who doesn’t want to know the names of the livestock on his plate. War is not just understood as an unfortunately necessary evil, to be avoided as much as possible, ended as quickly as possible, but nonetheless performed as a service by those willing and able when required. Rather, we know, as Lummis writes, murder in war to not be murder, to not be horrific, to not be bloody, disgusting, miserable, or tragic. We have to “know” this or we wouldn’t sit still and have it done endlessly in our names.

As we watch the people of Paris, France, shut down their capital over grievances far slighter than those of the U.S. public for its government, it becomes very clear that all the talk in U.S. circles on the subject of war — the talk of choosing between waging war and simply lying back and submitting — comes from three sources: endless war propaganda, rigorous denial of the facts of the power of nonviolent action, and a deeply entrenched habit of simply lying back and submitting. We need an honest recognition of the power of nonviolent action as a sustitute for both war and passivity.

While I have numerous quibbles with minor points in this book, it’s difficult to argue with a book that seems intent on getting people thinking for themselves. But I do wish that a lot of books that take on the idea of war, this one included, would take on the institution itself. There will always be cases where nonviolence fails. There will be more where violence fails. There will be cases where nonviolence is used for ill purposes. There will be more where violence is used for ill purposes. These facts would provide war-supporters with no case for eliminating governmental departments of unarmed resistance, if such things existed, and they provide little argument for eliminating militaries. But the following argument does:

Militaries generate wars, waste resources that could have saved and improved vastly more lives than those lost to wars, create the risk of nuclear apocalypse, are a major destroyer of the Earth’s ecosystems, spread hatred and bigotry and racism and lawlessness and small-scale violence, and constitute the top impediment to necessary global cooperation on non-optional crises.

I’m also a bit weary of the tired old claim that the Kellogg Briand Pact is the poster child for failure, and not principally because of Scott Shapiro’s and Oona Hathaway’s notions of how it transformed international relations, but principally because every single step toward abolishing war thus far has failed, virtually every law on the books is violated far more often that the Kellogg Briand Pact and yet thought of as a tremendous success, and while properly criminalizing war won’t happen without great nonviolent struggle, war won’t end without properly banning it.


War Is Hell: Studies in the Right of Legitimate Violence, by C. Douglas Lummis, 2023.
The Greatest Evil Is War, by Chris Hedges, 2022.
Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages by Ray Acheson, 2022.
Against War: Building a Culture of Peace
by Pope Francis, 2022.
Ethics, Security, and The War-Machine: The True Cost of the Military by Ned Dobos, 2020.
Understanding the War Industry by Christian Sorensen, 2020.
No More War by Dan Kovalik, 2020.
Strength Through Peace: How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World Can Learn from a Tiny Tropical Nation, by Judith Eve Lipton and David P. Barash, 2019.
Social Defence by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, 2019.
Murder Incorporated: Book Two: America’s Favorite Pastime by Mumia Abu Jamal and Stephen Vittoria, 2018.
Waymakers for Peace: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Survivors Speak by Melinda Clarke, 2018.
Preventing War and Promoting Peace: A Guide for Health Professionals edited by William Wiist and Shelley White, 2017.
The Business Plan For Peace: Building a World Without War by Scilla Elworthy, 2017.
War Is Never Just by David Swanson, 2016.
A Global Security System: An Alternative to War by World Beyond War, 2015, 2016, 2017.
A Mighty Case Against War: What America Missed in U.S. History Class and What We (All) Can Do Now by Kathy Beckwith, 2015.
War: A Crime Against Humanity by Roberto Vivo, 2014.
Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War by David Carroll Cochran, 2014.
War and Delusion: A Critical Examination by Laurie Calhoun, 2013.
Shift: The Beginning of War, the Ending of War by Judith Hand, 2013.
War No More: The Case for Abolition by David Swanson, 2013.
The End of War by John Horgan, 2012.
Transition to Peace by Russell Faure-Brac, 2012.
From War to Peace: A Guide To the Next Hundred Years by Kent Shifferd, 2011.
War Is A Lie by David Swanson, 2010, 2016.
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace by Douglas Fry, 2009.
Living Beyond War by Winslow Myers, 2009.
Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror, and War by Mary-Wynne Ashford with Guy Dauncey, 2006.
Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War by Rosalie Bertell, 2001.
Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence by Myriam Miedzian, 1991.


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