Recently (by geological standards), early psychologist and philosopher William James wrote (in 1910), that one way to get young men to skip waging war on each other might be to offer them the 'moral equivalent of war,' such as fighting forest fires, mining coal, building tunnels or framing up iron and glass skyscrapers. This essay has been very popular amongst pacifists ever since, but it always makes some of us uneasy in at least two different ways.
First, coal mining is part of what is ruining our land, our water, and our air. James wrote his essay in a different time and mining is not a social good; it's not even an economic good in the net sense.
Second, maybe coal mining and its analogs should be understood as the moral equivalent of war--dangerous and destructive, only 'good' for the elite owner class, if that--but let's not suggest that young people flock to other immoral activities instead of the immorality of war.
It is long past time to stop equating the care and respect we give to veterans of the armed forces--at least those who didn't commit direct war crimes--to acceptance of the morality of war. Any honest and thinking military officer or recruit who has had combat experience would echo Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, commander of Britain's strategic bombing campaigns in World War II, who responded to moral criticism of his bombing of civilian neighborhoods in Dresden, Frankfort, Cologne, Hamburg and other German cities by challenging, "Name me one thing that's moral about war."
Just so. The moral equivalent of war is murder and theft, domination and occupation of other people's land. Great. Don't join the military, youth! Join a gang instead! Or how about the Ku Klux Klan? Sign up with the Latin Kings,
Clearly, for those of us who have faith in nonviolence (and this includes but is not limited to pacifists), the social norms that encrust the military like blood-engorged parasites need to be shed, discarded, and we need to start fresh.
Nonviolent conflict intervention is moral. Violence is not. Rather than serve in the military and lose your moral standing, look for moral activities that are robust, challenging, and give you whatever adrenaline rush that combat gives, only without the chance that you are going to kill someone. Try the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, learn to be an EMT, go to nursing school and work in the emergency room, join a peace team in the Shanti Sena Network, be a fireperson (urban or forest), be a social worker in a poor neighborhood, be a Catholic Worker, work with Peace Brigades International, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemaker Teams, or some other accompaniment or nonviolent interventionary organization. There are many opportunities to help in high risk, exciting ways that lower levels of violence instead of contribute to them, and some of them even pay!
This is about changing how we prepare our youth to feel like they are crucial to our security, our expanded sense of human security that might have them erecting towers and installing wind machines or maintaining them, or perhaps clambering onto rooftops to install solar electric or solar water heating panels. We need to take away the sense of valorizing or sacralizing those youth who feel attracted to holding big weapons and instead honor those who head into danger to help reduce violence and conflict. This means parents and teachers need to rethink and start resisting the old kneejerk practices of bowing before all military veterans and start bowing to those young people who are volunteering to do actual helpful work, actual resource-health-environment saving work. The moral equivalent of war is a social set of bads. We need the social goods, the morality of nonviolence instead. It's time to stop mincing our words and deeds and turn the corner toward a new morality that helps instead of hurts. Our youth will respond brilliantly if we give them half a chance.