Can an over-civilized and sedentary nation retain the attributes of war while denying war's dire consequences? William James says Yes.
In Part-1 of this series, I discussed how Civil War veterans and Progressives in the late 19th Century believed America’s peace and prosperity were causing the nation’s middle- and upper-class young men to become “soft” and “overcivilized.” The nation’s political leaders began to wonder if these young men could even defend the nation if called upon to do so.
Sound familiar? Many of us have the same concerns today. A recent Pentagon study revealed that 77-percent of young Americans do not qualify for military service due to being overweight, on drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.
Like Teddy Roosevelt in the 1890s, I too am concerned about the ailments of over-civilization. And while his concerns were Social Darwinian and related to national security, my concerns are much more practical. I see a direct correlation between that unfit 77-percent and the calamities of modern life. The dramatic increase in obesity, depression, and suicide over the last decade in America are in large part due to the digital, isolating, and sedentary ways in which we live. In short, over-civilization is making us sick, unhappy, and even unfit for military service.
Unlike Teddy Roosevelt in the 1890s, however, I don't think we need another war to harden soft men and reverse the ailments of over-civilization. Which begs this question: Is there another way?
To reverse the ailments of over-civilization, is there another way to gain the attributes of war (i.e. vigor, courage, and fellowship), while avoiding its dire consequences (i.e. death, destruction, and suffering)?
To help me answer that question in this final part of the two-part series, I’m going to lean on one of America’s intellectual giants, the great William James.
The son of a Swedenborg mystic and brother of famed novelist, Henry James, William was an odd duck from the start. Living a circuitous life of exploration and discovery, he suffered both physical and mental ailments, and eventually landed a professorship at Harvard, teaching a new field of study: Psychology. Despite being called “The Father of American Psychology,” like many educated men of his time, James was no specialist. He wrote books and essays about epistemology, education, philosophy, metaphysics, religion, and mysticism. The essay he wrote just before his death about war and manhood is what we will explore today.
James’ Hypothesis: War on Nature
In 1910, just after the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, James wrote the essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Though James was a self-declared pacifist and anti-imperialist, he did not side squarely with the pacifists in his essay. Instead, James takes the role of mediator, attempting to unite the discipline and fellowship of jingoism with the peace and prosperity of pacifism.
James begins his essay by condemning the war-loving politicians, press, and imperialists who dragged America into two unnecessary wars. Then he attacks the pacifists for being unrealistic in their “utopian” vision of stopping all war. “Our ancestors,” James reminds the pacifists, “have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.” Ever the realist, James acknowledges the aggression and tribalism baked into our genes.
Despite man’s predilection for war, however, James works to extract the positives of our militant character. “Militarism,” he writes, “is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood…contempt of softness… order and discipline, physical fitness, unstinted exertion and universal responsibility.”
Yet, “so long as anti-militarists,” James warns, “propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war… as a rule they do fail.” Scolding his fellow pacifists, James is essentially saying, "if you don’t want men to go to war like their ancestors, then you damn well better propose an activity that channels man’s aggressive nature.”
Instead of military service, James proposes “a conscription of the whole youthful population… against Nature.” By conscripting America’s young adults for “a certain number of years,” on various public works projects, he writes, America can “preserve… the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace.”
To preserve martial virtues of vigor, courage, and fellowship, James calls America’s middle- and upper-class young men “to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December… to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes.” Through hard labor, he argues, soft young men will “get the childishness knocked out of them, and come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.” By completing their arduous mission of clearing forests and digging tunnels, he concludes, young men will “tread the earth more proudly.”
By offering a moral equivalent of war, James offers both jingoists and pacifists a victory. The jingoists will see America’s youth gain vigor and fellowship through massive public works projects (i.e. James’ 'war on nature'), while pacifists will see a reduction in unnecessary wars by offering men a new outlet for their primal aggression.
Putting aside the idea of warring “against nature” for a moment, the big winners in James’ offering are the young men themselves. This is because he offers them a crucible, a rite of passage, something they must earn. By passing this crucible, they will flourish with the same pride, confidence, and self-respect of military veterans – but do so without the death, destruction, and nightmares of war.
A man ahead of his time, James was essentially promoting FDR’s “New Deal” programs like the CCC and TVA, or JFK’s creation of the “Peace Corps” -- programs that offered a 'right of passage' like the military, but without the sad consequences of war.
The Virtue of Combat Sports
While I don’t love James declaring war on nature, I do love his idea of doing something hard, physical and team-oriented. So I’ll offer another alternative to war that begets the same virtues praised by James: Sports. More specifically, I propose violent sports like football, rugby, boxing, wrestling, and MMA. I also propose arduous sports like triathlons, CrossFit, bodybuilding, swimming, and cycling. These sports provide participants “the war” (or hero’s journey) our inner-barbarian desires most.
Is football and MMA risk free? No, and that’s the point -- they channel our inherent aggression. Yet, these combat sports are far removed from the death, dismemberment, and destruction of war. Nor do they cause families to grieve from war’s destruction.
Here is my thesis from this series of articles, and something I believe to my core: Taking risks and doing hard things is necessary for human happiness. If young people don’t face crucibles, don’t take some physical risks, don’t unite for a common cause, they’re denying who they truly are as human beings -- they're denying their warrior nature. And when they deny that, they feel empty. That's because they’re denying eons of evolution and biology that rewards vigor with endorphins and fellowship with oxytocin (i.e. the “love hormone”). Sitting alone on your ass and staring at your phone all day gets you none of these things.
Was Roosevelt Right?
I believe Roosevelt was right in a way: “Americans need a war.” We just don’t need a lethal one. But we will always need a moral one.
By pursuing the moral equivalent of war through competitive sports, rigorous exercise, or hard labor, young men and women gain the evolutionary satisfactions of war (vigor, courage, and fellowship), while not suffering its consequences.
To flourish as a nation and as individuals, we need young men and women who pursue the moral equivalent of war. We need those who work the farms, factories, and road crews, those who battle on the gridiron, rugby pitch, and octagon, those who race along the tracks, trails, and roads. My only hope is that we can convince more of that 77-percent unfit for military service to do the same. In doing so, they’ll awaken the barbarian inside and gain the confidence, fitness, and fellowship needed for a happy life. And America will finally change course, becoming a bit less civilized and a bit more healthy, happy, and united.
One final note. There’s a famous story (perhaps apocryphal) about the Duke of Wellington watching a cricket match at his alma mater, Eton College, ten years after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Looking out at the young men on the pitch -- running, yelling, and playing as a team – a bystander overheard Wellington say, "The battle of Waterloo was won here."
Pursuing the moral equivalent of war, I believe, not only saves young men and women from unnecessary war, it prepares them for the necessary ones.