Swarthmore Goes to War

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” –George Orwell

Spring is in the air, flowers are in bloom, and on the peaceful campus of Swarthmore nary a soul thinks they could see something shocking here. Beneath the surface, however, lie plenty to shock the unwary: the number of cellists at this school, the high level of stress in that spring air only surpassed by the pollen from ten thousand different plants, an illicit Coca-cola product littering the ground in the wake of an unauthorized student party.

In my nearly four years here, the most shocking sight was none of these things. No, the most shocking sight occurred when I was ambling along the collegiate pathways one spring day, and nearly leaped into the grass when a swiftly marching double-line of uniformed young men and women rounded the corner of Parrish and made straight for me. The cadets were gone as soon as they came, leaving me dazed and bewildered. Was this Swarthmore? What had happened to my college?

In 2005 the College Bulletin ran an excellent article by Paul Wachter ’97 entitled “Pacifism and Bugle Calls: In time of war, Swarthmore has wrestled with its Quaker Heritage.” It provided a historical account of the College and its relationship to war, including the note that in 1944 only 75% of students here were civilians; the others were all in military training. We also hosted 49 Chinese Naval officers for a time. There is even a plaque south of Wharton (go down the steps) commemorating these Chinese. And as of 2006, we had at least one – and only one – ROTC cadet enrolled at this school.

These military elements of our heritage, though, are largely anomalies in an institution which clings to our “Quaker heritage” one hundred years after we dropped our affiliation: The year 2009 indeed marks the centennial anniversary of our secularization. Whether secular or not, however, the majority of the student body still maintains a Quaker reaction to war and the agents of war: vehement opposition.

In the past few weeks I, quite unintentionally, had the opportunity to talk to a number of Swarthmore students about war and the military. Many of them refused to believe in the legitimacy of any war at all, or preparation for such war. Others swore that they would never join the American military because they disagrees with aspects of its structure or function. Throughout the conversation was a unmistakable undertone of disdain for everything that had to do with war or the military.

Disliking war is understandable and natural. War always results in the death of innocent bystanders who happen to be unfortunate enough to live in the area of conflict. But the deaths of the young men and women in the conflict are just as tragic; none of them committed an offense worthy of their death. Furthermore, there are all the atrocities of torture, environmental destruction, and every other evil that springs from war. Economically minded people will further appreciate that war is extremely expensive; in the modern age, very few wars make economic sense. It would be better for the country to peacefully develop than to invest in military campaigns. War is hell, and though there may be a victory, no one wins.

War is hell; nevertheless, war is still necessary as a diplomatic tool of last resort. Only war was able to stop the imperialist aggression of Germany and Japan in the second World War. If America had not committed to a draft and a military fight on foreign continents, the number of additional innocent deaths as a result of Japanese and Germany policies would be incalculable. War was necessary, because no other diplomacy could work; pacifism was not viable. The understanding of that reality is what bent Swarthmore’s will to allow the exceptional accommodations for military men in the mid 1940s.

The necessity to prepare for the last resort of war requires that we maintain a military, or at the very least maintain the ability to quickly mobilize a war-capable reserve. Maintaining a military serves another valuable function of international diplomacy: deterrence. Even if unused, the presence of a powerful military can serve to prevent aggressive action on the part of others (e.g. if a man with a big gun tells you not to hit your neighbor and a man without a big gun tells you not to hit your neighbor, who are you more likely to obey?).

A military is therefore necessary. If we must have a military, shouldn’t we who are socially responsible undertake one of the most socially responsible tasks: defending the citizens of the country from attack? It is a deep flaw in our social responsibility to, by means of our democratic freedoms that are daily protected by our military, refuse to participate or respect those who participate in that protection.

Furthermore, if the military is indeed enacting inappropriate policies, such as unfair targeting of the poor and underprivileged in recruitment, the best way to reform that policy would be for educated elite college students to join the military and from the inside work to promote reform. Our military will benefit from the presence of those who are not naturally war-hungry. We who see clearly the evils of war are those who should be the ones who carry out war, so that we may do so with care and caution.

Beyond joining the military ourselves, we can educate ourselves by exposure and interaction with men and women in the military. Those West Point cadets who so surprised me were not on campus for a weekend jaunt; they had been invited by the Peaslee Debate Society to participate in a debate. From that experience and the opportunity to chat afterward, both the Peaslee members and the West Point cadets profited. We can all benefit from more of such opportunities: they challenge thinking, break down prejudices and stereotypes, and further our quest for diversity.

A saying commonly attributed to Edmund Burke goes, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” If that evil is from other countries, we must stop it. If that evil comes from our own military, we must stop it also. We at Swarthmore do not have the right to remain complacent in our safe enclaves and sweepingly disparage both war and the military.