No Greater Degradation: Jonathan Dymond on the Moral Costs of War

Few Friends know the name of Jonathan Dymond (1790-1828), who labored in obscurity, manufacturing linen drapes in Exeter, England. In his spare time, Dymond authored a series of essays on moral principles in a small room adjoining his shop. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 31. So unknown was he that Haverford scholar Rufus Jones once described him as being "almost with-
out biography."

Dymond’s best-remembered piece of writing is his "Essay on War." (I first encountered it in Jessamyn West’s Quaker Reader, although the "Essay on War" may be read in its entirety at the website: Its publication in 1823 followed a long series of conflicts in defense of the British Empire.

Considering it was written over 185 years ago, it is astonishingly prescient, suggesting numerous parallels to the ongoing war in Iraq.
Five significant themes emerge in Dymond’s writing:

• War involves the wholesale destruction of human life. "By the slaughter of a war," wrote Dymond, "there are thousands who weep in unpitied and unnoticed secrecy, whom the world does not see. . . . To these the conquest of a kingdom is of little importance." As of this writing, more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and at least 30,000 have been wounded. Estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 90,000 to over 500,000; millions more become refugees. Once the ideological justifications are stripped away, a terrible reality remains: war results in the death and maiming of thousands of God’s precious children, the majority of whom are young or civilians.

• War destroys the nation’s moral sensibilities. Dymond cites Erasmus: "War does more harm to the morals of men than even to their property and persons." War, argues Dymond, "requires the relinquishment of our moral agency; . . . it requires us to do what is opposed to our consciences, and what we know to be wrong." War requires unquestioning obedience—of soldiers to officers and of citizens to their leaders. Yet it is precisely the freedom—and responsibility—of moral choice that ultimately make us human. "To what situation is a rational and responsible being reduced," asks Dymond, "who commits actions, good or bad, at the word of another? I can conceive of no greater degradation." Revenge and retaliation are the opposites of civility, yet these are the values exalted in a culture of war.

• Wars are usually fought for political interests. Dymond describes those who begin wars without fully measuring their consequences as "half-seeing politicians." In every society, there are those who have a vested interest in war—usually, the wealthy and powerful. "There will always be many whose income depends on its continuance," he wrote, "because it fills their pockets." Is it purely accidental that the U.S. invasion of oil-rich Iraq was authored by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of the Bush Administration who have long-standing ties to the oil industry? Or that Dick Cheney’s 433,333 stock options from Haliburton—the world’s largest oil services company—increased in value 3,281 percent in 2005 alone?

• War squanders the nation’s precious resources. Dymond wrote, "The great question ought to be . . . whether the nation will gain as much by the war as they will lose by taxation and its other calamities." As the war costs surpass $1 trillion (Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stieglitz suggests the final costs may be closer to $3 trillion), we now know that Iraq never posed a threat to the United States. Our national debt exceeds $10.6 trillion, and even the interest on it exceeds $400 billion per year. Every additional dollar spent on war mires our children and grandchildren even more deeply in debt. At the same time, our healthcare, education, and infrastructure systems are literally falling apart. If our nation is to avoid economic collapse, we need to stop acting like a world empire and return to being a nation.

• Perpetual war destroys the fabric of our communities. Dymond cites C. J. Fox, who wrote, "It is in my mind no small misfortune to live at a period when scenes of horror and blood are frequent. . . . One of the most evil consequences of War is, that it tends to render the heart . . . callous to the feelings and sentiments of humanity." Dymond compares the influence of war upon the community to that of "a continual and noxious vapor: we neither regard nor perceive it, but it secretly undermines the moral health."

"Slaughter and devastation are sufficiently terrible," he wrote, "but . . . it is the depravation of Principle which forms the mass of its mischief." What would he think of our recent national arguments about the morality of waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, and extrajudicial imprisonment?

Tens of thousands of soldiers have returned from Iraq with deep psychic wounds, yet only a minority seek treatment. What will become of them—and of us, their neighbors? Our children are growing up on a diet of endless war, regularly assaulted by propaganda, fear, and images of horrific violence. What does it teach our young people when citizens overwhelmingly oppose a war, yet continue to pay taxes for it and to vote for politicians (of both parties) who fund it? How have we become so desensitized, so easily accustomed to the "normalcy" of ourselves as military occupiers of Islamic nations?

As fresh political winds begin to blow in our society, what is the best course of action? Here, too, Dymond offers a clear prescription for action. "A people have the power of prevention, and they ought to exercise it," he wrote. "The power of preventing war consists in the power of refusing to take part in it. This is the mode of opposing political evil, which Christianity permits and, in truth, requires."