Slowing the Wheel of War: A Spiritual Struggle

It will soon be 50 years since Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961.

In this address, the retiring president introduced the now famous phrase “military-industrial complex” (MIC) into public discourse. Here is the nub of what he said:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

The full speech is still worth pondering. But one phrase here, overlooked in most discussions of the MIC concept, leaped from the page as I reread it:

“The total influence [of the MIC]— economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.”

The military-industrial complex—a spiritual influence?

In my experience, absolutely.

During the half-century since this historic speech, presidents have come and gone; political parties have waxed and waned; there have been times of open war, punctuated by intervals of “peace” and covert conflicts; the economy has seen boom and bust.

Yet through it all, the size and reach of the MIC has steadily grown. The MIC is, among other things, the top consumer of oil and a major source of mostly unregulated toxic pollution. The MIC’s reach is more pervasive than ever; it has become so familiar that many people hardly notice it, except in concentrated locations like Fort Bragg and other large military bases. Today, it would be more accurate to call it the Military-Industrial-Political-Academic- Scientific-Think-Tank-Mass-Media- Entertainment-Religious Complex. (The “MIPASTTMMERC”? We’ll stick with MIC.)

There’s more. Alongside the visible economic and political aspects of the MIC, a secret, extra-legal set of structures has been constructed that have wreaked havoc across the world and laid the foundation for a police state here. Like the visible parts, the secret structures have grown over time as well. We have learned many horrifying details about their activities in the past few years. Unfortunately, too many Americans seem bent on forgetting all that as quickly as possible.

One of the most penetrating Quaker writers of the mid-twentieth century, Milton Mayer, described the process of accommodation to secrecy and repression in understated but compelling detail in his classic study, They Thought They Were Free. Calmly yet vividly, Mayer showed how ordinary, virtuous 1930s Germans were seamlessly reduced from citizens to cogs in a totalitarian state.

Among the key features of this malevolent transformation was that for most people, all it entailed was doing nothing. As Mayer put it, “the rest of the 70 million Germans, apart from the million or so who operated the whole machinery of Nazism, had nothing to do except not to interfere.”

“Doing nothing” does not mean cowering in a corner, but rather focusing fixedly on daily life: family, job, religion, entertainment, even quiet political hand-wringing—all while being careful “not to interfere.”

This gradual accommodation— “doing nothing,” being distracted and forgetting the unpleasant disclosures— is facilitated when the MIC sprinkles jobs and money across every state and most counties. It is further reinforced when it is, literally, blessed by God—or, at least, by God’s representatives.

Yes, the MIC’s reach definitely includes the “religious” and spiritual.

Let’s look at the religious connection briefly. It has several important aspects; we will speak of three.

First is a very direct connection. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom .org has exposed deep involvement by a kind of crusading fundamentalism in high levels of the military services, an involvement with ominous implications for freedom of religion among service members and for conflicts involving Muslim populations.

Secondly, and more broadly, much of religion, especially Christianity, has adopted the conviction that the United States is God’s chosen instrument, charged to “rid the world of evil-doers,” as President George W. Bush declared in 2001. Thus, these churches—some of the largest in the country—not only support but actively advocate for the projection of U.S. military might around the world, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure to people in this country, but especially to foreigners. This is, they are sure, God’s work.

Third, the MIC itself has taken on the character of an autonomous, selfpropagating entity. It is comparable to a schoolyard merry-go-round, with bars pushed by interests great and small, such that it has developed so much momentum it seems to run by itself. We tend to see this motion as centered in and around Washington’s political whirl. But this is a restricted view. The hands pushing the bars to such a high and steady pitch are reaching from a much wider area— in truth, all over the country.

I call this image the Wheel of War. It represents the fulfillment, in spades, of President Eisenhower’s prophecy of “the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”

Turning the Wheel: “Powers and Principalities”

What is spiritual about this self-spinning wheel? To illustrate this, I turn to the most revealing description that I’ve found. It is two millennia old and comes from, of all people, the Apostle Paul. In several passages of his letters, he writes of “powers and principalities,” by which he means disembodied spiritual powers that have a concrete impact on the visible world: “spiritual influence,” to repeat Eisenhower’s insight.

What does this phrase powers and principalities mean? Consider, as an example, Fayetteville, North Carolina: home to both Quaker House and Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. army bases.

In many ways, Fayetteville is no different from any other urban collection of human specimens; among them are saints and sinners, happiness and tragedy. Families start, grow, and sometimes shatter there, as elsewhere. Individuals and groups do the best they can given their circumstances.

All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth. The citizens of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg are also part of larger systems, systems which have their own autonomy, momentum, and identity. Together, they add up to more than the sum of their individual human components. These larger, supra-individual systems and their dynamics make up what we can call the spiritual dimension of the area.

Here is one example: Since I came to Fayetteville in early 2002, through the end of 2009, the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg has had five different commanders. Each of them was a distinct individual with his own personality, style, and abilities. It surprises me as an outsider how quickly they come and go; yet the 82nd, a unit of more than 14,000 troops with 80-plus years of active duty, goes on. As a unit, it maintains its own “personality,” its own momentum, its own “spirit.”

The 82nd Airborne, I would suggest, “leads” its commanders as much as its commanders “lead” it, if not more. Its “spirit” is more important than any individual.

On a much larger scale, it seems clear that the whole U.S. militarist enterprise has developed an overarching “spirit,” with its own dynamic and momentum. It has become an autonomous “power.” The idea that it is controlled by a handful of policymakers in Washington seems less and less realistic. Eisenhower was right; since 1961, ten presidents have occupied the White House. If changing faces in the Oval Office were enough to tame this power, it would have happened. Instead, as they have come and gone, the MIC has kept growing, regardless.

An Autonomous Power Echoed in Scripture

The processes hinted at here are seen in Scripture. These are the “powers” and “principalities” that Paul wrote of in his letter to the new church at Ephesus, chapter 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

It is easy to vulgarize, mock, or dismiss these ideas as ancient superstition. But one is not required to “believe” in supernatural entities to find value in such images. Careful sociological studies could construct secular counterparts for this “powers and principalities” motif. Besides, President Eisenhower, one of the most experienced warrior leaders of the last century, named this “spiritual influence” of the MIC nearly 50 years before I did, and he was no myth-bound sentimentalist.

The concept has also had much useful explanatory value for me as director of Quaker House near Fort Bragg. It helps me to make sense of what our tiny outpost is up against.

For one thing, take Paul’s associated declaration that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood”—that is, mere evil persons. This has been a crucial insight, helping me see past the fixation on individuals that I believe is a great obstacle to adequate understanding and planning for peace work.

This sense is confirmed by personal experience that Fayetteville and Fort Bragg are no more full of irredeemably evil people than is your hometown. All of them carry the Light Within, even those in desert camouflage uniforms loaded down with deadly weapons.

And yet this city—like our country— is under the heel of the Spirit of War. Fort Bragg is a key cog in the machinery of militarism. The reach is worldwide, but many of the key gears rotate back to and mesh here in eastern North Carolina.

Behind an outward semblance of ordinary existence, massive projects are hatched here for destruction, torture, propaganda, and deception, combining into a vast apparatus animated by this spectral image. Although it is drawn from a two-millennia-old myth, the Spirit of War feels as tangible and looming as the huge oak tree at the foot of the Quaker House lawn. It can be heard rumbling through the woods; its priests and acolytes carry out their rituals in the open; its sacrificial victims regularly stare out of the pages of our local paper.

For instance, by the end of 2009, more than 300 soldiers based at Fort Bragg had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several thousand more were gravely wounded. In addition, dozens more killed themselves or their spouses, and an unknown, but huge number, bear the mental wounds of what they have done in combat.

And what of the Iraqis, Afghanis, and others killed, maimed, or made homeless as these troops carried out their orders? Millions. In cozier precincts, this steadily mounting death toll can be kept at a safe, abstract distance. In Fayetteville, one foregoes that luxury.

In the New Testament, the struggle against these “principalities and powers” is commonly referred to as “spiritual warfare.” Early Friends, in the 1660 letter to Charles II describing their pacifist stance, wrote that “our weapons are spiritual, and not carnal,” paraphrasing Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 10:4, “Yet mighty through God, to the plucking/pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan, who is the author of wars, fighting, murder, and plots.” What does this mean? They weren’t going to make war against powers and principalities the way one would against a physical army.

But they were called to make war. And so, I suggest, are we. There are weapons to be deployed, tactics evaluated, and strategies planned.

In thinking about peace strategies, I’ve learned the most from—paradoxically— the military, especially the classic strategy text, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. It’s as old as the Bible, and military thinkers treat it like Scripture. But it’s even better in one way: it’s much shorter. (Read it free online at.) Sun Tzu’s basic advice is very straightforward: for victory, identify the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your adversary; then apply your strengths to their weaknesses while defending your own.

What would this mean for peace work? First of all, it means thinking “outside the box” of our preoccupation with the Washington political scene, and taking stock of our unique strengths. Then it involves learning more about the MIC, so we can apply our strengths creatively to maximum effect.

Easy to say, harder to do. But it’s been done. There’s actually a long history of such creative Quaker peace work, though regrettably it’s little known among us. Together, these efforts constitute the Wheel of Peace, a practical force that presses in the opposite direction from the Wheel of War and helps slow its momentum.

These efforts include playing quiet but important parts in shaping the careers of non-Quaker leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the pacifist Emperor of Japan; helping negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison; launching the women’s rights struggle from the kitchen of a rural New York farmhouse; quietly helping shape the Law of the Sea treaty; and honoring the sacrifices of martyrs like Tom Fox.

Sure, the Wheel of War is currently much bigger and has enormous momentum. But the record of our nonviolent “spiritual warfare” is nothing to sneeze at. There’s much more than we can describe here, and it is spiritually uplifting and encouraging in practical terms to become more familiar with it. I believe that such self-education—about our own history and about the MIC— is a major priority for long-term Quaker witness. And Sun Tzu, that sage worldly warrior, agrees:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

I don’t know if the Spirit of War will ever be fully defeated. But our call, like that of early Friends, is to keep up our “spiritual warfare.” And by doing so, we can achieve many victories. We’ve done it before. Let’s renew it, and keep it up.
This article is adapted from a pamphlet, Study War Some More (If You Want to Work for Peace), published by Quaker House,


Chuck Fager is director of Quaker House, a peace project in Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg, N.C. A writer who has published widely on Quaker and peace concerns, he is a member of State College (Pa.) Meeting and attends Fayetteville (N.C.) Meeting.

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