The following essay was written by the late Isaac Bonewits (1949-2010), the founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF). The original version of this essay was published in The Druid’s Progress #5 in 1989, and is reposted here with permission from Phaedra Bonewits and Arthur Lipp-Bonewits.
IT’S WELL PAST time to deal with some polytheological issues that most Neopagan groups have been ignoring—specifically those of violence, self-defense, and the ethics of being a cop or a soldier in modern times. Insofar as Neopaganism is going to develop doctrines (note that I did not say “dogmas”) about these issues, ones that Neopagans can take into a court of law, this essay is an attempt at articulating the arguments that seem relevant to me.
Like many members of the Neopagan community, I grew up as part of the 60’s counterculture. Our primary interactions with law enforcement officers and soldiers were generally of the negative sort. We saw them as the upholders of a corrupt status quo, mouthing platitudes about freedom and democracy while they beat in our heads or napalmed little children. Yet, most of us grew up thrilling to the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and other noble, idealistic warriors. In later years, some of us studied the martial arts, and watched television shows such as “Kung Fu,” where the emphasis was on the lone warrior who is a master of him/herself first, and of others only incidentally.
All of these experiences gave us conflicting ideas about the nature and role of violence in our lives. Those of our generation who suffered in Vietnam or in the ghettos are much less idealistic than those of us who have only been on the dojo floor or the medievalist tournament field. Yet our common “Nam era mentality” of cynicism towards governments and generals is perfectly appropriate as a base from which to begin articulating spiritual opinions.
As we create religions for the future, we must have a coherent body of polytheological opinions about violence. These opinions must reflect our ideals, while being fully informed about historical realities, if we hope to change the world enough so that future history will not simply be a bloody repetition of the past.
THE AWARENESS of this essential conflict between practical survival needs and ethical ideals is not new. The Paleopagan Indo-Europeans (like most other peoples of the past) spent a lot of time thinking about it, and preserved their wisdom in their myths, sagas, and folktales. So before I begin to express my own conclusions about the various issues involved, I’d like to quote from Jaan Puhvel’s excellent book on Indo-European myth and epic, Comparative Mythology (John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987). After repeated tellings of the standard Indo-European warrior myth as it appears in the different cultures, he has this to say (in the chapter on “God and Warrior”) about it:
Basic to that [standard Indo-European warrior] myth is a profound anomic [lawlessness, social alienation] of the human and societal condition, rooted in the use and abuse of power. Order, security, peace—positive conditions all—tend to depend for their preservation on the readiness of something that is inherently destructive, such as “security forces” or a military machine with the attendant mentality. If boosters of law enforcement like to describe their favorite agents of public order as a thin phalanx protecting civilization from anarchy, there is an even thinner line separating champion from berserk, police action from police riot. Those trained as agents of aggression and repression may experience difficulty functioning as normal human beings under great stress, or conversely when the pressure is off. Such abnormality also induces clannishness vis-a-vis the general society, “fraternal orders,” “Protective” associations, gangs, juntas, and other forms of structured apartness.
This kind of perennial tension is reflected in the ancient myths. Warlike exaltation, martial ecstasy where fury gets out of hand, is displayed by the Third Horatius, by Cuchulainn, by the berserkir. The Maruts, sodalas, fiana, or einherjar constituted bands with their own inner structure and interactional dynamics, with a collective svadha or “ethos” (the two cognates meaning etymologically “self-law, autonomy”) that was only capriciously at the call of a commanding figure such as Indra, Publicola, Finn or Odin. The warlord himself could be an equally self-willed individualist and from inspired and inspiring leader shade over into a lone-wolf kind of martial toiler (Indra led the Maruts, and yet he was also eka- “one, alone, unique,” acted yathavasam “as he chose” and had a svadah of his own). The warrior thus had an ambivalent role as a single champion or part of a self-centered corps or coterie, both a society’s external defender and its potential internal menace.
After discussing the myths about warrior kings and warrior gods, Puhvel devotes the rest of the chapter to the stories about mythic heroes, of the sort that many Neopagans who perceive themselves to be warriors pattern themselves after. Here’s what he has to say (with my comments in the square brackets):
A third type was the warrior who was not divine but a saga hero manipulated by deity, not a king but merely in royal service. This is the kind most marked by a tense relationship to the environment where he operated, to his divine and human patrons and his social constituency at large. He had no agglomeration of transfunctional attributes to lose [as the warrior kings and warrior gods did], but he nevertheless managed to offend (or was perceived as offending) all segments of the social order by a structured set of misdeeds. With his flawed willfulness (or perhaps his “programmed,” predestined, predictable nature) he compromised his career by nadir episodes that involved impious/unjust/sacrilegious, cowardly/under-handed/unwarriorlike, and covetous/venal/adulterous acts respectively [the “three sins” against the three Indo-European social functions of legal and spiritual rulership, courageous defense of the community, and prosperity and fertility]. The varieties described are found in epic, saga and folklore, from the fells of Scandinavia to the jungles of India, from the Bay of Bengalk via the Gulf of Argos and the Tiber to Galaway Bay. These kinds are not extinct — they were spotted not long ago on both the Mekong and the Potomac [and in Central America, Afghanistan, Africa, Moscow, Iraq, etc.].
All of the points he makes are directly applicable to a discussion of Neopagans in the military. As I have said many times, “one of the primary tasks of the clergy has always been to ride herd on the warriors… Since the primary threat to life on this planet now comes from out-of-control warriors, it’s time we started taking that duty seriously again.” In this particular time and place, that riding herd process requires confronting some unpleasant and unpopular truths. We can no longer ignore the issues involved. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts:
I perceive important distinctions between “warriors” and “soldiers,” with the former word having positive meanings for me and the later negative ones. In order to define my terms clearly, I will now oversimplify:
A “warrior” is a person who has been trained to use violence both effectively and selectively, but who refrains from doing so except when she/he perceives a genuine danger to her/himself or to others in the community whom she/he deems worthy of protection. She or he strives to use exactly the minimum amount of violence (if any) of whatever sort is necessary to defeat the danger, and is willing to risk her/his life in the process. A warrior prefers to see the face of his/her enemy, and takes personal responsibility for the ethics of his/her behavior. While she/he may enjoy her/his occupation and may experience and appreciate the thrill of battle, she/he does not enjoy or disregard the emotional and moral effects of killing. Warriors will compete with each other, not just to hone their combat skills, but to emphasize their individual identities. Courage, honor, integrity, and self-awareness are the ideals I associate with this image of the warrior.
A “soldier,” on the other hand, I perceive as a hired killer, whose primary task is not the defense of his/her community, although that claim is usually made, but rather the defense of that community’s political, social, religious, and economic rulers. A soldier enjoys being violent, especially when she/he has superior odds, and often becomes addicted to the battle frenzy (berserkirgang) experience—many to the point of receiving sexual satisfaction from the destruction they cause. He or she will kill any man, woman, or child that he/she is ordered to kill, simply because he/she was told to do so (as with the Russian airmen who shot down K.A.L. flight 007, or the American seamen who blew up that Iranian airliner). A soldier is perfectly willing to kill at a distance, without ever seeing the faces of his/her victims, and even when she/he sees them up close does not consider them to be “real” human beings (but “Huns,” or “Japs,” or “Gooks,” or “Micks,” etc.). A soldier considers rape and plunder to be a natural right in time of war, even if the war is against citizens of his/her own country. Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this essay, a soldier takes no responsibility for the ethics of his/her actions, since she/he is “only following orders.”
To transform a person from a civilian into a soldier, it’s generally necessary to extinguish her/his individuality and integrity, and to replace them as much as possible with group identity and unthinking, machinelike obedience. (Robert Anton Wilson has an excellent, and somewhat terrifying analysis of military basic training as a classic “brainwashing” process in Prometheus Rising.) This obedience to authority, obsession with “winning,” and emotional insensitivity to the impact of his/her behavior on the lives of others, are the ideals of the soldier. Of course, most generals and admirals will tell the general public (and their soldiers whenever the public happens to be listening) that the warrior ideals are the ones that soldiers do and should have, but this publicly presentable official message is easily drowned out by the other messages delivered during basic training, and quickly vanishes in any real war zone.
These opinions come from growing up reading about Nazi war criminals, seeing films of soldiers dropping napalm on small children, studying the history of the European, American, and Russian Empires, going to high school near a major military base, reading reports of the Gulf War from foreign newspapers, etc. and comparing the data gained from these sources to the idealistic legends mentioned earlier.
BUT IN ORDER to avoid monotheistic dualism here, lets create a value spectrum with the above defined “warrior” on one end, and the “soldier” on the other. Most modern police officers, security guards, and members of the armed forces will fit somewhere along the line between the two extremes. About the only ones who will come close to being real warriors will be those individuals who have dedicated their lives to the Martial arts, and a few political, ecological, and social activists.
(Since some people like to play games with the phrase “martial arts,” saying that anything having to do with the Roman god Mars should be counted, including soldiering and C.I.A. assassinations, let me emphasize that when I say “martial arts,” I’m referring to Tai Chi, Akido, Karate, Kung Fu, etc. as well as similar practices from non-oriental sources, when followed as a philosophy and a way of life.)
Perhaps we need two more axes of polarity here, a vertical one for degree of sanity or insanity, and another going off at right angles to the first two, for ethicality and unethicality of character. Warriors going berserk or cops rioting against a group of [Editor’s note: The noun here was missing from the original essay; I believe it would have been “civilians.”] would go near the insane end of the sanity-insanity scale, while a C.I.A. hitman or the members of a S.W.A.T. team trying to eliminate a sniper might belong near the sane end. Of course, that hitman would probably belong on the Wrong side of the ethical-unethical spectrum (depending on his/her target?), as would a Mafia hitman, Nazi Storm trooper, or a Russian airman dropping napalm on children in Afghanistan. As American Neopagans, we might decide that the soldiers who fought in the American Revolutionary War were ethical to do so (English Neopagans might disagree) or those in the U.S. Cavalry during the “Indian Wars” (unless you’re part or all Native American, or have studied the history carefully, in which case those same soldiers become grossly unethical), etc.
Many of these judgments are difficult to make, especially if you belong to a multivalued, pluralistic religion such as Neopaganism. But it should be clear that, despite the conflicting ideals discussed earlier, not all warriors are ethical and sane, and not all soldiers are unethical and insane. Nonetheless, I will make the argument, for the rest of this essay, that in our time it is far more difficult for a soldier to remain both ethical and sane from a Neopagan point of view than it is for a warrior to do so (law enforcement officers wind up in the middle — as usual).
Let’s get down to some ethical/spiritual nitty-gritty:
- It is wrong, under any and all circumstances, to drop napalm on kids, or to machine-gun women with babies, or to launch a missile towards a building full of elderly people.
- It is wrong to kill a total stranger, simply because his/her politicians disagree with yours as to the best way the two of you should be swindled.
- It is wrong to kill, maim, and torture people in order to maintain the wealth and power of multinational corporations, or of a dictator, or of the leader(s) of one’s religion.
- It is wrong to defoliate thousands of acres of forests or jungles, or to poison rivers and wells, or to bury millions of land mines in areas where civilians will die from them for decades to come, or to disseminate new diseases.
- It is wrong to teach dictators how to more effectively torture, rape, and enslave their own citizens (or those of neighboring countries), no matter what benefits our own political and economic masters might gain.
- It is wrong, for any reason that a human is capable of inventing, to create, maintain, or use weapons that can kill every man, woman, child, plant, and animal on Earth, raping our Mother to death with nuclear fire. Our planet can survive a hundred or even a thousand years of domination by any “evil empire.” It won’t survive World War III. To assist in any way, shape or form in killing the entire biosphere (at this point the only one we know exists) is the ultimate blasphemy which a worshiper of Mother Earth could commit.
I could not live with myself if I did not know, on a gut-level basis, that these things are Wrong. All the metaphysical and theological and political excuses in the world cannot change these crimes into acts of virtue or heroism.
Yet each of them is an action that any member of most modern army, navy, or air forces (especially those of a “superpower”—what they used to call an “empire”) can expect to be ordered to commit, sooner or later. The excuses will be grandiose, the justifications noble, and the instructions quite clear: “Do as you’re told—that’s an order!”
EACH AND EVERY ONE of these actions is one that I expect a Neopagan (or a sane, ethical warrior of any other faith) to refuse to perform, even at the risk of court-martial and execution (that’s easy for me to say — all I have to worry about is execution, legally or illegally, for the “treason” of voicing these opinions). Thus, I believe that Neopagans, whether Wiccans, Druids, or members of any other variety of Neopaganism, have no place in a modern superpower’s military.
The Coast Guard or a state militia might be an exception to this basic principle, except when they are performing functions unconnected to actually defending the lives of the populace, but one would have to evaluate each such organization and situation individually. I know that the National Guard in California, for example, actually spends most of its time fighting forest fires, but I remember when it was used against antiwar demonstrators back in the 60’s. The kids who shot the kids at Kent State were members of the Ohio National Guard. And lately the Coast Guard has been spending most of its time busting drug smugglers (which gets us into the topic of Neopagans and law enforcement, to be discussed later in this essay).
As for those Neopagans who are currently in the military, and who are sensibly unwilling to risk death by firing squad (or by “accident”), I believe that you should attempt to get out, by any comparatively ethical means necessary, as soon as you can. If escaping really is impossible (and not just bloody inconvenient), you should try to get transferred to units where your activities will be only remotely connected (they can never be completely unconnected) to those of others actually committing the crimes of the sort mentioned.
The question of whether or not we should have Druid or other Neopagan chaplains for Neopagans who choose to join or remain in the military is a messy one. If, as I believe, you’re not supposed to be there in the first place, what role does a chaplain have other than to betray his/her faith by telling you it’s OK? Would the military allow a chaplain who went around persuading folks to quit? The suggestion that Neopagans, whether chaplains or laity, should be in the military in order to enlighten the armed forces from within is absurd — as soon as you got close to actually changing people’s minds, you’d be arrested for “subversion.” Offering more enlightened alternatives to a superior officer is as likely to get one branded a “bleeding-heart liberal” and ignored, as it is to change anyone’s opinions—not to mention destroying your military career. A discussion of Neopagan chaplains is quite moot, however. The U.S. military in 1987 commissioned its first non-Judeo-Christian chaplain (a Buddhist of all faiths!) and is in no rush to have chaplains from any other minority faiths. Besides, military chaplains are expected to have been ordained after a period of college level training in an accredited institution that would have prepared them for full-time, professional clergy work — and we don’t have any accredited Neopagan seminaries yet and are unlikely to for several years.
As for young people facing the draft, I say you should refuse to register, or emigrate elsewhere as soon as your government actually starts taking kids. If you do register, do it as a Conscientious Objector (and be prepared for a long, messy fight). If you don’t register because of your religious beliefs, expect to be discriminated against when applying for school loans, etc.
I CAN STILL HEAR THE screams from when I first published these thoughts, from Neopagans in the military: “How dare you tell us what to do!” “How can you make our ethical decisions for us!” “You commie-hippie-weirdo-freak!” “Your subversive and ‘unpatriotic’ stance is what undermines the strength and character of a country.” “Who made you the spokesperson for all Pagandom?!”
Well, nobody did. Nonetheless I have the same rights as anyone, polytheologian or not, to express my religious opinions. And as a “spiritual leader,” I have an obligation to be truthful about my beliefs. Every other major religion in the world has doctrines about these issues. It’s about time we started working ours out.
As for the Norse warrior types in our community, I can only say that the better (sane and ethical) old Norse heroes would have had nothing but contempt for modern military procedures (although I suppose some of the Vikings might have approved of the raping, looting, and pillaging parts).
“But what about national defense?” I hear some of you asking. Well, if the Chinese come swimming across the Pacific Ocean with atom bombs clenched between their teeth, or the Mexicans come charging over the border with their third-rate weaponry (we’ve never let them have more than they needed to keep their own people properly tyrannized), attacking San Diego and El Paso, I suppose even I might concede to a necessity for some sort of National Defense. But my response (“If I were King of the Forest!”) would not be to whip out weapons that can kill thousands or millions of innocent bystanders, but rather (if physical violence really were necessary) to unleash professional assassins against the individuals in the invading country’s government who are responsible. Of course, this sort of measured response, aimed directly at the genuinely guilty parties, is simply “not done.”
I’ve had several acquaintances, who used to be in military intelligence organizations, independently tell me that U.S. spies advised our government back in 1938 to assassinate Adolph Hitler before he got too dangerous. This plan was vetoed on the grounds that fighting a war by assassination was likely to get our politicians assassinated in retaliation. So to save the lives of a handful of politicians in the US and Europe, millions upon millions of men, women, and children died. A direct result of that war was the invention and use of the very weapons that threaten our planet’s survival today. Frankly, I would rather have lost twenty or thirty politicians.
None of this deals with the ethics of assassination, of course (which would require a full discussion of situational ethics). And so far, American government assassins have proven much more effective at eliminating democratically elected (but economically threatening) leaders (both foreign and domestic) than at killing genuine threats to world peace. Also, it’s been pointed out that making assassination the primary means of international conflict would lead to the creation of ever more fascist police states in order to protect the politicians. Nonetheless, I would far rather live in a world where wars were fought personally by the people who benefited most from them (the generals, the politicians, the dictators/kings, the billionaires, the commissars, etc.) than in what we have now: those folks pulling puppet strings to make the rest of us dance, and die, to their tunes.
But that’s a fantasy. We are stuck with what we have. The CIA and all their other alphabet comrades take their orders from the powers-that-be in each nation/corporation, not from ordinary citizens like us, despite the supposed oversight exercised by governmental committees composed of people we may elect. This may not change in our lifetime. So even if you could convince yourself that murder is sometimes ethically justifiable (a tricky proposition at best), a career in these agencies is going to be no more ethical than one in their associated armed forces.
BUT WHAT ABOUT the theory of the “just war”? That always comes up in these discussions. I say, it’s a just war if you defend yourself when the KKK attacks your farmhouse and tries to shoot your husband and kids, burn down your barn, and rape your cow. At that point you’re ethically, morally and even legally (outside of New York City) entitled to defend yourself and your family from “a clear and present danger.” But when the Front for the Liberation of XYZ attacks its country’s Gestapo in an effort to free prisoners who are being tortured for trying to organize labor unions, and the Russians or the Americans (or the British, the Israelis, the French, the Chinese, etc.) send in tanks, bombers, napalm, and experts to train the Gestapo in better torturing techniques—no, that’s not a “just war” for the invaders—no matter what impact the results might have on the President’s or the Chairman’s Swiss bank accounts, no matter what noninterference might do to the next quarter’s profit margin or the current five year plan, and no matter that the XYZ Liberation Front may be just as unethical as the folks they’re fighting.
The overwhelming majority of wars that have been fought in America’s brief history, like those of other nations, have had little to do with “preserving human freedom.” Our Revolution and the War of 1812 were fought so that a bunch of wealthy, slave-owning men (George Washington and friends) wouldn’t have to pay taxes to England, at least as much as they were for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of (male, land-owning) happiness.” The Civil War was an economically based battle between the Second Wave industrial North and the First Wave agricultural South, with the freeing of slaves an afterthought done more for its devastating economic impact than for any concern for human rights. The genocide campaigns against the Native Americans, the multiple invasions of Central America, the Spanish-American War, etc. were all done for the purpose of gaining physical territory and/or exclusive trading “rights” (“Hi, give us all your natural resources at dirt cheap prices or we’ll kill you!”). The First World War was for the benefit of the banks and the munitions manufacturers (who also had a hand in setting up W.W.II).
Even I have to admit that Hitler’s Germany needed stopping, although I’ve already indicated one way it could have been prevented—by all the Gods, it could have been prevented by the W.W.I victors simply not having been so nasty afterwards! While the Japanese in China and Korea were just as horrible as the Germans in Europe, the war in the Pacific was the direct result of the Japanese and American Empires disputing territory thousands of miles from either’s home turf (neither of them really had any “rights” to the Kingdom of Hawaii). The wars in Korea and Vietnam were also territorial grabs. We wanted to make sure that prime agricultural land (before defoliation, the Mekong Delta used to be called “the Bread Basket of Southeast Asia”), rubber plantations, tungsten mines, offshore oil deposits, etc., remained under our control (or that of our “friends”), rather than let the rival Chinese or Russian Empires have them. Not to mention the wonderful locations for air, land and naval bases close to our rivals (no “Monroe Doctrine” for our competitors, no-sir-ree, just for us).
The Persian Gulf War was fought for the benefit of multi-billionaire Kuwaiti royalty, the boys in the Pentagon who wanted to try out all their new toys (especially the desert warfare machines), and a President who wanted to prove that he wasn’t a wimp. A quarter of a million men, women, and children died—the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians—as a direct or indirect result of American and other Western European military actions. This was as many as died in the Burning Times (the Renaissance witch hunts) we Neopagans talk so much about as an archetypal atrocity. Yet the man we supposedly fought the war to dethrone is still running his country and only a fraction of his military personnel were killed.
None of this should be surprising, except for those who believe their high school history books, the stories in the mass media, or their old drill sergeants. Every Empire in history has acted this way: The Russian Empires (both Czarist and Communist), the Chinese ones, the British, etc., going all the way back to Mesopotamia, have all grabbed as much loot as they could and have made up whatever excuses, if any, their soldiers needed to hear. In most of the modern empires, however, it has become necessary to claim that one’s invading armies are not conquering turf, but are liberating toiling masses instead. China doesn’t commit genocide in Tibet, it “educates people away from their superstitions.” The American Empire doesn’t prop up sleazy dictators who are killing their own citizens, we just “help friendly governments to maintain a strong defense against communism/terrorism/international drug cartels.” The Russian Empire didn’t invade Afghanistan to gain access to the Middle East and create another buffer state around its former national borders, it was “helping a friendly government to maintain a strong defense against capitalism.”
The bottom line of all this political discussion is that governments—all governments—habitually lie to their citizens and the rest of the world, especially when planning and executing wars. The only thing that makes ours any better is that the U.S. was founded by a bunch of agnostic, skeptical Freemasons who didn’t trust governments very much—including the one they were founding—and who tried to see to it that intelligent people could keep the corruption and tyranny down to a dull roar. But that’s impossible if citizens naively believe whatever their government tells them is true, routinely obey whatever orders they are told have come down from on high, and object to essays like this one being published. I’m not the first to point out these unpleasant and “treasonous” truths—Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, and other famous/infamous people repeatedly remarked on the gullibility of the general public when faced with official versions of reality.
PEOPLE NOT ONLY tend to believe what they’re told when governments are leading young men off to slaughter, they tend to actively disbelieve any evidence to the contrary. Historians now know that the Lusitania, supposedly an innocent cruise liner whose sinking by the German navy was one of the primary incidents that led the U.S. into entering W.W.I, was indeed carrying ammunition to the British, just as the Germans claimed. Evidence has accumulated that the U.S. Battleship Maine was blown up by American spies in order to create an incident to goad a reluctant public into the Spanish-American War. John F. Kennedy, who was beginning to de-escalate the Vietnam War, was “coincidentally” assassinated, then replaced with someone who was quite willing to keep the war going as long as it was profitable. All this has been published over and over again, in scholarly journals, in the back pages of newspapers, in obscure political magazines. The mass slaughter of civilians during the Persian Gulf War was broadcast live by CNN! But very few people read or view these unpopular facts, and most of those who do, don’t believe them, since they contradict the history books, the government, the press, and the military. Those who do believe them are so cynical that they don’t think it really matters—after all, what’s done is done.
In one sense they’re right. We can’t change the past. All we can try to do is to remember as many of its lessons as possible. Among those many lessons are (a) governments seldom are willing to pass up any opportunity to gain greater power, (b) governments always become more powerful in wartime, and therefore (c) there is a built-in incentive for governments to be in a constant state of war. So we not only have to watch the scoundrels in our own government, but those in all the others as well.
How does all this political skepticism tie into Neopagan ethical approaches to military service? Very simply. When our government tells us, or anybody else’s government tells its citizens, that a war is necessary for “national defense,” the odds are a thousand to one that the government is lying. For the individual member of the armed forces, murder, rape, and pillage, whether direct or by remote control, become even harder to excuse when you haven’t even a shred of hard evidence that the crimes you are being ordered to commit are actually going to protect your loved ones at home from whatever theoretical threat is being waved in your face. What you can be sure your crimes will do—up to the point where someone starts W.W.III—is to fatten several national leaders’ Swiss bank accounts, generate enormous profits for the arms industry in all the countries involved (the same companies in Europe sold weapons to all sides in both World Wars, and are still doing it today), get rid of a lot of surplus teenage males (always a threat to the inner stability of any culture), totally wreck whatever environment your war takes place in, and thoroughly mix the gene pools of the survivors.
None of these results, except the last, is one of which Neopagan polytheology can approve and there are plenty of other ethical (and much more pleasant) ways to mix genes.
A few folks have mentioned that military personnel have the “right” to disobey “unlawful” orders. While true, this ignores the fact that many unethical things are perfectly legal, under civilian or military law, and that refusing to obey a direct order based on this right is far more likely to get one court-martialed and/or shot than it is to prevent a crime being committed. Your superior officer will merely order your replacement to perform in your stead. As for an obligation for American military men and women to serve as “world peacekeepers,” (1) I don’t recall them being elected to or asked to fill that role by the rest of the world, and (2) the U.S. government has been extremely selective about where and when and how it fulfills that “duty.” By some odd coincidence, it always seems to depend on American political polls and corporate profits.
So I’m forced to repeat my earlier conclusions. Despite all the traditional arguments about “just wars” and “national defense” and making the world safe for democracy/capitalism/communism, etc., a soldier, sailor, marine, or air fighter in a modern superpower armed forces organization is holding down a job where he/she has agreed, by the very act of signing up or letting him/herself be drafted, to commit or support acts of a grossly unethical and immoral nature whenever he/she is ordered to commit or support them, for reasons that will usually be equally unethical and immoral. That makes superpower military service (and that in many smaller nations) a “wrong livelihood” for a Neopagan. Period.
What about other forms of “serving your country”? If the government decides that all citizens must spend a year or two working as firefighters, or conservation corps members, or hospital workers, or street pavers, etc., then such service may be perfectly ethical and moral. An argument can even be made that such community service is a genuine moral obligation (nobody, except absolute Libertarians, likes parasites very much). However, if such service becomes “alternative service,” meaning that you are filling a job position so that someone else can go commit crimes in your place, then you haven’t escaped the ethical and moral issues, however worthy the service you are performing might be.
I’d like to emphasize that I am not saying that Neopagans in the military are “bad people” or “lousy excuses for Pagans.” Many very good people join the military for reasons that have little to do with wanting to kill. They join because of various psychological goals they think the military will help them accomplish (though military service often makes personalities more dysfunctional, not less), to get specific job training (though they usually get cheated in this area), to earn tuition to pay for college later, to travel around the world (…”visit exotic places, meet fascinating people, and kill them”), or because they genuinely believe that they will be helping to “defend their country” or be “world peacekeepers” by becoming part of the military machine. If you grow up believing everything that the government and the mass media tell you, this sort of innocence is understandable. Neopagans, however, are usually far too intelligent and well-read to be that naive.
What I am saying is that Neopagans now in the military, or contemplating being there, should think long and hard about all the issues and arguments, official and unofficial, overt and covert, genuine and fraudulent, before they decide to stay or join — not just swallow whatever propaganda they’ve been fed by career military people or right-wing politicians.
NOW, ABOUT THOSE PAGAN COPS: As I see it, the major polytheological point in evaluating the morality and ethicality of law enforcement has to do with the nature of the laws that are being enforced. This requires a discussion of two terms from the field of criminology, “crimes with victims” and “crimes without victims.” The former are the obvious ones: murder, rape, arson, theft, fraud, most traffic laws, etc. and some subtler ones such as bribery, graft, etc. The latter are activities in which there either is no victim at all or in which the primary “victim” is the criminal: the vast majority of sex, drug, and gambling crimes fall under this classification. In essence, Judeo-Christian preachers who have been unable to convince their congregations to stop “sinning” have used their political power to get the civil governments to declare various sins to be “crimes.”
It seems clear to me that no culture can survive for long if it allows crimes with victims to take place without efforts to prevent the crimes and/or punish the criminals. It seems equally clear that the legal creation of “crimes without victims” is a complete violation of the principle of separation of church and state, but such is not unusual. A Neopagan cop who is devoting his/her career to working on a homicide squad, or investigating arson, or solving rapes, etc., is behaving in a perfectly appropriate fashion for a Neopagan. Contrariwise, if she or he is arresting prostitutes, or busting gay couples for sodomy, or destroying pot fields, then she/he is not acting in keeping with Neopagan beliefs, but is instead using the force of the civil government to impose Judeo-Christian (and corporate) values on the general populace. That’s not only immoral and unethical, it’s unconstitutional as well. Unfortunately, in order to get promoted to a position where you can concentrate on crimes-with-victims, you usually have to spend several years enforcing victimless crimes.
The other major sorts of crimes without victims are the political ones. In these “crimes,” generally useful laws are reinterpreted to forbid what are supposed to be constitutionally protected protest activities. And this is where we get into gray areas of interpretation. If a hundred thousand people are marching down a street protesting a government policy (i.e., exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances), it’s immoral and unethical to attack them with billy clubs and police dogs, even if you think their opinions stupid, ignorant, or “subversive.”
These distinctions can be fairly clear. But if someone from an ecological action group has decided to destroy bulldozers, or sink whaling ships, or dump bags of red paint on members of a government commission who are neglecting their duties to protect endangered species — then we have a problem. Their activities are clearly illegal, and are indeed crimes that have victims (the developers, the whalers, the bureaucrats), yet they are being done to prevent even greater crimes, ones that many Neopagans would also oppose. Personally I cheered when I heard about the “eco-guerrillas” who sank the (empty) whaling vessel in Iceland, wrecked the whalers’ mainframe computer, and destroyed their freezing units. By committing crimes against property, they saved the lives of scores of whales who would have been slaughtered by that machinery. But approving of people “taking the law into their own hands” for “a greater good” gets us, as I was swiftly reminded when this essay first saw print, into yet another moral quagmire—one that opens the door to all sorts of abuse by special interest groups, such as “pro-lifers” murdering doctors, or right-wing Christians persecuting Neopagans, or anti-pornography feminists forcing bookstores out of business.
Unfortunately, when one becomes a law enforcement officer one swears an oath to uphold the law as written. One isn’t (officially) allowed to pick and choose which laws she/he will enforce and which she/he will ignore. Of course, every cop I’ve ever known did, in fact, pick and choose on a daily basis, simply as a matter of necessity in big cities (where there’s too much crime going on for the police to stop all of it), and of tradition in small towns (where the local cop or sheriff is often judge, jury, and punisher as well). However, as a law enforcement officer, one is supposed to enforce every law as it currently exists, no matter how unjust, stupid, immoral, or ecocidal it might be. If a Neopagan takes that oath, she or he is going to be in spiritual trouble sooner or later.
Yet, unlike the average member of a superpower military force, a cop routinely acts in a genuinely heroic way. The highway patrol keeps the drunks and crazies from killing the rest of us on the roads. Homicide detectives try to find murderers and stop them. SWAT teams capture or kill insane people who are shooting passersby. Cops pull people from burning cars and buildings, rescue drowning children, give mouth-to-mouth and CPR to collapsed victims of heart attacks, and risk their lives every day they go out onto big city streets.
If we had a legal system that was sane, rational, and upheld the separation of church and state, and a political system that was not terrified of its own citizens, then the career of law enforcement might be a completely honorable one, all the time, for a Neopagan. As it is, Neopagan cops must constantly be making complex ethical and moral decisions about their own behavior as cops. If one can find a section of his/her law enforcement agency where he/she can be exclusively involved in solving and/or preventing genuine crimes with victims, then one could have a long and honorable career. But if one is a general duty officer, then sooner or later he/she is going to be ordered to arrest people he/she thinks are harmless, simply because they’ve violated some Judeo-Christian taboo. Thus, being a cop can be a right livelihood for a Neopagan, but its a hard road to walk.
Nonetheless, there are advantages to the Neopagan community as a whole, in having cops around who know that Neopagans aren’t baby-killing monsters. Certainly the fundamentalist cops are working really hard to convince the rest of their colleges that Neopagans are no different from the “sincere sociopath” Satanists who do commit atrocities. Having some knowledgeable members of our community be also part of the law enforcement community can only improve communications between all of us.
HAVING SAID ALL THESE negative things about soldiers and cops, just what sorts if warriors do I approve of? Well it should be obvious from my earlier remarks that I believe that martial artists are worthy of admiration, as are spiritual warriors in the Native American style (though that phrase, like “shaman,” has been badly abused by New Agers and Neopagans alike). I also approve of Earth Warriors or “eco-guerrillas,” such as the members of Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Society, who are willing to risk their own lives to protect our Mother, as long as they remain careful not to kill people in the process of their monkey-wrenching. I think that private citizens who fight for freedom and our constitutional rights, through such groups as Common Cause, People for the America Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, etc. are heroes (if not necessarily warriors) worthy of our admiration.
What all these warriors and heroes have in common, and what I think is fully in keeping with the warrior ideals of our Paleopagan ancestors, is a belief that process is as important as results. To a martial artist a dishonorable victory is not a victory. Eco-guerrillas try very hard to avoid endangering human and animal life while they are destroying ecocidal machinery. The legal action groups mentioned use constitutional means to defend the constitution, even though they know that their enemies will not.
And let us not forget the heroism of many people who do not think of themselves as warriors. The woman who pulls a plow because her children are hungry and the horse died, is a hero. The man who stays awake night after night nursing a sick child, is a hero. The nonviolent activist who lays her body down in front of a bulldozer or a truck carrying toxic waste, is a hero. The antinuclear protester who is willing to go to jail for his or her beliefs, such as Starhawk, is a hero. Many of these people are, in their own ways, warriors of whom we can be proud, albeit their opponents may be either abstracts (such as hunger or death) or specific corporate or governmental individuals.
A genuine warrior confronts her or his enemy as another human being, not as a faceless stranger or a nonhuman “thing.” A genuine warrior is willing to risk his or her own life, job, reputation, family relationships, and more, to fight for what he or she believes is morally and ethically right. A genuine warrior does not push a button to kill hundreds of civilians ten miles away, just because some bloody politician told him/her to—because that is terrorism (violence being used against someone who can’t fight back, showing a wanton disregard for human life), not heroism. A genuine warrior knows that her or his greatest challenge is internal, rather than external.
If any of us wish to call ourselves “Warriors for the Gods” or “Defenders of Our Mother,” then we must be willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the causes we claim to believe in. Anything less may be good on its own merits, but is not true warriorship.
Thor, Indra, Athena, and Kali are not impressed by fancy costumes, expensive weapons, or self-serving excuses. They are the ones who will judge whether someone is really a Neopagan warrior or a blowhard—not me, not the Druids, and not the Neopagan Community. So if we are going to have Neopagan warrior cults, their organizers are going to have to have their acts together. Each of them should select a cause with which most Neopagans can agree, then train themselves to fight for it effectively (not just romantically—but that’s another whole essay), and begin the process of fighting. Just sitting around drinking beer and swapping war stories/myths is not going to be enough to gain them any respect or support from the rest of us. Putting their bodies on the line for Our Mother will.
Isaac Bonewits was one of North America’s leading experts on Druidism, Witchcraft, and the Earth Religions movement. A practicing Neopagan priest, scholar, teacher, bard and polytheologian for forty years, he coined much of the vocabulary and articulated many of the issues that have shaped the Neopagan community in the United States and Canada. He is the author of the classic Real Magic (1971, 1989), as well as Authentic Thaumaturgy (1979, 1989), Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca (2006), Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism (2006), The Pagan Man (2005), Real Energy (co-authored with Phaedra Bonewits) (2007), and Neopagan Rites (2007). He is survived by his wife, Phaedra Bonewits, and his son, Arthur Lipp-Bonewits. His collected writings are archived at Neopagan.net.
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