While it is true that the ideal of pacifism has never in history held territory for long, its progress has only ever been checked by a failure of courage and imagination.
Just as it was once a failure of human imagination to believe that all men are equal under the law, so slavery became the habitual practice of empires. Yet, slavery was at one time a legitimate institution, as seemingly a natural state of affairs as bathing or eating lunch at noon.
But it is not to governments, nor to society as a whole, that the blame for war belongs entirely. Its greatest abettor, its contributor with the greatest failure of imagination, and the entity that always grants it legitimacy and a solemnity that may never be questioned, remains the common soldier.
War is a cumulative enterprise, and the lowly private is its primary unit. Amid the camaraderie, the drills, and drink, it is quickly forgotten that that enterprise is first and foremost to kill. That it is done on an industrial scale merely aids the soldier, granting him the impersonal quality of an assembly line worker. Each plays his little part, but the end product is death.
Who is the "common" soldier? Whether well educated or not, he typically has only a tenuous grip upon reality. In the often positive sense, he is a Romantic with an unrealistic view of the world, guided by naivety and good intentions, almost all of which to be subsequently smashed by the realities of war. There is little depth to his field of vision.
On the other end of the scale lies the animal lust for bloodshed and little else. I am reminded of current West Point students, who upon being interviewed expressed their anxiety that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end before they could join in the fray. Such sentiments recall those of other West Pointers of over a hundred and fifty years ago before the slaughter of civil war taught them a lesson experience could only teach.
And then there are those stragglers between who enter service, almost always in peacetime, either to escape or postpone adult responsibility, to further their careers in the private sector or, from the sheer ego boosting rush of having other human beings like slaves at their command. Not such an unsound analogy for, they do as slaves do, serve and die when ordered. "Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die." as Tennyson so chillingly depicted. Freethinking has never been an admired quality in soldiers, except perhaps the officer corp.
Let me be clear, I make a distinction between that business of the state, War, and the more local or personal matter of self-defense. I would not advocate absolute pacifism, except upon religious grounds. Rather, I wish to point out that the motivations of a government to go to war are seldom to be trusted. The dealing of arms is a trade unlike any other. Few consumers would be happy to buy a product who's purpose was to maim and kill. Yet, billions in tax dollars are spent each year to finance new ways of doing just that. In a nation in which only the wealthy can run for office, the vested interests of corporations who produce those arms should not be overlooked. To paraphrase Clausewitz: War is profit by other means. Their representatives lobby for more funds, their government sponsors in turn agitate fear, and there has not been a sitting president yet who wished to appear soft on national defense.
In all of this, where stands the common soldier? Ignorant, self-righteous, or with noble intent, he or she is an enabler of this condition. And no matter how well intentioned their action's, history has shown the road to war is often paved with them.