With the news of Osama bin Laden fresh, I’m reminded of a passage (#31) from the Tao Te Ching on humility and military victory:
31.1 Even the finest arms are an instrument of evil, A spread of plague, And the way for a vital man to go is not the way of a soldier.
31.2 But in time of war men civilized in peace Turn from their higher to their lower nature.
31.3 Arms are an instrument of evil, No measure for thoughtful men Until there fail all other choice But sad acceptance of it.
31.4 Triumph is not beautiful. He who thinks triumph beautiful Is one with a will to kill, And one with a will to kill Shall never prevail upon the world.
31.5 It is a good sign when man’s higher nature comes forward, When retainers take charge And the master stays back As in the conduct of a funeral.
31.6 The death of a multitude is a cause for mourning: Conduct your triumph as a funeral.
32.4 But men of culture came, with their grades and their distinctions; And as soon as such differences had been devised No one knew where to end them, Though the one who does know the end of all such differences Is the sound man.
Even Gandhi once wrote that sometimes it may be necessary to use lethal violence (in his hypothetical example, it was to dispatch a lunatic running through a village with a sword). Complete pacifism and perfect nonviolence may be unattainable for us, but how we justify violence to ourselves is an interesting process. As Daniel Gilbert has pointed out, we have a psychological tendency to consider retaliatory violence to be morally superior to unprovoked instigation (revenge, retaliation, retribution). We also have a propensity to see ourselves as the aggrieved party, whether or not that is based in fact. Regardless, how we conduct ourselves in ‘victory’ speaks volumes. While violence may sometimes be necessary, it is hopefully done so with great reluctance.
Gilbert, Daniel. 2006. He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t. NY Times. July 24.