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Readings for Reflection: August 2008
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

In his practical book on non-violence, Ammunition for Peace-Makers, the late Phillips Moulton, an attender at Ann Arbor Friends Meeting, wrote about the immorality of even a “good war,” like WWII. He cites a famous passage (from Disturbing the Universe) by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson to show that slippery slope. When we asked Dyson for permission to quote him in this Newsletter, we received a warm positive response, after which he wrote: “It is now exactly sixty years since I had the enormous luck to attend the 1948 Summer School in Theoretical Physics in Ann Arbor. That was a historic meeting of minds that gave a flying start to my professional career. I am happy now to have this chance to say thank you to Ann Arbor. With all good wishes to you and the other Ann Arbor Friends,… Freeman Dyson.”

I began to look backward and to ask myself how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder. Since the beginning of the war I had been retreating step by step from one moral position to another, until at the end I had no moral position at all. At the beginning of the war I believed fiercely in the brotherhood of man, called myself a follower of Gandhi, and was morally opposed to all violence. After a year of war I retreated and said, Unfortunately non-violent resistance against Hitler is impracticable, but I am still morally opposed to bombing. A few years later I said, Unfortunately it seems that bombing is necessary in order to win the war, and so I am willing to go to work for Bomber Command, but I am still morally opposed to bombing cities indiscriminately. After I arrived at Bomber Command I said, Unfortunately it turns out that we are after all bombing cities indiscriminately, but this is morally justified as it is helping to win the war. A year later I said, Unfortunately it seems that our bombing is not really helping to win the war, but at least I am morally justified in working to save the lives of the bomber crews. In the last spring of the war I could no longer find any excuses. … I had surrendered one moral principle after another, and in the end it was all for nothing.

Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1981),
as quoted in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1981),
as quoted in Phillips Moulton, Ammunition for Peace-Makers (1986)


All Readings for Reflection
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