What You Should Think About Pacifism

November 29, 2007

“From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence — and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.”

–Gloria Steinem

Even in more tranquil times, there is no shortage of commentary meant to remind non-violent citizens that legions of trained killers stand at the ready to provide security for the nation. No doubt much of human history reveals that force of arms provides a means to keep a hostile enemy out of a nation’s heartland. Yet more circumspect analysis also demonstrates that force of arms provides a means to produce hostile enemies. Could it be that there is more to achieving a security goal than having the most guns or the best fortress?

The bizarre state of the world in the aftermath of America’s “headless behemoth” foreign policy provides a new perspective on some old ideas. From the earliest clashes in military history, there have been questions about the justification for war. No one remotely acquainted with the realities of warfare could carry on without any doubts about the endeavor, even if military culture vigorously promotes thoughtlessness in this arena.

To be fair, soldiers in the thick of it are more effective if no weighty political cogitations distract from the urgent business at hand. Yet this same culture so useful in the field also has drawbacks. Once the fog of war has cleared and some opportunity for reflection presents itself, this mindset creates difficulty reconciling doubts raised by the experience of waging war with political justifications for the violence.

Since ancient times, it has been common for a head of state to have extensive personal experience with military service. Thus the entire history of governance is heavily influenced by, if not a “might makes right” attitude, at least a “having might is more important than being right” attitude. In Europe (sans Switzerland and a few other pockets of exceptional thoughtfulness,) from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century, it was accepted that a genuinely defensive stance was inadequate. Responsible governance was presumed to include cultivating enough military might to fight alongside allies, lend credibility to aggressive posturing, and project force to distant lands.

Even today, blatantly stupid ideas like “war is good for the economy” or “war is essential to driving technological progress” are widely believed. Centuries upon centuries of social paradigms make it such that questioning or contradicting these unsound assumptions is regarded as a sign of weakness. It may be that the negative response is as much primal as it is cultural. Yet it surely is not intellectual.

There may be a subset of human beings who are best able to achieve their potential in some context provided by war. Yet to promote war as a means of promoting human achievement is downright senseless. Many of those who have achieved great things in a wartime context were just as capable of achieving great things in some peaceful pursuit. More to the point, surely that portion of humanity inclined to thrive in warfare is not a strong majority. Then, even if I were mistaken about that point, how much innocent blood may be spilled in the name of creating a militant environment for human achievement? Could the inspirations of war ever exceed the lost loves and labors of lives cut short by the consequences of combat?

War for war’s sake is only a good thing to the degree that someone has developed a profoundly misguided notion of “good.” Yet there remains the matter of defense. Wherever there is prosperity or power available for the taking, there is the risk that aggression will occur. George Orwell is known to have asserted, “we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence upon those who would do us harm.” To someone just beginning to attain the first glimmers of enlightenment, such a statement seems to suggest that peace and prosperity rest on an essential foundation created by awesome military forces ready to lay waste to prospective national enemies.

That assessment comes from an ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things. Did a sniper stuff the pillows on which this peaceful sleep occurs? Did a gunboat pilot assemble the frame of the bed? Was the mattress put together by an artillery crew? Is the heating and plumbing that makes our homes comfortable first invented by a team designing killing machines? Were our city streets planned and paved with the oversight of combat-hardened generals? To turn the simple-minded interpretation of Orwell on its head — dedicated warriors eventually find safe places to sleep away from the battlefield because most everyone else stands ready to perform constructive and creative activities on their behalf.

For too long, the darkness of tribalism and barbarism has lingered in our modern institutions. In the halls of power, even from the lips of those who avoided service themselves, characterizations of military forces as “the backbone of our society” are sincere. Yet they are also archaic and misguided. If we accept that military organizations are the essential core of strength our society possesses, then we define our greatness chiefly by our power to kill and destroy. I would think even an overwhelming majority of military personnel would hope for a more noble perspective from national leaders. Alas, this affliction remains severe in the United States, and it is hardly absent from other nations in the modern world.

Even amongst warriors, the trait of being peace-loving is correctly regarded as a virtue. Yet when it comes to absolute pacifism, hawks, chicken hawks, and plenty of doves all seem willing to agree that it is foolish. Personally I agree that there are plausible scenarios in which defense of others or defense of self justifies actions intended to neutralize a real and imminent threat. Yet no small part of the pacifists’ wisdom is understanding how incredibly rare these situations are if you do not make it your business to instigate or escalate hostilities.

An absolute pacifist runs the risk of doing wrong by failing to take the most effective course of action in protecting the innocent. Everyone else runs the risk of doing wrong by performing willfully destructive actions that do not serve any protective purpose. Which is the greater risk?

In the personal context, fluid situations and instantaneous needs can lead to situations where thoughtful reflection is not an option. Within limits both reasonable and practical, there should be some tolerance for honest mistakes. In an international context, however fluid the situation, opportunities for contemplation are usually abundant. To go to war when the underlying facts are not subject to thorough investigation or the stated cause(s) are unreasonable or the overall plan is unrealistic is to perpetrate the very worst sort of mistake. Only a team of lazy minds paired with dark hearts could let the desire to order an army to do violence take priority over the moral imperative to avoid unnecessary warfare.

Perhaps absolute pacifists are fools. Yet if we see clearly, then we see that life makes fools of us all. There is much more to be learned from the fool who thinks differently than from the fool who echoes our own thoughts. When we cut through useless divisiveness, we are left recognizing that abhorring violence is innately rational, perhaps even innately good. While we who are not absolute pacifists set about establishing the grounds on which we would support acts of violence, there is much benefit to be found in considering the very best arguments against those acts. If we cannot even face the questions of those who condemn all violence, how can we possibly believe our own justifications for it are legitimate?

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What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.