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?

Advertisements

What You Should Think About Military Service

November 11, 2007

“I am a soldier. I fight where I am told, and I win where I fight.”

–General George S. Patton

Though I would not compare it with something as tragic rising body counts, another unpleasant side effect of watching our nation wage a pointless war is the rise of contempt for personnel serving in its armed forces. Many is the time I’ve read a compelling blog entry or heard a persuasive public speech only to be see its appeal marred by hostile language directed at a broad category of Americans, most of whom are decent human beings willing to make a particularly difficult sort of personal sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation.

Of course there are some soldiers driven to war by hatred of others, and that is not laudable behavior. Yet most uniformed military personnel, even those serving on the “wrong” side of historic conflicts, believe that they are doing work that is vital to protect their homeland from some sort of real threat. Generally speaking, the British did not open fire on Continentals because they hated American upstarts. Confederates had much more pressing reasons to shoot at Yankees than fears that slave labor might end. Even Wehrmacht forces defending the beaches of Normandy believed their actions were necessary for the protection of Germany.

Generally war does not break out unless warmongers are involved. The modus operandi of a successful warmonger is to portray a potential enemy the source of an urgent threat to a people’s way of life, rally a nation behind an agenda of aggression, then denounce dissenting voices as traitors to that nation. The entire process is a political exercise that combines the highest levels of effectiveness with the lowest levels of ethical conduct.

Misunderstandings, even skirmishes, can occur naturally as a result of complex international relationships. Full out warfare only occurs because leader(s) make it their business to advance an agenda of belligerence. Only after such historically malicious behavior has taken place do conditions exist where dutiful military personnel are called upon to kill people and break things. Much of this destructive activity is itself unethical, but then again it is also unethical to knowingly and willingly take an oath only to break it when faced with a moral quandary.

Perhaps more to the point, from a soldier’s perspective, ordinary wartime activities are not unethical. A policy of military aggression is normally presented as something urgently needed to insure a society’s survival. Fending off foreign invaders may actually be a matter of survival. Either way, out on the battlefield a “kill or be killed” mentality may be rooted in actual circumstances. Even when it is unethical to go to war, once deployed the ethics of following the chain of command, including orders to fight, become crystal clear.

Any nation with substantial resources invites disaster by refusing to maintain some sort of military capability. Perhaps there will come a time when this is no longer true, but on Earth in the early 21st century it clearly is true. Of course, there are many ways to go about achieving this goal. I’ve always admired the Swiss approach — neutrality in foreign matters, but if anyone tries to take their land and their homes by force, a nation full of trained and equipped militia will fight relentlessly to make the invaders’ incursion as brief and painful as possible. Insofar as “peace through strength” makes any sense at all, I believe it is in military doctrines like those that shape Swiss policy.

Unfortunately, rank and file soldiers have little say in the policies of a democracy, and even less if they should happen to inhabit an undemocratic society. Where a person is born does not change the merits of acting in defense of family and friends. As such, the political and military institutions of most societies expose soldiers to the possibility that they may be called to serve without an actual grave threat to home and homeland. When moral imperatives come into conflict like this, how should one respond?

For an overwhelming majority of military personnel, there is nothing to do but follow orders. This goes beyond aversion to potentially severe punishments brought on by willful dereliction of duty. Below the highest echelons of command, the ability to carry out orders as given is required to insure combat effectiveness. A nation might as well have no defenses as to let them to be contingent on whether or not front line troops are personally inclined fight on a particular day.

It may be wise to question policy, and surely it is wise to temper a combatant’s fervor with enough reflection that every act of violence is also an exercise in reluctance. Yet both the duty of a citizen to protest bad policy and the duty of a human being to avoid victimizing others must take a back seat to the duty of uniformed military personnel to cause death and destruction on command. Exceptions to this come only in the form of truly extreme abuses, like an order to decimate harmless civilians or an order to torture a defenseless captive. If it is plausible that a properly issued command serves a legitimate military purpose and there is no opportunity for discussion, then it is right to take action.

Yet there is another realm of exceptions beyond orders calling for the deliberate abuse of non-combatants. At the highest levels of military command, it is inevitable that national policy will become part of the discussion. Even if President Bush never actually listens to contrary opinions from the top brass, his public insistence that he defers to the judgement of commanders in the field invites efforts to establish healthy channels of feedback percolating up through the chain of command. Heck, even in a dictatorship, senior military personnel should be able to speak candidly with the potentate. Anything less creates a disconnect from reality that exposes combatants in the field to greater danger while diminishing the prospects for success of the overall military mission.

When I encounter schadenfreude regarding the hardships faced by today’s active duty military personnel, I see that as an ugly sentiment. No doubt there is an element in the services that did volunteer just so that they could “go kick some raghead ass.” Yet I am confident an overwhelming majority of those unfortunate Americans find themselves risking real danger for reasons that are more wholesome than sinister. On this Veteran’s Day I want to extend my thanks for their contribution to the strength of the United States of America.

I would rather my nation be strong than be weak. Yet I would also rather my nation would be right than be wrong. The only component of military condemnation I can support is criticism of senior military commanders associated with existing Iraq policy. Except for Gen. Shinseki, I am not aware of any top tier officers willing to end their careers in order to speak truth to power regarding the planning and conduct of that disastrous misadventure.

Going to war without question because your commanding officers do not want to hear your questions, or even because you’ve been led to believe the war effort really is sound defense policy, is merely the fulfillment of duty for almost all positions in the armed forces. On the other hand, supporting a war effort when your position carries with it the duty to raise concerns, being educated and informed enough to know better than the civilian leadership in this matter, is disgraceful conduct.

I can appreciate that speaking out means being denied access to a defense industry gravy train that could insure a general’s grandchildren’s grandchildren are born wealthy. That form of corruption comes with a powerful lure. Yet officers atop the military hierarchy should have greater moral fiber than to think so selfishly. Brave men and women serving so far from home will pay for that enrichment with spilled blood, lost limbs, addled minds, or even the ultimate price.

To those vaunted few with the position to speak truth to power regarding the folly of ongoing Iraq policy, I urge you to take this time to reflect on your duty to front line combatants as well as your duty to the nation as a whole. Think about the virtues attributed to you at ceremony after ceremony throughout your career. Ask yourself when is the last time you showed real courage and made real sacrifices for the good of the country. It is not too late for you to get back on the right path.

As for everyone else out there who does serve in some branch of the U.S. armed forces yet doesn’t have the ear of POTUS or VPOTUS or SecDef, I thank you for your service. Your work is among the most difficult work imaginable. You honor this nation by doing your military duty, often under downright traumatic circumstances. I only wish more of us could manage to honor you by doing our civic duty to support better political leadership.