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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