Pacifism, it seemed to me, was an admirable theory that rested upon either an idealistic conception of humanity or an absolute faith in a benevolent God. Despite growing up in Pennsylvania, a state founded and influenced by pacifistic, egalitarian Quakers, I always concluded that pacifism could not effectively oppose the evil that humans do.
This is well-trodden argumentative ground. Hitler and the fascist leaders offer readily available evidence that war sometimes might be necessary to stop great evil. George Orwell also nailed a troubling paradox about pacifism; its adherents frequently rely on others, usually poorer people and often ones with different skin tones, for protection.
In “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell observed a truth that many pacifists cannot “accept, even in [their] secret thoughts.” “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf,” Orwell wrote, adding, this fact is “grossly obvious if one’s emotions do not happen to be involved.”
For years, I uneasily supported “Just War” doctrine as a guide to determine when and how our wars should be fought. Unfortunately, however, the number of U.S. wars, interventions, and military actions accumulated rapidly during the past three decades. I noticed the frequency with which war seemed to shout out justice, as push devolved to shove in our civic debates.
We barely remember that the adherents of “Just War” doctrine, including the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops, opposed our second incursion into Iraq on the grounds that an attack on that country did not meet the doctrine’s criteria, or standards, for a just action. As a nation, we shrugged, and attacked anyway.
Perhaps writer Chris Hedges, the controversial author of “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” is correct: perhaps this nation is addicted to war and death. Without pacifism’s absolute repudiation of war, many people apparently cannot withstand the emotional and social pressure placed upon them by those who wish for war, and ever more wars. They succumb to war fever.
Our relationship with war is complicated by two other realities.
War, in general, is wasteful; it damages or destroys people, societies, and economies, but unfortunately, war actually is profitable in the short term for political opportunists and certain industries.
“War is a racket. It always has been,” wrote Smedley Bulter, a general in the Marine Corps who won the Medal of Honor twice and another equivalent medal for bravery in combat once, in 1935. “For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people—who do not profit.”
We badly need a stronger strain of Butler’s thinking about war in this country right now. If we thought about war as an illegal or illicit activity, we would be less likely to see it as a good way to solve inconvenient foreign-policy problems.
Imagine my relief, therefore, when I stumbled upon the concept of “realistic pacifism” in David Cortright’s “Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas.” As Cortright describes it, realistic pacifism rests on “a presumption against armed violence, but it acknowledges that the use of force, constrained by rigorous ethical standards, may be necessary at times for self-defense and the protection of the innocent.” Cortright prefers a focus on “peace-building and peacemaking,” and he urges us to see peace as Kant’s “supreme political good.”
Possibly peace-building and peacemaking are simply “Just War” doctrine by another name, but I see a need for a stronger disavowal of warfare as a “good” way to solve problems. In a world focused on peace, the use of nuclear weapons can no longer be justified, and our rare wars would be viewed not as righteous crusades but as regretful necessities.
Such a mindset is the antithesis of warmongering.
Such a mindset treasures life.
Published originally in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, 16 April 2012.