Sunday, June 04, 2006

[Week of the Dead]

War is Never Justified.

If we can think of reasons to go to war, a case can also be made that war is never justified. Pacifism is by its nature a position on the absolutist fringe--there can be no "good" war. As a result, pacifists are generally marginalized by the "reasonable" majority who can't imagine not using violence against, say, a Hitler. But there are absolutist positions modern civilzations readily embrace--opposition to slavery, torture, biological weapons. As convinced as I am that certain wars have the potential of relieving suffering, I am equally convinced that a conscious abdication of war would ultimately eliminate its use.

Seeds of War
We all have buttons. One of mine is abuse of the social contract. If I see, for example, a hulking Nissan Armada wallow across three lanes of traffic, oblivious to other drivers, so the driver can jam into the right lane to turn, I almost inevitably slide into a cold fury. This is just one of the many times in a day I may find myself disgruntled at some perceived slight. Now, while the incident with the Nissan Armada isn't likely to result in global war, there is something to be learned by how I react to it. This is a moment when I can either submit to a confused, uncontrolled reaction, or I can let it pass.

The truth is that in order to condemn the driver of the Armada to my cold fury, I have had to have made a number of (ungracious) assumptions about him. My fury arises from the belief that he is self-indulgent and negligent, but this isn't objective fact, it's pure projection. Should I learn that the driver was a 72-year-old woman rushing her husband to the ER, my fury would dissipate into--well, probably into shame. In any case, it would melt away.

In every interaction, humans sew seeds of later action--either positive or negative. When we react out of the space of anger and spite, we sour our own consciousness and like a steel ball colliding into its neighbor, set the stage for transferring the spite and anger outward. On the other hand, by consciously trying to abandon negative actions and encourage positive ones, we create the opposite environment, both in our own minds and in the lives of others.

The foundation of pacifism is this very impulse, and if it seems absolutist, it's because if you set yourself up for occasional "outs"--violence is okay in the face of suicide bombings, dirty nukes, whatever--you have abandoned not only your ultimate objective, but the means to accomplish it.

The Larger View
Inevitably, pacifists must confront the "Hitler question." In the face of a juggernaut of violence, is it reasonable to sit by the sidelines? Pacifists answer this in different ways, but I'll fall back on an almost exclusively Buddhist reply to this riddle.

War can only look like a good solution if we limit the variables. We look at war and see only the end to one cycle of activities. Thanks to war, in WWII we saw the end of German and Japanese aggression. From one lens, this looks like a wholly positive outcome. Yet the consequences are still playing out--most poignantly in Israel (with concomitant reactions throughout the Middle East), but also in China, Southeast Asia, across Eastern Europe and Russia. Perhaps most invisibly (to Americans, anyway), the victory in WWII led a formerly isolationist country into the world of muscular foreign policy and invasions of (or wars with) Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq (not to mention a number of minor incursions, mainly since the early eighties).

The consequences of all wars continue to unfold for generations after the first bodies are laid to rest. These consequences follow, inevitably, the seeds sewn before. Because we can't understand them in their full complexity, we almost always exclude these ongoing results. And yet, when we turn the question around and look at existing conditions of violence, we find that they are uniformly the result of earlier episodes of violence.

Last Wednesday I argued the "cost/benefit ratio" of war, trying to make the point that, even in best-case scenarios, the benefits rarely outweigh the costs. For pacifists, this misses the larger picture--the costs of submitting to the violence, psychologically and physically, always far outweigh any meager benefits by sewing the seeds for future conflicts and shutting off the growth of interconnection and harmony. It may not make political sense to advocate pacifism in the short term, but I have a very hard time finding any fault in its logic.

I'll leave you with a quote from Thomas Merton that captures the essence of the view, and on this (hopeful) note, close up Death week.
“He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggessiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about the ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas."


fred said...

Funny thing about war...or at least about agression--over the long view, the 'winners' of conflicts never seem to hold their 'gains.' At some point, the vanquished eventually return to the reins of power.

Now, those vanguished might get stomped on a few times over the long-haul (don't forget Poland!) but the only difference is the timeframe before the aggressors lose control (Say Poland, again, from Germany to the USSR to independence) or India, from Alexander the Great to Britain.

In the long run, all war becomes moot.

zemeckis said...

very nice post-

Idler said...


Perhaps the most fundamental problem with your argument is a lack of clarity about the nature of conflict. Your counsel, as typified by the Merton quote, is valuable as a call to self control, to steering the will away from initiating violent projects. But it is useless as a guide to understanding the ethics of responding to a conflict initiated by someone else. These are two distinct and almost opposite problems that you fudge in a way I find stunning. Still, I can't blame you too severely, knowing that you have been influenced by so many before you who have committed the same gross equivocation.

Your comments about WWII are insightful and worth developing further, though not for the lesson you would teach. You acknowledge the "Hitler question" but you fail to see it through. Sure, the defeat of Nazism and Imperial Japan sowed the seeds for future conflicts but if you really believe your principle, you must follow it to its logical conclusion: better Hitler ruled Europe, better the Jews had been entirely exterminated, better all the tyrants in the world collect victory after victory, than that we sully our pure souls by resisting.

It may be that acting, as the allies did against the Germans and Japanese in WWII, can set the stage for further conflict. So what? We had conflict before, we'll have conflict again. The world is a vale of tears. In the meantime, we and our loved ones will have lived another day. And what of the consequences of inaction? For all its shortcomings, how much prettier would the world of 1946 looked in the absence of resistance to the Axis powers?

I fully support an effort to examine the psychology of violence, and to inculcate thoughtfulness and a preference for non-violent conflict resolution. But you'll have to do a better job arguing that responding to aggression is never justified. Since wars frequently involve both aggressors and defenders, you are saying that employing violence self-defense is never justified. Non-violent resistance has its uses, but in many situations it's merely surrender, and as such it is a more efficient means of propagating uglier psychological patterns rather than limiting them.

Jeff Alworth said...


But it is useless as a guide to understanding the ethics of responding to a conflict initiated by someone else.

Pacifism isn't inaction, as you seem to know. We tend to make false comparisons when we use the "Hitler example." Pacifists wouldn't have signed onto the Neville Chamberlin plan, they would have taken action. It's useless to say what we could have done in place, because it's wild speculation. But when you commit to the pacifist plan, you commit to a comprehensive plan of peace. It was death week and I was arguing against war, not for peace--but I have. Kucinch's peace department idea is one example and one I've written about.

We used the bodies of 60 million people so that--to use your language--our loved ones could live on. Add those together with the hundred million survivors and think about what might have been done had they all worked together in a committed plan of peace. Do you honestly think the result would have been so much worse? If you're going to compare apples to apples, compare the activity of the pacifists to the activity of the allies. That's an honest comparison.

Idler said...


I hope you can see my point about the equivocation. War isn't something one party does. That being the case, one needs to distinguish at the very least between offense and defense. An even more meaningful distinction is between those who fight reluctantly and those who use violence indifferently (if not enthusiastically) as a means of self-aggrandizement.

You write:

think about what might have been done had they all worked together in a committed plan of peace. Do you honestly think the result would have been so much worse?

I answer that I'm sure it would have been much worse precisely because one side didn't have the slightest interest in "a committed plan of peace."

To be honest, I'm puzzled that it's not obvious to you that your appeal could only persuade those who already embrace an ethic of understanding and peace. In other words, it provides a clarification for people who hold certain values but fail to see that their actions are likely to cause results at odds with their values, bringing not only dissatisfaction but also shame. But these arguments would have no resonance with the nazis, fascists or Japanese imperialists. The Axis powers saw violence as a glorious means to an even more glorious end. Expecting to prevail over such ideologues with such arguments is misguided, to say the least.

How, then, does "a committed plan of peace" differ from what you call the "Neville Chamberlain plan"? Perhaps you can explain how Kucinich's "Department of Peace" isn't likely to end up as a Department of "peace in our time." I mean this very seriously; if there's one thing Chamberlain is not to be faulted for its his intentions. His fault was to believe, or to irrationally hope, that his preference for non-violent conflict resolution was shared by his adversary. How does your approach differ from his? What would the appropriate pacifist response have been?

Let me also ask you this: should the police not be able to use physical coercion in the execution of their responsibilities? It seems to me that pacifism requires that. No doubt I state the obvious when I say that I think that would be utterly impractical.

Jeff Alworth said...

Idler, I think you have committed to your view--which is fine--and can only see my argument through its stunted, naive version in your brain. I say this because of things like this:

How, then, does "a committed plan of peace" differ from what you call the "Neville Chamberlain plan"?

I feel we've sort of played out the thread, so I won't go into great detail. Neville Chamberlin just threw up a hail mary and hoped Hitler would be a good guy. Being a pacifist means committing to a practice of active nonviolence. Human civilization now spends vast amounts of money and energy on war. Pacifism requires spending that same energy on peace.

To you this may look naive, but we have made enormous strides in the past two millenia. At one time, our civilizations spent great energy conquering nations for the right to enslave, rape, and repress.

Recognition of that moral failing has led to an international ethic that favors cooperation. Invasions happen, but they're no longer considered ethically appropriate. Pacifism is a 100-year battle, but it's achievable. More to the point, I think, barring global climate apocalypse, that it's the trend already.

The US, however, is a destablizing power and is a committed agent of violence. Our actions do undermine security, and apropos of our earlier conversation, if you don't see Iraq as the prime example of that, I don't see much ground for agreement.

Idler said...

I can hardly be blamed for seeing a stunted, naïve version of your argument, if that’s all you present. You advance an extreme and controversial principle (that violence is never justified) but you resist an examination of what it would mean to embrace it. Your position may be naïve, but you don’t expose it thoroughly enough to even examine it as such. Thus my complaint is not so much your naïveté as your lack of rigor.

I can understand that you might have had enough of this discussion, but it surely has not been played out. If you don’t care to go into great detail about how your approach would differ from Chamberlain’s, fine; the problem is you don’t provide any detail at all!

My suspicion is that you don’t because you can’t. You move from a very reasonable and noble position (which I largely agree with and feel I would probably benefit from exploring further) to an unreasonable and perhaps indefensible one. You make some decent arguments to support the reasonable part but you steadfastly avoid putting the unreasonable part to the test.

While reading a book recently I encountered someone taking very much the same meliorist view with regard to society and its attitudes toward violence (though on a different timetable than the one you advance). Here is one of the several ways he expressed it within the book:

The suffering and agony of war… must exist to gradually educate us to the fundamental law of “loving our neighbor as ourselves.” When that lesson has been learned, then war will cease to exist. We are however many centuries from such a state of affairs. Many more was and much more suffering is required before we finally learn our lesson. However, humanity in this world is still young. There are still many millions of years to run during which high perfection will be attained. For the present we can do no more than go on striving to improve more friendly relations toward those that surround us.

He, and you, may be right about this. I find what you say about the “enormous strides” we have made very encouraging. My wife read this thread and found it promising with regard to what I’ve called the reasonable part. She talked about its relevance to the theories explored within the Attachment Parenting movement wherein, for example, parents approach forms of discipline where patient and thoughtful strategies can delay and often avoid all together the levying of sanctions (and thus a raw imposition of superior power). I believe this kind of thing can work because I’ve listened to explanations of its mechanism and actually seen it in action. Something analogous is at play in non-violent conflict resolution. But there are limits to its efficacy.

To return to the promises of ethical meliorism, reasons for pessimism about the future abound as well. As I’ve been insisting here, war is never a matter of “we” alone, but also “they.” If we’re not all on board with the program (if we don’t all wish to be “we”) then pacifism becomes positively dangerous.

The non-violence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. worked because the societies at which it was aimed were democratic and capable of being shamed. Non-violence was no help to the European Jews carted off by the Nazis. When an enemy is willing to use violence (or even enthusiastic about its use) then pacifism amounts to just another weapon in its arsenal. If I want something from you and you won't resist my taking it, then my problem is solved.

This is the ugly side of pacifism. It abandons the defenseless to agressors. What advice does a pacifist give to the woman who is about to be raped? What are the appropriate ways to deal with a heavily armed, drug-crazed criminal who is neither willing nor able to listen and is on the point of commiting some atrocity?

If I were confronted with someone who was clearly about to harm my family or friends and I had a chance of interfering, I believe that I am not merely permitted to act but morally required to do so. It would be better to be able to diffuse such a situation through talk or some other non-violent means, even if it meant the malefactor could escape. But otherwise, my responsibility would be to act with force.

The advice of pacifism to someone in that situation is to accept the harm to one’s loved ones as unavoidable. I find such a position unreasonable and even perverse. It’s hard for me to imagine a persuasive argument to the contrary. I’ve always found the principle of ahimsa as articulated by the Jainists very attractive, but ultimately unsatisfying both on the practical grounds that I addressed with the example above, and because I find the cosmology on which it is based extremely questionable. It asks me to believe (among other implausible propositions) that a dedication to human kindness is fundamentally incompatible with the ability to exercise force when needed for self-defense.

The attraction of ahimsa, and pacifism in general, is its promise of a more humane society. But the unattractive part needs to be honestly confronted: that it requires leaving oneself open to destruction by non-pacifists. If you can stand up and affirm that without equivocation or misdirection into noble-sounding evasions, then the thread may indeed have played itself out.

However, I suspect there is still much to be said, short of affirming unalloyed pacifism, about the preference for non-violence and the techniques that may advance the cause of non-violent conflict resolution.

It's possible to believe in the inevitability of a better world, in which humanity has risen above violent conflict — as the author of the above passage and you both do — while being realistic about the intentions of one's enemies and the likely consequences of their success. The quote was drawn from the war diaries of Alan Brooke, better known as Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, chief military adviser to the man that replaced Chamberlain.

Jeff Alworth said...


Good lord, man--1000 words! I'm at a loss.

I think the post stands as it is. It was titled "War is never justified," not "Engaged Pacifism" for a reason. And it's the same reason I haven't gone into it all here--I was talking about war and death, not the activities of pacifists.