[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."