Death and War.
Three hundred thousand Americans died in WWII, and yet conventional wisdom holds that those lives were expended saving a far greater number. In Vietnam, the figure was 58,000, but, due to the lack of proven risk, history levels a different judgment. There is always a calculation during wartime: will the lives saved by going to war offset the loss of life, disruption, and cost of waging the war? Call the cost/benefit ratio of war. Every time countries go into armed conflicts, presumably the answer at the time was "yes." Of course, that doesn't mean it was the right answer.
Since I hit moral sentience sometime in my mid-teens (mid-Reagan administration, late cold war), I have been a pacifist. Politically, I always will be, particularly as long as I remain an American. We are so quick to go to war, with so little provocation, that pacifists at least keep open the moral alternative. However, my beliefs were shaken when the US deposed the Taliban. I saw for the first time a just war and the ouster of a deeply malevolent regime. Everything that has happened since that war has diminished the sacrifice and commitment of the soldiers and Afghanis who were participants, but it doesn't change the reality that the Taliban was objectively worse than an invasion. Judged on a cost/benefit ratio (even a moral, rather than strategic, one) the decision to invade was just.
The current debacle in Iraq illustrates the morally unjustifiable war. When judging the benefits an invasion could conceivably have brought against the costs and dangers, it was a war that should never have been conducted. Even ignorant bloggers could see that. War is death, and so the burden of proof must be high. Wars of choice, conducted by vast empires against weaker foes, should be measured against even higher standards. Exercising death just because you can is one of the most morally dubious of all actions--and in Iraq we have seen the costs.
The so-called "war on terror" ("global struggle against violent extremists," whatever) is a more difficult question. Terror networks like al Qaida are dangerous and malevolent. Taking up arms against bin Laden would trouble few. But here's where our insularity as a great empire (with a volunteer army) blinds us. The warmongers on the right have successfully brainwashed Americans into thinking of the struggle as either the proposition of war versus a kind of de facto surrender. In this prescription, most Americans opt for war.
I'm convinced we have forgotten the reality of war--it is the exercise of death to accomplish an end. If that reality were strongly in our minds, we would see the fiction of the war/surrender dichotomy. Consider a different war in which the stakes were far higher--the cold war. The reality of death was very clear to Americans confronting nuclear annihilation, and we didn't risk a hot war. The casualties were miniscule.
It's not so obvious how to handle threats as different as terrorism, Darfur, North Korea, or China. When I look at each one, though, I only see a moral argument for war in one--and it's the one place I'm certain our leaders are not considering it. We use our military like it were a diplomatic tool, forgetting that its mechanism is death. Our calibration of the cost/benefit ratio has therefore gotten out of balance.
As a pacificist, I have learned there are times when war is the least harmful course. I hope that Iraq will have the effect of reminding people that those times are very rare.