Log in

No account? Create an account
This grows out of a discussion with optic. I said that I was a… - an albuquerque not animate be armada. — LiveJournal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Okrzyki, przyjaciel!

[ website | My Website ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

[Jul. 17th, 2006|10:29 am]
Okrzyki, przyjaciel!
This grows out of a discussion with optic. I said that I was a pacifist, and that I opposed all wars. He said "what about WWII and the Nazis?" And honestly, that question is the toughest challenge to any pacifist. Given a ruthless dictator with a large industrialized country behind him, who wanted to take over the world, is there any alternative to war?

There's a Quaker joke that sort of addresses this. A Quaker farmer hears someone moving around downstairs. He grabs his shotgun and starts down the stairs, surprising a burglar. He tells the burglar "excuse me friend, but thou stands right where I aim to be shooting." The moral being, I guess, that there's nothing about pacifism that precludes self defense, but avoiding violence is still paramount.

In the case of World War II, the threat the Axis countries posed to the rest of the world was imminent, so if there ever was a just war, that was it. But some things about it that make it less than an unambigously good thing: First off, the Shoah was not stopped. Six million jews (and gypsies and homosexuals etc) murdered, the Allies knew, or should have known, that it was happening. The persecution of the Jews started years before, in plain sight. The United States refused to provide entry visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. At the point when we could have done something to save those people, nothing was done. Whether we could have swayed the Nazis before the war started was moot; we didn't, and we didn't because the predominant political sentiment in the 30s was isolationism, and American anti-semitism was far from rare. By contrast Quakers in Germany worked quietly to save hundreds, if not thousands of Jews and other undesirables, without firing a single shot.

But maybe to bring that stuff is still dodging the question. Here's maybe a better answer -- as a pacifist, I can't deny the possibility that there is such a thing as a just war, but that doesn't justify war in general as a useful human activity. The first refutation of 'just war' is that there's no meaningful way to decide which wars are just. The root problem is that the human condition means never having any perfect knowledge. George W. Bush believes the War in Iraq is a just war. Most of the world does not. Bush is Commander in Chief of the most heavily armed nation on the planet, and has executive authority to attack whomever he wants, so we have his 'just war' going on and on.

My sister-in-law Tessa -- who was a freelance writer in the former Yugoslavia during the troubles in the 90s -- is in general a pacifist, but supported NATO intervention in Bosnia-Herzogovina and Kosovo. I don't necessarily disagree with her -- the Serbian nationalists were (and are) every bit as nasty as the Nazis, and the world needed to respond. But once again, the world waited until it was too late for a lot of people, and as always, it involved the incidental killing of many non-combatants.

As a pacifist, I have to acknowledge the challenge that WWII and Kosovo are to the idea of absolute pacifism. But that doesn't mean that trying to avoid wars and promote peace isn't practical. There are many non-violent, constructive ways to resolve conflicts, and in every war during my lifetime, it is self-evident that the non-violent means were shirked. War is an expression of the natural state of human beings -- xenophobic, short-sighted, agressive and selfish. Pacifism appeals to a drive that's a lot quieter in the human psyche -- altruism, compassion, and humility.

Since we've reached the point where our actions can exterminate all life on the planet, making peace is the crucial enterprise of all mankind. What would the world be like if all reasonable people thought that war and violence were an absolute last resort? We still need ways to protect ourself from the unreasonable, but there are ways short of destroying someone's country and thousands of innocent bystanders to try and bring them to reason.

You can point to the Nazis as an unambiguous example of an evil that justifies war, but if so, it only justified that war. It is instructive to look at the history of the last 25 years. The only countries in which formerly totalitarian governments have been replaced by effective democracies are the ones where an indigenous non-violent movement stood up to the bullies and said "you can't kill us all." Even in the former Yugoslavia, the only thing that really put an end to a murderous regime was a non-violent revolution. And what about South Africa? The ongoing nightmare of Apartheid only ended when both sides renounced violence and sought reconciliation.

Non-violence is slow. Violence is quick. Non-violence is complicated, Violence is simple. Non-violence is an ongoing, painstaking process, not an instant solution for human cruelty and violence. Non-violence means being willing to talk, even to those you perceive as an enemy. Anyone who says pacifism isn't a realistic moral stance is saying some things I find bleak and disturbing: that there are irredeemable people who it is a good thing to kill, that it's easy to see who the irredeemables are, and that there's no real hope for peace in the world. The first statement is in conflict with every human system of religious/moral belief, the second asserts, unrealistically, that human perceptions are perfectly reliable, and the third expresses pure nihilism and despair.

You can't say pacifism won't work because it's never really been tried. Let's give peace a chance, and see what happens. Even if pacifism fails, the failure mode for pacifism is war. We already have war, so what's the downside of trying peace?

[User Picture]From: bitterwhiteguy
2006-07-17 07:29 pm (UTC)
Would you say that pacifism was tried and failed in the early years leading up to WW2? There's a fine line between pacifism & appeasement, or rather they're not mutually exclusive I guess.

It seems to me that you're saying you in principle oppose all wars but realize that sometimes reality dictates war as a necessary evil(like WW2). Is that a fair summary?
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2006-07-17 08:09 pm (UTC)
Pacifism is not appeasement of bullies, and it's not surrender. Pacifism is avoiding violent conflict by communication and mediation. I'm not enough of a historian to make a judgement as to whether it would have been possible to stop the Nazis by non-violent means. To really prevent World War II would have required negotiating Germany's surrender at the end of WWI on more favorable terms, such that the population might not so easily be swayed to vote in the Nazis.

Just as this Iraq war was engendered by the mistakes made in dealing with Iraq before the first Gulf War, World War II precipitated (in Europe at least) out of mistakes made after the previous war.

> It seems to me that you're saying you in principle oppose all wars
> but realize that sometimes reality dictates war as a necessary
> evil(like WW2). Is that a fair summary?

Pretty much. But more than that. I'd say that Wars are a failure of imagination and humanity. Saddam Nussein was 'our guy' in the region, even when he was committing attrocities like gassing Kurdish villages. The USA increased food aid to Iraq after he gassed the Kurds. Supporting brutal dictators when it's politically expedient always has blowback (see Iraq, see Iran), as does bankrolling and training violent insurgents (Guatemala, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc).

The only people that win a war are the arms dealers, and apparently independent contractors.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: optic
2006-07-17 08:28 pm (UTC)
In my view, pacifism of the sort of john lennon/quaker/hippie variety can never work (yes, I know that's a stereotype, but bear with me). The reason is not that some people are irrational or fundamentally evil, but that in a world of (hippie) pacifism, being warlike will confer an advantage.

If you're willing to use force to take what you want, and your neighbors aren't, you win. You will take what you want, either through force or through threat of force. and once others see that force worked for you, some of them will take up force as well.

In my opinion, the only "pacifism" that could work is not one based on a "war is unthinkable" hippie philosophy, but one based in strength and willingness to use force. Only when it is to every actor's disadvantage to use force can you guarantee that they will never use it. and the only way to guarantee that is to make sure the community is strong. that's not really pacifism, that's a system of laws and enforcement based on a willingness to punish those who transgress.

I don't believe this is a bleak view of humanity. I believe that laws and enforcement can create the circumstances for the growth of a mutually beneficial society in which everyone gains. I believe that's what civilization is about, and I believe it's a righteous thing to be willing to use force in order to make sure that force is never used.

People respond to incentives. People seek their own happiness, their own gain, and the good of themselves and those they love. But they also have the intelligence to see when ever-widening circles of cooperation are to their own benefit and to everyone's. The way to create peace is make peace in everyone's best interest. I would rather live in a world where only half the people are "selfless" but all believe in the rule of law than one where 99.99% are selfless but the others know they can take advantage.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2006-07-17 09:10 pm (UTC)
> the only "pacifism" that could work is not one based on a "war is
> unthinkable" hippie philosophy, but one based in strength and
> willingness to use force.

Well what you're talking about is every bit as unrealistic as pure pacifism. The United States is so heavily armed no one has ever tried to invade us, yet we have spent the last 50 years getting into wars, or aiding one side or another in wars, or selling arms to both sides of a war. Perhaps some day we'll have government leaders who are willing to restrain themselves, but right now and for as long as we've both been alive, we've elected mostly paranoid war mongers.

There is a long tradition and literature for peace-making and aside from encouraging conscientious objection to war, it is all about communication and conflict resolution. If you're curious, you can read a pretty realistic idea of what peacemaking is:


> I would rather live in a world where only half the people are
> "selfless" but all believe in the rule of law than one where
> 99.99% are selfless but the others know they can take advantage.

Pacifism isn't self-lessism, or a complete unwillingness to defend yourself. People who are predatory need to be defended against, and predatory people won't go away until people go away.

The big problem is not to convince people war is bad. The problem is to get politcal leaders to stop seeing war as just another tool in their toolbox. Or in Bush's case, the only tool he knows how to use.

And, in more general terms, I think an analogy from computer science is apropos: When you write a program, code for nominal operation, and handle pathological cases as exceptions. If you have the majority of people in the world willing to do what it takes to live together peacefully, figure out how the exceptions can be dealt with, without dragging the majority into a general conflagration.

And I don't know whether to be insulted or gratified to be called a hippie in this context.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: optic
2006-07-17 09:20 pm (UTC)
but the point is that if you have a system whereby force is a tool to be used to stop those who won't follow the rules, then inevitably what you end up with is a series of debates about whether or not force is the appropriate response to this or that situation. that's what we have now. my understanding of pacifism (at least, say, quaker-style pacifism) is that force is off the table. and that, I argue, won't work.

if all you're arguing is that bush (or the US in general) turns to force too often, then fine. but what you're advocating isn't really some magical new political system called pacifism, it's our current system but with someone else in charge. well sure.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: chaircrusher
2006-07-17 09:48 pm (UTC)
I have a personal, deeply felt conviction that war is wrong and abhorrent. I have no objection to defensive capabilities for any country, I think starting wars is immoral, in addition to being deadly and expensive. If someone else, without provocation, starts a war with you, then you had better have something in place to defend yourself. Perhaps, in the 'real' world you can never take force off the table. But you can be proactive and positive in addressing the root causes of conflict.

I don't think pacifism is a magical new political system. Pacifism is looking for ways to avoid violent conflict, by solving the real problems engendering conflict. Again, if you look at what the AFSC does, they aren't in the President's waiting room cooling their heels, they're educating people, working to mediate conflicts, feeding refugees, and working with indigenous NGOs to help them be more effective.

In other words, by taking the moral stand that war is wrong, and then doing what they can to prevent war in the real world, they're doing good. I don't think that pacifism needs to be a political system -- it needs to be an informing idea in the minds of people who decide who lives and dies.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: optic
2006-07-17 10:04 pm (UTC)
sure but it seems like you've softened your position from "war is wrong" to "war is less good than peace" which is both weak and uncontroversial. that's not what I'm arguing against. so yes, working to make war less likely is a good thing, but that's not what I (or anyone?) understands to be the meaning of the word "pacifism".
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: optic
2006-07-17 09:21 pm (UTC)
wasn't really calling you a hippie in this context, but referring to a particular strain of pacifism. I about half expected you to respond by saying that a system of international rule of law, enforced by strength, was pretty much what you were after.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dica
2006-07-18 12:44 am (UTC)
Non-violence will always fail with the masses because it requires brains, which the majority doesn't possess.
(Reply) (Thread)