EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Can I be a Pragmatic Pacifist?

This is a gently updated version of a post I originally published in Deliberately Considered. I post it now, thinking about the latest chapter of the never ending story of the war on terrorism.

I remember struggling with this question as a young man. Subjected to the draft during the Vietnam War being a very early and precocious opponent to the war, I tried to convince myself that I was a pacifist. Wanting to avoid conscription, I read the writings of Gandhi and A.J. Muste. I looked into the pacifist activities of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Although I realized that making the claim of being a Jewish pacifist would be practically difficult, I wanted to explore possibilities. But in the end, I gave up, because I couldn’t convince myself that I wouldn’t fight against Hitler, and I recognized then and see now that there are many other instances where I could not oppose military action as a matter of absolute conviction.

I was not an enthusiastic supporter of either the first war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, for example. It was not clear to me that a military response to either crisis was the appropriate one. But on the other hand, I couldn’t in good conscience oppose either war forthrightly. The slogan “No Blood for Oil” rang hollow. America was attacked from bases that were protected and developed in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein was indeed a brutal dictator who worked to create a totalitarian order, as Kanan Makiya, ably demonstrated in his gripping book, The Republic of Fear.

But, on the other hand, means do have a way of defining political action whether or not the ends are justified. The way we have fought those wars, and the way our allies have ruled, have undermined the arguments for the war in Afghanistan. And indeed the way the Gulf War was fought and the lessons that were drawn from the war cast into doubt its initial justification, especially as the Gulf War was utilized for George W. Bush’s war of aggression in Iraq.

I am not a pacifist as a matter of principle, but I still am trying to learn. When I was a young man, I couldn’t commit myself to pacifism, because I appreciated that there were limits to non violent resistance. Now I see, rather, the limitations of violence, drawn to that position, not because of absolute conviction, but for practical reasons. For in the militarized response to fanaticism in Afghanistan and to tyranny in Iraq, the limitations of military action have become quite apparent.

The means have determined the ends. Indeed, they make the end appear as domination, as an end in itself. I hope that as the newest chapter of the war on terrorism is opened, as ISIS is bombed in Iraq and Syria, by the U.S., France and others, that the tragic connection between means and ends are kept in mind, suggesting to me that along with bombs, not only boots on the ground will be necessary.

I was not able to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and the Gulf to begin with, but I think I should have. In retrospect, it is absolutely imperative to remember the limits of military power, and the unintended consequences that result when those limits are not recognized. Then and now.

While I still can’t convince myself to be a pacifist as a matter of principle, there are powerful arguments to consider pacifist insights for the critique of military action.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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