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.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

  • Lisa Aslanian

    I may have responded to this initially. I will go back and look.

    I am not a pacifist for the same reasons that you are not a pacifist. There are some brutalities so egregious (better word) that violence is necessary to stop them. Slavery in the US for one. How can you argue against the violence used to stop it? Protracted and terrible and never clear in motive (it was an ethical and a tactical move). And the legacy of violence lingers for so very long. We are still caught up in the legacy of American slavery (obviously). I have come to believe— and I really resisted this— that the overwhelming majority of the enmity directed at Obama reduces to race. And so does my reaction: I am glad to see him walking with more swagger.

    As for the blood for oil and the seemingly endless thirst for human skulls, I guess I do see our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and again now against ISIS, as motivated primarily by profit. The rest seems to be just ceremony. But I am coming out of a near year long period of deep political cynicism, even despair. But that is another subject–

    Speaking again to what you wrote. I watched Charlie Rose interview Dick Cheney — and Charlie Rose is respected— and I had to force myself to listen. I will at some point go back and listen again. I was so so so disgusted by both Cheney and Rose. Cheney, for being Cheney and thinking that it is his place to first, speak to leaders in the Middle East and openly criticize Obama and second, Rose’s lack of real response and intervention. Why did he sit on his hands, why didn’t he hammer Cheney on what he was doing there in the first place, who he is cozying up to, and what he stands to gain, in plain English and demand an answer that was as little obscured by ideology as is humanly possible. In other words, who is on our pocket, who do we want in our pocket and at what cost (human lives & more debt) and what are we willing to sacrifice to put them in our pockets?

    My reaction is, of course, caught up in ideology and perhaps the challenge of pacifism. I could not be as outraged as I was by Cheney if I did not share with Cheney and Rose a certain set of moral and ethical principles. The principles being are being violated on both sides— Cheney making more $$ and taking more power on the backs of human beings and the nakedly vile violence of ISIS and the like. And I react to their violation within the same set of principles so what is next has to be a way, even if just a teeny, tiny way, out of this cycle. Because it is a cycle and a mindset that needs some opening up and airing out. If we have learned just one thing from our involvement in the Middle East since at least the ousting of S Hussein, is it not simply that the paradigm, or the way we think about it needs to shift because it does not work. We continually meet violence with violence, to no end.

    • Chiara Bottici

      this is a very interesting post. i used to be a pacifist in principle, and now i think i became a pacifist in skepticism: in the last few decades, we ended up so many times killing them in order to save them, that, as a matter of prudence, i think we should just avoid it. i am not sure whether the skeptical pacifist is one and the same thing with the pragmatic pacifist, but i suppose they are not that far away

      • Zachary Sunderman

        A very interesting take, Chiara — one not far from my own thinking. Actually, I have a lot of thoughts about this, and I’m registering this reply in order to pressure myself to write a full-length response this week.

      • I am sure that a pacifist in skepticism and a pragmatic pacifist boils down to pretty much the same thing. But what I want to emphasize is that non violent resistance and non violent political action are often more powerful ways of limiting the intolerable and bringing something new into the world through politics. I want to emphasize the power of the apparently powerless when they do not resort to the force of arms. This is probably not summarized well with the term pragmatic pacifism. On my Facebook page Jeffrey Issac suggested this article, which nicely illuminates this positive point. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8923766&fileId=S1537592713001059

  • Chiara Bottici

    i guess the problem with skeptical pacifism is that it may all to easily lead to what goldfarb would call a “cynical society”: let us do nothing, since nothing will anyway change. but what i am thinking about is a more kind of vocal form of skepticism: let us not engage in war, because that means killing them, however “humanitarian” that may appear to us.

    • When I think about pragmatic pacifism, I am thinking about both the violence of the state, and its limits, with a deep conviction that the limits are much steeper than generally recognized. Here Chiara and I certainly agree. But I am also thinking of the limits of the violence of resistance and of agents of fundamental change, revealed for example in North Africa and the Middle East, including Israel/Palestine.

      I, of course, accept the distinction between cynicism and skepticism. Indeed cynicism in the classical sense is something completely different than the modern cynicism that erodes political capacity. Two cheers, and perhaps three, for skeptical pacifism!

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