I used to be what I called a “pragmatic pacifist.” That is, I got to be outraged about the very principle of military force when I didn’t agree with its use and got to shrug my shoulders and be a “pragmatist” when I did. Take, for example, the recent U.S. dropping of the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan—I felt outrage—and the “surgical strike” in Syria to deter the future use of baby-killing chemical weapons—I felt sad. But, as to the right or wrong, I shrugged.
My question lately is this: Can one actually admit to the “pragmatism” of force in one case without opening the door to the use of force at any scale in all cases? If you declare one war “just,” haven’t you agreed that every war—to some degree or in some group’s view—is also in some way just?
I know the arguments against a blanket approach to nonviolence, of course. World War II history books tell us armed occupied resistance and warfare against the Nazis was what brought the Holocaust to an end. To be antiwar in the case of WWII is equated by some as almost being pro-Holocaust.
I’ve studied WWII military history ever since working on my book Operation Jedburgh: D-Day and America’s First Shadow War. And lately I have been rereading Mark Kurlansky’s Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. He argues that rather than ending or deterring the Holocaust, the outbreak of war against Hitler actually triggered it. There had been forced repatriation of Jewish people into concentration camps before war broke out, yes, but only in the isolation and brutality of wartime did Germany dare to turn concentration camps into death camps.
To be antiwar in the case of WWII is equated by some as almost being pro-Holocaust.
Further, armed resistance in Nazi-occupied countries, Kurlansky argues, was often less effective at deterring the German extermination of Jewish people than nonviolent efforts. In France, 26 percent of the 350,000 Jews were lost; 90 percent of Polish Jews died; and 140,000 were killed in the Netherlands. However, Denmark had no armed resistance, but through a program of organized noncooperation and a refusal to enact anti-Semitic measures, surrendered no Jewish people to the death camps. Bulgaria, a German ally, also saved its Jewish population, according to Kurlansky, through an effort of nonviolent noncooperation.
Critics of nonviolence say it is the prerogative of the privileged, that only those not affected by atrocities have the luxury of advocating a nonviolent response. Yet in Kurlansky’s analysis, it is the other way around. Violence is the prerogative of the privileged, since they have the resources to wage battles effectively.
A violent response by the underpriveleged, historically speaking, often ends with their annihilation.
Kurlansky points to case after case of indigenous populations crushed after their attempts to meet violence by colonial forces in the 19th century with violence. On the other hand, he cites the case of a nonviolent attempt to reclaim their land by a group of New Zealand Maori under a leader named Te Whiti on the country’s northern island. Te Whiti’s nonviolent strategy is credited with stopping the genocide of the Maori.
Violence has never stopped violence, in Kurlansky’s analysis.
There may be a humanitarian rationalization for the dropping of bombs—as in the case of Syria—but there is rarely and probably never a humanitarian reason for it.
All of which leads me to this: Asking whether it is “just” to bomb in any one case is erroneous; asking whether to bomb or not to bomb is not the question.
To prevent war requires prevention-of-war preparations.
We know one bombing contributes to the logic for the use of force in all other cases. We know fighting fire with fire does not work. So the real question is how do we stop all bombings, no matter the provocation?
And now, as our aircraft carrier group heads toward an irate North Korea threatening to go nuclear, I can’t help but think of Albert Einstein, who had a lot to say on war and peace. He said that peace cannot be kept by force but only through understanding. He also said that being antiwar without being antiwar preparations is irrelevant.
That last idea, that to prevent war requires the prevention of the preparation for war, points to a way forward.
As a society, and as activists who seek to change it for the better, we need to recognize and emphasize the fundamental violence of preparing for war and allowing our taxes to be spent on the continued preparation. Keep in mind that violence does not just come in terms of bombs, of course: It is also embedded in the diversion of resources from health, education, social services, and housing.
How to work against war preparations may be the subject for many other columns. For now, it is enough to know that in debating whether to bomb or not to bomb—Syria or Afghanistan or North Korea—we are asking the wrong question.
Colin Beavan is a writer, speaker, activist, and consultant. He is the author of No Impact Man and the executive director of the No Impact Project. Colin is a YES! contributing editor.