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July 3, 2011

Am I a pacifist? I like to think so but if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to append ‘more or less’ to my assertion. I’ve never defined pacifism for myself so I have no definition I can ‘try on’ to see if it fits. I could go to the dictionary, of course, but that works best for words that are far more objective, and less emotionally laden, than ‘pacifism.’  The dictionary can define ‘personality,’ for example, in a general sense, but it can’t define my personality. Just so, the dictionary can define ‘pacifism’ in a general sense, but it can’t define pacifism for me.

Here’s what I mean. The simplest definition I’ve seen (Wikipedia, my American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition), is simply ‘opposition to violence and/or war.’ That’s a very broad definition; its three elements, opposition, violence, and war, all have to be further defined to give any substance to the definition.

Start with opposition. What forms can it take before it becomes violence? How forceful can ‘opposition’ be? Gandhi and King both gave us stellar examples of non-violent resistance (another word for opposition). In spite of the violence directed against them, they remained true to the fundamental meaning of pacifism.

And what is ‘violence’? Is it a swat on the butt of my two-year-old (who was wearing diapers at the time)? Is self-defense a violation of pacifism? And what about verbal violence? Does that, too, violate the spirit of pacifism?

I’m going to pass over the ‘opposition to violence’ issue for now and focus on the one thing I’m very clear on: I do not believe in the purposeful taking of human life, whether it’s murder or state-inflicted capital punishment.

But what about war, the state-sponsored purposeful taking of lives on an unimaginable scale? It seems self-evident that I should be opposed to war and I am. But what if the ‘other side’ is carrying out acts so horrendously terrible and evil that they must be stopped at any cost? That’s the dilemma, and Gloria Steinem had it right when she noted that, “From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence—and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.” Is war my Gloria Steinem exclusion? I don’t know, but I don’t think you can be a part-time pacifist.

Slavery, tyranny, and genocide are all moral issues that have led to horrendous wars, but for me, war is the preeminent moral question: either you fight and kill or you choose not to fight and kill: conscientious objector status. To address that I have to ask: which is the greater evil? Slavery or killing in a war? Genocide or killing in a war? Tyranny or killing in a war? In WWII, would I have killed barbers and bricklayers, accountants and clerks? Fathers, brothers and sons? It makes a difference to phrase it this way: these were people who were in so many respects just like us and I see them first and foremost as fellow human beings, not as enemy combatants. Would that alone have precluded my fighting and killing in WWII? And I have to ask: would my participation in WWII even have made any difference? Would it have saved even one Jewish or Roma or homosexual life? And if so, does that justify the killing?

To better understand the question, I rephrase it into a moral hypothetical: If I knew that killing Adolf Hitler would have prevented the massacre of millions of innocents, would I have done so? I have to say, yes. And I’d have to be willing to face whatever consequences might come from doing so. And I’d have to recognize that Gloria Steinem was right.

But what if killing Hitler would have saved only thousands of lives? Or hundreds? Or ten? At what point do I stop saying ‘yes, I would kill to save those lves’? Is there such a point? One hundred = yes, 99 = no? Fifty-one = yes, 50 = no? Would it make a difference if my wife and daughter were part of the fifty? Would I then kill? I don’t believe there can be any cutoff point.

The name ‘Hitler,’ of course, stirs powerful emotions so I’ve tried stripping emotional content from the question. A is going to kill B. I can either stop A by killing him or allow A to kill B. This one is easy to answer—I do nothing. I do not know A’s motives nor am I responsible for A’s actions. Nor am I responsible for Hitler’s, but there’s a clear difference between preventing one murder and preventing millions. Or is there? It seems that no matter how the question is phrased, there can be no clear-cut, black and white answer. Having affirmed my willingness to kill Hitler, have I forsaken any claim to pacifism? It seems that for me, pacifism is not, cannot be an absolute.

It was Carl Sandburg who said, “Someday they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” That’s the way it should work: people refuse to fight, enough people on both sides so as to make war impossible. But that doesn’t happen. Am I willing to stand in the ranks of the few who will decline the invitation?

Herman Wouk, in his powerful novel, “War and Remembrance,” had this to say:

Forty years ago, when I was a lieutenant commander and our pacifists were pointing out quite accurately the obsolete folly of industrialized war, Hitler and the Japanese militarists were arming to the teeth, with the most formidable weapons science and industry could give them for a criminal attempt to loot the world. The English-speaking countries and the Russians fought a just war to stop the crime. At horrible cost, we succeeded. What would the world be like had we disarmed, and Nazi Germany prevailed and won world dominion?

For me, it boils down to this: Would I have fought in World War II? I think so.

And would I have killed? Again, I think so. The answers sound wishy-washy, I admit. But it’s one thing to be 68 years old, sitting in my office, comfortable, safe, unthreatened by any enemies either personal or national and quite another to have been of draft age in 1942. My stance now is theoretical; my stance then would have been life-changing.

Pacifism is a strong and virtuous moral position to take. Indeed, if the whole world were pacifist there could be no war. But when one takes a virtuous moral position at the expense of the lives of millions of innocent men, women and children, that position no longer appears so virtuous or so moral. If anything, it seems rather smug. There are no absolutes in life, not even for pacifists.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. NRJ permalink
    July 7, 2011 5:58 am

    I think most people find the dilemma here. Although I don’t advocate violence, and try to be a pacifist, if someone is punching me in the nose and hitting me with an ax, I think I would defend myself. And if someone was threatening the life of someone else, especially my spouse, children or other family members or friends, I doubt I could stand idly by and watch them get hurt or killed. I guess I’m in line with your thinking on this one, although we have both, at times, been in the armed forces and defense industries. Does this mar our record?

    • July 7, 2011 6:22 pm

      What we think we wold do in a situation (refrain from violence or killing) and what we’d actually do when faced with the reality are probably going to be two very different things. I think the question is this: Can we protect ourself, our family, our country without resorting to violence or killing? Is there another way? I hope i’m never at that crossroads.

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