In the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, author Nicholson Baker writes about pacifism in light of World War II, which is often evoked as “the reason” for military violence in our world. As Baker explains, “World War II, the most lethally violent eruption in history, is pacifism’s great smoking counterexample. We ‘had to’ intervene in Korea, Vietnam, and wherever else, because look at World War II.” The title of his article is “Why I’m a Pacifist: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War.”
This is an excellent piece, one that I particularly appreciate in light of recent conversations about violence and international military action. A timely subject if ever there was one. I like that Baker also mentions Dorothy Day among the several WWII pacifist activists. Here are his concluding paragraphs, well worth reflecting upon today.
If we don’t take seriously pacifists like Cronbach, Hughan, Kaufman, Day, and Brittain — these people who thought earnestly about wars and their consequences as did politicians or generals or think-tankers — we’ll be forever suspended in a kind of immobilizing sticky goo of euphemism and self-deception. We’ll talk about intervention and preemption and no-fly zones, and we’ll steer drones around distant countries on murder sorties. We’ll arm the world with weaponry, and every so often we’ll feel justified in taxiing out a few of our stealth airplanes from their air-conditioned hangars and dropping some expensive bombs. Iran? Pakistan? North Korea? What if we “crater the airports,” as Senator Kerry suggested, to slow down Qaddafi? As I write, the United States has begun a new war against Libya, dropping more things on people’s heads in the name of humanitarian intervention.
When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, “as an ineffective an inhuman means to any end, however just.” That, I would suggest, is the lesson that pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.
Obviously, I realize that not everyone will agree with me or Baker on this point. The increasingly proverbial “what about WWII?” will continue to be evoked as justification for was bin Laden or Qaddafi or whichever horrible dictator rises in the shadow of a post-Hitler world, but as some of those from WWII quoted by Baker remind us, more death and more violence does not eradicate, redeem or make right the death and violence already committed. Pacifism, the call to nonviolent action (and this does mean action) is about saving lives now. You cannot save lives now by killing more people. Period.