“Pacifism and War”
With the world immersed in the turmoil of war, it may be useful to examine the idea of pacifism. I have never used the word “pacifist” to describe myself, because it suggests something absolute, and I am suspicious of absolutes. I want to leave openings for unpredictable possibilities. There might be situations—and even such strong pacifists as Gandhi and Martin Luther King believed this—when a small, focused act of violence against a monstrous, immediate evil would be justified.
In war, however, the proportion of means to ends is very, very different. War, by its nature, is unfocused, indiscriminate, and, especially in our rime when the technology is so murderous, inevitably involves the deaths of large numbers of people and the suffering of even more. Even in “small wars” (Iran-Iraq War, the Nigerian war, the Afghan war), a million people die. Even in a “tiny” war like the one we waged in Panama, a thousand or more die.
Scott Simon of National Public Radio wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal on October 11, 2001, entitled “Even Pacifists Must Support This War.” He tried to use the pacifist acceptance of self-defense, which approves a focused resistance to an immediate attacker, to justify the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which he claims is “self- defense.” But the term “self-defense” does not apply when you drop bombs all over a country and kill lots of people other than your attacker. And it doesn’t apply when there is no likelihood that the action will achieve its desired end.
Pacifism, which I define as a rejection of war, rests on a very powerful logic. In war, the means—indiscriminate killing—are immediate and certain; the ends, however desirable, are distant and uncertain.
Pacifism does not mean “appeasement.” That word was often hurled at those who condemned the present wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and was accompanied by references to Churchill, Chamberlain, and Munich. World War II analogies, however irrelevant to a particular situation, are conveniently summoned when there is a need to justify a war. At the suggestion that we withdraw from Vietnam, or not invade Iraq, the word “appeasement” was bandied about.
Let’s examine that analogy. Czechoslovakia was handed to the voracious Hitler to “appease” him. Germany was an aggressive nation expanding its power, and to help it in its expansion was not wise. But today we do not face an expansionist power that demands to be appeased. We ourselves are the expansionist power—at war in two countries, troops stationed around the world, naval vessels on every sea—and that, along with Israel’s expansion into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arouses perpetual anger.
It was wrong to give up Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler. It is not wrong to withdraw our military from the Middle East, or for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, because there is no right to be there. That would not be appeasement. That would be justice.
Opposing the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq does not constitute “giving in to terrorism” or “appeasement.” It asks that other means than war be found to solve the problems that confront us. King and Gandhi both believed in action—nonviolent direct action, which is more powerful and certainly more morally defensible than war.
To reject war is not to “turn the other cheek,” as pacifism has been caricatured. It is, in the present instance, to act in ways that do not imitate the terrorists.
The United States could have treated the September 11 attacks as horrific criminal acts that called for apprehending the culprits, using every device of intelligence and investigation possible. It could have gone to the United Nations to enlist the aid of other countries in the pursuit and apprehension of those who were responsible.
There was also the avenue of negotiations. (And let’s not hear: “What? Negotiate with those monsters?” The United States negotiated with—indeed, brought into power and kept in power—some of the most monstrous governments in the world.) Before Bush gave the order to bomb, the Taliban offered to put bin Laden on trial. This was ignored. After ten days of air attacks, when the Taliban called for a halt to the bombing and said they would be willing to talk about handing bin Laden to a third country for trial, the headline in the New York Times the next day read: PRESIDENT REJECTS OFFER BY TALIBAN FOR NEGOTIATIONS, and Bush was quoted as saying: “When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations.”
President Bush has behaved like someone hell-bent on war. There were similar rejections of negotiating possibilities at the start of the Korean War, the war in Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and the bombing of Yugoslavia. The result was an immense loss of life and incalculable human suffering.
International police work and negotiations were alternatives to war. But let’s not deceive ourselves; even if we succeeded in apprehending bin Laden or, as is unlikely, destroying the entire al-Qaeda network, that would not end the threat of terrorism, which has potential recruits far beyond al-Qaeda. As we see in Iraq, killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, has done nothing to slow the pace of car bombs and suicide attacks there. In fact, violence has escalated.
Getting at the roots of terrorism is complicated. Dropping bombs is simple. It is an old response to what everyone acknowledges is a very new situation. At the core of unspeakable and un justifiable acts of terrorism are justified grievances felt by millions of people who would not themselves engage in terrorism but from whose ranks violent desperation springs.
Those grievances are of two kinds: the existence of profound misery—hunger, illness—in much of the world, contrasted to the wealth and luxury of the West, especially the United States; and the presence of American military power everywhere in the world, propping up oppressive regimes and repeatedly intervening with force to maintain U.S. hegemony.
This suggests actions that not only deal with the longterm problem of terrorism but also are in themselves just.
We need to immediately end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which has already killed at least tens of thousands of civilians and which has not brought “democracy” but greater destabilization to the entire region.
We must also insist that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, something that many Israelis also think is tight and which would make Israel more secure than it is now.
Let us be a more modest nation; we will then be more secure. The modest nations of the world don’t face the threat of terrorism. In short, let us cease being a military superpower, and start becoming a humanitarian superpower.
Such fundamental changes in foreign policy are hardly to be expected. They would threaten too many interests: the power of political leaders, the ambitions of the military, and the profits that corporations gain from the nation’s enormous military commitments.
Change will come, as at other times in our history, only when American citizens—becoming better informed, having second thoughts after the first instinctive support for official policy—demand it. That change in citizen opinion, especially if it coincides with a pragmatic decision by the government that its violence isn’t working, could bring about a retreat from the military solution.
It might also be a first step in the rethinking of our nation’s role in the world. Such a rethinking contains the promise, for Americans, of genuine security, and for people elsewhere, the beginning of hope.
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress is Howard Zinn’s major collection of essays on American history, class, immigration, justice, and ordinary citizens who have made a difference.
Howard Zinn unlocks America’s current political/ ethical crisis and challenges us to confront power for the common good. Bringing a profoundly human perspective to the diverse subjects he writes about – the Founding Fathers, government dishonesty, winning the war on terrorism, respecting the holocaust, defending the rights of immigrants – Zinn approaches history from an active, engaged point of view. He writes, “America’s future is linked to how we understand our past. For this reason, writing about history, for me, is never a neutral act.”
Zinn opens the book with an essay titled “If History is to be Creative,” a reflection on the role and responsibility of the engaged historian. “To think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past,” writes Zinn, “is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.” “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”
Buzzing with ideas, stories, and anecdotes spanning from the Revolutionary War and the War with Mexico through to World War II, Vietnam, 9/11, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Zinn’s view of American history is not a praise of famous leaders, but those who rebelled against them in the name of social justice. While writing extensively on current events and the consequences of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, Zinn also dedicates entire chapters to troublemakers like Henry David Thoreau, Eugene Debs, Philip Berrigan, Italian immigrants Sacco & Vanzetti, and heralds not the soldiers who fought for George Washington, but those who deserted the Revolutionary Army because of intolerable mistreatment from elitist commanding officers. For Zinn, the voices and stories of ordinary working Americans, immigrants, working people, and soldiers comprise the real storyline of our history.
Featuring essays penned over an eight-year period, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress is an invaluable post-9/11-era addition to the themes that run through his bestselling classic, A People’s History Of the United States.