Monday, February 19, 2007

World War II and Pacifism

Guest post today from Hanno. It would have gone up on Friday, but someone had to go to Mardi Gras and complained that he wouldn't have been able to respond to comments...

In response to some of the discussion on this blog, I have been thinking about war and its justification. In particular, how does the pacifist respond to the moral argument for war when war is used to defeat monstrous evil? If the pacifist grants that war can be justified under certain circumstances, then it seems the pacifist isn't really a pacifist at all, but only in relation to some wars.

Of course, the main example used in all these occasions is World War II or the American Civil War. On both occasions, violence seems required to end monstrous evil. I am very sympathetic to these examples. It was a good thing for the Allies to fight Nazi Germany independent of the holocaust. With the holocaust, it is an even greater good.

One response for the pacifist is to say that these wars are necessary evils. Still bad, but it had to be done. It may be bad (few thinking killing millions of people, many innocent, is a good thing), but it cannot be evil. If it is evil, it is morally wrong. If it is morally wrong, it cannot be a good thing for the allies to fight the war, and hence the good path would not only leave the brutal, aggressive war machine in a position to continue their evil ways, but also to expand them.

This gives rise to a dynamic that pm points out: as the universally recognized counter example to pacifism, there is a great propensity on the view of the proponents for any war to use WWII as the prism though which we understand some particular conflict. Hussein becomes Hitler, Kuwait becomes Czechoslovakia, gassing his own people becomes Nazi internal repression. Or the USSR is Nazi Germany, Vietnam is Czechoslovakia , etc. Or North Korea is Nazi Germany... etc. Or 9/11 was our Pearl Harbor... etc. The argument works by tying the pacifist to the only conflict she recognizes as just, and denying her the option of total pacifism. And the result is all these wars are justified, all are good, and it is not fighting them that is evil.

It seems that any pacifist must argue with this move head on. I remember Michael Kinsley arguing long ago about some legal point, and he said that in law school, he was taught that exceptions make lousy law. What he meant was that when you use the exceptional as the basis for a legal distinction, you end up with a bad general rule. The right way to approach the law is to make a good general rule, and recognize exceptions. That is what I propose in this case. We recognize WWII as the aberration, not as the standard. We make the obviously better general rule: war is wrong, and we do not let the exception frame the debate.

The exception is not the rule, and we should not allow anyone to make it so.