A Critique of Pacifism, and a Defence of Argument

As a result of a recent row I was in about the conflict in Iraq and possibilities of dealing with the crisis, my anger and stridency got the better of me, and as a result I had much cause to ruminate. I was struck by the tone of pre-WWII pacifism I was hearing. I don’t seek to rehash that particular shouting match in this piece – clearly I was angry and alarmed by what I was hearing (and did not desist when it was plain the person in question did not wish to argue) – what I want to do instead is examine the character of the position as best I can. I believe that on the one hand it is based on irrational anti-Americentrism, and on the other (although these factors frequently overlap) an antipodean solipsism. 

As I said the pacifism seemed to hark back to the inter-war period, when the motivation to prevent catastrophic modern war so clouded the minds of great statesmen that they did not act against the belligerent fascists of Germany and Italy – or even make pragmatic steps to galvanise their offensive capabilities until the fascists had an enormous military advantage. Appeasement, the theory has been so routinely discredited ever since, and its stalwarts (Neville Chaimberlain, Sidney Baldwin, Joe Kennedy) ridiculed and repudiated. But it was at a certain time a persuasive political doctrine, as was pacifism when articulated by writers like A.A. Milne in his book Peace with Honour. He drove the point that Britain doesn’t fight wars to protect its culture, or its institutions, or its citizenry. It fights wars to protect its reputation as a belligerent nation, a first class power. Well pleaded, and persuasive as a general explanation of the wars around the turn of the century which culminated in WWI (and still worth reading). But it failed to take into account that the ground of history is ever shifting, that the passing of even a handful of years can see the arrival of a whole new set of circumstances which change the nature of a conflict and thus the case for joining it.

That is what Milne realised with the lead up to WWII and his subsequent book War with Honour sought to modify the obstinate pacifism of his earlier work. WWII was a struggle fought reluctantly, bitterly, and even with a touch of cynicism – it had to be fought, but it wasn’t dressed up in honourable trappings. Dulche et decorum est pro patria mori, that hucksterish refrain to seduce the willing participation of a generation a century ago was disposed of, and ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ was the mantra by 1940. There was also a humanitarian dimension to the conflict, although it failed to persuade the appeasers. What did finally spur them to action was the direct threat Germany posed to France and Britain. A self-interested motivation does not rank high on charts of moral decision making, and yet is the principal pillar beneath the doctrines of isolationism, and pacifism (do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself is a sound rule, but is predicated on self-preservation by definition).

On Iraq

On the specific case of the Isis insurgency of Iraq – energized by more than a billion dollars US of oil revenue seized from the border zone of Iraq and Syria – even former Prime Minister Helen Clark (who decided not to support the Bush-Administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003) has stated that drawing a connection between the 2003 war and Isis is a ‘long bow to draw’. More likely is that the group has been formed during the Syrian civil war (which infamously has been left out of western interference) and there is evidence they are financially backed by Wahabi Saudi Arabia. In the last few months at least 500,000 civilians have been forced from their homes and towns, they can’t flee as refugees because Syria is a bloody war zone (with half a million dead so far), and other countries in the region (namely Jordan) are already struggling to cope with so many refugees who fled Syria. Currently Isis is being held up by the Kurds in the north and the Iraqi army in the south. Conflict at the moment surrounds the Baiji oil refinery, some 14o miles north of Baghdad. If Isis takes this the largest oil refinery in Iraq they will have the country’s economy in a submission hold. The situation is desperate, and a call to arms from a Shia cleric is already being answered by thousands of eager young men. Is a greater sectarian conflict – unchecked and unchallenged by the Nations that can do something – more desirable that a possible use of American military strength? Say it is not your problem if you like, but the international community is staring down the barrel at a looming catastrophe – shutting your eyes will not make the problem disappear.
The Saudi’s are partly to blame for the sectarian conflict in the Middle East. I say partly first as a way to avoid hubris, and second to give room for the other influences, like the presence of oil in the region (nonetheless a widely misunderstood influence). Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni (the largest Islamic denomination at about 89% of the global Muslim population), at 85-90% of the kingdoms 28 million residents. For many years they have used their considerable oil wealth to finance the operations of terrorists (they financed Al-Qaeda and 9/11), Hamas in Gaza (classified as a terrorist organisation by the USA and Israel, but are a far more complicated case), and along with the United Arab Emirates contributed billions of dollars to the rebuilding of southern Lebanon – which as not as innocuous an action as it may seem. It was to counter the efforts of Iran backed Hezbollah (Shia) which was investing millions for the same purpose; the effort is more sectarian than humanitarian. 
Why then are the Saudi’s supported so strongly by the USA? This is indeed a strange contortion in US foreign policy, but to be terse it continues because of the immense influence Saudi Arabia has over the Muslim world. The most holy site in Islam is situated within the city of Mecca, to which every Muslim is expected (commanded according to the Quran) to  make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lives. This gives the kingdom huge power over the people that visit, and that fact is something the USA knows all too well. 

On New Zealand

I don’t to say that the New Zealand pacifist is one because they are self-interested, on the contrary the conviction seems held from a desire to do no harm to others. Since violence causes direct harm, and war produces the most violence, war must be opposed. As I have mentioned the circumstances of WWII showed the limitations of the pacifist case. There are times when one must engage in violence for the purpose of halting a worse violence. This is sometimes argued to be a paradox, but only if one grants the pacifists their premise: do no harm.  If you do not accept the rule as an absolute you are not therefore lacking in moral feeling, instead you are conceding that the universe is not just, and there are no absolutes. Some people will do the best they can, others the worst they can. A moral action is when someone acts outside of their self interest for the benefit of others. Killing is often-times immoral because it violates the second part of that rule – it is not to a person’s benefit to kill them. But a glance at that sentence reveals yet more exceptions and dilemmas. I refer to the concept of euthanasia and assisted suicide – issues that deserve discussion and debate, not hasty denials on the grounds that ‘killing is morally wrong’ therefore the matter must be shut in the bottom draw and forgotten. We do no justice to our intelligence when we close the door to debate. 

Today in New Zealand it should perhaps not be surprising that the remoteness of the country, its general tranquillity, and the suspicion of global ‘powers’ at the centre of a foreign policy that has for the last thirty years charted a lonely (though grudgingly respected) course in international politics, produces such pacifists. What I take issue with is the absolutist nature of their stance, coupled with the underlying moral relativistism which so often accompanies anti-americanism. That the values we hold at the core of our society are somehow incompatible with people in distant lands. That idea masquerades as a kind of cultural self-deprecation, but is a rejection of the universality of the human condition. 

Why this is particularly irksome is the people holding this conviction – who refuse to engage in argument – are the elite. They are wealthy baby boomers in the safe haven of a rich island nation with an excessive ‘moat’ (courtesy of the Pacific Ocean which Darwin once referred to as being very poorly named). The complaint ‘but it isn’t our problem,’ is a solipsistic one. Like it or not there is a tremendous amount of suffering and desperation beyond our shores, and it deserves open minded attention. In his writings George Orwell criticised those who have never seen the appalling sights of murdered corpses en-mass, for whom murder is just a word. This gives me plenty of cause to be uncomfortable myself, as I haven’t ventured into an intrinsically dangerous zones, instead I’ve staggered in the shadows of old wars (Vietnam, Gallipoli). However I don’t hide from the fact that I live in a very rare antipodean bubble of privilege. To the elite I say that their contention that people in distant lands should be left very much to themselves constitute an abnegation of their morality, as well as a pious dismissal of real human suffering. They have abandoned reason in favour of a contrived acceptability; would sooner swap trivial exchanges than test their theories, and will let the world burn while they fiddle.
I believe it is better to at the minimum argue over solutions than to tiredly dismiss them at a glance. Is a humanitarian crisis really not worth trying to resolve? I cannot accept that, and I won’t apologise for getting angry. 
Why is Isis posting pictures of the massacre of Iraqi soldiers? For sheer bloody terror.

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