Just war and pacifism

There are many varieties of pacifism (Yoder's Nevertheless (1971) distinguishes thirty-four types!) of which three are especially important. First, so-called 'pacificism' is not pacifism in the strict sense but the belief that war has become intolerable or irrational. Much of the pacificism which followed the First World War collapsed during the 1930s as it became clear that the world was faced with an evil so radical that even the horrors of modern war could arguably be justified as the only viable collective response. There are times when the pacificist's insistence on the evils of war is a much-needed corrective to any temptation to make light of war, but pacificism of this first kind cannot contribute deep insights into the moral realities of war precisely because it rests exclusively on a contingent judgement of the proportion between the evils of a particular kind of war and the estimate of the good at which the war might be aimed.

'Just war pacifism' is a second type that is not pacifism strictly speaking. It is the belief that in practice there are no just wars because in reality every actual war is bound to violate the principles which are required for a war to be just. Such 'pacifism' is a species of just war thinking and differs from other types not in the principles which it deploys but in the prudential judgements to which it comes.

An important kind of strict pacifism is the pacifism of witness. Some adherents of the Quaker peace testimony are a good illustration of this. They reject all participation in war in order to witness to certain values which cannot find direct expression in war. They tend not to claim that such a witness is possible for the State. Theirs is an individual witness, upholding peaceful values in a world of war, and many will gladly make themselves useful, for example as medical orderlies ministering equally to casualties on both sides of the conflict. It is a revealing characteristic of what their witness consists in that these very same individuals will sometimes be involved in quiet diplomacy between conflicting third parties when their own country is not at war.

What disagreement is there between the just warrior and the pacifist of witness? The pacifist is likely to emphasize that just war thinking is liable to degenerate into holy war, as discussed above, and is likely to insist on a very strict application of the just war principles, as does the 'just war pacifist'. The just warrior cannot accuse the braver of pacifists of individual cowardice but is likely to emphasize that individual witness is no basis for State action. The just warrior also tends to ask the pacifist about an especially difficult kind of case: suppose that A is being attacked by B and that you are the only third party near enough to A. If you can protect A only by force, do you stand idly by, witnessing to supposedly higher values, or do you intervene? If you fail to intervene, the meaning of your witness becomes obscure; if you intervene, where is your pacifism? Let us call this 'the intervention dilemma'. The thoughtful pacifist tends to concede two points in response to the intervention dilemma: first, that there are hard problems in life to which there are no easy answers, and this may be one of them; second, that the just warrior's tendency to identify with the State represents the taking of a different point of view from the pacifist's avowedly individual stance, and no more irresponsible for that. The State does have its proper tasks. It needs loyal servants and the just warrior may be one of them.

One further point might be made which tends to clarify the divergence between just warrior and pacifist. The difference in their points of view may have much more substance to it than can be apparent in the one's readiness to engage in just war and the other's refusal to do so. The pacifist of witness whose life is devoted to quiet unofficial diplomacy is not performing an office of state but may nevertheless be engaged in activity which is vital to the optimal functioning of society. It is becoming increasingly recognized that the inevitably rigid and somewhat stereotyped functioning of formal international relations can benefit greatly from the complementary flexibility of non-governmental organizations which are enabled by their unofficial status to do what governments cannot. There are, for example, important things which Amnesty International can say and do that are practically out of the question for government. Similarly, if the pacifist is one who works quietly and unofficially between embattled communities then she or he may well be performing as necessary a social function as the just warrior though at a greater distance from the State.

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