Friday, March 11, 2011

Philosophy/Politics: The Justice of War

I believe deeply in the sacredness of life; it’s why I’m a vegetarian, it’s why I’m against abortion, it’s why I oppose the death penalty. It is also what inclines me towards pacifism, but I find myself unable to call myself a pacifist.

War is horrendous. Death reigns, atrocities are committed. No matter how robust our notions of just war, there is something about the act of war that makes us forget our humanity. Even World War II, that epitomous symbol of just war, saw much evil on both sides. The Nazis had to be defeated. They were murdering human beings by the millions. The Japanese empire wasn’t any better. And yet, the Allies share their own sins – Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, internment camps, to name a few.

Inevitably, our justifications for war end up treating human lives as mere statistics. Ten can die that a thousand might live. More would have died if we hadn’t nuked Japan. This sort of think, to me, is abhorrent. It treats life as a strategic resource.

War assumes a genuine separation of us and them. It feeds on tribalism. Your people attacked our people, so we will avenge ourselves on you.

Pacifism also makes sense to me as a Christian. The Christian way is to conquer through submission, to love even our enemies.

Yet, there is another side to the issue. I recently read a post railing against pacifism. The post itself was quite deplorable. It treated pacifism as a sort of childish immorality. It acted as if this were some kind of easy question. Yet, something was said which carries a lot of weight for me. It is the same argument that holds me back from pacifism every time I hear it. It talked about the current situation in the Middle East. Civilians are rioting, trying to overthrow tyrants, and are being brutally beat down. Those who cannot defend themselves are being subjected to terrible violence, and we have the power to do something about it. Is it not an ethical duty for the strong to defend the weak?

I think it’s something of an illusion to think that any war has actually been fought for these reasons, but it remains at least a theoretical possibility, and one that strongly compels. At the very least, wars not fought for these reasons have had these results.

This makes becoming a pacifist a difficult, if not impossible, choice for me, but it doesn’t negate what was said at the beginning of this post. War is wicked and evil. War treats life as a matter of statistics, of us and them. But war also allows the strong to defend the weak.

In the end, I find myself befuddled. Either way I go seems to me a great evil, and I do not know how to decide between them.