The Same Old Pacifist Tune

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” — Edmund Burke. [1,2] “There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” — Edmund Burke. [3]

Not long ago, I drew the distinction between noble and “squishy” pacifists. The first group recognizes the existence, even prevalence, of evil in the world. Noble pacifists believe that nonviolent resistance should be used to oppose this evil. However, no delusions obscure their clear-eyed moral vision. They recognize that the call to nonviolence could very well endanger their personal safety and the safety of others. Noble pacifism does not relieve adherents from the challenge of confrontation. By contrast, the squishy pacifists try to claim the moral authority of noble pacifists, without shouldering the same responsibility. The squishy pacifists blur moral distinctions and dismiss potential dangers to avoid having to live up to their ethical responsibilities.

Before the war with Iraq, squishy pacifists spent more energy waving anti-war banners in US cities and criticizing American failings than protesting the gross human rights violations by the Iraqi government and the threat Iraq posed to stability and peace. How many anti-war protestors hoisted placards critical of Saddam Hussein’s Islamofacist regime?

In retrospect, we might have thought the US would have been immune from such doubts and muddy reasoning in the World War II era, when the contrast between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness were so very stark and so very clear. Given the aggressive brutality of the Nazi authoritarian regime, how could men of good will not see the need to resist the Nazis, either militarily or nonviolently? Unfortunately, while the Nazis where dragging Jews off to concentration camps where many were killed, many American pacifists and pacifist churches (though not all) in the US were not passively resisting the Nazis. Rather, they where lobbying President Franklin Roosevelt to recognize their conscientious objector status. Recently, Joseph Loconte writing in the Weekly Standard [4] documented that much of the religious pacifism prior to World War II took on the same flavor as criticism of America prior to the Iraq War.

The anti-war activists were happy to charge that President George Bush was not acting out of honorable motives, either to protect the US security or to liberate Iraqis from oppression. They suggested, instead, that Bush’s heart was contorted by the venial pursuit of oil or that perhaps the Bush Administration was trying to generate construction business for Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former company. Similar charges of ulterior motives were leveled prior to World War II. For example, Loconte cites the John Haynes Holmes, a prominent New York minister, as charging “If America goes into the war, it will not be for idealistic reasons but to serve her own imperialistic interests.”

The key tactic of squishy pacifism is to erect a facade of moral equivalency so as to undercut the moral authority of the US to act. As recently as last Fall, US Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington visited Iraq and suggested that George Bush was not much more trustworthy than Saddam Hussein and would lie to foment war with Iraq. By what moral authority could the US act if we too have moral failings?

This tactic had its earlier precedent. In the 1930s and 1940s, how could the US criticize the treatment of Jews in Germany if blacks in the United States were denied their full civil rights? Indeed, that critique of the US was apt, but it was certainly not sufficient to relieve us of moral responsibilities at home or abroad. Fortunately, there were clear-eyed “Christian Realists” at the time like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who saw that “It is sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practice.” Niebuhr concluded, “Failure to resist this tyranny, meant assisting in its triumph — and in a defeat for the cause of Christ … This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total gospel. It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence.”

The War with Iraq like WWII is over. We largely know the immediate outcomes of these wars. We know that if the squishy pacifists had their way, Nazi Germany would have dominated Europe for at least a generation under authoritarian rule and Hitler’s “final solution” would have reached its conclusion with the complete genocide of the Jewish population. We know that if Iraq had not been defeated, oppression, rape and torture would have continued in Iraq while thousands more starved as Saddam’s regime diverted oil money to weapons and Saddam’s palaces. All the while squishy pacifists would have insufferably regaled us with self-congratulatory praise about their compassion for Iraqis and snobbery about their moral superiority over those urging war.

  2. The attribution of this quote to Edmund Burke has been questioned by Martin Portner.
  3. Observations on Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation, i., 273.
  4. “Onward, Christian pacifists,” Weekly Standard, April 7, 2003, 31-33.

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