Sunday, March 23, 2008

Pacifism and Genocide

My sister and I have both been reading War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges. I'm not done with it yet, and I'm not usually ready to write about a book before I've finished it, but I thought I would post this here, basically because I would put it on Facebook for my sister, but I talk way too much for that to be practical. Here's what my sister said that got me thinking about this:
S., Mom, and I actually had a little debate/discussion about war and pacifism the other night. S. is a straight up pacifist, because he doesn't think Jesus would ever have killed someone. Idealistically I would be a pacifist, but the world's not that perfect, you know? Sometimes you have to intervene, or choose a lesser evil, so to speak. In the book, and in some of my econ stuff this quarter, it talked about all the times peacekeeping troops could have intervened and didn't, and how they could have saved lives and all.

My view on the morality of war has changed a bit since I joined the Army. I used to think that fighting a war after another country attacks your country is fine; wars of aggression are generally immoral, but the one exception would be when you start a war in order to prevent a greater atrocity, for example if a country had intervened in early Nazi Germany, or Rwanda.

From a utilitarian moral viewpoint (which, while we might disagree on its applicability to ‘victimless’ crimes, I think is uncontroversial here), in a situation where war might break out, one ought to act in a way that will minimize human suffering. Generally this means doing what you can to see that a war isn’t begun, but if you know that the alternative to war will produce more suffering than the war would, then you ought to choose war as the most moral thing to do.

In theory I still agree with this view. War is a horrible thing, but it’s not the only horrible thing. However, one of the lessons I’ve learned from the fiasco in Iraq is that, as an outsider looking into a foreign situation, I know a great deal less about what’s going on than I think I do. A situation might look like the beginnings of a genocide, or like a mad dictator loose with nuclear weapons, or like the end of the world in fire, and then turn out to be something completely different. Even as an insider in a volatile situation, I don’t think it’s possible to have the kind of complete information that the utilitarian choice for war requires. No one can tell the future, or read the minds of the other people involved. Theoretically, I could see a situation where choosing to start a war, or intervene militarily in a conflict, would be the moral choice, but practically it’s wiser to just not start wars.

A good metaphor would be my view on capital punishment. I have no problem in theory with executing a murderer. I think there are crimes for which the only truly just punishment is death. However, I don’t have faith that our judicial system is able to determine guilt or innocence with perfect accuracy, so I think it’s wiser to only impose punishments that are more or less reversible. It’s a problem of information.

That doesn’t mean accepting no action at all in the face of genocide, though. If you take Rwanda as an example, one of the major factors that led to the genocide was the radio stations that broadcast racist programs urging people to kill their neighbors. The United States could have exerted political and economic pressure to shut down those radio stations, and replaced them with different programs. There are often political and economic steps that can be taken to improve a situation.

In Iraq, over the past couple of years, there has been a slow ethnic cleansing in some areas, so that neighborhoods that used to be mixed Sunni-Shi’a are now only Sunni or only Shi’a. The US military presence hasn’t been able to stop this. From what I know (although again, as an outsider looking in my knowledge is incomplete) it would probably be more effective if the US withdrew our military forces while at the same time offering refuge to anyone who would be the victim of ethnic cleansing or genocide. So if you’re wanting to prevent genocide, which is a good goal, military intervention may not even be the most effective way to do that.

I guess what I would advocate is practical pacifism, through the adoption of a different paradigm for international intervention. Here in the US, we tend to think of our options as either a) do nothing and pretend that everything is fine, or b) storm in with guns blazing. We see our role in the international community as that of a police officer. I think what we ought to do is acknowledge our inability to be effective police officers, and instead take on the role of the battered women's shelter: we can't arrest the abusers and put them in prison, we can't put them up against a wall and shoot them for their crimes, but we can shelter their victims and do our best to mitigate the damage that has been done. This is a lot more complicated, and time-consuming, and requires a greater commitment to long-term, practical action that isn't flashy and doesn't get the adrenaline pumping, but I think it's more moral.


The Goldfish said...

This was an excellent post.

I personally think that true pacificism is morally unsustainable. It may be okay to turn the other cheek when someone strike you, but it would be wrong to turn away if you saw someone strike a child (or indeed anyone else, but a child is a less complicated example).

However, the danger is - and certainly this seems to be the thing with the current US administration - to see only two options; either to do nothing and let the child be hit or to shoot and kill the person who you saw strike a child, then blow up their house for good measure.

Whereas as you say, in reality the options for intervention and many and varied. Unfortunately, it is perhaps difficult to give rousing political speeches about a subtle and naunced approach. Far more powerful is The War on Terror, The Axis of Evil and so on.

Tayi said...

Pacifism does get a lot less complicated on a one-on-one level, and I do agree with you that if violence is used to minimize harm its not only morally acceptable but morally required. The sheer amount of information required to analyze even small local conflicts intimidates me, though. I know sometimes you have to act on incomplete information, but it scares me how eagerly some people endorse war as a solution to complex problems.

I'm glad you liked this post. :)

The Ridger, FCD said...

As Hans Morgenthau said:

Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.

Pacifism at least misses out on that error - and it's all too easy to go overboard, as you say.