Excellent short essay on the subject:
Pacifists, Serious and Otherwise
Pacifists weaken their claims whenever they seem more eager to condemn our own violence than the violence of our adversaries. Those who espouse an absolutist creed should be especially wary of moral relativism.
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, October 5, 2001; Page A37
When I registered for the draft during the late days of the Vietnam War, I checked the box opening the option to apply for conscientious objector status. I then went to work on a statement trying to explain my pacifism.
I labored over that essay. By the time I was done, there was only one problem: I did not convince myself. The exercise proved to me that I was not a pacifist, that I believed there were times when force and violence were morally justified in defense of our nation and of freedom. I kept myself in the draft pool. My draft number never came up.
The irony is that as I became ever more convinced of the problems of pacifism, I developed an enormous respect for individual pacifists and for rigorous pacifist thinkers. These were people who understood the seriousness of individual participation in war and asked themselves hard questions about their own responsibilities. I was glad pacifists existed, even as I was glad they were not making government policy.
The point of this reverie is to offer a hope that as a nation, we do not demonize pacifists in the coming months and years as we wage war on terrorism -- a war I support. There's a danger that we will.
My colleague Michael Kelly recently wrote on this page that pacifism was "evil." Many pacifists, he said, are "liars," "frauds" and "hypocrites." Human nature being what it is, I'm sure that all political movements, including antiwar movements, have their share of these three kinds of people. But pacifism is decidedly not evil.
The true pacifist -- as against, say, someone who uses pacifist words to justify anti-Americanism or the violence of our foes -- subscribes to a stern moral creed. The creed insists that human beings can never use violence against other human beings, even when it might be in their interest to do so, and even when, by the normal standards of the world, violence would be justified.
Most serious pacifists bear no resemblance to the hip, upper-class, self-indulgent anti-warriors who are so easily parodied and attacked. They are often devoutly religious people -- Mennonites, Quakers and many others -- who abhor self-indulgence as much as they abhor violence.
Like individuals who take vows of poverty, pacifists challenge our usual ways of doing business. The person who gives up all worldly goods to help others reminds the rest of us that we're not nearly as good or moral or generous as we think we are. The pacifist reminds us that the violence we commit, even in the name of what we may rightly see as good ends, is still, in some sense, ungodly.
"We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war," wrote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1940, "need this testimony of the absolutist against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative, lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives and the risk we run of achieving no permanent good from the momentary anarchy in which we are involved."
Niebuhr offered these thoughts in an essay criticizing pacifism. Those who believe the United States has no right to take military action against terror might usefully ponder the theologian's critique of those who thought it wrong for the democracies to confront Hitler.
"Whatever may be the moral ambiguities of the so-called democratic nations," he wrote, "and however serious may be their failure to conform perfectly to their democratic ideals, it is sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practice."
That, in a nutshell, is why I decided I couldn't be a pacifist and why I believe a war against the tyranny of terror is justified now. But for those who are pacifists, there is also a lesson in Niebuhr's words. Pacifists weaken their claims whenever they seem more eager to condemn our own violence than the violence of our adversaries. Those who espouse an absolutist creed should be especially wary of moral relativism.
Here's the paradox: The fact that we live under a political system that honors the right of individuals to object conscientiously to engaging in war is one of the reasons why ours is a system worth defending. Osama bin Laden's world does not allow for pacifists. Ours does. To stand up for pacifists -- even when you disagree with them, and especially when they're unpopular -- is to protect this moral difference.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company