TCS Daily

How To Protest A War

By Lee Harris - February 20, 2003 12:00 AM

"War is not the answer."

I have noticed this sign cropping up all around the university that is near my home, and my first thought whenever I see it is, "How true." After all, think of the all the kinds of problems for which war is a grossly and insanely inappropriate solution; and if the sign were merely meant as a cautionary reminder of this fact, it would be hard to quarrel with.

But the sign is not meant simply as a general reminder, but is intended as a protest against one particular war, namely the one that is looming between Iraq and the United States.

Now there are good reasons to oppose this particular war, just as there are good reasons to oppose any particular war that you might care to name. And these good reasons boil down to two basic arguments. Either the war in question would not achieve the political goals for which it was being fought, or that it would do so at too great a cost in other desirable political goals.

This kind of opposition to a war might be dubbed Clausewitzian opposition. In this case, those opposed to the war in question may have the same exact political objectives as those who support the war, but they do not believe that this particular war is the instrument by which these political objectives can be realized, at least at the moment.

But, of course, not all opposition to this, or any other particular war, is Clausewitzian opposition; for there are those who are opposed not to this or that war, but to war under any circumstances. Their position, ethical pacifism, holds that war is an evil of such magnitude that it is better to take any political consequences, however terrible, rather than to fight a war, and even if it means accepting certain death for one's self.

Now as long as the ethical pacifist is willing to personally accept the consequences of his decision, no more argument can be made against him, provided these consequences affect only him. For, clearly, if I decide that war is not a price I wish to pay to protect myself, I cannot infer that you are unwilling to pay this price as well. And this is why the ethical pacific is prohibited from trying to pass off his purely moral decision as a recommendation of public policy.

But let us understand this correctly. For I am not saying that the ethical pacifist has no right to try to convince others of the correctness of his moral decision, for of course he has that right. He is free to go about preaching ethical pacifism to all who wish to hear him, provided he does not pass his moral advice off as something it is not-a policy position.

"Friend," he may say, "war is such a terrible thing that we should all be prepared to offer our lives rather than wage war, even against enemies who are pledged to destroy us. And we must do this even if it does in fact cost us our lives. Let us all vow to perish together rather than fight!" This, after all, was Gandhi's recommendation on the plight of European Jews under Hitler's persecution: to commit mass suicide in protest.

Yet no matter how you might be tempted to respond to such a plea, there is one thing you could not say-you could not say that the ethical pacifist was being intellectually or morally dishonest. He has stated his faith and he is owed our respect and even admiration.

Yes, he says. I am willing to take the consequence of my belief, and I am willing to try to convert you to my belief. But I will not pretend that I have an answer that I don't have. For I will not pretend that by adopting my ethical pacifism that war will go away.

And that is why I hate those signs-their coy mixture of politics and morality.

If the people who post this sign wished to make a moral statement, then let them say that war is evil, then let the sign say war is evil. Then let them say, like the ethical pacifist, "Do not fight under any circumstances, even if you must give up you life for this belief."

But instead they talk of solutions-as if this war were a stupid answer to a problem to which there is a clever correct one. And if you ask them what this clever correct answer may be that the world has so long managed to overlook, they will look at you and sigh, "There must be a better way."

Whereupon the true motive is revealed to be neither moral or political, but a childish desire to escape reality. War is the only solution to certain persistent human problems, and if you are against it, do not try to persuade us that you have discovered a new solution to the problem for which wars have been fought. You may accept this solution or reject it root and branch-but these are the only two choices we have. For wishful thinking is not a choice, but an evasion of choice.

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