WHEN WE MUST FIGHT
Even Pacifists Must Support This War
Those who refuse are reminiscent of the Oxford Union in 1933.
BY SCOTT SIMON
Thursday, October 11, 2001 12:01 a.m. EDT
Pacifists often commit the same mistake as generals: They prepare for the last war, not the next one. Many of the peace activists I have seen trying to rouse opposition to today's war against terrorism remind me of a Halloween parade. They put on old, familiar-looking protest masks--against American imperialism, oppression and violence--that bear no resemblance to the real demons haunting us now.
Pacifism has never been exactly popular. But when I became a Quaker as an adolescent in the late 1960s, pacifism seemed to offer a compelling alternative to the perpetuity of brute force. Mahatma Gandhi had overthrown an empire and Martin Luther King had overturned a racial tyranny with nonviolent marches, fasts, and boycotts that were nervy, ennobling and effective. Pacifism seemed to offer a chance for survival to a generation that had been stunted by the fear of nuclear extinction.
I worked as a war reporter, but I never saw a conflict between this and being a Quaker. If my reporting was sometimes drawn more to human details than to the box-score kind of war coverage, those details struck me as critical to explaining war. I never covered a conflict--whether in Central America, the Caribbean, Africa or the Middle East--that seriously shook my religious convictions. In fact, most conflicts seemed to prove how war was rotten, wasteful and useless. El Salvador's civil war killed 70,000 people over nine years. It was hard to see how the political compromise that ended the conflict could not have been reached after just six months.
But in the 1990s, I covered the Balkans. In Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and Kosovo, I confronted the logical flaw (or perhaps I should say the fatal flaw) of nonviolent resistance: All the best people can be killed by all the worst ones. I had never believed that pacifism had all the answers; neither does militarism. About half of all draft age Quakers enlisted in World War II, believing that whatever wisdom pacifism had to give the world, it could not defeat the murderous schemes of Adolf Hitler and his cohorts.
It seems to me that in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American pacifists have no sane alternative now but to support war. I don't consider this reprisal or revenge, but self-defense: protecting the world from further attacks by destroying those who would launch them.
Some peace activists, their judgment still hobbled by shock, seem to believe that the attacks against New York and Washington were natural disasters: terrible, unpredictable whirlwinds that struck once and will not reoccur.
This is wrong. We know now that there has been an ongoing violent campaign aimed at bringing down diverse nations, with none being more gloriously speckled than the U.S. People who try to hold certain American policies or culture responsible are trying to decorate the crimes of psychotics with synthetic political significance.
n 1933 the Oxford Student Union conducted a famous debate over whether it was moral for Britons to fight for king and country. The exquisite intellects of that leading university reviewed the many ways in which British colonialism exploited and oppressed the world. They cited the ways in which vengeful demands made of Germany in the wake of World War I had helped to kindle nationalism and fascism. They saw no moral difference between Western colonialism and world fascism. The Oxford Union ended that debate with this famous proclamation: "Resolved, that we will in no circumstances fight for king and country."
Von Ribbentrop sent back the good news to Germany's new chancellor, Hitler: The West will not fight for its own survival. Its finest minds will justify a silent surrender.
In short, the best-educated young people of their time could not tell the difference between the deficiencies of their own nation, in which liberty and democracy were cornerstones, and a dictatorship founded on racism, tyranny and fear.
And what price would those who urge reconciliation today pay for peace? Should Americans impose a unitary religious state, throw women out of school and work, and rob other religious groups of their rights, so that we have the kind of society the attackers accept? Do pacifists really want to live in the kind of world that the terrorists who hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon would make?
Pacifists do not need any lectures about risking their lives to stop wickedness. Quakers resisted slavery by smuggling out slaves when even Abraham Lincoln tried to appease the Confederacy. Pacifists sneaked refugee Jews out of Germany when England and the U.S. were still trying to placate Hitler. Many conscientious objectors have served bravely in gritty and unglamorous tasks that aided the U.S. in time of war.
But those of us who have been pacifists must admit that it has been our blessing to live in a nation in which other citizens have been willing to risk their lives to defend our dissent. The war against terrorism does not shove American power into places where it has no place. It calls on America's military strength in a global crisis in which peaceful solutions are not apparent.
Only American (and British) power can stop more killing in the world's skyscrapers, pizza parlors, embassies, bus stations, ships, and airplanes. Pacifists, like most Americans, would like to change their country in a thousand ways. And the blasts of Sept. 11 should remind American pacifists that they live in that one place on the planet where change--in fact, peaceful change--seems most possible. It is better to sacrifice our ideals than to expect others to die for them.
Mr. Simon is host of National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition With Scott Simon."