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"War In Any Form"

The other day I was in a discussion that turned to the Iraq war. We were all against it, of course, so the question of pacifism, the draft, and conscientious objection came up. 

The problem that people have with pacifism (understood as objection to "war in any form") is that most people feel that war is at least sometimes justified. They are wary of categorical judgments, and the Selective Service Act fuels this perception: to be a conscientious objector, you must be against "war in any form," not just this war or that war.

Mennonite conscientious objector John T. Neufeld, an objector to World War I who was sent to prison.

One young woman (the only person there under 40) said that, if they drafted women, she couldnít be a conscientious objector because to be a conscientious objector you would have to be against all war, not just the current one. "What if there was a war in Darfur? We probably should have gotten involved in a war in Rwanda to stop the genocide."

I understand the dilemma. "War in any form" means that you cannot pick and choose among wars. A draft doesnít seem to be in the cards right now, but you never know what the coming years might hold. It seems odd that if our government participates in 40 wicked wars, but does one thing right -- or in the extreme case, might do one thing right -- that this can be held as a reason to support the other 40, since we canít object to all 41. This seems like a rhetorical trick of some sort.

When the U. S. goes to war, it is usually in the wrong these days. It shouldnít be too surprising, given the domination of the government and public discourse by militarists and large corporations. The government acts as if you have to wrestle with your conscience in order not to torture and kill civilians in an aggressive, immoral, and meaningless war in Iraq. But if you want to help perpetrate these atrocities, well then, thatís no problem. It seems reckless in the extreme for a government to insist, with pompous morality, on the need to have well thought-out reasons not to kill, as if this were the product of some sort of mental disorder, but need exert no thought at all in order to support aggressive war like the invasion of Iraq. Aggressive war is a war crime, an act for which we executed German leaders following the Second World War.

Ehren Watada called the Iraq war illegal and refused an order to go

People had different ways of dealing with this during the Vietnam War, the last war in which we had to worry about the draft. Some people, challenged to continue this stilted dialogue about war with the government, did come up with well thought-out reasons not to participate in senseless violence, and to fit this in the context of the then-current Selective Service laws. Some were members of the peace churches like Mennonites and Quakers, and rejected participation in every conflict in which the U. S. participated. Others said that it referred to likely future wars, not past wars or hypothetical wars, thus dodging such questions as "what if the Russians invaded your home town?" Others just gave up trying to explain it all, filled out the questionnaire as best they could, and sent it in.

These are all valid approaches. My approach to this, which I will throw out to anyone whoís interested, is a bit different, and Iíd like to make two miscellaneous points in this regard.

1. The requirement for a sincere blanket declaration against all war cuts both ways and in effect allows at least some selective objection.

This approach may seem slightly legalistic, but basically the government has taken the initiative by creating the dichotomy between supporting all wars or supporting none. The government has presented us with a moral dilemma: we can agree to fight in any war that might come up, or we can object to them all.

Letís suppose that there is a draft -- perhaps that we have a draft-eligible male living in the Vietnam War era. Letís suppose further that initially, he thinks of himself as a selective objector. He goes down the list of wars in which the U. S. fought and comes up with something like this. Heíd fight in World War II if he had been a young person at the time. On the other hand, given the choice, he would not have fought in the war of 1812 (which was really about slavery), the war with Mexico, the Philippine Insurrection, World War I, Vietnam (or, with foresight, the Gulf War or the Iraq War). Being from the south and being against slavery, he would not have fought in the American Civil War either, since the draft at that time would have forced him to fight for slavery if in the South, and against his fellow citizens if he fought for the North. He isnít sure about the American Revolution, which seems to have elements of a civil war. What should he do?

The current selective service law creates in effect a choice between two universal rules, not just one. One says that you object to all war, the other that you would fight in any war. Which rule is best? The record of the U. S. in respect of wars is not particularly good. Even without any knowledge of current politics, we can say that the most likely war the U. S. would enter would either be a fratricidal bloodbath like the Civil War or an imperialistic adventure like Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, or Iraq. Itís also possible, just possible, that if events conspire in just the right way that the U. S. would be fighting someone like the Nasty Nazis, but thatís a long shot. That the U. S. might intervene militarily in order to bring needed famine-relief supplies to a nation is, so far, entirely hypothetical.

It seems that the rule opposing war is the best. Since the government does not allow the middle path, you may miss a few battles you should have been in, but overall there is a net moral benefit, and therefore you can truthfully and sincerely say that for moral reasons you are objecting to all war.

2. The ideology of the present invariably looks very much different from the same ideology in retrospect.

It is absolutely astounding how little the nation learned from the Vietnam War. The nation never really came to terms with this war. It was put out of mind because discussing it was thought to be too divisive. Reagan thought that the war was a "noble cause."

Excuse me? Hundreds of thousands of innocents dead in a blatantly immoral intervention which failed every test of a "just war," apparently left no impression on the many politicians and members of the general public, who preferred to grasp at a comforting illusion rather than acknowledge a deadly reality. A country that cannot figure this out is condemned to repeat the history that it has not learned -- as we now see in Iraq.

The motive behind both the Gulf Wars and the Iraq War has been described at different times as "freedom." Because the Gulf War ended so quickly, and just restored the status quo ante, public debate never had time to evolve to realize that the real issue was oil. In the Iraq War, first "weapons of mass destruction" and then "freedom" were thrown out as excuses for a war of aggression whose objective was securing oil supplies.

Even World War II looks different now than it did 50 years ago, and will probably look even more different in 50 more years, perhaps just as a period of madness similar to the American Civil War. It was precipitated in the Pacific when the U. S. instituted an oil embargo on Japan, provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Europe, the punitive and unjust treaty of Versailles left Germany open for a dictator like Hitler. We wound up backing one genocidal dictator (Stalin) against another genocidal dictator (Hitler), and even in the aftermath some Americans question whether we backed the wrong genocidal dictator, and it remains murky and unclear whether backing either, or neither, would have been better in the long run.

Canadian conscientious objectors work on a road in Alberta in 1941

We need to look objectively at the basic nature of the United States in 2008. It is a rich and powerful country which is consuming scarce fossil fuel resources at a prodigious rate. U. S. military expenditures are greater than that of the rest of the world combined. Why all this military might? Itís to defend our position of power and our "way of life": Americans consume 5 times the fossil resources per capita than the rest of the world (which is still unsustainable itself!). This "way of life" with its consumption of resources is wrong to begin with; it contributes to global warming, depletes crude oil which is already about half gone, and promotes growing global inequality both within and between nations. If one says abstractly that violence is sometimes justified, it is really a stretch to imply that it must be justified to use violence to defend this unnatural and corrupt order. The real question is whether to use violence to oppose it.

It is almost impossible for an ordinary citizen to evaluate the merits of going to war in a time of crisis, even in a relatively stable democracy like the United States. Governments come, and governments go. Even dictatorships such as the former Soviet Union, which at one point had Stalin contributing to the deaths of millions, can over time moderate or dissolve themselves nonviolently. The safest rule, the one likely to bring the most moral benefit, is always to resist by nonviolent means.

Keith Akers
March 2, 2008