Pacifism: Why It Does Not (and Should Not) Work

The history of pacifism is quite divisive. On one side, there are those who take the dovish approach and reject all forms of physical violence, and then there are those who are hawkish and support violent interaction in specific situations. Both sides have the extreme view that the other side is morally indefensible. Though extreme views are not inherently wrong, they certainly require a very strong base of facts to persuade an audience of any respectability. Unfortunately, the issue of pacifism tends to bring with it not only extremes, but also fans. Today, this can generally be divided down partisan lines. Typically, the left in the United States is more pacific, and the right is more aggressive. That said, it does not mean that one or the other of the arguments cannot be right. On the contrary, only one of these two ideas will achieve the aim of continuing to prosper within western civilization, particularly in a United States-led free-world. The idea that realizes that aim is Neo-Conservatism. Its enemy, pacifism, is intellectually destructive, ethically bankrupt, decadent, indefensible, cowardly, anti-liberal, anti-western, fascist, naïve, and dishonest, but also incredibly popular. For those reasons it presents a threat to civilization that must be fairly discussed with tough, honest language.

As in any argument, defining one’s terms is incredibly important. Miscommunication, or lack of communication presents enough challenges when discussing this particular issue. As an example of this dishonesty in presenting arguments from the pacific side and its allies is the ongoing Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald discussion.[1] Harris, a neuroscientist, writes many controversial opinions, but when he discusses Islam, its tenets, and the ease with which certain parts of the Koran can be molded into the extremism that is seen today, it suddenly seems to be very easy to confuse what his actual statements are with something that is racist, genocidal, or violently right-wing. Greenwald, Harris upholds, cherry-picks and misquotes Harris’ writing to achieve this desired effect. He also ignores the fact that Harris is not actually from the right wing. The reason for this ongoing argument concerns the extent to which certain sensitive topics can be discussed in the public arena. Harris, as well as Bill Maher, Douglas Murray, Majid Nawaz, and others, are very clear to parse the boundaries of the debate by using exact definitions. Even this, though, does not stop one side or the other from lying. Nevertheless an attempt must be made to absolve at least part of this argument from a dearth of substance.

As such, what is meant by pacifism is this: the moral ideology that asserts that in response to the threat of violence, society should follow absolute non-resistance and peace. Neo-conservatism is the act of protecting the interests of a nation or a group of nations against the same threat with force. To further define the aspects of the neo-conservatism in this paper, American science-fiction author Robert Heinlein should be referred to. A man whose views are often confusing and conflicting, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers has the following passage:

There can be circumstances when it’s just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an axe. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him…but to make him do what you want to do.[2]

What this quote says is that the stereotype of violence for violence sake, attributed to neo-conservatism by anti-capitalists, is not in any way true for those who wish to have serious discussion about the topic. The fallacious conception that the Iraq War is solely an issue of oil represents a main, modern example of a complex idea or circumstance being boiled down into a nugget of misinformation. For neo-conservatives, violence is not the first option in most cases, but it is not something that has been taken off the table as in the case of pacifists. In other words, it is not a position held by brutes.

Peter Brock and Nigel Young’s Pacifism in the Twentieth Century from 1999, presents a survey of the topic of pacifism designed for “the college student and adult reader” and centers “on an analysis of the various movements” concerning pacifism.[3] The authors are, respectively, a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Toronto, and a Professor of Peace Studies and Sociology at Colgate University. Brock and Young write that “Pacifism… emerged as a political factor only after the outbreak of war in 1914.”[4] The authors reveal a history of pacifism that is not often thought of: that though it was rooted in religious debate, the movement quickly evolved a political conscience. It was not primarily a dogma that rallied and demonstrated against government decision, but one that resisted conscription and being directly involved in war.

Jehovah Witnesses are a good example of a religious pacifist group; they have more heavenly interests and focus on the hereafter rather than mortal issues. This is not something that is obviously at issue with neo-conservatism and hawkishness. Being resistant to conscription is often very sensible, and is a separate issue from modern pacifism, or the pacifism during the time of World War II, as long as one ignores the responsibilities to the society which has served them. Even Heinlein, noted for his militaristic tendencies, declared:

I also think there are prices too high to pay to save the United States. Conscription is one of them. Conscription is slavery, and I don’t think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called. We have had the draft for twenty years now; I think this is shameful. If a country can’t save itself through the volunteer service of its own free people, then I say: Let the damned thing go down the drain![5]

It is hard to write about a topic like this without falling into the trap of over-defining every point of contention, but it has sadly become a necessary task. At this point, though, it is also a task that seems to have been completed to an adequate degree. The more interesting issues of this topic are formed in the actual defense of neo-conservatism and the eradication of the cultural masturbation that is pacifism.

Pacifism’s motivations, the reason for its existence, are not bad in and of themselves. Its wish seems to be peace, and my research would suggest as much. Certainly it is the claim they make and I see no reason to doubt it. This is not the issue being contested. The issue with pacifism in this sense is that its means are naïve. Peace requires force; it is not a state of mind but a state of being. Peace is actually something that represents the how and what of a society, rather than the why. Idealism is of no use when it comes to pragmatism, though the former is not completely purposeless. As such, pacifism is best defeated by assuming that the pacifists in any society had won the argument—which is an important issue of its own because it is a fact that the pacifists are the losers in history nearly every time.

What if the pacifists had won the argument at any point in the entirety of western civilization? If pacifism had won over the hearts of American politicians during the Second World War, the immediate effects—if not the long term consequences—would be dire: Japan may still have an empire with its boot heels firmly on the necks of most of Asia; the eleven million people murdered in the Holocaust might seem like a blessing compared to what the NSDAP could have gotten away with; Big Ben might be draped in a Swastika, or worse. If pacifism had overruled the hawks in more recent times we could very easily count on thousands more butchered by Saddam Hussein; Kuwait would be another state of Greater Iraq; the list goes on and is certainly sad and obvious. The enemies of western civilization do not have any pacific tendencies. It is an illness of the west precisely because the west is greater in terms of civil liberties and freedom of thought. These discussions are harder to have in Iran, or North Korea, or the Islamic State, where war is the faith.

This brings to the forefront the issue of decadence. Our civilization is so great that it can tolerate and afford certain levels of dissent. Pacifism is important to the general argument because it can remind the non-pacifists why they think the way that they do, why giving in and surrendering will destroy the very values that they celebrate as the cause for their thought to begin with. This is not to say, however, that too much of this thought is not dangerous—it is. When a civilization no longer cares about itself, or forgets that it was forged in violence it slides morally into apathy (refer to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc. to understand that this anti-pacific view is not rare or un-American). This is decadence.

Gender and culture are important in this issue as well. Journalist and historian Christopher Hitchens writes about the wars in the Middle East. Pacifism naturally leaves the defenseless to be victims of any criminal or criminal organization. Women and children of underdeveloped countries have long been at the worst end of pacifist support. Hitchens notes this, albeit briefly, in a 2001 article for The Guardian:

“There was a time in my life when I did a fair bit of work for the tempestuous Lucretia Stewart, then editor of the American Express travel magazine, Departures. Together, we evolved a harmless satire of the slightly driveling style employed by the journalists of tourism. “Land of Contrasts” was our shorthand for it. (“Jerusalem: an enthralling blend of old and new.” “South Africa: a harmony in black and white.” “Belfast, where ancient meets modern.”) It was as you can see, no difficult task. I began to notice a few weeks ago that my enemies in the “peace” movement had decided to borrow from this tattered style book. The mantra, especially in the letters to this newspaper, was: “Afghanistan, where the world’s richest country rains bombs on the world’s poorest country.” Poor fools. They should never have tried to beat me at this game. What about, “Afghanistan, where the world’s most open society confronts the world’s most closed one”? “Where American women pilots kill the men who enslave women.” “Where the world’s most indiscriminate bombers are bombed by the world’s most accurate ones.” “Where the largest number of poor people applaud the bombing of their own regime.”[6]

It does pacifism no favors that George Orwell, a leftist, also despised it, saying that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.”[7] The aiding of the other side, he should have mentioned, is indirectly oppressing the minorities already being exploited, tortured, killed, and abused or enslaved in the enemy’s land. The pacifists, then, in their effort to bring peace hurts the moral seriousness of the westernized country that they are in, but hurts physically the victims and citizens of the current despot that threatens humanity.

It is incredibly easy to point out the faults of western civilization, and it seems to be an ever-popular activity. From books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to nearly anything that Noam Chomsky writes, critics of the west take easy shots against the terrible atrocities that western countries have committed. What they ignore, either accidentally or purposefully, is that the west also apologizes for these things and works to rebuild and make itself better, to absolve itself through decent action. The enemies of the west do no such thing. It is the west that nation-builds, like the United States in the Middle East; that takes in refugees like Europe and the United States with the victims of the Syrian Civil War; that gives money endlessly to help develop the world. To say that there is a moral equivalence between the wests sins and the constant, neutral state of any of its enemies is to ignore reality. The pacifists have taken this route. It is a route that wrongly assumes that all ideas are worth taking seriously, or that some ideas that should be taken seriously should be discarded because of the potential for offending a sensitive, and in-need-of-protection culture. These cultures are strong enough and smart enough to know that the way of life in the west offers more freedoms and holds the potential to grant them economic opportunities. They do not need coddling, nor do they wish to remain subservient to some mad tyrant. Ask the Kurds if they would rather live under Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Their answer would be very telling about how the rest of the world views pacifism, neo-conservatism, and the ideal society.

Ultimately, being against pacifism is to love the society by which you were molded. “Love has many levels, and we use the same word to describe [them]”[8] which says quite a lot about the motivation for certain actions. Certainly it must be assumed that a pacifist loves his or her country to the same degree that a hawkish militant might, but there is a difference in this love. The difference is not only in the means by which one wishes to go through, but also a difference in the willingness to do what is not pleasant to do. In order for western civilization to continue along the progressive path and continue to bring a higher quality of life for hundreds of millions of people, its enemies must be defeated. The enemies cannot be loved. To paraphrase Hitchens, “I don’t love my enemies. I hate them and I want them to die.” This should not come as a shocking statement. It is merely a recognition, a tough, honest understanding, that there are ideologies which exist and want nothing but to enslave and kill others. This should not be equated with western intervention on a moral scale. They are not similar except that violence is and must be utilized by both, but not used as our enemies use it like a purpose, but as the west does, has done, and will continue to do—in defense of western civilization and its liberal principles.



Brock, Peter and Young, Nigel. Pacifism in the Twentieth Century. Syracuse University

Press. 1999

Gray, Jesse Glenn. The Warriors. University of Nebraska Press. 1958.

Harris, Sam and Greenwald, Glenn. 2013

Heinlein, Robert. At the 1961 Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, Washington.

Heinlein, Robert. Starship Troopers. G.P. Putnnam’s Sons. 1959.

Hitchens, Christopher. “Ha ha ha to the Pacifists.” The Guardian. London. 2001.

Orwell, George. “Pacifism and the War.” Partisan Review. London. 1942.

[1] Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald. 2013

[2] Robert Heinlein. Starship Troopers. G.P. Putnnam’s Sons. 1959. 63.

[3] Peter Brock and Nigel Young. Pacifism in the Twentieth Century. Syracuse University Press. 1999.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Robert Heinlein at the 1961 Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, Washington.

[6] Christopher Hitchens. “Ha ha ha to the Pacifists.” The Guardian. 2001.

[7] George Orwell. “Pacifism and the War.” Partisan Review. 1942.

[8] Jesse Glenn Gray. The Warriors. University of Nebraska Press. 1958. 63.

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