Quotations and excerpts from Stephen L. Carter’s The Violence of Peace (2011) (emphasis in red is added):
It is an article of faith among many on the left that there exist on the right some who were chomping at the bit to strike Iraq, and that any evidence, however specious, would do. It is an article of faith among many on the right that there exist on the left some who will never find any war to their liking, and will seize upon any evidence, however specious, to justify their disapproval. Perhaps there is something to these ad hominem fears, but they are uninteresting to the scholar and, in a wiser world, would be equally uninteresting to politicians and pundits. Evidence and argument, not preexisting prejudices, should guide us in our moral lives, particularly when we ponder so momentous a moral decision as whether to move a nation to war.
When we contemplate disaster, our heuristics misfire. Catastrophic harms tend to be treated, in our minds and in our regulations, as far more likely than they are. And, certainly, successful terror attacks are considered catastrophic. The public position is, in effect, zero tolerance. If no attacks are permitted, then no risks can be taken. Thus a risk of 1 percent becomes too high.
Classifying everything unpleasant as “torture” makes a mockery of language. We must not redefine terms to the extent that we become unable to reason about distinctions. Threatening to kill a prisoner is horrific, but not as horrific as actually killing him. Holding him in a position that stresses his knees is outrageous, but not as outrageous as breaking his knees. Forcing him to listen to loud and noxious sounds is terrible, but not as terrible as cutting off his ears. When we say that all that is bad is identical, we are not creating useful moral bright lines; we are, rather, establishing our own moral laziness, our inability to admit that even among those things that shock our consciences, there are degrees of shock.
In war, says Walzer, there is often “a kind of killing frenzy that begins in combat and ends in murder.” There may even be a sort of “temporary insanity”: “a frenzy of fear such that the soldier cannot recognize the moment when he is no longer in danger.” The point is that, in war, decent people fighting for the just side will at times do terrible things. To pretend that their emotions will never get the better of them is childish. To seek somehow to bring them all to justice is again to confuse cause and effect. The war itself is the cause—not some defect in the nature of a few wayward soldiers, but the war itself. That was Sherman’s point: “You cannot help yourself.” You try. You do your best. You train your people, you hammer home the rules, and, if you really care about what happens in the battle, you raise your children to believe the same propositions. If you are serious, you might even build your society around self-discipline and self-denial, even in the face of horror and fear. But, in the end, no matter what, your efforts will be imperfect.89 If you fight a war, terrible things will happen. If you do not want terrible things to happen, do not fight any wars, but bear in mind the risk that the rest of the world might not mind doing terrible things quite as much as you do.
Although there are those on the right who look at our warlike President [Obama] and accuse him of cynicism, and there are those on the left who look at the same President and accuse him of betrayal, I think the truth is different. For it is a painful fact known to all of us, but too often forgotten, that deciding is a more difficult matter than criticizing. It might even be that Obama the insider has realized what Obama the outsider did not: whatever the mistakes of his predecessor, President Bush acted out of a belief in the urgency of the threat facing the nation. The threat was neither invented nor imagined, but is instead out there in the world. The plotting against America continues. If you pay attention, you can hardly miss the fresh headlines every month or so about another conspiracy blocked by federal authorities.
[W]ar rarely accomplishes its objectives except imperfectly. As the church historian Robert Bainton has noted, commenting on the pre-Pearl Harbor support among some Christians for American entry into World War II: “To be sure, the war might not establish democracy, liberty, and a just and enduring peace. The only thing war can ever do is to restrain outrageous villainy and give a chance to build again.”
p. 161 (quoting Niebuhr’s 1948 essay “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist”):
A decision to intervene in the affairs of another country is no doubt in the end a matter of politics. But the arguments for it are moral. Not every form of government is equal. One thinks here of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Pacifism either tempts us to make no judgments at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny in comparison with the momentary anarchy which is necessary to overcome tyranny.” Niebuhr points to the tendency of many pacifists to hubris, because of the belief that they have found the one true solution to the brokenness of man, whereas (in Christian terms, and one would hope in the terms of secular morality as well) none of us can ever be sure. Whatever the attraction of pacifism when you alone are under threat, there is less virtue in being pacifist when called upon to defend someone else.
But a moral individual who cares about others still has to decide what the people in Darfur ought to do about the slaughter; or whether anybody else should help. “It’s not my fault” is perhaps the worst reason in the world for doing nothing.
Genocide has always been difficult for genuine pacifists. Consider the Holocaust.
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Gandhi did not merely call for nonviolent rather than violent resistance to Hitler. He evidently believed there was merit in Germany’s claim to lands lost in the First World War, even though he regretted that Hitler had turned to war to attain justice. And Gandhi praised the Nazi leader, arguing that future generations would honor his bravery and genius. True, he also insisted that Hitler’s actions were “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity.” Yet the praise can hardly be ignored. Probably it was necessary, and not only as a tactic. Gandhi had to believe there was something human and reachable in the worst of dictators, because absent that conscience, nonviolence could never have its desired effect.
This core conception is essential to any pacifism that is not mere pose. Anybody can claim to be a pacifist but politically or intellectually serious pacifism is mature enough to accept the consequences.
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Again, consider the President’s words (about Gandhi’s principles):
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Gandhi could not possibly endorse any of this.
The office of the Presidency, once assumed, transforms the outlook of its holder. What had seemed frivolous becomes frightening. What had seemed nonsense becomes necessary. The world turns out to be a dangerous place after all. The United States turns out to have actual enemies, people who wish the nation harm, and very few of them are moved by personal loathing for any particular resident of the White House.
I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That’s why NATO continues to be indispensable. That’s why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. That’s why we honor those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali—we honor them not as makers of war, but of wagers—but as wagers of peace.