The Trouble with War

In March 1944, with thousands of Jews still living who were not destined to survive, the War Resisters League published an updated demand that the Allies call a peace conference, stipulating Jewish deliverance. “The fortunes of war have turned, and with them the responsibility for war. The guilt is upon our heads until we offer our enemies an honorable alternative to bitter-end slaughter. Are we fighting for mere victory, or, as enlightened adults, for humanity and civilization?”

We were fighting, it seems, for mere victory. So the Holocaust continued, and the firebombing continued: two parallel, incommensurable, war-born leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were. The mills of God ground the cities of Europe to powder – very slowly – and then the top Nazis chewed their cyanide pills or were executed at Nuremberg. Sixty million people died all over the world so that Hitler, Himmler, and Goering could commit suicide? How utterly ridiculous and tragic.

At a Jewish Peace Fellowship meeting in Cincinnati some years after the war, Rabbi Cronbach was asked how any pacifist could justify opposition to World War II. “War was the sustenance of Hitler,” Cronbach answered. “When the Allies began killing Germans, Hitler threatened that, for every German slain, ten Jews would be slain, and that threat was carried out. We in America are not without some responsibility for that Jewish catastrophe.”

If we don’t take seriously pacifists like Cronbach, Hughan, Kaufman, Day, and Brittain – these people who thought as earnestly about wars and their consequences as did politicians or generals or think-tankers – we’ll be forever suspended in a kind of immobilizing sticky goo of euphemism and self-deception. We’ll talk about intervention and preemption and no-fly zones, and we’ll steer drones around distant countries on murder sorties. We’ll arm the world with weaponry, and every so often we’ll feel justified in taxiing out a few of our stealth airplanes from their air-conditioned hangars and dropping some expensive bombs. Iran? Pakistan? North Korea? What if we “crater the airports,” as Senator Kerry suggested, to slow down Qaddafi ? As I write, the United States has begun a new war against Libya, dropping more things on people’s heads in the name of humanitarian intervention.

When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, “as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just.” That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.

Nicholson Baker
Why I’m a Pacificst: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War
Harper’s Magazine, May 2011

Music: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971)
Performed by John & Yoko/the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir
Power to the People – The Hits

Related: The Trouble with Religion

On Sin