Ted Grimsrud—March 3, 2022
Times of war fever are always challenging for those who are disposed to oppose most if not all war. Tragically, we are in the midst of such a time now. So, it seems timely to reflect a bit on how an American pacifist might think about our current crises. By “think about,” I mainly have in mind thinking about the underlying core peace-oriented convictions and how they might shape how we see our current situation.
I have in mind a pretty general definition of “pacifism” here. I’m thinking of it as roughly equivalent to, say, being a humane person, a person who supports social and political self-determination for all the people, a person who affirms the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The key points would be a belief that supporting war is antithetical to humane values, to the practice of self-determination, and to an affirmation of universal human rights.
A pacifist, in this sense, would be suspicious of all those who do support the practice of and preparation for warfare. This suspicion is especially strong toward those who profit from such preparation and practice. We would not, for example, assume that those leaders in our society who are positive about preparation for war are to be trusted as truthtellers. That is, we are distrustful toward our most powerful media outlets and the spokespeople for our military policies and military-oriented responses to crises. We also recognize we need to be self-conscious about the impact of the mass media in shaping people in our society to be positive about America’s military policies and practices and preparations. It takes an effort to resist that shaping.
In what follows, I will organize my thoughts in a series of brief reflections.
(1) We condemn all overt acts of war. So, in our current crisis, we start with a condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We believe that every overt act of war is wrong. That is, we do not condemn Russia’s actions because they are done by a nation that the United States is not allied with. We condemn them because they are inherently wrong. If actions are wrong when the Russians do them, they are also wrong when the US and our allies do them.
We recognize the dangers of having our revulsion toward Russia’s actions channeled into support for militarist responses by our country and its allies. Given our distrust of the motives and interests of the American National Security leadership and its influence on our corporate media, we seek to be slow to join in the “official” US condemnation of Russian actions and to be unwilling to let that condemnation be used as a justification for an acceleration of the conflict.
Our caution at this point is not due to an ideological embrace of “neutrality” as if we should avoid involvement in the world’s affairs. Rather, we seek to remain clear and committed to our core convictions about human rights, self-determination, and the preciousness of all life—at all times. War by its very nature needs to be rejected no matter who executes it.
(2) It is important to learn what we can about the historical context for the current crisis. What is going on right now is part of a longer trajectory that points to where events are heading beyond simply what is happening in the present. Russian-Ukraine relationships have an especially complicated and fraught history. It is a mistake likely to lead to important misunderstandings to reduce the current conflict simply to the most recent actions taken by Russian leadership. Those actions should be condemned, but they also should be understood in their historical context if genuinely sustainable solutions are to be found.
Given the above points about the untrustworthiness of America’s national security elite and the corporate media, we should be suspicious of the historical framing they might offer. We should seek for genuine understanding and avoid “explanations” that may most of all be serving pro-militarist interests. We should be especially attentive to understandings that might help us perceive possible legitimate interests on all sides that could be addressed through diplomacy and negotiations. A major factor has been the expansion of NATO to the east, with the possibility that that expansion might even include Ukraine. From the time of the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, even many moderate members of the American national security establishment have warned against such expansion, arguing that it was highly dangerous (see article by Jordan Michael Smith in The New Republic). American pacifists could offer even sharper critiques of NATO.
(3) In a conflict such as this, we should be attentive to who benefits from it and treat what they say about it with great suspicion. Clearly, from the time of the ending of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s (and, as part of that, the giving up of nuclear weapons by Ukraine), the American policies of greatly expanding NATO into central and eastern Europe and, more recently, transferring massive amounts of military materials to Ukraine have greatly enriched US weapons manufacturers and their colleagues among former and present military officials.
That is, American elites are not disinterested actors in this drama. They have greatly benefited from deeply anti-peace policies with NATO’s actual and threatened expansion. The reality that the people who make the decisions and frame the discussion of how to respond to the conflict are partisans who directly profit from the conflict being escalated means we should be quite suspicious of what they say. As a simple principle, we could suggest that until the profit motive is taken out of American national security dynamics, we will treat any policy suggestions that involve money being spent that goes to American war profiteers with great skepticism.
(4) A pacifist-inclined perspective on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as with all other conflicts the US is involved in, will be especially concerned with retaining moral sight, with keeping core convictions about human wellbeing in mind. This kind of perspective is not about maintaining a sense of purity or avoiding moral ambiguity or compromise. Ambiguity and compromise seem inevitable for anyone engaged in public policy conversations. However, quite often moral values and important convictions are ignored or dismissed as relevant.
American history over the past 80 years offers many examples where retaining a sense of moral sight would have prevented what were strategically and practically deeply problematic choices—for example, the American disasters in Vietnam and Iraq. The problem was manifested on all levels, from the policymakers at the top to those such as soldiers caught up in the devastating impact of trying to implement the choices on the ground to ordinary citizens offering support for the disastrous choices. Those attracted to pacifism should resist the charge that their perspective is too idealistic and impractical and point to the “idealistic” and “impractical” dimensions of the various military actions that have resulted from sidelining moral sight.
(5) American pacifists should do their moral reasoning in light of their own convictions and most of all apply those convictions to the practical choices and actions that are available to them in their actual lives—not think primarily in terms of the people in power. That is not to say that we shouldn’t try to discern what seem like the best choices that decision-makers can choose, but that should not cause us to set aside our best moral convictions.
Too easily, we can fall into the mentality where the values that determine how we think and act in relation to warfare are not the ones we hold but the ones we imagine are held by people in power. Such a way of thinking sidelines our best insights and also makes us more vulnerable to being caught up in the war fever and moved toward accepting, even supporting, even participating in actions that are not actually consistent with our core convictions. When we stay within our own set of convictions, we are more likely to find alternatives to the war fever—be it simply retaining a critical stance toward our leaders or engaging in healing work that does not reinforce the dynamics of escalation of conflict that right now characterize American policymakers.
(6) Accept our relative powerlessness. It is almost certain that American pacifists will have little effect on the violence-inducing policies of our government in the face of our current war fever. We still do have the power to offer dissent. We have the power to point toward alternative policies that could emerge in the face of the likely failures of the war-oriented policies now being pursued. We have the power to think independently and creatively outside the current war fevered consensus that could result in any number of possibilities for healing actions now unforeseen. We have the power to make connections with others across the world who also continue to express a strong benefit of the doubt against war and all the policies and preparations that increase the likelihood of war and that divert our societies’ best energies from the needed work to address so many of the problems that are being neglected now.
Perhaps most fundamentally, living amidst war fever when we see so little chance of our voices being heard by the power elite may remind us of the value of the simple work of creating space to be human in the world around us that we can affect. I think we should remain quite attentive to the big issues, wars and rumors of war. However, realizing our powerlessness concerning the decisions that are being made in relation to those big issues can challenge us to find ways to express the power that we do have to make the world more just and peaceable.
(7) Avoid demonizing those we are told are our “enemies.” One of the big dangers in our current conflict is the dynamic reflected in the words of our leaders, media pundits, military spokespeople, and the like to reduce the conflict to the allegedly irrational and egotistical behavior of Putin. This echoes past moments where the “enemy” is presented as impervious to negotiation, reason, or compromise (an obvious example is Saddam Hussein). The impact of such demonization often is to serve as a justification for our own violence and militarized policies.
When we see our “enemy” as incapable of reason, we then need not bother with negotiations, compromises, and other alternatives to brute threat and force. Such dynamics often are likely to be disastrous and to fail to resolve the conflicts. We must keep in mind that perpetual conflict and having on-going “enemies” serves the interests of those whose power and wealth is enhanced by wars and (especially) the preparation for wars.
None of this is to imply anything positive about Putin (or Saddam, for that matter). However, it is problematic practically to ignore possibilities of finding ways to resolve conflicts without militarized policies (remember how Saddam actually cooperated with UN weapons inspectors who accurately had determined that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons—something ignored as the US rushed to a disastrous attack on that country). It is also problematic morally to assume the worst of one’s adversary and not to be suspicious of one’s own motives in escalating conflicts that lead to one’s own profit.
(8) Finally, as American pacifists, we should always be attentive to the role our country is playing in light of American history. Our country has a long history of military interventions (overt and covert) around the world that have not, despite public rationales by our leaders, had the motive or impact of furthering democracy and the wellbeing of the people affected by the interventions. The interventions almost invariably have served the agenda of American dominance of the world.
It has been the case that at times the interventions have been against clearly oppressive governments and forces. At times, the interventions have been against clearly democratic and relatively just governments and forces. Many have been in more ambiguous contexts. The common element, though, has usually been that the US is acting against forces who do not want to be in the American sphere of dominance. There is no reason to suspect that the current conflict in Eastern Europe is any different.
The leaders of our militarized national security regime have in the past and continue to utilize the difficulty that the American people seem to have to recognize that sometimes both sides to a conflict can be on the side of evil. As long as they can identify an enemy, with the confidence that Americans tend also to assume the basic goodness of our country and its leaders, they can turn the conflict into a fight between good and evil and proceed with their intervention. Few Americans seem able to imagine that the “enemy” can be genuinely oppressive and unjust without any implication that we are not also oppressive and unjust.
The genuine tragedy in these interventions is that quite often people who truly are relatively innocent get caught in the middle. As a rule, this tragedy is exploited by our leaders. When we have been prepared to see the conflict as good versus evil, we will easily place the sole blame on our “enemies” for the devastation and, with tragic irony, only escalate our side of the dynamics of destruction. Millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Iraqis lost their lives in this way. The problem, ultimately, in the view of the pacifist, is the means of dealing with conflict. War and preparation for war and threatening war are our biggest enemies of all.