Reflecting morally about the conflict in Ukraine [Pacifism Today #6]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2022

[In early March, as the conflict in Ukraine gained the world’s attention, I wrote a blog post, “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion.” In the weeks since then, I have continued to think—and posted several shorter reflections on Facebook. I have gathered those pieces into this blog post essentially unchanged.]

Some different concerns in response to the Russian invasion [3.9.22]

Like most people I know, I am heartsick about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the possibility of an expanding and continuing conflict. However, I don’t notice many other people voicing some of my main concerns.

It was almost 50 years ago that I first learned that my country’s leaders regularly, and to devastating effect, lied to justify engagement in unjust and disastrous military actions around the world. When I was in college, I learned to know numerous Vietnam War vets who told me stories that made my hair stand on end. To a man, they bitterly spoke of the lies we Americans were being told about that war.

I feel incredibly lucky that I turned 19 just as the military draft was ended. When I was 19, I would have willingly gone to war should I have been called. By the time I was 22, I had learned about the Vietnam War and its lies, and I had gained clarity about the message of Jesus that led me to embrace pacifist convictions.

Since then, I have paid attention to on-going American military interventions that all seem to have been justified with lies. I also learned more of American history—including the intervention in Greece following World War II on behalf of the generals who, with US support, established a long-running and deeply oppressive dictatorship. My uncle Bill, my mother’s younger brother, was an Air Force pilot who was killed in Greece at that time. I never knew the story of what our military was doing there until quite recently.

The year of my birth (1954) saw two especially unjust and catastrophic American interventions, both egregiously lied about at the time: the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratic (and non-communist) government and the refusal to accept the outcome of Vietnam defeating the French colonialists. Millions of deaths and decades of suffering followed.

Probably every one of America’s post-Vietnam military interventions has been accompanied by similar falsehoods, usually with on-going devastating consequences. Think, most obviously, about the lies concerning Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” So, why should I imagine that we are not again being fed lies upon lies by our present government about the current conflict? I find it troubling that the American people seem so gullible even after all that we know about our government’s dishonest habits.

As wrong as Russia’s aggression seems obviously to be, I wonder if our collective amnesia about US past practices makes it hard for us to imagine that both sides could be in the wrong. When it comes to situations like this, I wonder if we would be better served to imagine ourselves as citizens of the world more than citizens of this particular country and to let our core, most life-affirming convictions govern our responses more than simply accepting the spin our government and the corporate media give us.

More on the American Empire and Russian war [3.14.22]

When the dust settles on the current conflict in Ukraine, it may be that we will see that the responsibility for this conflict does indeed lie with both Russia and the United States (and its allies in the American Empire). I think the difficulty Americans seem to have in being critical of the American Empire is a problem.

For moral discernment, I draw on Christian convictions (especially the peaceable message of Jesus and the trans-national character of Christian fellowship), pacifist convictions (antipathy toward all war and all threats of and preparation for war), humanist convictions (the belief in the preciousness of all human life), anarchistic sensibilities (a deep suspicion toward coercive, centralized state power), and socialist inclinations (placing a priority on human social welfare over profit). These overlapping angles lead me to question my own country’s motives and practices. My question is this: Given the history of the American Empire and its lies, what bases do we have to believe what it says this time?

I have no doubt that Putin has and continues to deserve strong condemnation for Russia’s violence. That said, I remain a bit skeptical of the Putin-as-purely-evil narrative that is ubiquitous in American media. This narrative may be too neat and tidy, too convenient for the American Empire’s agenda, and—one could say—too omniscient. That said, even if the worst reading of Putin’s place in the conflict were accurate, that would not change the main concerns I have.

We may go back to the years after World War II. By the end of 1945, the US stood alone as the world’s dominant power. We can say that the choice was between (1) an effective United Nations that would facilitate genuine cooperation and shared power in the world, or (2) an American Empire seeking “full spectrum dominance.” The American Empire’s choice was to initiate numerous intensifying Cold War steps; to found NATO in 1949—six years prior to the Warsaw Pact—and continue with a series of upgrades to its nuclear arsenal along with greatly limiting the UN’s power.

In the early 1990s, the Cold War ended, and the American Empire again stood alone at the top. The expansion of NATO after 1991 meant that the “victory” of the American Empire would not lead to a more peaceable global order—something that Russia at that point seems to have wanted (including even the possibility of joining NATO itself). The conflictual dynamics remained in place.

So, we have an alternative story to the Putin as expansionist, world domination seeking narrative. It could be said that the US seeks to dominate the world and the major power blocs that stand outside its hegemony—Russia and China. Consider, for example, that the American Empire’s estimated military spending is more than ten times greater than Russia’s—US $738 billion this year; top 10 allies (not including India or Brazil) $409 billion; Russia $61 billion; and China $193 billion. Also, look at a map showing American military bases around the world.

Has the American Empire sought to heighten anti-Russia sentiment among NATO populations and intentionally provoke this current conflict—exploiting Putin’s proclivity for violence for the Empire’s own interests? If so, it seems to be going well—witness the strong support of the American people for a militarized response to Russia and the huge increase in Germany’s military spending.

Does this history suggest that the American Empire is untrustworthy in the present situation? Given all the lies in so many earlier American Empire interventions, what bases do we have for believing the Empire now?

For one who might be a Christian or a pacifist or a humanist or an anarchist or a socialist (or some combination), the lesson may be that we need to imagine responses to conflicts such as the one in Ukraine that bypass interventions by the American Empire military apparatus. It seems consistent with past American Empire behavior to imagine that its policymakers actually care little for the Ukrainian people, even that they would intentionally seek for an on-going conflict in Ukraine that would continue to traumatize that land as part of the campaign greatly to weaken Russia.

If we want peace in Ukraine, we should support forces and policies that actually are peaceable, not ones that seemingly point to ongoing conflict.

Moral and pragmatic factors both matter [4.7.22]

In my many years as an idealist about peace on earth, I have often encountered the notion that we face a major tension. We may argue for an approach because of our moral convictions or because it would be what is most pragmatic or realistic. I have always resisted accepting that these two approaches are inevitably at odds with each other.

For one thing, as I study the history of US foreign affairs in the 20th century, I have discovered that morality has rarely played a role—and that the choices made by American leaders supposedly based on pragmatic and realistic considerations have so often been bad, even disastrous—that is, not actually pragmatic. Perhaps, more attention to morality would have prevented what were actually pragmatically wrong choices.

It appears the US may be facing another crossroads where morality and pragmatism (properly understood) actually dovetail—and where a disastrous outcome seems quite likely, maybe in part due to ignoring moral considerations. Matt Taibbi’s blog post, “‘Regime Change’ Doesn’t Work, You Morons,” points out how disastrous past efforts at regime change have been and that our current situation of the US apparently seeking regime change in Russia will likely also be disastrous.

So, the regime change motif provides a scary example of how moral considerations and pragmatic considerations do coalesce and how ignoring moral considerations might cause people to have distorted views of pragmatic considerations. Keeping moral considerations in mind could help protect people from projecting the outcomes they want into the evaluation of the evidence of pragmatic issues. Such projections all too often actually distort the evidence.

Seeking regime change through violence, sanctions that harm ordinary Russian people, the empowerment of other authoritarian forces in the region, and a great deal of dishonesty seems obviously immoral. And, when viewed with suspicion rather than wishful thinking, it seems quite likely to be disastrous (i.e., pragmatically as well as morally wrong). Taibbi cites a 2016 article in the Washington Post (a paper that has hardly been a skeptic of past regime change operations) that noted that “the United States had either toppled or attempted to topple other countries’ governments 72 times between 1947 and 1989. The list is an astonishing compendium of disasters.”

These thoughts make wonder, then, about the relevance of pacifism to the “real world.” A pacifist would (or at least should) say, of course, regime change is wrong. And maybe not many others would say that first thing. But perhaps the way the dynamic works is that when does not say no first thing (or at least say, probably not), one becomes susceptible to being manipulated to accept something that is not only immoral but stupid, counterproductive, and self-destructive.

Maybe we can’t expect those in power to affirm pacifism, but if they would at least listen to pacifists, they may make fewer terrible mistakes. For example, twenty years ago, it seems that pacifists and near-pacifists were about the only ones saying the US going to war in Afghanistan was a bad idea. Our argument was not simply based on pacifist principles, it was also based on pragmatic concerns—and those considerations almost all proved to be warranted. Tragically, the same kinds of people (even some of the same exact people) are still in positions to make the same kinds of decisions as their disastrous decisions in 2001 and the years that followed.

So, I tend to think we pacifists shouldn’t bracket insights that follow from our deepest convictions when we engage these issues.

Evil will not be defeated by evil [4.9.22]

Do my Mennonite convictions, maybe most basically my belief in God, shape how I think about the conflict in Ukraine? Certainly, one conviction that matters is that evil in the world, while real, is not absolute, that only God is absolute. And God is love.

One of the important challenges for moral people, it seems to me, is that we seek in life to resist evil in ways that do not add to the evil. I think this idea applies on all levels—interpersonal, communal, political. The dynamic of resisting evil while actually adding to the evil points to why our species remains subject to the curse of wars leading to more wars leading to more wars and on and on.

My deep suspicions of the US involvement in the conflict in Ukraine stem, in part, from my belief in the devasting cycle of the use of evil means to seek to achieve the seemingly good end of defeating evildoers. I don’t believe that the US militarized intervention we see going on right now will in the long run benefit the Ukrainian people, or anyone else for that matter except war profiteers and others who benefit from preparing for and fighting wars.

I have read a few insightful political philosophers (mainly people influenced by Hannah Arendt) who have suggested that since World War II, it has become commonplace to say that the only absolute we have left is the reality of “absolute evil.” In practice, this means a belief in “absolute evil” as something that must be resisted with whatever means necessary—and is a belief that has led to justifying a great deal more evil and a continued cycle of injustice and violence.

Such belief has also led to the assertion that it’s foolish to try to “understand” the evil enemy, such an enemy cannot be negotiated with, the only thing such people understand is brute force—so we, the “good guys” are justified to use brute force against the “bad guys” and need not waste our time in negotiations and finding common ground and compromises.

Ironically, such an affirmation of this type of “absolute” tends to contribute to a profound moral *relativism* that underwrites giving in effect a blank check to the “good guys” one affiliates with. The dynamics of evil often include a “fog” that ultimately escalates the spiral of violence and other evils, even by sincere attempts to make things better.

These ideas make me deeply suspicious of the talk among those horrified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine about how fundamentally evil Putin is—talk that seems to be closely linked with a blank check attitude about the militarized US involvement in the situation (even among people normally quite critical of American militarism). The thing is, it does seem clear that under Putin’s leadership, Russia has initiated some destructively evil actions. Criticizing the American side of this conflict need not involve any support for Russia nor minimize criticism of and opposition toward all of those actions (though it seems important to base such criticism on credible evidence and not simply accept the war propaganda from one side of the conflict). The dynamics of using evil means against evil actions means that the very elements that make Russian actions evil (i.e., death-dealing violence) will likely only be *perpetuated* by the US intervention.

Again, the challenge is how to oppose the evils without adding to the evils. Sometimes both sides are acting in fundamentally evil ways and both should be opposed. As a citizen of the US, I think I have the most responsibility to be critical of what my own country is doing. That is, one should have deep suspicion and even vocal criticism toward one’s own country when it is involved in death-dealing violence as we supposedly have at least a small voice in what our own country does. The worst kind of response is an uncritical loyalty (“my country, right or wrong”).

I believe that Christian morality (when it is centered on Jesus) actually can help us avoid absolutizing evil without becoming relativists who deny the reality of evil or “realists” who affirm the use of evil means to fight against evil as the way the “real” world works. I believe that evil is real, but it is not absolute. The only absolute is God—and God is love. Resisting evil with good is possible; it is the only way actually to break the cycle of violence.

More Pacifism Today blog posts

9 thoughts on “Reflecting morally about the conflict in Ukraine [Pacifism Today #6]

  1. The war in Ukraine is making some Christians who previously professed peaceable inclinations question their own commitment to non-violence.

    For example: “Whilst I personally abhor violence, one state invading another and killing its civilians is barbarism and it needs pushing back against. If you kick a hornet’s nest, expect to be stung. This is the closest thing to a Just War I have seen in my lifetime. I honestly hope the Ukrainians successfully push the Russians back out. Yes, every death on both sides is a tragedy, but God catches each person and all will be well. But for now, this war is a necessary seeking of justice and the re-establishment of peace.

    That said, I hope for non-violent followers of Jesus to be making peace in the midst of the carnage.”

    (Posted by a friend in a private Facebook Group.)

    It’s a hard question to answer. I gave an answer of sorts, but I’m not sure how convincing it was. But then, if the degree to which an answer is convincing is measured by human logic, which is marinated in dualism and violence, perhaps it needn’t be convincing at all.

    Any thoughts, Ted?

    1. Hey, Rob. I agree about the difficulty in winning an argument such as this. I would tend to think that when a Christian does not share Jesus’s suspicion of the power elite and demand that the bases for a justifiable war be set very high, then there isn’t much can be said to them that would be persuasive. It is remarkable (and deeply discouraging) how easily people accept the NATO/Ukrainian line on this war.

      This has happened over and over again, the American Empire, backed by the corporate media, cries out against some profound injustice (e.g., the first Iraq war, Kosovo, Afghanistan) and insists that a military response is necessary—and even quite peace-oriented people have crises of conviction regarding nonviolence. Then, it turns out that the “injustice” was much less obvious (perhaps even fabricated)—and the military intervention causes much devastation and often actually makes things worse.

      For me, the commitment to pacifism makes me deeply suspicious of the claims of all would-be war-makers. Every time so far they have proved, in time, to have little truth on their side. I think it is a terrible misperception to imagine that fueling the war in Ukraine as the NATO countries are doing with their weapons, sanctions, et al, is going to move things toward justice and peace.

      1. You’re right, it is a bit disheartening. Try to even hint that there’s more to the current situation than “Putin is evil” and you’ll likely very quickly be slammed as a Putin apologist or worse.

        And, of course, such debates usually devolve into hypotheticals like “If a Russian soldier was about to kill your children and you had the means to present this by killing the soldier, what would you do?” It’s really an unwinnable argument.

      2. As a conscientious objector in the military who refused orders to Vietnam, questions like that were posed to me many times by military authorities. My answers were generally as follows: “Please don’t ask me to answer hypothetical questions when we have a reality to deal with. You have a war. You want me to fight in it. I can’t do that. My conscience can’t allow it.”

  2. We should note that in the months leading up to the Russian invasion, Putin repeatedly called on NATO to negotiate on its security needs, focusing on not having more countries bordering it in NATO. The response from the U.S. and NATO was that this was nonnegotiable. It seems to me that the Russian request was a reasonable one. We can never know what Russia would have done had NATO agreed not to accept Ukraine as a member, but that would certainly have undercut Russia’s rationale for launching the war. There is certainly at least a reasonable chance that the invasion would not have happened. I’m sure Russia would have continued to provide military support to the self-proclaimed republics within the internationally agreed upon borders of Ukraine and may have increased that involvement over time, but there seems a likelihood that they would not have engaged in the kind of broadscale attack on Ukraine that they did (and perhaps now regret). Peace forces have properly, in my view, tied together opposition to Putin’s aggressive behavior and the behavior of NATO, which has been quite provocative towards Russia.

    We should also oppose broadscale sanctions against Russia that are likely to hurt the ordinary people of Russia, already the victims of an authoritarian regime, more than the authoritarian elite.

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