Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2022

With a breathtaking rapidity, the United States in the last couple of months has moved decisively in a militaristic direction. As historian Andrew Bacevich recently wrote, many American leaders “welcome the Ukraine War as the medium that will reignite an American commitment to the sort of assertive and muscular approach to global policy favored in militaristic quarters…. Putin … has handed the United States ‘a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition’—with not only Russia but also China meant to be in our crosshairs.”

The delight of these militarist leaders and the arms dealers who also are profiting so greatly from the new conflict should give people who actually care about peace on earth pause before believing the spin our government and corporate media are giving things right now. We will almost certainly face a continued ratcheting up of militaristic dynamics in our society for the foreseeable future. The warism of our culture has always been bubbling just below the surface even as other crises have demanded attention. For it to move front and center hopefully will clarify that militarism is the problem that must be resolved if we are to make progress in overcoming the climate crisis, the curse of white supremacy, the violence of our policing and mass incarceration regimes, environmental collapse, the functioning of our democracy, and many others.

Effective opposition to the warism seems far from possible at this moment, though. The one single issue that seems to unite Democrats and Republicans is expansion of our war-making capabilities. The apparent impossibility of opposition does not diminish what may be a fact—we turn from warism as a society, or we all go down.  

In face of all this, the witness of pacifism seems more relevant than ever. When there is such uncritical support for pouring weapons of war into Ukraine, Germany greatly expanding its military spending, and the dynamics of confrontation rather than reconciliation with Russia and China, it seems pacifists are some of the few who voice opposition. One hope we might have is that with our nation’s warism so front and center, more people will question whether we actually do want our nation to be so committed to military “solutions” after all. Maybe this will lead to more interest in pacifism.

Thinking about pacifism

For my purposes in this essay, I will use a quite simple definition of pacifism. What I have in mind is the very basic conviction that war is never acceptable. War is something that a pacifist can never participate in or support. A term that has commonly been used of pacifists during time of war is “conscientious objector.” This has been a legal category for pacifists who have been subject to the draft and are given options to perform alternative service. In the past 50 years since the US ended the draft, legal COs have been the few soldiers who after joining the military have become pacifists and sought to leave with honorable discharges. I would like to use the term conscientious objector here in a broader sense of all who object to war to the degree that they will not participate in or support it.

I have studied perhaps the most extensive and broad-based phenomenon of legal conscientious objection in American history, the refusal by around 18,000 draftees to enter the US military during World War II. To consider the COs during that war might help us think about the broader theme of pacifism and conscientious objection in our current context.

Even if most of the World War II COs gained legal permission to perform non-military alternative service, they still were saying “no” to the state in its demand for war participation. The state did not want to have COs during time of war and in fact went to some lengths to keep those performing alternative service out of sight and mind and put onerous requirements on the COs in hopes of getting as many as possible to decide in the end to join the military. And, of course, the ca. 6,000 who went to prison as draft resisters gave an even more emphatic “no.” So, at its heart, a pacifist commitment involves saying “no” to the state during time of war.

One way to characterize this “no” is to understand it as a refusal to give the state a “blank check” of loyalty and obedience. Certainly, many of the COs did not see themselves as radicals and emphasized that they were obeying the law in performing alternative service. Yet, they were saying “no” to the fundamental demand the state made of its citizens—they did not allow the state to force them to violate their core convictions. And it seems clear that the main reason the state agreed to this arrangement was the awareness that these COs would break the draft laws if they were not given an alternative.

Whatever else we might want to say about pacifism (or whatever term we might want to use of the principled refusal to do violence), during times of war it involves saying “no” to the state. I want to suggest that during times of “warism” such as our present moment, pacifism also involves saying “no” to the state.

Various motives for refusal

It is instructive to look at various motives that pacifists in the past have had to say “no” in this way. I will draw on my World War II research in sketching a list of different motives. I do not see these as mutually exclusive; surely many COs combined various motives.

  • Giving a higher loyalty to one’s faith community. I believe that this was the most common motive among World War II COs. Two small groups provided about half of those who, upon being drafted, said “no” to military participation—about 4,000 each. Mennonites were happy to cooperate with the government and performed alternative service. Jehovah’s Witnesses were not able to get the government to accept their claims for exemption from military service and thus went to prison. In both cases, the young men from these communities were more committed to following the expectations of their churches than of the state.
  • Obey God rather than humans. Most of the World War II COs presented themselves as Christians. When they gave reasons for saying “no” to war, they generally would talk about the teaching of Jesus to love neighbors and enemies. And they would suggest that those teachings had ultimate authority for them. This rationale could be expressed in more general terms, too. It could be God’s command in the Bible not to kill, or it could be a broader sense that God is a God of love and calls on believers to love others—and that this is a more important directive than whatever human governmental leaders asked of one.
  • An unyielding commitment to the preciousness of life. Certainly, for many COs, the extremely high value they placed on human life came from their beliefs about God valuing human life. Others, though, would think more in terms of the inherent value of life in itself, perhaps stemming from religious faith but also stemming from a more humanist perspective. One reason for rejecting war was simply the observation that, by definition, war involves an extreme devaluation of life.
  • A rejection of the “divine” claims of nation-states. This motive could stem simply from a revulsion toward the “blank check” aspirations of states. States tend to place themselves as the recipients of ultimate loyalty—certainly, in the case of war, the loyalty that would make a person willing to kill. Some would argue that only God should be seen as the giver and taker of life, not human beings—we human beings, including human states, simply do not have the moral authority to kill other human beings.
  • A commitment to human amity. This view involves a strong sense that in order to thrive, even ultimately simply to survive, human beings must learn to get along with each other. We must learn to resolve our conflicts in non-destructive ways. We also must value our diversity and seek for cooperation and mutual respect among the peoples of the earth. War renders such a task impossible.
  • Recognition of the folly of war. It may have been possible for people in, say, 1910, to have a benign disposition toward war since the scattered wars of the previous generation had been relatively restrained. However, after World War I, humanity knew all too well how destructive war is and how ineffectual it is in actually resolving conflicts. That war, devastating beyond what anyone could have imagined ahead of time, did not “end war” or “make the world safe for democracy,” it only made things worse—the ultimate folly. Then, of course, World War II and various wars since have had the same effect with the added dimension that World War II proved to be the catalyst for nuclear weapons, the true Endgame.

It is a testimony to the power of the “blank check” mentality, where so many people turn over their moral discernment concerning war and the preparation for war to the states where they reside, that these six motives (and we surely could think of others) don’t have more power. The blank check continues unabated, it seems. The past reality that some few people have said “no,” though, may remind us that the blank check mentality is not all powerful. Let us hope that our current warist moment might over time bring clarity to more people about how necessary it is to turn from the abyss.

More blog posts on Pacifism Today

A “love letter” from Caitlin Johnstone to Ukrainian conscientious objectors

Ted Grimsrud’s dissertation on World War II conscientious objection

One thought on “Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]

  1. Thank you for outlining who becomes a pacifist and why. It occurs to me, however, that by the time a person must choose to be a conscientious objector to war, it is too late for peace. What the world needs is an active anti-war strategy. And we have examples from history. Prior to World War 1, a movement led by Jean Jaures, the French anti-militarist, almost succeeded in turning the world toward peace. And Martin Luther King, Jr’s believed that non-violent resistance, what he called “love”, had to be strong and organized, powerful in direct action. Like these two leaders, pacifists must be pro-active rather than reactive. I would prefer a strong and powerful United Nations rather than a unified NATO. However, all is not necessarily lost with NATO. Heather Cox Richardson’s commented in her blog yesterday that “[a] study out today from political scientists Ryan Grauer and Dominic Tierney reveals why democracies have an advantage over authoritarians in war. The sharing of power across officials in the legislature, judiciary, and executive branches means there is more open debate, reducing the chance of unpopular wars and, by extension, bad decisions.”

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