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Many people who rue the venality, irrationality, and inhumanity behind war, and the killing, suffering, and injustice it inevitably produces, nevertheless pull their punches in backing a universal prohibition of all war--including "defensive" war. The reason they give can be summed up in just three words: "What about Hitler?"
In assigned online classroom reading excerpted from his published writing, World Beyond War Director David Swanson offered three rebuttals to the notion that Hitler's madness demonstrates why war must always be reserved as a last resort for combating aggression. In short, he argues the following:
First, as far as the U.S. is concerned, it is extremely unlikely that the country would ever have been subject to Nazi occupation. As for the people of Europe, a compelling case can be made that, even in the face of Nazi aggression, they would have been better off if the U.S. had engaged in serious diplomacy with the Nazis, or invested in non-violent resistance to them, rather than intervening militarily. In doing so, we extended the war, leading to increased targeting of civilians and greatly expanded death and destruction.
Second, in failing to build on many successful instances of indigenous nonviolent actions against the Nazis, the U.S. lost a chance to seriously challenge their hold on occupied countries. We now know from many historical examples that non-violent resistance is more effective than violent resistance in countering both injustice and occupation.
And, third, if the sociopathic Nazi campaign against the Jews can be said to justify a war that took 70 million lives and reduced untold millions more to abject misery, the U.S. and Britain are themselves culpable in failing even to pursue such opportunities as were open to them to safely repatriate millions of Jews.
War Is Immoral at Its Roots
These three rebuttals to the "What about Hitler?" objection to outlawing war are consistent with my own view that no country that fights a war can claim it had no other choice. It can always choose not to do so, and seek first to negotiate the best possible terms to prevent impending aggression, or, if necessary, combat enemy occupation by peaceful resistance. No matter how great the compromise required, such a course will always be less bad, when weighed against the killing, suffering, social chaos, and moral degradation resulting from war, than any conceivable benefits to be gained by winning the war.
To my mind, war is immoral at its roots, because it violates the very principle of what it means to be a human being. Though the outcomes of war may have a transitory effect on human history, war itself is in fact not a progressive, but a reactionary, force, serving mainly to reinforce a human mindset that famed psychologist Abraham Maslow called "the psychopathology of the average." A principal manifestation of that pathology is the absence of empathy--an inability to see the world from the other guy's point of view or to walk a mile in his moccasins.
This defect is a concern of every major belief system on earth--and often, too, of secular individuals seized by spiritual insight. Yet, the absence of empathy is essential to war. It enables its political and military organizers to pursue greater personal and national power, while paying no heed either to the cause that drives their adversary, or to the death, misery and degradation they will inflict on fellow humans. At the same time, a drumbeat of supportive propaganda inherent in the culture of aggressor nations gives sanction to this betrayal of humanity and reason, further normalizing the psychopathology it represents.
If mankind is to achieve a positive outcome of its evolutionary development--which is now mainly cultural, not biological--it will have to arrest and reverse this pathology. The immediate reason to do so is of course self-preservation. Unless we learn to convert conflicts with adversaries into negotiated settlements that respect both sides' needs, it seems likely that at some point one antagonist or another will resort to nuclear or other mass violence that risks annihilation of the race.
Yet, eliminating the scourge of war can serve an even more significant end. For self-aware human beings, a life without war that remains beset by the psychopathologies of egoism, constant antagonisms, and a lack of meaning and purpose is in my view little better than no life at all. Seen from that perspective, a legally-binding universal agreement to abolish war would function most importantly as the sign of a moral turning point in human history. It would signal to all of humanity that respect and empathy for others, and a willingness to reconcile their needs with one's own, constitute the soundest basis in any situation for resolving differences and achieving constructive collaboration. If an approach to other people based on that mindset were in fact widely adopted, it would herald a new normal in human behavior that could enrich the human experience we have accepted as normal with yet undreamed-of levels of creativity, meaning, and joy.
Implications for International Relations
The abolition of war constitutes perhaps the greatest and most difficult challenge mankind has ever faced, and achieving and maintaining it will require effective implementation of every strategy spelled out in the annually updated plan developed by World Beyond War for a Global Security System.
If abolition can be achieved, however, it will not only save the human species from the perpetuation of mass killing, widespread suffering, and possible destruction. For the first time in modern history, it would also open the door to a revolutionary change in international relations. This is especially so with respect to relations between militarily strong countries and weaker nations with contrasting cultural values and social systems.
As the U.S. government has amply demonstrated in its attitudes and policies toward North Korea and Iran, such nations and its leaders can be easily demonized and then misrepresented as implacable aggressors that must be controlled by crippling economic sanctions and military threats. A similar perspective characterizes American policy for combating international terrorism. Although terrorism continues to spread across the world, and our attacks on it have so far served only to increase its hostility and numerical strength, our strategy for combating it remains the highly ineffectual and unsubtle one of never-ending war. Common sense, however, suggests that a more humane course, based on seeing the world from the perspective of the other guy's experience, might be a great deal more successful. From that starting point, it would be apparent that ideologically-based terrorism can only be effectively countered by investments in global economic development that make opportunities for self-development and constructive employment more appealing to young men seeking a place in society than fantasies about martyrdom and death.
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