The ethics of war and peace is a topic requiring great mental and moral dexterity and in-depth analysis. Issues arising over concerns about justice, peace and conflict are complex and multi-levelled. I cannot here go into much detail, but only provide a few thoughts on a few aspects of the debate.
I wish to do so in the context of the recent armed conflict in Gaza. Defenders of Israel and its right to exist argue that justice can indeed be achieved by military means. Critics of Israel and certain leftists tend to say military solutions never accomplish anything, and negotiations and compromise are the only way to achieve peace and security.
Of course war is always messy, and often both sides can be at fault to a certain extent. But it seems to me that the current fighting in Gaza demonstrates a situation much more akin to the Second World War than to other more morally ambiguous conflicts. That is, just as there was a clear aggressor in the WWII, so too here I believe we have a clear aggressor, namely, those enemies of Israel which refuse to even acknowledge its presence in the Middle East, or its right to exist.
It was wrong to evoke a moral equivalence during the last Great War, and claims that the Allies were no better than the Nazis are simply morally and intellectually vacuous. And it seems the same applies in the Middle East today. Israel is the only democracy in the region. It allows critics within its own lands. And it is careful in warfare, seeking to minimise civilian casualties.
None of this is true of the surrounding nations, or of the militant groups so close at hand, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. These are usually one-party states and totalitarian militia groups. Criticism is quickly and harshly dealt with. And civilian casualties are in fact sought. Thus there is no moral equivalence here.
But the mainstream media in particular, and the political left in general, continue to confuse the issues and engage in muddled moralising. Thomas Sowell picks up these themes in a recent column. Says Sowell, “No phrase represents more of a triumph of hope over experience than the phrase ‘Middle East peace process.’ A close second might be the once-fashionable notion that Israel should ‘trade land for peace’.”
He continues, “Since everybody seems to be criticizing Israel for its military response to the rockets being fired into their country from the Gaza strip, let me add my criticisms as well. The Israelis traded land for peace, but they have never gotten the peace, so they should take back the land.”
Critics will say that the Palestinians voted Hamas into power. But as Sowell reminds us, what were the alternatives? “Why don’t the Palestinians vote for some representatives who would make a lasting peace with Israel? Because any such candidates would be killed by the terrorists long before election day, so nobody volunteers for that dangerous role.”
And what does diplomacy achieve in such situations? “Nothing is easier than for people living in peace and safety in Paris or Rome to call for a ‘cease fire’ after the Israelis retaliate against people who are firing rockets into their country. The time to cease fire was before the rockets were fired.”
“What do calls for ‘cease fire’ and ‘negotiations’ do? They lower the price of launching attacks. This is true not only in the Middle East but in other parts of the world as well. During the Vietnam war, when American clergymen were crying out ‘Stop the bombing!’ they paid little attention to the fact that bombing pauses made it easier for North Vietnam to move more ammunition into South Vietnam to kill both South Vietnamese and Americans.”
It is easy for those not faced with immediate aggression to denounce war and the use of force: “Today, so-called ‘world opinion’ not only limits the price to be paid for aggression or terrorism, it has even led to the self-indulgence of third parties talking pretty talk about limiting the response of those who are attacked to what is ‘proportionate.’ By this reasoning, we should not have declared war on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor. We should have gone over to Japan, bombed one of their harbors – and let it go at that. Does anyone imagine that this would have led to Japan’s becoming as peaceful today as it has become after Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”
He concludes: “Or is the real agenda to engage in moral preening from a safe distance and at somebody else’s expense? Those who think ‘negotiations’ are a magic answer seem not to understand that when A wants to annihilate B, this is not an ‘issue’ that can be resolved amicably around a conference table.”
Pacifism and justice
Western leftists have not only condemned Israel’s right to defend itself. They have a tradition of criticising any government for using force, even in a conflict such as WWII. These pacifists have often been churchmen who have sought to argue that Christians can never use force, either in protecting themselves or in maintaining justice in a fallen world.
Numerous leftist churchmen denounced American involvement in the Second World War for example. But other more sensible Christian thinkers argued against pacifism. Two notable examples were C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. Both men were Christian realists who recognised that tyranny left unchecked would result in great injustice. Both recognised that sometimes a just war was needed to prevent an unjust peace (tyranny).
Both men penned influential essays during this period, arguing that pacifism was not going to adequately deal with the Nazi subjugation of Europe. In 1941 C.S. Lewis gave a talk to a group of pacifists entitled, “Why I am Not a Pacifist”. It appeared in later editions of The Weight of Glory. In it he argued that there are some things worse than war:
“The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or even a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil.”
He reminded us that only liberal democracies can allow pacifists to make their case. The enemies of democracy of course do not tolerate peaceniks. “Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifism.” And if the society has enough pacifists, “then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbour who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no Pacifists.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, who had earlier embraced socialism and pacifism, was shaken of the illusion of non-resistance as the world learned about the horrors of what Hitler and the Nazis were up to. In 1939 he penned an article “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” which appeared the following year in a collection of articles, Christianity and Power Politics.
He argued that those who would not fight against the tyranny of Hitler’s armies were in fact assisting in his triumph. He rejected the religious leaders who argued that pacifism was the Gospel ideal: “This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total gospel. It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence. There are no historical realities which remotely conform to it.”
He warned that justice was as important as the absence of hostilities, and a moral, just society was a vital Christian concern. He said that pacifism in fact leads Christians into a withdrawal from the world and the claims of justice: “an ethic of pure non-resistance can have no immediate relevance to any political situation” whatsoever.
As he said elsewhere, the hope of achieving a just and moral society without any form of coercion was “an illusion which was spread chiefly among the comfortable classes of the past century”. He knew that guns and tanks, not pacifism, would bring peace and justice to Europe, and liberate the prisoners of the concentration camps.
In the same way – even as Israeli tanks are now withdrawing from Gaza – real peace and justice may sometimes only become feasible by means of force. Negotiations and diplomacy are always preferred. But when real enemies exist, who refuse to negotiate, and only seem to respect force, then sometimes military power is necessary, and even the moral thing to do.