Of course war is horrible. People say that war is to be avoided at all costs and it should always be a last resort. All other options must be completely exhausted before a country should consider sending troops (people) to fight and kill. War as an absolute last resort seems to make perfect sense.
Unfortunately, the idea of ‘war as a last resort’ assumes that there are two reasonable groups or countries who can resolve differences. It assumes that all differences can be ironed out with compromise. Sometimes, however, evil exists in the world and to compromise with evil is to lend it legitimacy.
Let’s look at this on a personal level. You witness a woman being mugged and beaten. What is the proper course of action? Maybe a good idea is to walk over to the mugger and say, “This mugging and beating thing is wrong. I don’t know how much money you hope to gain with this mugging but I’ll give you a twenty. Then we can all walk away satisfied.”
Or, if you are Barack Obama and you witness a mugging, you may say something such as “Hold on there young man, I know there have been differences between people who mug and those that don’t. We need to work together. Partnership and cooperation among all people is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity. I understand your frustration. In the past, people who haven’t broken laws or mugged someone have acted arrogantly and sometimes unilaterally, without consideration for those that have the need to mug others. And sometimes it is our very arrogance that has caused people to become muggers in the first place.”
In reality, when a mugging takes place, the witness to the scene has a responsibility. Perhaps you do nothing -- someone else is getting mugged and that’s not your business. Many cities have ‘good Samaritan laws’ which speak to the morality of doing nothing while a crime is being committed. You are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the same way that the person getting mugged is in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, you saw the crime and you now have a responsibility that you can’t escape from.
When countries commit crimes, the choices are no different than when a crime is being committed by an individual. While the choices are the same, the consequences of doing nothing are far more severe. The ultimate example is Nazi Germany and WWII. Suppose in 1939, the world community, knowing what Hitler was up to, had acted preemptively. Let us say that the moment the world saw Hitler’s designs on Poland, it attacked Germany. Let us also assume that the act of attacking Hitler’s Germany resulted in a war in which one million people died. Yet Hitler’s designs on world domination were stopped. It prevented the Holocaust from happening and it prevented a war where over 65 million people died.
No one would have known about WWII or the Holocaust because the preventative action would have stopped it. In such a situation, there would have been intense criticism on those who initiated a war where over one million people died. At the time, Hitler was looked at as a crazy Charlie Chaplain look-a-like. A million people dead? -- For what???
In an episode of the original Star Trek series, Dr McCoy (Bones for you Trekkies!) went through a portal that took him back in time. Back in the late 1930s, he saved the life of a woman played by Joan Collins. She was about to be hit by a car and McCoy pushed her out of the way. The character played by Collins was a peace activist who ended up influencing US policy and delaying the US entry into WWII. As a result, Germany won the war and all history changed. In the end, the Star Trek crew had to set history right by going back in time and stopping McCoy from saving the life of the peace activist played by Collins. In a moving scene at the end, Captain Kirk holds back McCoy as he is about to save the life of the Collins character. McCoy says, “Do you know what you have done? I could have saved her!!” To which Mr. Spock says “He knows, doctor, he knows.” Spock then adds, “She had the right idea, but at the wrong time.”
I bring this Star Trek episode up in all its excruciating detail because it demonstrates that the choice to initiate or retaliate in war has got to be looked at differently. No one ever gets to see the consequences of the “other choice”. When there is world conflict, the UN and individual countries always ask “How can we avoid a war”. This is the wrong question. Asking this question avoids reality and places world life and death situations into the realm of “wishful thinking”. The real question that needs to be asked isn’t how to avoid a war. It is “Based on what we know and can project, what are the consequences of going to war vs. the consequences of doing nothing?
People look at WWII as “the good war” because they know what happened. The reason that people know what happened is because we waited too dam long in the first place!! The so called and much maligned “Bush doctrine” was correct! This doctrine was based upon two truths of which reasonable and intellectually honest people cannot disagree. There are two imperatives in the doctrine. The first is that there IS evil in the world and that some countries fall under evil for a variety of reasons. When a country becomes a threat to its neighbors and its own citizens, the second imperative takes place and the world has to act to stop the threat – before innocent people suffer, not after!
The so called “Bush doctrine” was not too different from the original UN charter. The UN was set up to stop aggressive immoral behavior in order to PREVENT the kind of atrocities that took place in World War II. To stop aggression, it’s usually a good idea to make a distinction between the aggressors and the victims of aggression. Unfortunately, the UN has become incapable of making this distinction, often putting both aggressor and victim on equal moral playing fields, sometimes even taking the side of the aggressor against the victim. The UN, by this inability to distinguish right from wrong, has not only been ineffective but has often made catastrophes worse.
Even those who have coined the oxymoronic term “passive resistance” have had to come to terms that it only works if the group you are resisting against has a conscience. Mahatma Ghandi was once asked what Jewish people should do at the time of the Holocaust. His answer, documented in an essay by George Orwell, “Reflections on Gandhi”, as well as by Louis Fischer's “Gandhi and Stalin”, is that the Jewish people should have committed mass suicide in order to bring attention to their plight and to the evils of Nazi Germany. Gandhi is considered almost saintly because of his absolute renunciation of violence. But would his methods have stopped violence or caused more violence? His methods worked against the British because the British had a conscience. Again, here is the recognition of good and evil that the UN and pacifists in general, like to make believe doesn’t exist. Yet Gandhi, as displayed by his answer, clearly WAS aware of this distinction and held on to his philosophy of non violence knowing that it would not work and would lead to the extermination of a race of people.
Many people say that patriotism and religion can be blind. Pacifism can be as blind a faith as any. Shrouded in the certainty that peace is the way, no matter what the consequences, and so certain of the moral correctness of their actions or inactions, they have put pressure on countries to tolerate and often excuse evil. Whether witnessing a mugging or watching as a rogue nation gains the knowledge to build nuclear weapons, doing nothing is never the right thing to do. People never want to be in a situation where they have to deal with such horrible choices but these choices are thrust upon us whether we want them or not. In dealing with them, we will make mistakes. We are obviously not infallible. The choices we make should be based on reality and the knowledge that sometimes the choice is between something bad, something else that is really bad, and something else that is catastrophic. When you have those three choices, making the bad choice is the right choice.