The Belief in Pacifism -- Almost

JUDITH LICHTENBERG

February 20, 1991|By JUDITH LICHTENBERG

COLLEGE PARK. — College Park --- Pacifism, defined as the belief that war is never justified, attracts few adherents. Most people can imagine circumstances under which it is morally right -- even morally obligatory -- to go to war. For half a century Hitler and World War II have provided the vivid test case that makes absolute pacifism seem far-fetched. The question for most of us is not whether war is ever justified but under what circumstances it is.

Yet the realities of war and politics make ''moderate pacifism'' -- the view that war is hardly ever justified -- compelling. At least three factors, all present in the Gulf War situation, should buttress our pacifist inclinations:

* The possibility of other, less destructive alternatives to achieving the just goals of a war;

* The likelihood of destruction out of proportion to the rightful benefits of war, and the near-inevitability of unforeseen, highly destructive consequences (for ourselves and for others) of the initial hostilities;

* The disparity between the just causes of a war and those animating the political leaders waging it, and the consequences of this split for the kind of war they wage and the extent of destruction they inflict.

These three factors elaborate on essential elements of traditional just-war theories -- the principles of last resort, proportion and right intention -- to which defenders of the war, including President George Bush, have paid lip service. But let's not get too comfortable. Contrary to the rhetoric, the just-war theory taken seriously justifies very few wars.

The principles of last resort, proportion and right intention play a crucial role in the doubts and uncertainities that many people have today about the gulf war, and they explain the rapid changes and development that one's thinking about the legitimacy of the war can undergo.

So, many people I know (myself included) who before January 16 strongly opposed going to war found themselves ambivalent if not positively supportive of the war in the first couple of weeks. They opposed the war initially not because they supported Saddam Hussein in any way whatsoever but because they believe that war was not yet a last resort and that sanctions had not been given enough time.

The change of heart arose not because these people found themselves getting high on the weapons or the violence, or on American know-how and can-do, but because, especially after Iraq's Scud attacks on Israel, they gauged the price of a short, ''clean'' war worth paying to rid the world of one who had so clearly demonstrated his dangerousness and his lack of the most basic civilizing constraints.

There is a lot of talk in the press these days about the American public's lack of stomach for a long war with lots of American casualties. This way of characteriizing the issue misleads in at least two ways.

First, it suggests that our stomach for war exists in isolation from the causes and purposes of the particular war at hand, implying that there is no cause Americans would deem worth fighting for if many lives would thereby be lost. I don't believe it.

And second, it suggests that the only thing that turns Americans off is the prospect of American casualties. But do Americans have an unlimited appetite for Iraqi death and destruction? Witnessing the unrelenting bombings of Iraq moves us, or should, to rethink the calculation that made the war seem bearable in the first days.

A short, ''clean'' war to get Iraq out of Kuwait, to reduce Iraq's offensive capability, or even to remove Saddam Hussein from power is one thing; a leveling of the country (with who knows, really, how many civilian casualties and how much hardship) is quite another. The prospect of the latter becomes more real every day.

This brings us to the question of the motives animating those waging war. Some will argue that even if there are just causes for this war, such as Mr. Hussein's invasion of Kuwait or the threat he poses to Israel and other countries, these are not the reasons the American government has seen fit to wage war. Instead, what our political leaders are really interested in is establishing or reasserting hegemony in the region. In support of this view these critics point out that we tolerate aggression of the sort Mr. Hussein has perpetrated when it suits us. Thus, they would say, even if there are just causes for this war, these are not what move our leaders. They are pretexts.

Now this may seem to raise question ''What if you do the right thing for the wrong reason?'' -- to which the answer is ''You won't get into heaven, but still you've done the right thing.'' But this is not the issue. We can (for practical purposes, anyway) ignore our government's motives for waging war as long as it does the right thing, but the crucial point is that it will be much less likely to do the right thing if its real motives and aims differ from its stated (and, let us suppose, just) motives and aims.

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