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Pacifism Kills

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Jason Jones and John Zmirak - published on 05/26/14


The less obvious and more important part of the answer can be found in Elizabeth Anscombe. In her classic essay, “War and Murder,” Anscombe demolished both the biblical and the philosophical case for pacifism. But more importantly for our purposes, she points out how it enables and advances the cause of total war. As she wrote:

Now pacifism teaches people to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any human blood. And in this way pacifism has corrupted enormous numbers of people who will not act according to its tenets. They become convinced that a number of things are wicked which are not; hence seeing no way of avoiding wickedness, they set no limits to it. How endlessly pacifists argue that all war must be
a outrance! that those who wage war must go as far as technological advance permits in the destruction of the enemy’s people.  As if the Napoleonic wars were perforce fuller of massacres than the French war of Henry V of England. It is not true: the reverse took place. Nor is technological advance particularly relevant; it is mere squeamishness that deters people who would consent to area bombing from the enormous massacres by hand that used once to be committed….

Pacifism and the respect for pacifism is not the only thing that has led to a universal forgetfulness of the law against killing the innocent; but it has had a share in it.


Pacifism presents people with a choice between absolute, utter ruthlessness, and passivity and surrender. With no third (or fourth, or tenth) alternative, healthy people who are not Gnostics or moral poseurs will pick ruthlessness every time. But this is an utterly false choice, one that emerges because our morality has been blunted and dulled by our bad metaphysics—another legacy of Subhumanism.

In To End All Wars, the gifted writer and moralist Adam Hochschild presents a vivid and deeply humane portrait of a small band of principled people who spoke out in England against the First World War. It’s impossible not to admire these men and women who braved contempt and ostracism, penury and prison, to oppose that useless and futile slaughter. Apart from moral uplift, however, another thing you must take away from the book is the sense that their efforts were also futile. And you are led to wonder why. With Anscombe’s remarks in mind, the answer emerges: Instead of making a principled case that this war was needless and wasteful, and offering reasons that drew on the shared, Christian/liberal consensus, these activists urged against the war on grounds of absolute pacifism. In some cases they also invoked socialism—arguing that the working class of every nation ought to unite against their rulers, not fight among themselves. Grounded as their actions were on two false (and more important, unpersuasive) premises, it is no surprise that their slogans were easily drowned out by patriotism that was morphing into jingoism and bloodlust.

What might have been more effective was a concerted effort by Christians and conservatives on both sides of the conflict to argue that this war was neither just nor necessary. A few such voices emerged, but too few to matter. Pope Benedict XV made just such arguments, but he was ignored. The troops on both sides who forged a spontaneous “Christmas truce” in 1914 were acting in the same spirit. They were threatened with punishment for “mutiny” by military leaders who still imagined that a quick victory was possible. The newly crowned Austro-Hungarian ruler Karl I attempted in 1917 to broker a peace without annexation, even as his German allies schemed to infect Russia with the plague bacillus of Bolshevism. But by that point the combatant nations were too far gone—they had sunk too much wealth and too many lives to settle for anything less than triumph. The very type of men who should have been fighting for a negotiated peace had gotten caught up in the frenzy: G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc on the one side and Thomas Mann on the other each proclaimed this war a “crusade” for civilization. The poet Charles Péguy had joined the army and died in one of its first battles. The American Catholic bishops, eager to prove their patriotism, flouted the Vatican’s call for peace and urged their congregants to enlist. And so on. The complicity of Christians in furthering this war of unprecedented destruction and futility did more to discredit the churches in the long run than any atheist tract ever published. As Hochschild reported:

Ferocity about the war could be heard everywhere. “Kill Germans! Kill them!” raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon. “…Not for the sake of killing, but to save the world…. Kill the good as well as the bad…. Kill the young men as well as the old…. Kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant [a story then circulating]…. I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.” The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican bishop of London.

Jason Jones and John Zmirak are co-authors of the forthcomingThe Race to Save Our Century,which will be released July 28, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

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