2.16.2013

and one great read from harper's: nicholson baker on "why i'm a pacifist: the dangerous myth of the good war"

After finally getting Jill Lepore's "Lie Factory" posted on this blog, I will go back even further, to something I've wanted to post for nearly two years. No matter the date, this piece is timeless, and more relevant with every passing day.

This lengthy essay by Nicholson Baker ran in Harper's in May of 2011: "Why I’m a pacifist: The dangerous myth of the Good War". It's available by pdf download with a Harper's subscription, or (I hope) at your local library, or from me by request. (Artwork from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, PA.)

Baker charts his evolution from moderately antiwar to complete pacifist, in part from learning about the "surprisingly vocal group of World War II pacifists".
They weren’t, all of them, against personal or familial self-defense, or against law enforcement. But they did hold that war was, in the words of the British pacifist and parliamentarian Arthur Ponsonby, “a monster born of hypocrisy, fed on falsehood, fattened on humbug, kept alive by superstition, directed to the death and torture of millions, succeeding in no high purpose, degrading to humanity, endangering civilization and bringing forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife, conflict and war, more war.”

Along with Kaufman and Ponsonby — and thousands of conscientious objectors who spent time in jail, in rural work camps, in hospitals, or in controlled starvation studies — the ranks of wartime pacifists included Vera Brittain, Rabbi Abraham Cronbach, Dorothy Day, and Jessie Wallace Hughan.

I admire these people. They believed in acts of mercy rather than in fist-shaking vows of retribution. They kept their minds on who was actually in trouble. They suffered, some in
small ways, some in large, for what they did and said. They were, I think, beautiful examples of what it means to be human. I don’t expect you to agree, necessarily, that they were right in their principled opposition to that enormous war — the war that Hitler began —but I do think you will want to take their position seriously, and see for yourself whether there was some wisdom in it.

. . . . But I still think the pacifists of World War II were right. In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren’t na├»ve, they weren’t unrealistic — they were psychologically acute realists.
Baker studied the pacifist movement at the time of World War II, and came to this conclusion, quoting from an afterward to one of his own books.
"They tried to save Jewish refugees,” I wrote, “feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."
Baker then argues that the United States' entry into WWII escalated the Holocaust, as the Jewish population of Europe became expendable, no longer valuable as hostages. He argues - using historical facts rather than propaganda - that only an end to the war in Europe could have saved the European Jews.

Now, I don't know enough about history to either support or refute this argument, but I will tell you this: the soundness of Baker's case may surprise you.

And I know this: I am sick to death of Hitler and WWII being used to justify the slaughter of innocent people all over the globe in resource wars and for corporate profits.

I also know this: World War II was not a "good war". It was a war. Hideous excesses and atrocities were committed by both Allied and Axis forces. Accepted wisdom says World War II was necessary, but accepted wisdom is chock full of falsehoods that crumble upon close examination. Perhaps this is one of them.

The article is fascinating and eye-opening. Harper's printed many letters refuting Baker's view, but none of them made as much sense to me as Baker's. He concludes with this.
If we don’t take seriously pacifists like Cronbach, Hughan, Kaufman, Day, and Brittain — these people who thought as earnestly about wars and their consequences as did politicians or generals or think-tankers — we’ll be forever suspended in a kind of immobilizing sticky goo of euphemism and self-deception. We’ll talk about intervention and preemption and no-fly zones, and we’ll steer drones around distant countries on murder sorties. We’ll arm the world with weaponry, and every so often we’ll feel justified in taxiing out a few of our stealth airplanes from their air-conditioned hangars and dropping some expensive bombs. Iran? Pakistan? North Korea? What if we “crater the airports,” as Senator Kerry suggested, to slow down Qaddafi? As I write, the United States has begun a new war against Libya, dropping more things on people’s heads in the name of humanitarian intervention.

When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, “as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just.” That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.
If you would like a copy of this illuminating essay, please email me.

4 comments:

johngoldfine said...

It's hard to imagine a rational cost/benefit calculation ("War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse.") having much effect on our brain's delight in aggression in all its manifestations, small and large scale (as long as those manifestations don't rain on us.) We just aren't that reasonable.

Do you know this story by Tolstoy?--in a few hundred words he makes the emotional argument against violence better than anyone else ever has.

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2903/

laura k said...

I believe the people who make war today are acting rationally, in their own interests. I don't see wars being planned and waged because of a human propensity for aggression. That may be how people are enticed or induced to fight in wars, at least in part, but soldiers are not the war makers.

I'm not saying there is none of that at play, but I think we have long since past the time when human aggression is a primary cause of war, if it ever was.

I will check out the Tolstoy, thanks. I'm sure I won't know it, I have read very little Russian lit, and never read short stories.

laura k said...

Also, as always: I don't believe Baker wrote this to be prophetic. That is certainly not why I posted it.

laura k said...

johngoldfine, thanks for the link! I read and enjoyed the Tolstoy.

****

Several Facebook friends have taken me up on my offer to send a pdf of this essay. One of them, a peace activist and a teacher, said it directed her to several new sources that she plans to research. So I'm extra glad I finally posted it!