“I don't have a spiritual bone in my body,” said
the voice on the other end of the phone. “At least, not
that I'm aware of as such.” Author and journalist David
Rieff may not be religious, but he is making an interesting
career out of being deeply moral. Traveling and living for the
last decade in some of the most godforsaken war zones in the
world—including the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq, and
Afghanistan—Rieff's sharp eyes and brilliant pen are
experts at sorting through the immense complexities and moral
ambiguities of war and genocide, ethnic cleansing and ethnic
fighting, international intervention and international apathy.
And he is not afraid to take on sacred cows. His 2002 book,
A Bed for the Night, offered a carefully articulated
and quite devastating analysis of the moral and political
failings of humanitarian agencies like Oxfam and Doctors Without
Borders, even while recognizing their heroic efforts to help
people in desperate situations around the world.
“I don't like to write about a place unless I've put
my boots on the ground,” says Rieff. And he continues to
put his boots on the ground around the world, having spent much
of the last year writing for the New York Times from
Iraq and Israel. In fact, it was in Jerusalem that I reached
him, curious to find out what a veteran observer of the horrors
of war had come to understand about the morality of pacifism.
WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT: Are you a pacifist?
DAVID RIEFF: No. I'm not a person who thinks that
political ideals can be realized. There's a fundamental gap
between what we can imagine and what we can do.
Now, war is a terrible thing. And pacifists are probably the
only group of people in our world who really know that all the
time. A lot of people know it, but they only know it part of the
time, or they are seduced by war. People get off on war; that's
also part of the picture. In some ways, the pacifists are the
only people who see war from the perspective of the graveyard
and the burn unit. So one doesn't want to be condescending,
because on a very profound level, that is the place to
see war from.
But I think pacifism is an impractical doctrine in a world
of war. It's possible to struggle for a world that gives up war,
but I think it has to come first in regions and communities. In
other words, it's a hell of a lot easier to be a pacifist in
Western Europe than in Africa.
WIE: Why is that?
Rieff: Prosperity—the fact that war doesn't
seem to serve anybody's interest in Europe. Also, maybe
Europeans have actually learned something from history. That
would seem unlikely, but it's always possible. I do think the
burden of German history may have made a lot of Germans
pacifists. But I don't see how being a pacifist in the siege of
Sarajevo would have done the world much good, and that's coming
from someone who lived in Sarajevo for a lot of the war. You
would have been on your moral high horse, but what would it have
Also, it depends on whether all wars seem pointless to you.
All wars don't seem pointless to me. They all seem tragic and
horrible, but they don't all seem pointless. Pacifists finally
say that they all are, I think. The classic case for pacifists
is World War II.
WIE: That's the great dilemma for a pacifist.
Rieff: Right. Of course, being critical of
pacifism is not the same thing as saying war should be a first
recourse. A lot of us have been critical of the Bush
Administration in Iraq because we thought they went to war too
easily. But again, would an Iraqi have been best served by a
pacifist position toward Saddam Hussein?
I think we admire the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto who didn't
just go to their deaths passively but instead fought the Nazis.
I think that we believe they were noble people. The trouble with
the pacifist view is that there is no room for that feeling.
Those Jews who rose up in the Warsaw ghetto knew that they were
going to die, but they thought the right thing to do was to
fight. And I don't understand a way of viewing the world that
doesn't see the elementary correctness of that decision. It
seems to me that there is a moral blindness in pacifism, which
that story illustrates.
WIE: So would you agree, then, with the idea
that some types of violence are only stopped by greater violence
applied in the right way by the right people?
Rieff: I don't think there's any rule, but I think
the only answer to the Osama bin Ladens in this world is state
power. In cases like his, you do fight fire with fire.
Sometimes you have to fight. That doesn't necessarily mean you
should fight as often as people do—maybe wars should
become much rarer. But I don't think they're avoidable all the
You see, Osama bin Laden is not going to quit. That's the
great problem for a pacifist. What pacifists point out, quite
correctly, is that war is a horrible and wicked thing, even when
it's a just war. On the other hand, the dilemma that pacifists
face is: What if moral suasion and good intentions don't
actually work? A guy like bin Laden would like to put all the
women in the world in veils. Should one really just hope that
one day he'll see the error of his ways?
I also think it is very important to make a distinction
between nonviolence and pacifism. Nonviolence can be a very
effective strategy. The worst mistake the Palestinian resistance
ever made was to oppose the Israelis by force. As a tactic, it's
completely self-defeating; they're never going to defeat the
Israelis by force. The only hope they have of changing the
political dynamic in this part of the world is through
nonviolent protest—through adopting the tactics of a
Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Gandhi. And there are some
Palestinians who know that. I think it was the genius of the
African National Congress to use largely nonviolent means. It
can be very effective.
WIE: In international engagement, when should
violence be used?
Rieff: It should always be the thing you have to
do because no other choice makes sense. If you had known that
the guys who hijacked those planes planned to blow up the World
Trade Center, you would have attacked the planes. You would not
have waited for them to attack the World Trade Center. In Iraq,
it seemed like we went to war before it was absolutely
necessary. It seemed like a war we didn't have to fight then.
Maybe we would have had to fight it a year later. On the other
hand, the war did overthrow Saddam Hussein, which objectively is
a good thing. But I think any use of war should be a last
WIE: I know that you were in Rwanda, and you
have said that you would have called for the use of force there.
Rieff: Rwanda seems to be such a perfect
refutation of the pacifist plan. Maybe I'm wrong, but I almost
can't believe that even a pacifist could have opposed that
intervention. Pacifism is a principle, and I imagine a lot of
pacifists would tell you that the world is not at the point
where they can be one hundred percent pacifists. I know that
nonviolence would not have saved a single life in Rwanda.