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The Moral Dilemma of Pacifism in a World of War

An interview with David Rieff
by Carter Phipps


“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 done?

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 time.

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 resort.

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.


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This article is from
Our War vs Peace Issue