Chomsky Classic: We Have the Means to End Civilization as We Know It—How Revolutionary Pacifism Can Preserve the Species

Published on August 26, 2013   ·   1 Comment

Modern warfare capabilities have taken humanity to the brink. It starts with accepting violence as a solution.

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Filipe Matos Frazao

As we all know, the United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The words can only elicit deep regret when we consider how we have acted to fulfill that aspiration, though there have been a few significant successes, notably in Europe.

For centuries, Europe had been the most violent place on earth, with murderous and destructive internal conflicts and the forging of a culture of war that enabled Europe to conquer most of the world, shocking the victims, who were hardly pacifists, but were “appalled by the all-destructive fury of European warfare,” in the words of British military historian Geoffrey Parker.

And [it] enabled Europe to impose on its conquests what Adam Smith called “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” England in the lead, as he did not fail to emphasize. The global conquest took a particularly horrifying form in what is sometimes called “the Anglosphere,” England and its offshoots, settler-colonial societies in which the indigenous societies were devastated and their people dispersed or exterminated.

But since 1945 Europe has become internally the most peaceful and in many ways most humane region of the earth — which is the source of some its current travail, an important topic that I will have to put aside.

In scholarship, this dramatic transition is often attributed to the thesis of the “democratic peace”: democracies do not go to war with one another. Not to be overlooked, however, is that Europeans came to realise that the next time they indulge in their favorite pastime of slaughtering one another, the game will be over: civilization has developed means of destruction that can only be used against those too weak to retaliate in kind, a large part of the appalling history of the post-World War II years.

It is not that the threat has ended. US-Soviet confrontations came painfully close to virtually terminal nuclear war in ways that are shattering to contemplate, when we inspect them closely. And the threat of nuclear war remains all too ominously alive, a matter to which I will briefly return.

Can we proceed to at least limit the scourge of war? One answer is given by absolute pacifists, including people I respect though I have never felt able to go beyond that. A somewhat more persuasive stand, I think, is that of the pacifist thinker and social activist A.J. Muste, one of the great figures of 20th century America, in my opinion: what he called “revolutionary pacifism.”

Muste disdained the search for peace without justice. He urged that “one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist” — by which he meant that we must cease to “acquiesce [so] easily in evil conditions,” and must deal “honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem” — “the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil — material and spiritual — this entails for the masses of men throughout the world.”

Unless we do so, he argued, “there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten per cent of the violence employed by the rebels against oppression” — no matter how hideous they may be. He was confronting the hardest problem of the day for a pacifist, the question whether to take part in the anti-fascist war.

In writing about Muste’s stand 45 years ago, I quoted his warning that “The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will teach him a lesson?” His observation was all too apt at the time, while the Indochina wars were raging. And on all too many other occasions since.

The allies did not fight “the good war,” as it is commonly called, because of the awful crimes of fascism. Before their attacks on western powers, fascists were treated rather sympathetically, particularly “that admirable Italian gentleman,” as FDR called Mussolini.

Even Hitler was regarded by the US State Department as a “moderate” holding off the extremists of right and left. The British were even more sympathetic, particularly the business world. Roosevelt’s close confidant Sumner Welles reported to the president that the Munich settlement that dismembered Czechoslovakia “presented the opportunity for the establishment by the nations of the world of a new world order based upon justice and upon law,” in which the Nazi moderates would play a leading role.

As late as April 1941, the influential statesman George Kennan, at the dovish extreme of the postwar planning spectrum, wrote from his consular post in Berlin that German leaders have no wish to “see other people suffer under German rule,” are “most anxious that their new subjects should be happy in their care,” and are making “important compromises” to assure this benign outcome.

Though by then the horrendous facts of the Holocaust were well known, they scarcely entered the Nuremberg trials, which focused on aggression, “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”: in Indochina, Iraq, and all too many other places where we have much to contemplate.

The horrifying crimes of Japanese fascism were virtually ignored in the postwar peace settlements. Japan’s aggression began exactly 80 years ago, with the staged Mukden incident, but for the West, it began 10 years later, with the attack on military bases in two US possessions.

India and other major Asian countries refused even to attend the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty conference because of the exclusion of Japan’s crimes in Asia — and also because of Washington’s establishment of a major military base in conquered Okiniwa, still there despite the energetic protests of the population.

It is useful to reflect on several aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack. One is the reaction of historian and Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger to the bombing of Baghdad in March 2003. He recalled FDR’s words when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on “a date which will live in infamy.” “Today it is we Americans who live in infamy,” Schlesinger wrote, as our government adopts the policies of imperial Japan — thoughts that were barely articulated elsewhere in the mainstream, and quickly suppressed: I could find no mention of this principled stand in the praise for Schlesinger’s accomplishments when he died a few years later.

We can also learn a lot about ourselves by carrying Schlesinger’s lament a few steps further. By today’s standards, Japan’s attack was justified, indeed meritorious. Japan, after all, was exercising the much lauded doctrine of anticipatory self-defense when it bombed military bases in Hawaii and the Philippines, two virtual US colonies, with reasons far more compelling than anything that Bush and Blair could conjure up when they adopted the policies of imperial Japan in 2003.

Japanese leaders were well aware that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming off the Boeing production lines, and they could read in the American press that these killing machines would be able to burn down Tokyo, a “city of rice-paper and wood houses.” A November 1940 plan to “bomb Tokyo and other big cities” was enthusiastically received by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. FDR was “simply delighted” at the plans “to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu,” outlined by their author, Air Force General Chennault.

By July 1941, the Air Corps was ferrying B-17s to the Far East for this purpose, assigning half of all the big bombers to this region, taking them from the Atlantic sea-lanes. They were to be used if needed “to set the paper cities of Japan on fire,” according to General George Marshall, Roosevelt’s main military adviser, in a press briefing three weeks before Pearl Harbor. Four days later, New York Times senior correspondent Arthur Krock reported US plans to bomb Japan from Siberian and Philippine bases, to which the Air Force was rushing incendiary bombs intended for civilian targets. The US knew from decoded messages that Japan was aware of these plans.

History provides ample evidence to support Muste’s conclusion that “The problem after a war is with the victor, [who] thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay.” And the real answer to Muste’s question, “Who will teach him a lesson?,” can only be domestic populations, if they can adopt elementary moral principles.

Even the most uncontroversial of these principles could have a major impact on ending injustice and war. Consider the principle of universality, perhaps the most elementary of moral principles: we apply to ourselves the standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones. The principle is universal, or nearly so, in three further respects: it is found in some form in every moral code; it is universally applauded in words, and consistently rejected in practice. The facts are plain, and should be troublesome.

The principle has a simple corollary, which suffers the same fate: we should distribute finite energies to the extent that we can influence outcomes, typically on cases for which we share responsibility. We take that for granted with regard to enemies. No one cares whether Iranian intellectuals join the ruling clerics in condemnation of the crimes of Israel or the United States. Rather, we ask what they say about their own state. We honored Soviet dissidents on the same grounds.

Of course, that is not the reaction within their own societies. There dissidents are condemned as “anti-Soviet” or supporters of the Great Satan, much as their counterparts here are condemned as “anti-American” or supporters of today’s official enemy. And of course, punishment of those who adhere to elementary moral principles can be severe, depending on the nature of the society.

Read More: http://www.alternet.org/visions/chomsky-classic-we-have-means-end-civilization-we-know-it-how-revolutionary-pacifism-can?akid=10848.240425.tgcShM&rd=1&src=newsletter887050&t=5&paging=off

In Soviet-run Czechoslovakia, for example, Vaclav Havel was imprisoned. At the same time, in US-run El Salvador his counterparts had their brains blown out by an elite battalion fresh from renewed training at the John F. Kennedy School of Special Warfare in North Carolina, acting on explicit orders of the High Command, which had intimate relations with Washington. We all know and respect Havel for his courageous resistance, but who can even name the leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, who were added to the long bloody trail of the Atlacatl brigade shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall — along with their housekeeper and daughter, since the orders were to leave no witnesses?

Before we hear that these are exceptions, we might recall a truism of Latin American scholarship, reiterated by historian John Coatsworth in the recently published Cambridge University History of the Cold War: from 1960 to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.” Among the executed were many religious martyrs, and there were mass slaughters as well, consistently supported or initiated by Washington. And the date 1960 is highly significant, for reasons we should all know, but I cannot go into here.

Readers Comments (1)
  1. Laki Senanayake says:

    The Colombo Herald is to be lauded for publishing Chomky’s observations which have been excluded deliberately by most leading news journals including
    the New york Times and the Washington post





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