Philosophy Weekend: Nicholson Baker’s Case for Pacifism

I like to mix it up here in these weekend philosophy posts — Ayn Rand, the free will problem, KRS-One — but a featured article by Nicholson Baker in the new issue of Harper’s Magazine reminds me why I began this series in the first place. I wanted to begin examining the philosophical premises behind the political opinions we all feel deeply about, and try to recover a sense of principle and logic amidst the noise of topical debate. Most of all, as an American who cares deeply about my country’s honor and security, I wanted to question the popular enthusiasm for war and militarism that I see all around me.

This interest of mine lies behind many of the ethical discussions I’ve been holding here, and the weekend posts I care about most are the ones where I deal with it directly, such as the posts titled “Pacifism’s Coma” and “The Trauma Theory“.

But committed, serious pacifists remain an endangered species in the world today. It’s a lonely position to hold, especially since the popular passion for war feeds on itself and has had plenty to feed on in the past ten years. Going further back, the traumas of the continent-wide and world-wide wars that have gripped the planet nonstop since the age of Napoleon seem to have the world still shook, still seething with international hatred and suspicion. The argument for pacifism often seems hopeless (even though I’m sure it’s not) and that’s why I’m so happy that Nicholson Baker is on the case. This great, wide-ranging author is a witty and inventive postmodern novelist, a piquant literary critic and a stubborn literary preservationist as well as an idiosyncratic and original political writer, and I value his work immensely.

I wish Harper’s would put his article “Why I’m A Pacifist: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War” online for all to read, but it appears to be currently available only in the print edition of the magazine. (UPDATE: it’s also available for paid subscribers at The article recalls his groundbreaking history of World War II, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, but that book was composed of facts and scraps of news without a first-person voice, and this article presents Baker’s own angle on the same topic. We learn that his wife and sometime co-author Margaret Brentano helped Baker to discover the importance of the pacifist cause years ago, and that Baker resisted the message at first. (She must be an extremely impressive person; I have briefly met Nicholson Baker, and now I’d love to meet Margaret Brentano). Here’s an excerpt from the piece, and I hope you’ll find the time to read the whole thing.

Praising pacifists — using the P-word in any positive way, but especially in connection with the Second World War — embarrasses some people, and it makes some people angry. I found this out in 2008, when I published a book about the beginnings of the war. “Human Smoke” was a mosaic of contradictory fragments and moments in time, composed largely of quotations: it made no direct arguments on behalf of any single interpretation of World War II. But in an afterword, I dedicated the book to the memory of Clarence Pickett — a Quaker relief worker — and other British and American pacifists, because I was moved by what they’d tried to do. “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.”

They were what? In a review in “The Nation”, Katha Pollitt said she pored over my book obsessively, for hours at a time — and she hated it. “By the time I finished,” she wrote, “I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists.” Pollitt’s displeasure hurt, as negative reviews from thoughtful readers generally do. 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 were naive, they weren’t unrealistic — they were psychologically acute realists.

Later, Baker states his case in a single sentence:

The Jews [Hitler’s victims, during the early years of World War II] needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses.

This is a difficult message to deliver, because we are deeply committed to our image of World War II as the good war, and we know about Hitler’s capacity for evil. Few people are happy to hear that the greatest evil of all was not Hitler but the institution of war itself (it was this institution, of course, that created Hitler’s power in the first place, since he based his entire platform on Germany’s wish to avenge its loss of the First World War). It’s much easier to hate a shrill guy in a brown shirt with a funny moustache than it is to hate an institution that plays a big role in our own national culture.

I’m so glad there are still a few noisy pacifists like Nicholson Baker around, even if he does make many people uncomfortable, and I hope you’ll read his important article in its entirety. I can’t think of a cause in the world today that matters as much as pacifism, and I’m so glad there are a few writers brave enough to address the morality and effectiveness of war directly, regardless of the derision they will face.

22 Responses

  1. Hi Levi, what interesting
    Hi Levi, what interesting timing.

    Ok. Is the pacifist position that bin Laden oughtn’t to have been killed?

  2. Relief came after reading
    Relief came after reading this.

    Yesterday belonged to pent-up blood lust set free by death. It was quickly justified by talk filled with a deranged sense of cosmic justice. I expected that sort of reaction, generally speaking, but not from my closest friends and colleagues.

    Meanwhile… Thank you – for this piece, the resources it made available, and for the perhaps-unintentional reassurance that sanity is still somewhere in this world.

  3. Good morning … and yes,
    Good morning … and yes, with the news of Osama bin Laden’s death it is a good morning. TKG, there are probably some pacifists (like e.c. anthropy) who will feel disgusted or offended by the happy celebration of bin Laden’s death. I respect that opinion, but it’s not mine.

    My own reaction is like that of my fellow New Yorkers. Bin Laden represented the embodiment of war itself. War was his business, his passion, his claim to fame. I stand against anybody — and there are plenty of them around the world — who profit in wealth or celebrity by carrying out acts of war. I’m so glad bin Laden is dead, and I pray this will help lead to a more peaceful future.

  4. Levi, I think committed
    Levi, I think committed pacifists should remain an endangered species for as long as psychopaths like Osama bin Laden–who deliberately target the innocent–exist. He’s dead, but there are many similar to him, as well as many to replace him. I pray with you for a more peaceful future, where international pacifism has a place that isn’t one of denial or defeat.

  5. But, Claudia, these
    But, Claudia, these psychopaths depend on the popular acceptance of war to provide their support base. Just as Hitler’s entire platform was based on Germany’s wish to avenge the loss of World War One, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s platform originated with the protest against the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia fighting the first Gulf War.

    “Pacifism” without context and without a sense of realism is silly and pointless. A serious embrace of pacifism begins when people realize that wars only lead to more wars, and that peaceful settlement of difficult problems is always the better alternative.

  6. One can be a pacifist and
    One can be a pacifist and still want to see individual criminals brought to justice for their actions. The whole point of going after bin Laden as an individual, rather than blaming an entire country for 9-11, is a step in the right direction.

  7. Levi, there’s no way to win
    Levi, there’s no way to win with psychopaths except by isolating them from the rest of humanity. They don’t play by any rules, not even outlaw rules. It’s interesting that experts on the subject, such as Robert Hare (Without Conscience) and Martha Stout (The Sociopath Next Door) describe them as “playing games” and “out to win”. But psychopaths’ conception of winning is different from that of “normal” human beings. They don’t have any constructive aims in life, except as a mask to hide what they really want, which is destruction. Because their goals are inherently destructive, psychopaths’ only conception of winning is seeing others LOSE. Even if they, themselves end up losing, the way all these evil-doers always do. How did Stalin win? How did Hitler win? How did Bin Laden win? By destroying others, and using whatever ideology they adhered to (or could use) to divide human beings against each other. I don’t know of any way to deal with such evil. Nothing really works. Not pacifism (see how great pacifying Hitler worked), not counter-terrorism, and certainly not using their strategies (such as condoning torture on those suspected of terrorism).

  8. I never became a true
    I never became a true pacifist until I visited France. In every little village there is a monument to the men who died in World War I. Many villages of 200 or so souls had graves for 300 or more soldiers. To me this means that all the young men in the village, and also some of the older men were a killed – a whole generation of young men wiped out. Not enough men to fight the next, even bloodier war. Also next to the WWI monument is the Resistance monument. There are less in these monuments, because France was rolled over quickly by the Germans the 2nd time around.

    And the Germans? The contempory Germans that I speak to today as part of my ESL teaching job – these Germans are all committed pacifists. The shame and horror that they feel about what their fathers and grandfathers did – which they call “the history” – is so intense that they will never launch a war like that again.

    We in the US have many who call for war, and many who support the call and enlist. Perhaps if we lost millions and millions in these pointless battles on our home ground, not to mention women, children and other innoccents- our cities firebombed like Nicholson Barker points out in his Harper’s essay – then perhaps we too would lose the appetite for war.

    We killed Bin Laden. What good does this do? Will it stop terrorism? No. It does provide a sort of revenge, but as we all know revenenge begets revenge begets revenge. It never stops. It’s like a family that waits for the killer of one of their children to be put to death, and they talk about closure and being able to move on. But your child is still dead. That is what you need to deal with. Killing someone else doens’t bring your child back. You’ve just added one more to the death count.

    They say WWII was a good war. Good for what?

  9. Using vegetarianism as an
    Using vegetarianism as an analogy to pacifism, when starving becomes very real, the vegetarian will eat meat or anything else that they once refused in their diet. The pacifist will refute any war or battle until their own lives or the lives of the children and/or loved ones in endangered.

  10. Respectable… Let me
    Respectable… Let me apologize before hand, in case anything gets twisted or turned into something malicious (which I wholeheartedly deny).


    Keep praying.

    Pray every night of every week for the rest of your time. Along the way, see if death ever brings a lasting peace, stymies war, or really, does anything but put more holes into the earth (or splashes in the ocean – whatever).

    Conceded: war was his business. It’s also the business of Xe (formally Blackwater), Halliburton, Monsanto… By that logic, we should all celebrate the death of other war-mongering individuals…

    And as for being offended or disgusted… try appalled instead.

    If they celebrate the death of our people, and we celebrate the death of their people, are we really in any position to make moral arguments for our actions? I heard this as justification many times over.

    Justify it however you like. What it boils down to, though, is a matter of taking a good, hard look in the mirror and insuring that – in this Us V. Them business of war – we keep ourselves from blurring into “Them.”

  11. “Using vegetarianism as an
    “Using vegetarianism as an analogy to pacifism, when starving becomes very real, the vegetarian will eat meat or anything else that they once refused in their diet.”

    I imagine this would generally be true in a setting such as a cave, where people are trapped and the only food they have access to is restricted. But in a general sense if there were a deterioration of the food supply, it would be meat, not vegetables and grains, which would disappear first.

    It also seems to me that this more general reality serves as an analogy in turn: the discussion over peace is often posited in terms of what-would-you-do-to-protect-yourself? [Answer: I’d friggin fight.], as if that’s what the issue boils down to. But is the situation really this reductionist? It seems to me that part of the problem is terminology. I don’t know a lot about contemporary pacifist movements, but I suspect they exist in degrees. And why not also talk about anti-militarism? One reason wars are fought so frequently is because the nations involved invest disproportionately in arms spending and we have a mass culture that glamorizes war. The result: a tempting policy option for politicians, and widespread popular support for the latest Wargasm.

  12. I have to agree with Finn
    I have to agree with Finn about mtmynd’s suggestion that wars become necessary (even for pacifists) when people’s lives become threatened.

    Few wars are fought because anyone’s life was threatened. The biggest war of the last century, World War II, was fought because Germany wanted to recover a lost empire and Japan wanted to improve its bargaining position among the western powers.

    The biggest war before that, World War I, began because Serbia and other nations in the Austria-Hungary empire wanted greater autonomy and Austria-Hungary didn’t want them to have it.

    The most pathetic war of the last decade, George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq, was fought because … oh yeah, it was fought for no reason at all.

    Where’s the war that began when anyone’s life was threatened?

    Politicians and military leaders fight for empire, for glory, for ego gratification. Meanwhile, there are many places in the world where people’s lives ARE threatened — in the Sudan, for instance. But there’s no glory or profit to be found there, so the wars go on elsewhere.

  13. war exists so that the
    war exists so that the “powerless” many may further the agendas of the powerful few. it exists because, through millennia of bad programming, including the weight lent by our religious documents to the phenomenon, we accept it as part of “human nature.” we’re conditioned to make the associative leap between the (arguably) intrinsic human capacity for violence and the institution of anonymous, state-sponsored mass-killing. war exists because we allow it to exist. we choose to wage it.

  14. Re: Where’s the war that
    Re: Where’s the war that began when anyone’s life was threatened?

    It’s not a war until the battle(s) begin. Place a soldier in a battlefield and their life becomes threatened. Then they fight for their lives and the lives of their comrades.

  15. We always need people to hold
    We always need people to hold values, though not possible in the real world at this time but show goals that can be worked towards. I suppose that people generally will protect themselves or close ones when attacked, I certainly would, and I think nations carry the same potential for action. How long can one hold their ideal of being a pacifist, when their enemy does not? Certainly one can hold the ideal when its from a distance and not confronted but when about when hostility is pushed in one’s face? The line that “The Jews [Hitler’s victims, during the early years of World War II] needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses,” is fine if they were offered visas and all took advantage of them. What about if not offered or even if offered and some did not take advantage and stayed behind? Do you write them off as saying “their fault.” Let us not over look direct attacks such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11? Would a peaceful response to Pearl Harbor have just ended any more conflict with the Japanese? I think not. One can always argue the response to outside aggression as to what it should be and how it is carried out.

  16. Mtmynd, that’s exactly my
    Mtmynd, that’s exactly my point. Why are wars fought? Mostly to get revenge for past wars. War breeds war. We fight because we’re already fighting. If we want to stop fighting, we only need to stop fighting.

    Fools say that war is inevitable. Actually, peace is easy. Future generations will figure it out, and will laugh at the idiotic ways earthlings tortured themselves and each other in the 20th and 21st centuries.

    Jim — thanks for the comments, and just for the record I would never in a million years say that the Jewish holocaust was “their own fault”. Quite the opposite. What I would say, along with Nicholson Baker (who makes this point explicitly in “Human Smoke”) is that England and the USA did not help the Jews of Europe by carrying out their war plans in Europe. The Jews were Hitler’s hostages, and Roosevelt and Churchill were all too willing to let the hostages suffer and die as they carried out their war strategy for six horrifying years.

    When the Allies enforced a starvation blockade of Eastern Europe, who did they think the Nazis would starve first? Any Allied strategy other than total war against Germany would have helped the Jews of Eastern Europe more.

  17. Re: “Fools say that war is
    Re: “Fools say that war is inevitable. Actually, peace is easy. Future generations will figure it out, and will laugh at the idiotic ways earthlings tortured themselves and each other in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

    I certainly share your hope for our species future, Levi. My opinion of war, despite the best measures of man, is that in our given times, war is inevitable. It is not simply one war after another as much as the progression is our evolution. We have yet to know ourselves and by that shortcoming we are actually clueless (despite our self-inflated ego minds) as to how to truly communicate our feeling, our wants and our needs, and express our likes and dislikes without the opposing side taking offense. Once that offense is taken, it is simply a series of disagreements that build up until bip! War is declared. Here we go again.

    I could recite a litany of opposing sides, differences that seem insurmountable, but the Great Duality within which we live, indeed, exist is what drives us forward on our eternal search for answers. We don’t know it all and the Truth is we will never know all, but on our journey there are always obstacles to overcome – some just annoying and others can easily result in serious battles with injury to both sides… if our history doesn’t prove that we are simply ignoring it in favor of a life without dualities.

    Please don’t take this as negating those who profess the choice of pacificism over it’s opposite. Like I say, this is a dualistic world and within that world lie dualistic preferences – war and peace are the same coin flipping thru the endlessness of space, sometimes we see heads and sometimes tails.

  18. no. war and peace are not
    no. war and peace are not the “same coin flipping thru space.” that’s the problem. that’s the conditioning. war is conscious choice.

  19. “war is conscious
    “war is conscious choice.”

    sorry, amigo, but i must disagree. war is a result of emotions outweighing logic and reason… a very hu’man path that has been followed ever since we’ve been walking the earth. true there are times when war becomes tiresome but after a much needed break, somewhere, sometime another war begins, without fail.

    [quote] “According to Kegley and Wittkopf, Global Politics, 9th Ed (2004), p.405:
    “Between 1945 and 2001, 225 armed conflicts have been under way.” “Of the 225 armed conflicts there were 42 wars between two countries and an additional 178 internal conflicts, 32 of which had external participation by other states and 131 did not.”

    “Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland estimates that from 1945 to 2000, some 50-51 million people were killed in wars and other violent conflicts. For the entire 20th century, he estimates 130-142 million war-related deaths, and a chilling 214-226 million if government killings in non-war situations are included.”

    In the 1950s, the globe averaged 13 wars each year.
    In the 1960s, the globe averaged 19 wars each year.
    In the 1970s, the globe averaged 31 wars each year.
    In the 1980s, the globe averaged more than 40 wars each year.
    In the 1990s, the globe averaged more than 40 wars each year.

    In 1992, the world hit a peak of 51 armed conflicts going on simultaneously. In 2002, there were 38 armed conflicts under way.

    Most of these conflicts since 1945 have been in the Global South and most have been civil wars.”[/quote]

    Note the rise in wars as the population increases…

  20. — “war is a result of
    — “war is a result of emotions outweighing logic and reason… a very hu’man path that has been followed ever since we’ve been walking the earth.”

    can’t say i agree with this. as i said, maybe i could agree with this point in regard to a human capacity for violence, which is a much more direct and “micro” phenomenon compared to the more indirect and “macro” phenomenon of war, to which it does not necessarily logically follow that this point applies.

    war is a state-run institution, in which the participants are anonymous and much more disconnected, not directly invested in the core motivations of conflict, set by distant forces and politics often not understood. ultimately, our species chooses to buy into this way of doing business on the planet, and has, unfortunately, for millennia. but does this make the institution or war “human nature?” no soldiers, no war. politics of violence thwarted.

    do you suppose all those draftees hauled off to fight in vietnam against their will were simply “following their human nature?” i don’t.

  21. Re: “war is a state-run
    Re: “war is a state-run institution, in which the participants are anonymous and much more disconnected, not directly invested in the core motivations of conflict…”

    Who is the state in this equation? Altho there are certainly others besides Nations/States that engage in war either in defense or offense, today’s enemies or defenders may be the war between opposing Mexican cartels or the Taliban vs NATO forces… and we can’t excuse Al Qaeda’s army vs the U.S. plus other countries including peace-loving Muslims. These few examples are evidence that these war makers are not state-run institutions, I’m sure you’d agree. To think otherwise may reveal that many people see wars as SRI’s (State-Run Institutions), without pulling back from that idea and seeing exactly who else is involved in wars.

    Re: “… but does this make the institution or war ‘human nature?’ no soldiers, no war. politics of violence thwarted.”

    You can’t casually dismiss Nationalism from the condition of war. Note when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor as an example – even if you yourself disapproved of war but were in Pearl Harbor at the time, even if you weren’t serving your country, I’m sure your immediate emotion would be one of (1st) fear followed by (2nd) some level of revenge after seeing the massacre, the carnage and smell of death all around you. It wasn’t simply one of those attacks that anyone can hardly blow off easily. I’m quite sure you would at the very least understand the revenge that your fellow citizens demanded. Remember, the U.S. was NOT in a war with Japan. I’d bet you’d fully understand where the revenge factor came from and even if you were a pacifist, you would quietly ‘allow’ your fellow citizens to act accordingly.

    Re: “do you suppose all those draftees hauled off to fight in vietnam against their will were simply “following their human nature?” i don’t.”

    When I was serving in the U.S. Navy during the Viet Nam war, living closely with other people in uniform, there is a bond formed. Anyone who has served in the military knows during any wars or conflicts, that we each depend upon the other for our very survival. See that as 10’s of thousands of military people hell-bound on protecting their lives and each others. The Taliban or Al Qaeda do the same as the Mexican Cartels, individually the protect the lives of their fellow soldiers/believers in cause. It matters little what armies we are talking about – friends or foes, whenever we find ourselves under attack, with or without good reason, it is hu’man nature to act defensively and do our best to protect our fellow man. It is very much a case of man/woman following their hu’man nature.

    As I feel we may getting off course from the original theme of this post, I also believe that pacificism would not exist or even be given a thought if were not for war (the two sides of the same coin). If you or I or anyone else we know grew up totally immune to knowing anything at all about war, would we/they/us consider ourselves to be pacifists? Not at all. We’d simply be alive and enjoying life as we knew it. But, alas, amigo, that is not the case. People BECOME pacifists (by name and by choice) by knowing about war and the huge expense in lives and things that in achieves. I must assume that is the reason you have chosen ‘pacifism’ is it not?

  22. Dear Mr. Asher,
    Thanks for

    Dear Mr. Asher,

    Thanks for commenting on our Nicholson Baker piece on pacifism. I just want you and your readers to know that the article is also available on-line, but you do have to pay for it by subscribing to Harper’s Magazine. I think you’ll agree it’s worth the $16.97.

    Best regards,

    John R. MacArthur

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