Pacifism and the Arguments Against War

Florence and William Boos

We live in a society and nation which regard war and preparation for war as ‘normal’ parts of life, and its reflections and distortions reverberate throughout mass-produced popular culture. The United States’ military budget in 2002 was greater than those of the fifteen next-largest militarized nations, and it will obviously be more disproportionate in 2003. Enormously expensive concerted efforts are made to ‘normalize’ all this, and make us accept warmongering in defence of ‘democracy’ as a necessary evil, which only cowards, extremists and naive idealists would dare question.

Christopher Hedges, for example, the New York Times correspondent who decried the sordidity and brutalization of war in his recent book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, insisted that “[w]ar is a poison . . . . we as a society at times must ingest,” even as he acknowledged that “when left unchecked, uncontrolled, unexamined, [war] leads always to self-annihilation; we can die of the poison just as surely as we can die of the disease.” Was Hedges arguing that war is some sort of carefully titrated vaccine or antidote--and if so, for what? Or was he simply prating another form of social Darwinism, or bearing witness to William Butler Yeats’ bleak view that “[t]he best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

As we try to draw together the reasons why a war against Iraq is horrifically wrong (in the face of relentless manipulation to prepare once again for the ‘inevitable’), it may be valuable to review a few of our predecessors’ many insights--for subsequent generations’ enforced ignorance of them is itself a form of ideological erasure and historiographic repression. I will offer only brief samples of some of these arguments, whose literature includes not only bitter memoirs and personal narratives, but Kantian, marxist, individualist/libertarian and utilitarian as well as ethical/humanist rejections of state violence and its rigid command-structures.

I will begin with feminist critiques of war, which are often viewed as supplementary or perpipheral. These analyses are very broad in their implications, however, and seem to me essential to attempts to explain otherwise-inexplicable aspects of systematic social aggression and the protection-racketeering ethos of ‘noble’ machismo and Hedges’ homeopathic ‘poison’.

Nineteenth-century feminist analysts saw the social origins of war in the practices of early agrarian societies which delegated armed combat to men and agricultural and household survival to women, and sanctified as well as as sanctioned the ritual destruction of women’s mandated social product--their own children--to war. Systematically excluded from the right to vote and hold public office, feminists fought against these and other forms of discrimination and exclusion, which coincidentally thwarted or nullified their extensive philanthropic and reformist efforts.

Twentieth-century feminists such as Juliet Mitchell and Sheila Rowbotham have mounted a more radical and systemic argument, that the enforcement of arbitrary gender divisions motivates aggression. They note that women have been forced throughout recorded history into forms of artificial dependence, and assigned unequal responsibility for social reproduction, conceived in the broader sense as maintaining social and familial relations as well as the raising of the next generation, and the tasks of nursing, education, and social work. Men, by contrast, have been have been conscripted into ritualised hyper-‘masculine’ aggressive roles they were ruthlessly conditioned to accept on pain of disgrace and death.

The byproducts of these unnatural patterns are destructive: feminists witness the high rates of domestic assaults in military families and extemely high incidence of rape and sexual violence in periods of war (systematic rape is even used as a weapon of destruction during war). They have pointed to the sinister tendency of warmakers to target higher and higher percentages of civilians (ten percent of the casualties in the First World War, but ninety percent of those in more ‘precise’ military actions such as the bombing of Afghanistan), as well the preponderance of women, children and the elderly among refugees, the people warmaking makes homeless and destitute.

Feminists’ and women’s historical contributions to the cause of peace have been largely uncredited. The American suffragist Lucetia Mott was a founding member of the New England Non-Resistance Society in 1838, and remained a pacifist during the Civil War. Alice Paul helped lead pickets of the White House to protest World War I, and the settlement-house reformer Jane Addams founded the International Women’s League of Peace and Freedom in 1915, along with Charlotte Despard and Helena Swanwick.

Jessie Hughan, Racy Mygatt and Frances Witherspoon founded The War Resisters League in 1923, and Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Workers Movement—which deeply influenced the 1968 antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy--in 1933. Jeannette Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against World War I and World War II, and she lived to oppose the Vietnam War. The years-long women’s camp-in on Greenham Commons was one of the most extensive actions of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent.

Opposition to war has been part of every major religious tradition. Of these, two modern Christian denominations--the Mennonites, and the Society of Friends--have consistently and tenaciously opposed state-ordered violence. Time and personal limitations do not permit me to explore the insights of non-‘western’ religious traditions--those of the Bahai, for example, whose origins lie in the middle east.

Quakerism was an offshoot of Puritanism in a period when dissent from the national church—a political body, in effect--brought denial of civil rights and immediate persecution. George Fox and his colleagues defined their clear pacifist aims in the Declaration of 1661: The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided . . . [and] which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ, nor for the Kingdoms of this world.

Jonathan Dymond, a Quaker from Devonshire who died at the age of 31, wrote a brilliantly argued exposition of the pacifist view in two books, An Inquiry into the Accordancy of War with the Principles of Christianity. . . (1823) and Essays on the Principles of Morality (1829), whose most important principle is the essential immorality of state-sanctioned murder. Among other things, Dymond remarked that “[n]ational irritability is at once a cause of war, and an effect. . . . In this state of irritability, a nation is continually alive to occasions of offence--and when we seek for offences, we readily find them. . . . At length we begin to fight, not because we are aggrieved, but because we are angry” (Inquiry, 4-6).

Behind rhetoric of national honor and rectitude, it is overweening political ambitions which foment wars, for “fear or ambition, are sometimes more interesting considerations than the happiness and the lives of men” (10), and a ruler or minister often “discovers a pretext for denouncing war . . . in order to divert the indignation of the public from himself to their new-made enemies” (11). Greed also plays a direct role, for “[d]uring a war of ten years, there will always be many whose income depends on its continuance . . . .The more there are who profit by it, the more numerous will be its supporters” (8).

Military “honor” and courage are falsely lauded, for “[s]eparate bravery from motives and purposes, and what will remain but that which is possessed by a mastiff or a game-cock?” and (14) “. . . if the soldier speculated on his country’s good, he often cannot tell how it is affected by the quarrel” (16). But sanctimonious prayers for victory in war may be most odious of all: “Surely it were enough that we slaughter one another alone in our pigmy quarrels, without soliciting the Father of the universe to be concerned in them; surely it were enough that each reviles the other with the iniquity of his cause without each assuring Heaven that he only is in the right” (109).

Fox and CNN also bear early-twenty-first-century witness to other forms of bogus ‘morality’ which drew Dymond’s sarcasm: “They who are shocked at a single murder in the highway, hear, with indifference, of the murder of a thousand on the field” (3), and “It is in vain to expatiate on moral obligations, if we are at liberty to declare war whenever an injury is feared” (Essays, 457). Above all, Dymond rejected the claim that systematic, premeditated murder – so abhorred in other circumstances and severely punished by the state -- becomes respectable when practiced in organized bands for reasons of state. “[D]oes not everyone know that with whatever motives of defence one party may have begun the contest, both, in turn, become aggressors? In the fury of slaughter, soldiers do not attend, they cannot attend, to questions of aggression.. . . Moralists may talk of distinctions, but soldiers will make none; and none can be made. . . .” (77)

Dymond was part of a sustained and substantial nineteenth century peace movement, which eventually inspired organizations such as the British Peace Society, the Workman’s Peace Association, the International Peace Association, the Rationalist Peace Association and many others. ‘Trimmed’ and pacific-ist variants of these views also influenced legislators and centrist ministers such as John and Jacob Bright and Richard Cobden, who advocated moderation and the use of diplomacy in international quarrels, and its antiestablishmentarian spirit lived on in organizations such as the Catholic Workers Movement, mentioned earlier, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Quixote Center, the American Friends’ Service Committee, and thousands of local ad hoc religious coalitions for peace and social justice, one of which has recently emerged in Iowa City.

In the present situation, the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome has also made urgent appeals for peace, and the heads of several Jewish organizations and most ‘mainstream’ Christian denominations--Lutherans, Episcopalians, and even Bush’s own Methodist Church--have spoken out against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld’s unceasing propaganda for a ‘new world order’ of war on imperial demand.

In this most ‘religious’ of industrially developed nations, it seems interesting that strong religious opposition hasn’t yet translated itself into more anti-war policy votes. Can it be that the Sermon on the Mount, and other heterodox views of the “Prince of Peace” are merely quaint rhetoric for some of His more prominent declared followers at their prayer breakfasts?

I have offered a very brief canvass of the feminist and Christian pacifist left. What new contributions did socialists and Marxists make to the critique of war, before and after some of their declared adherents came to power (absolute variants of the maxim that power corrupts absolutely)?

Marx and his allies argued that the industrial revolution and rise of the factory system stratified society into new social classes, whose inherent conficts would henceforth influence history for good or ill, and transform the ‘bourgeois’ state and its repressive institutions—rigidly organized to promote commercial interests and repress dissent--into one in which people collectively would own natural resources and the ‘means of production’.

Nineteenth and early twentieth-century socialists further analyzed wars as imperialist schemes to promote the profits of capitalists across national boundaries, and they saw workers’ opposition to these schemes as international and complementary. This international ideal became the hallmark of the First and Second Internationals (1864 and 1889). William Morris expressed them in his socialist utopia News from Nowhere, (1890), in which inhabitants of twenty-first century Nowhere describe

. . . the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity. When the civilized World-market coveted a country not yet in its clutches, some transparent pretext was found—the suppression of a slavery different from, and not so cruel as that of commerce; the pushing of a religion no longer believed in by its promoters. . . any stick, in short, which would beat the dog at all. Then some bold, unprincipled, ignorant adventurer was found . . . to ‘create a market’ by breaking up whatever traditional society there might be in the doomed country, and by destroying whatever leisure or pleasure he found there.
. . . [I]t is [further] said that even when two nations were at war, the rich men of each nation gambled with each other pretty much as usual, and even sold each other weapons wherewith to kill their own countrymen. . . .

It is hard, I believe, to exaggerate the importance of such insights for a century which codified the importance of ‘nation-states’ and their ‘nationalist’ as well as ‘imperialist’ conflicts, and in which consolidation of such ‘empires’ (French-Napoleonic, German, British, and later American) became the trademark (so to speak) of ‘progress’. Such ‘progress’, marxists believed, corrupted and vitiated the conquerors as well as the conquered, whose society, traditions, claims to autonomy and rights to the fruits of their labor were systematically destroyed.

Nineteenth-century mutualist anarchists or anarcho-communists, represented by Peter Kropotkin, Chrystal Eastman and Emma Goldman, argued that ‘the state’ could not readily be divorced from ‘the nation-state’, and viewed both as inherently dubious institutions, historically derived from protection-rackets, reinforced by militarism in all its forms, and undermined from within by subtle and unsubtle ‘iron laws of oligarchy’. Deeply opposed to war, they saw military institutions as legally sanctioned instruments of this oligarchy, legal systems as potential means of intimidation and extortion, and state-imposed religions (including the religion of ‘patriotism’) as forms of intellectual repression.

However ‘extreme’ or utopian one might consider their views, their mutualist anarchist ideals helped bring us free schools, campaigns for birth control, equal marriage laws and the right to divorce, enlightened views on the rearing of children through encouragement and hands-on-learning, and enduring counter-traditions of civil disobedience and dissent. Descendants of this anarcho-socialist tradition have always goaded the consciences of indifferent or timeserving legislators and judges. They have worked tirelessly to found and renew organizations designed to defend civil liberties, among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the War Resisters League.

Ethical egoism, finally (as philosophers call it), can provide sufficient ‘individualist’ reasons to oppose or remain aloof from particular wars: “It isn’t my war” (or, as our bellicose current vice-president once answered, when asked once why he had requested five draft deferments during the Vietnam war, “I had other priorities” ). Tom Paine, the eighteenth-century author of Common Sense and supporter of colonial liberties, expressed a nobler variant of this ‘individualist’ view when he proclaimed, “Man is not the enemy of Man, but through the medium of a false system of government.”

From Lysistrata on, secular pacifists and ‘refusers’ have drawn on aspects of all of the traditions mentioned so far, as well as Kantian views that “reasonable beings” are “ends in themselves,” not means to be exploited by their fellows. More concretely, they have defended and given expression to these refusals (“. . . not in my name. . .”) in many forms of tacit or overt civil disobedience. Virginia Woolf, for example, urged women in Three Guineas to avoid the military hierarchies dear to men and form an alternate society of “outsiders.” Three generations earlier, Henry David Thoreau vindicated his rejection of the war against the Mexicans in Texas in surprisingly similar terms, as follows.

Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure. . . . Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. . . . Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already. (“Civil Disobedience”)

I lack time and energy to consider adequately other contributions to the history of pacifism and resistance to war, among them the utilitarian or “common-sense” argument. According to the late-eighteenth-century political thinker Jeremy Bentham and his followers, society should seek “the greatest good of the greatest number.” But such ‘good(s)’ are not only finite but infinitely fragile. Society can only generate limited measures of such goods--human, social, and natural—and degradation of them in ways that can never be ‘made good’ consumes irrevocably the reservoir of benefits available to those who survive.

And finally, one can make ‘Humean’ appeals--philosophical, humanist and ethical—to “moral sentiment” in support of the conviction that state murder is a violation of our common humanity. It is no accident that technologically sophisticated aggressors take great pains to accomplish their ends by remote control, to mask the “vicarious ferocity” visited on those who are not in camera range, and to minimize the cost even to the aggressor—disabled soldiers, Veterans Hospitals, and myriad lost opportunities to serve the interests of education, health, the environment and other resources of human life.

There is a vast literature inspired by these traditions, for more than our critical histories admit, the literature of the last century spoke with a near-unanimous voice against war: Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Alice Meynell, Charlotte Mew, Olive Schreiner, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, H. D., Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Dora and Bertrand Russell, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Primo Levi, Randall Jarrell, Gary Snyder, Simon Ortiz and others too many to cite.

Siegfried Sasson, himself a casualty of the First World War, expressed this literature’s sense of betrayal in the sestet of “On Passing the New Menin Gate,” a sonnet in response to a war memorial engraved with the names of 54,889 men:
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
“Their name liveth for ever,” the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

As some of you who attended the “Poets Against War” gathering held here on February 14th may know, more than twelve thousand poems were sent to a Poets Against the War site (, in the wake of the White House’s cancellaton of a symposium on American Poetry. Among other things, the magnitude of this outpouring suggests that poetry is not marginal genre, but offers cautions and forms of wisdom urgently needed at present, “to bind up the wounds of war.”

The broad confluence of traditions I have tried to sketch also supports Paul Laity’s view in The British Peace Movement 1870-1914 (2002), that “[t]he idea of abolishing war . . . had a broader compass than is often assumed, and had a place in many different political and religious traditions” (3). A high proportion of Kant’s “reasonable beings” have always found and continue to find war unethical, an irresponsible action by governments and nation-states driven in its present form by arms sales, global imperialist aims, and desires to field-test as well as profit from military hardware..

On this subject, these “beings” speak with one voice—a voice of self-aware and reflective humanity. They evoke a need to replace the extractive, extortive and violent aspects of the bellum americanum (once quaintly called a pax americana) with peaceful internationalism and principled forms of cooperation. If we achieve this aim, we may yet reverse Yeats’ bleak assessement and create a future in which “the worst lack all conviction and the best are filled with passionate intensity.”

March 5th, 2003
(delivered at panel on "Anti-War Resistence" organized by the Johnson County Green Party, Campaign Against War University of Iowa Teach-In)


1. "Peace Dividend," Green Platform, 2002.

2. Hedges, New York, Public Affairs, 2002.

3. Hedges, interview with Kristen Holland, Dallas Morning News, reprinted in the Iowa City Gazette, March 1st, 2003, 7b. Punctuation slightly altered.

4. Yeats, "The Second Coming," 1916.

5. According to Paul Laity, The British Peace Movement 1870-1914, Oxford, 2001, the term "pacifist" first gained currency after 1910 (8). He also coins the term "pacific-ists" to represent those who oppose wars through not committeed to the ideolgoical position that all wars under all circumstances are unjustifiable.

6. The Writings of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace, edited and introduced by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press, Boston, 2002), to which we are indebted, includes three selections (of twenty-two) by women, Jane Addams, Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, though these do not represent feminist pacifism per se. For a more feminist approach, see Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, edited by Pam McAllister, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1982.

7. Peter Brock, The Quaker Peace Testimony: 1660-1914, Sessions Book Trust, 1990, 25. Brock also discusses pre-Quaker pacifists, among them John Wyclif.

8. An Inquiry into the Accordancy of War with the principles of Christianity, and an Examination of the Philosophical Reasoning by which it is defended: with Observations of Some of the Causes of War and Some of Its Effects, 4th edition, Philadelphia, 1835.

9. Here he responds to an argument by William Paley, "Every just war supposes an injury perpetrated, attempted, or feared," to which Dymond responds, "Violence, and rapine, and ambition, are not to be restrained by morality like this. . . Who believes that if kings and conquerors may fight when they have fears, they will not fight when they have them not?" (456-57)

10. Laity, passim, 231.

11. Christians Against War.

12. Chapter XV. Morris's critique is quite thorough. "The appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of 'civilisation' (that is, organised misery) were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to 'open up' countries outside that pale. This process of 'opening up' is a strange one to those who have read the professions of the men of that period and do not understand their practice; and perhaps shows us at its worst the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity. . . . [The adventurer] forced wares on the natives which they did not want, and took their natural products in 'exchange,' as this form of robery was called, and thereby he 'created new wants,' to supply which (that is, to be allowed to live by their new masters), the hapless, helpless people had to sell themselves into the slavery of hopeless toil so that they might have something wherewith to purchase the nullities of 'civilisation.' "Ah," said the old man, pointing to the [British] Museum, "I have read books and papers in there, telling strange storeis indeed of the dealings of civilisation (or o'rganized misery') with 'non-civilisation'; from the ttime when the British Government deliberately sent blankets infected with small-pox as choice gifts to inconvenient tribes of Redskins, to the time when Africa was infested by a man named Stanley . . . ." (Three Works by William Morris, ed. A. L. Morton, International Publishers, 1968, 277-78).

13. Chapter XI.

14. Cheney,

15. Laity, 1.

16. Howard Zinn, ed. 15, 16, 24.