I don't remember exactly when I first read the late John H. Yoder's Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism, but it was either sometime in the early 1980s or maybe a little later in the decade when I first began teaching a course called Ethics and International Politics. The book made an impression--so much so that a quarter of a century later I sought out a copy of the book, read a few chapters, and decided to include it among the required texts for this semester's iteration of the Ethics course. On Thursday we'll take up Nevertheless, along with Reinhold Niebuhr's 1940 essay, "Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist" and Michael Walzer's afterword to Just and Unjust Wars, in which he comments on the theory of nonviolence. I approach this discussion with the hope that my students will appreciate not only the tremendous power of these three intellects but the gravity--and the extraordinary durability--of the debate in which they have engaged. War, after all, seems to be a truly perennial problem, not to mention one of humanity's most terrible and unconquerable vices.
Or is it? One of the reasons I found myself drawn to pick up Yoder's Nevertheless last fall was a sense that the world is catching up with the wisdom of those who, like Yoder, have long argued that violence offers no more, or better, guarantees for those concerned with justice than the nonviolent alternatives. John Mueller's Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War, which appeared over twenty years ago, argued that war, like slavery and dueling, is an idea that people have come to regard as wrong because it is both immoral and dysfunctional. The data show that interstate war is very much in decline, a point that Americans tend to miss thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the quasi-war in Pakistan. Charles Kupchan has recently attempted, in How Enemies Become Friends, to illustrate the ways that what may have appeared to be permanent enmities between states can be, and actually are, overcome. Kathryn Sikkink, in The Justice Cascade, argues that prosecutions of serious human rights abuses are having a discernible deterrent effect. Ruti Teitel's book Humanity's Law traces a transition in the international legal system away from the traditional emphasis on national security toward an emphasis on human security, a transition that moves us away from international politics as usual. And Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, asserts that violence at all levels of human interaction--from the interpersonal to the international--is at historically low levels. War is neither as common as it once was, nor as acceptable.
The long span of history through which war has been a constant in many (but by no means all) societies makes it difficult to discern some important changes in humanity's attitude toward war. One of the most important of these attitudinal changes took place as a consequence of what, before an even greater war occurred, was called the Great War. Before World War I, war was commonly (although by no means universally) regarded as a rousing and ennobling experience. Afterward, war was considered brutalizing, wanton, and even stupid. (The change is exemplified by two World War I poems: "Pro Patria," by Owen Seaman, and "Dulce et Decorum Est," by Wilfred Owen.) Even if it oversimplifies, one can argue that war, in the collective conscience of humankind, went from being a good thing to being a necessary evil. It might be necessary for the British and French and others to fight the Germans again in 1939, but it would be a relative good (or a necessary evil) rather than an absolute good as some had regarded it in 1914. Today, war is still defended as a necessary evil (rather than an absolute good), although even this justification is wearing thin. What has sustained the idea that war is a necessary evil has been consequentialist reasoning that, in the end, has often been proved wrong. The most obvious recent case is the Iraq War, justified by the Bush administration by reference to what might happen if Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which he didn't have, were allowed to fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda (with which he had no real connection).
Yoder commented in Nevertheless on the fallacy of consequentialist justifications for war. He did so using one of the articles of faith in Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realist worldview for support. Given Niebuhr's opposition, at least from World War II on, to almost every form of pacifism that Yoder defended, Yoder's ability to appeal to one of Niebuhr's masterpieces, The Irony of American History, for support is especially noteworthy. Yoder noted a problem with "prudential calculation," which is the summum bonum of the political realist and the central ethical responsibility of the just-war theorist: "The good which is predicted does not come as a result of the war; evils which were not foreseen do actually arise." Or, as Donald Rumsfeld put it when the U.S. invasion of Iraq proved not to be the cakewalk that had been predicted, "Stuff happens."
This is where Niebuhr's view of the irony of history comes in to bolster Yoder's argument. Yoder, in fact, seemed to take a little dig at Niebuhr--at least if we pause to interpret the quotation marks deployed in the following passage:
Reinhold Niebuhr has described as "irony" this characteristic of the historical process which generally produces results different from those by which decisions were thought to have been justified. That events should be impossible to predict with such certainty that moral choices can be made by reasoning back from the predicted outcomes, only stands to reason in a universe in which the centers of decision-making are multiple. When the historical process is conceived as a model machine where one person pushes the buttons or even as a nation with a single capital, then to make decisions on the grounds of the simple choice between ultimate outcomes has a certain logic, even though already here it pretends to a utopian degree of omniscience. But when multiple other decision-makers are trying to do the same thing, each with a different set of goals, a different set of assumptions about the rules of the whole game and a different set of expectations about how they expect the other partners of the game to play, it is a mathematical certainty that none of the options among which we claim to be choosing can come to pass.
"Irony" indeed. What is also ironic is this: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have obscured the broad and unmistakable global trend away from war, have further undermined the primary remaining justification for war. It is more difficult--but certainly not impossible--in light of the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts to sustain the belief that war may be a necessary evil. In both cases, predictions about the good to be achieved and the evil that might result were seriously off the mark. What Barbara Tuchman called "the march of folly" (defined as "the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests") will no doubt continue to produce wars, but with declining levels of credulity in response to claims that those wars are necessary evils.