DOUG SMITH: MORALITY AND THE PACIFIST

26 Dec

Which perspective will history favor?

From the FSP moderator:  This is the first of a series of columns in which author and historian, Doug Smith, offers contrast between varying positions of an age-old question of morality: “Turn the other cheek” or “an eye for an eye”?

doug smith

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, but Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.

Hilaire Belloc

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I am fascinated with the question of how pacifists come to the decision never to fight.   I struggle to overcome my own fight of flight instinct.  When I am challenged, or threatened, those impulses make me want to seek safety by running, or by hurting the threat before it can hurt me.  Oh, who am I kidding? I just want to hurt them before they can hurt me.  With time and maturity, I learned to check those impulses with a soft response.  On other occasions, they led me to charge into a fight I had little chance of winning.

I admit to being in conflict when I was a Cold War sailor on a Nuclear Attack Submarine.

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If we carried out our primary mission, many sailors would die at once in a radioactive cloud of steam.   I empathized with those Russian sailors who faced the same risks as we did.  They knew, as we did, how the weapons deployed against us could either vaporize us, or, in a near miss, crack our hulls and send us plunging to the dark, cold bottom of the ocean, dying somewhere along the way down.  It was impossible to truly wish that death on another Submarine sailor, even our enemy.

We all hoped it might never happen to either of us.

On the other hand, I am certain that if the orders came, they were mere minutes from them sending nuclear death toward our cities or our fleets, or even us.  There would be no hesitation.  On the contrary, we would run in our skivvies and socks to battle stations.   We would be manning phones while pulling on our shirts, plotting targets while we tied our shoes, preparing weapons, and updating position data as we zipped our trousers.  We would launch quickly as we had a firing solution, hopefully before they could do the same to us, or to New York, or Washington, or our own home towns.

We had nothing in particular against those young Russian boys a few miles from us. None of us were particularly anxious for a war, nor were any, well most of us, homicidal.  But our job was to kill them, and kill them we would.

Now this brings me to Albert Einstein.  An avowed pacifist, he once said

“I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.”

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Yet his name is right there in any history of the atomic bomb along with Robert Oppenheimer. Einstein, as much as anyone, formed the Cold War battlefields into which we sailed.  Einstein’s involvement was not simply theoretical, although his theories did lead, by inevitable progression to the mushroom clouds over Trinity and Japan.

He also used his influence as a renowned scientist to write a series of letters to FDR, urging him to launch the Manhattan Project and develop atomic weapons.  An odd undertaking for a pacifist, is it not?  So what made the difference for Al?  Hitler absorbed Austria and began a war of acquisition in Europe.  There was abundant evidence of the brutality and cruelty of the Nazis, as well as indications his scientists doing research in Deuterium that could lead to their development of an atomic bomb.

“My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting. My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.”

Albert Einstein

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(Einstein lied, people died! There were no WMD s in Germany. )

Maybe Einstein was in love with the idea of pacifism, until his own ox was gored.  Then he abandoned it all in a magnificent fashion.  He is hardly the first pacifist to discover in a bloody lip, or family, or country, that perhaps there ARE things worth fighting, and killing, and dying for.  Or that while dying for one’s country may be fine and noble, killing for one’s country is harder, more bitter in the mouth, yet more necessary when facing truly evil men.

He just happens to be the one whose revelation ushered in the Atomic Age.

So, when was he wrong? When he was a pacifist and would fight for peace?

And when was he right? When he was the intellectual and moral force behind the light of 10,000 suns bursting over the New Mexico desert?

An excellent question.  Stay tuned.

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

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