Home/Daniel Larison/Red Pacifist Herrings And The "Pro-War" Label

Red Pacifist Herrings And The "Pro-War" Label

War is a dreadful thing to be avoided if possible, but it is not always possible to avoid it. The history of the 20th century teaches that outright pacifism — such as flourished in England and France after World War I — can be an incitement to aggression. If France had been willing to fight a small war when Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland, they could have avoided the big war they eventually got. ~Robert Stacy McCain

Would Mr. McCain grant that there are some people, who are otherwise quite sane, who actually are much more often in favour of using force to resolve international disputes than they are not?  Are there not actually militarists and jingoists, those whose resistance to going to war is much weaker and their bar for justifying it lower?  Many people have valorised and continue to valorise war for a variety of reasons, and to that extent they really are pro-war.  There are pro-war people today who were antiwar when it came to bombing Serbia, just as there were pro-war people then who have become antiwar with respect to Iraq, and then there are those who have been pro-war in both cases.  We have to be able to call the latter pro-war in some sense, since their default response to international crisis or dispute seems to be, put crudely, “Bombs away!” 

Some wars are necessary, but most are not.  In that sentence lies the difference between someone who is pro-war and someone who is antiwar.  The former will think that a great many wars have been necessary, while the antiwar person will be hard-pressed to think of many.  Austria’s war on Serbia in 1914 was not necessary–Austria had already received virtually every concession it had demanded, and the dispute could have been resolved without the use of force–and everything that came out of that initial conflict was likewise unnecessary.  There are no absolutely pro- or anti-war people who will always support or always oppose every war, but there are clearly people biased towards the use of force and those biased against it.  It is one of the central arguments of this magazine, as I understand our position, that it is natural and indeed vital for conservatives to be biased against it and to support it only when justice permits and necessity requires it.  In that context, I think it is fair to describe the tradition of conservatives who opposed entry into ongoing wars or who opposed starting wars of our own as an antiwar tradition. 

The alternative tradition that has generally supported America entering ongoing wars and that has been willing to start or provoke wars is not absolutely a “pro-war” one (it is more accurately a nationalist one that supports pretty much all American wars), but in context and as a matter of shorthand I think the label is not only appropriate but necessary.  Frankly, you don’t get to support a war of aggression, such as the war in Iraq, and then wash your hands of the complications that it brings on by saying, “Of course, I abhor war, and I never wanted this to happen.”  At some level, every person probably does abhor war or some aspect of it.  The question is the degree to which one abhors it and its effects and what effect that has on how you respond to a policy aimed at joining or starting a war.  To say, “We should invade, but I don’t want the war to happen” is to try to have it both ways.  The equivalent would be if a war opponnent tried to take credit for some good that came out of the war, even though he had opposed the war up until then–he would be ridiculed and mocked for wanting the best of both.  If you support going to war, you have concluded that it is a better option than the alternatives and to that extent you want it to happen.  In some cases, this is the correct position to take, but in most it is not.        

Here is something that I don’t quite understand about the objection to the label “pro-war.”  Everyone understands the context in which the label is being used, just as the labels hawk and dove meant something specific to the Vietnam War.  Interestingly, we now use hawk and dove to refer more generally to attitudes towards the use of force, but I see no one complaining about describing certain politicians as “hawkish,” which is frequently the same as saying that they are pro-war.  I would call myself an antiwar conservative, but I am decidedly not a pacifist, partly because I don’t think anyone can really be a thoroughgoing pacifist.  Virtually everyone believes in the right to self-defense, so there is really no question of outright pacifism.  For that matter, the people who governed France in the 1930s weren’t pacifists, either, and their unwillingness to go to war over the occupation of the Rhineland came from a combination of war fatigue, yes, but also from the recognition that it didn’t make a great deal of sense to go to war to keep Germans from occupying their own territory.  They made a judgement that it was not worth it, and that the terms of the old peace had been excessive.  They did not rule out the possibility of going to war with Germany, but rejected doing so at the time.  As the events of 1939 make clear, they obviously did think that war was a legitimate and acceptable means of policy at some point, so whatever else we want to say about the strategic mistakes of British and French policy leading up to WWII pacifism has nothing to do with it.  You can say that the governments were antiwar, and certainly antiwar people today are going to have to put up with comparisons, however far-fetched, with those governments.  So I don’t see why those who supported invading another country with no real justification cannot be fairly called pro-war, since they definitely were and, for the most part, still are in favour of the war, even if they do not favour War in the abstract.  Indeed, they consider their continued support something they can be proud of, so why should they be bothered by having others describe them as pro-war?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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