“Abhorrent to civilization,” said John Pershing, commander of America’s World War I Expeditionary Force. Poet Wilfred Owen described the horror: “Guttering, choking, drowning . . . the white eyes writhing . . . the froth-corrupted lungs.” Today, such monstrousness from Syria comes to us televised on YouTube. Is firing missiles the right way to stop it?
I’m a Quaker, a conditional pacifist, and a conscientious objector. War, killing, bombs, missiles—these things all disgust and terrify me, as I’m sure they do most Friends Journal readers. In my country of origin, apartheid South Africa, I tore up my draft papers. Here in the United States of America, I wrote “Objector” on my selective service registration, and as an American citizen, I haven’t backed a single war in the last 20 years.
One reason is my Quaker faith. Like Friends for 400 years, I view violence as counter-productive. We fight for peace, and then, like in Iraq, we end up making things worse. Then, too, war is inherently criminal. It extinguishes “the light within,” bringing evil and darkness to the world. There’s no getting around this basic fact about military conflict, which is a core wisdom we Quakers have to share with the larger community.
Then, too, as an immigrant, I’m aware how America is often viewed as arrogantly appointing itself as global police officer—while in the process also giving a free ride to other nations who benefit from our violence by sharing in “rich world privilege,” but who wish to keep actual blood off their hands.
Given all this, you’d think President Obama’s war powers request would be a no-brainer for me, the way it is for most of my fellow Friends. You’d think I’d be calling my Congressional representatives this week to ask them to vote, “Hell, no.” However, it isn’t that simple for me, and in fact I have decided to abstain, on principle, from participation in the specific missile strikes authorization debate. Here’s why.
First, the president seems sincere in his belief that missile strikes are in fact the antiwar position here. As one commentator put it this week, the proposed missile strikes are like United Nations peacekeepers, warlike in form, but antiwar in content. Despite its strategic importance, President Obama has spent two years working desperately to keep America out of the Syrian mess. I detect no macho swagger in his appeal for support, no underlying message of “We are America-the-righteous, and we’re gonna get ’em.” This mild and cautious style isn’t a reason to approve his request, let alone agree with the moral reasoning, but it does make me sit up straight and listen.
Second, this is the first American military action I’ve ever been asked to back that doesn’t aim to reshape the world according to a superpower’s desires. As a foreign-born American, it’s important to me Obama said he’s not trying to accomplish regime change. That would have been imperialism. I’m opposed to all wars, not just imperialistic ones, but the fact that this is structured more as policing than regular warfare makes it a harder for me to oppose than the usual military interventions.
Third, if media reports are accurate, Russia will veto a peacekeeping intervention in Syria no matter what evidence is uncovered about the Assad regime’s violation of the Geneva conventions. Quakers have always been active in the United Nations and, before that, in the League of Nations. But if we have reached the point where the United Nations cannot agree to censure a historically pathbreaking crime against humanity, then the truth is we have no global system, and U.S. vigilantism becomes more understandable, if not exactly acceptable.
Last, but most importantly, I come from the developing world. The people who have just “guttered, choked, and drowned” to death seem like my friends and neighbors. They are not “those people” with “their challenges.” I can’t shrug, like so many antiwar Americans seem to have been doing this week, and say, “Not my problem.” I’ll admit Quakers have been less guilty of this than the general antiwar left, but still there is a natural tendency for those of us in the rich world to just want to enjoy our prosperous stability and let the rest of the world suffer—a tendency that morally horrifies me. I just can’t do it.
As a Quaker, I know war is not the answer. Both peace in Syria and deterrence of chemical weapons need to be nonviolent and substantial, like enlisting the help of Iran’s new president to negotiate a settlement agreement, extraditing those who gave the sarin gas orders to the International Criminal Court, and boycotting powers—the Moscow Winter Olympics?—that stand in the way of the United Nations living up to its responsibilities.
But as of the time of writing, I can’t actually bring myself to call my congressional representatives and request a no vote. After all, it was no less a moral authority than Mahatma Gandhi who said, “It is better to be violent . . . than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence.” Without a well-developed idea of nonviolent deterrence on the table—and isn’t yet, the efforts of Quaker organizations notwithstanding—I feel like I’d be advocating impotence instead of nonviolence. I feel I’d be abandoning my developing world friends and neighbors to Assad’s war crimes. I feel like I’d be saying the guttering and choking is acceptable so long as it doesn’t happen to me.
So for now, at least, I must abstain from any political action on the president’s war powers request. It’s the only morally acceptable choice to me in a tough dilemma, and as far as I’m concerned, my Quaker pacifist conscience requires it of me.
Photo of Syria 11/5/08 courtesy Nicolas Mirguet, flickr/scalino (CC BY-NC 2.0)
An earlier version of the piece appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.