On Being a Non-Pacifist Peace Advocate: A Personal Reflection

My main concern, as a writer and activist, for almost a decade now has been the cause of peace: that is, defending human lives against the threat of war, especially the terrible threat of nuclear war. I expect this cause will continue to be my passion for the foreseeable future.

Yet while I care deeply about stopping war, I’m not a pacifist. I’m not absolutely opposed to war in principle. I accept that war can be justified in principle and may sometimes be justified in practice—even as I advocate against war.

I will try to describe these ambivalent views and how I understand my work as a non-pacifist peace advocate. This description will necessarily be tentative and incomplete, since my views on the subject are as well. My purpose isn’t to convince either pacifists or hawks to change their minds, but simply to make my views clearer, not least to myself. Moreover, those who have similarly ambivalent attitudes might appreciate knowing that like-minded people are out there.

Reservations about Pacifism

Let me explain, in what will necessarily be a broad brushstrokes way, why I’m not a pacifist. Because many definitions of pacifism are possible, I will define how I use the term. By “pacifism,” I mean absolute opposition to the large-scale, organized killing that is war on the grounds that war is inherently evil and can never be justified under any circumstances.

I can’t accept such a rejection of war as inherently evil in principle. Some may embrace such a rejection for religious reasons, but my own religion, Catholicism, doesn’t teach such a view of war. In the Catholic tradition, war can sometimes be justified, if certain strict conditions are met.[1] To be sure, the Bible and Catholic tradition contain a deep ambivalence and tension about war and violence. Further, Catholicism contains strongly dovish elements that have become perhaps especially prominent in recent years.[2] Because of these dovish elements in Catholicism, an absolute rejection of violence is understood as a valid personal choice for those Catholics who feel spiritually called to it.[3] Nevertheless, pacifism isn’t obligatory for all Catholics. So, I don’t find a basis for an absolutist rejection of war within my faith.

If I turn from Catholic tradition to my own moral intuition and reasoning about war, I also can’t reach a pacifist position. In my judgment, not all violence is equal. A society that uses the organized violence of war aggressively, for the purpose of conquest or revenge, is acting in a qualitatively different way from a society that uses such violence in defense of itself or others. To issue a blanket condemnation of both types of war as simply “violence” leaves out crucial distinctions. The aggressive society is perpetrating an injustice, while the defensive society is trying to stop an injustice. (I recognize that real-life wars are usually far messier and more morally ambiguous than this simple aggressor-defender scenario, but I’m speaking hypothetically here, because I’m talking about absolutist opposition to all war in all possible situations.)

Further, to hold that a society must never wage war, even in its own defense, and must (if no effective forms of nonviolent resistance are available) submit to conquest, oppression, or even enslavement and genocide by an aggressor rather than resort to war seems intuitively unjust to me. I balk at accepting such submission as a moral obligation.

A way of thinking about war that I find more helpful than pacifism is the school of thought known as Just War Theory. While associated with Christianity, Just War Theory has parallels in other religions and in secular thought. Just War Theory provides a set of standards for judging whether or not a war is justified and thus implicitly provides a model of what a “just war” would be like.[4]

Just War Theory makes a similar distinction to the one I described above between aggressive war and defensive war. A war waged for conquest or revenge or to commit some other injustice can’t be just. A war waged to defend one’s own society or another’s or to correct some other injustice may be just—although other standards must also be met.

According to Just War Theory, war must be waged only as a last resort, when no nonviolent ways of correcting the injustice are available. The war should not create greater injustices than it is meant to correct. Those waging war must respect certain limits, such as not deliberately killing civilians in the opposing society.

A war that met the standards laid out by Just War Theory is one that I could support as justified. By contrast, I can’t, for the reasons I have given above, accept a pacifist rejection of war as inherently evil. I’m therefore not a pacifist.   

Opposition to War

Yet while I can’t call myself a pacifist, I still advocate for peace. I’m determined to work against war, despite my non-absolutist stance on war. I would identify three major reasons for this position.

Unjust wars. While I can’t reject war in principle, that doesn’t mean I judge most actual wars to be just. As I mentioned, Just War Theory includes many standards and failure to meet these standards undermines a war’s claim to be just.

A war might be waged in a way that indiscriminately kills or harms civilians in the opposing nation. This has been the case in American wars such as World War II and Korea. Or the war might cause so much death and destruction that enduring whatever injustice originally provoked the war is preferable in comparison. This has been the case in American wars such as World War I. Or the war might stir up such hatred among the warring nations as to morally compromise their war efforts. In this vein, I think of the horrifying racist hatred toward the Japanese that World War II inspired.[5] I think of how a commander in the Persian Gulf War boasted of whipping up his troops, putting “some hate in their heart,” so they would bomb retreating Iraqi troops with a clear conscience.[6] Also, in many cases, war might not qualify as the last resort: diplomacy or some other nonviolent approach could have been equally effective or more effective in stopping an injustice. (And, of course, a war might simultaneously fail to meet multiple Just War Theory standards.)

When I consider not “war” in the abstract, or some hypothetical war that meets all the Just War Theory standards, but rather real-world wars, I must conclude that wars are often not justified. I doubt that the wars my own country, the United States, has waged over the past 120 years or so meet the necessary standards.

As a result, I’m extremely skeptical of wars’ justification in practice. This skepticism moves me to work against war.

War’s cost. Even if some real-world war were ever justified, that war would still be unspeakably tragic. All war, justified or not, involves the deaths of human beings, of people who will never get a chance to live their full lives, of people whose loved ones will be devastated and bereaved forever. These are the inescapable realities of war. We should never become insensitive or complacent about them. Even if war can be justified, it can’t ever be anything other than horrific. 

Consider the example of the US Civil War. I am not knowledgeable enough about the period to judge confidently whether the Union war effort against the Confederacy could fully meet all the Just War Theory standards. Still, compared to many other wars, the Civil War probably came closer than most to being just.

Union victory ended a grave injustice, American slavery. War may well have been the only way to end slavery, at least once the southern states seceded in 1860. The political results of Union victory, with the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, were a better outcome than the Confederacy continuing as an independent, slave-holding nation. Whatever atrocities the Union war effort might have involved, it didn’t involve widespread indiscriminate killing of civilians as other American wars did.

Let’s grant, if only for the sake of argument, that the Civil War was indeed a rare historical “just war.” Yet even such a just war involved terrible costs. Estimates of the war dead range from more than 600,000 to more than 700,000 people killed, or 2-2.5 percent of the American population at the time.[7] In the contemporary United States, that would be the equivalent of 6-7 million people being killed in 4 years. Such losses are staggering.

Also, we must consider the Civil War’s outcome. While Union victory was preferable to Confederate victory, the war’s results were still bitterly disappointing. Any real political impact from the post-war constitutional amendments was largely lost in the following decades. Black Americans were reduced to a status not much better than slavery for roughly a century after the war. The struggle for racial equality continues to this day.

When I consider the Civil War’s colossal costs and imperfect outcome, I’m led to the melancholy conclusion that even a (perhaps) just war is a terrible way to overcome injustice. While opposing the many unjust wars in our world is necessary, I don’t think such an effort is sufficient. We must also work for a world where those rare just wars become even rarer.

We must invest the time, treasure, and effort necessary to create political conditions where war is less likely to become the only option for overcoming injustice. We should constantly try to identify or create new nonviolent methods of dealing with injustice.[8] While a just war is better than an unjust one, not having to fight a war at all is better still. This conviction moves me to work against war.

The nuclear threat. War has qualitatively changed since 1945. That year, human beings invented nuclear weapons: weapons of such destructive power that they can never be practically used in a just way. Nuclear weapons wreak destruction too extensively and indiscriminately to be used consistently with Just War principles.

Further, if nuclear weapons are used in sufficient numbers, the consequences will be not only immoral but suicidal. Even a small-scale nuclear war could lead to environmental catastrophe and famine. A large-scale nuclear war, such as threatened to break out between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, would lead to the end of human civilization.[9] One need not be a pacifist or even an advocate of Just War principles to want to prevent such disasters.

This nuclear threat hangs over all of us today. Several nations, including the world’s most powerful ones, now possess nuclear weapons. Conflicts among nuclear-armed nations, which are real possibilities given tensions among the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, have the potential to end lives on a horrifying scale.

Even conflicts that don’t involve confrontations between nuclear nations can indirectly heighten tensions among such nations. For example, the United States’ 1999 air war against Yugoslavia helped sour US-Russian relations and contributed to the current new US-Russian Cold War. The American wars that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, after both of those rulers failed to acquire nuclear weapons, provided a powerful lesson to other heads of state: if you want your regime to survive, nuclear weapons provide invaluable insurance. These wars didn’t involve multiple nuclear-armed nations, but they might encourage such nations to hold on to their nuclear weapons while encouraging other nations to acquire them.

I can’t ignore this context when I make judgments about international conflict. Direct conflict between nuclear-armed nations clearly must be prevented. Further, decision-making about other conflicts must consider any actions’ potential side effects on nuclear nations. Policymakers must behave with caution and restraint and seek stable relationships among the nuclear-armed nations.

Policymakers and activists must also work to reduce the nuclear danger radically through arms control. Our ultimate goal should be to abolish nuclear weapons, or, if that is impossible, to get as close to abolition as we can. Nuclear weapons raise the stakes of continued international conflict and make nonviolent alternatives and peacebuilding all the more important.[10]

To summarize, I’m deeply skeptical of how often real-world wars are just. Further, even if war can occasionally be justified, war is so costly that we should strive to address injustices before war ever becomes necessary. Nuclear weapons’ existence makes international conflict riskier than ever before. All these considerations give me a determination to work for peace and alternatives to war. This is why I pursue peace activism, even while I can’t accept pacifism.  

A Commitment to Peace

In explaining my views, I recognize that to many these views might seem little more than platitudes: “War is usually bad, but maybe occasionally can be justified.” “I’m not opposed to all war, but I certainly don’t like it.” “Nuclear war would be a catastrophe.”

I also recognize that I haven’t given clear answers to questions such as “Is a just war only theoretically possible or can real-world wars sometimes be just?”, “Can war ever be ended altogether or will it still be necessary in some cases?”, or “Can nuclear weapons be completely abolished?”

To such criticisms I must offer very simple responses. As banal as my position may be, it’s the most honest one I can take when I consider the question of war. For me, either an absolute condemnation of war or more confident support for war’s righteousness wouldn’t reflect my own thinking on the subject. I similarly can’t say whether abolishing war or nuclear weapons altogether is possible, because I just don’t know the answer. I would like to believe the answer to both questions is “yes,” but I’m not certain.

Despite my ambivalence and uncertainty, however, I’m not going to stop advocating for peace. I don’t want to fall into a pattern of polarized, either-or thinking (to which I recognize I can be prone) that either regards a principle as an absolute or dismisses it altogether. I don’t believe that I must regard nonviolence and opposition to war as absolutes to advocate for them meaningfully and effectively. I also don’t want to fall into paralysis because I’m not sure what ultimate goals peace activism can hope to achieve. I doubt anyone really knows that.

I don’t think a commitment to pacifism is necessary to have a commitment to peace. What is necessary is to recognize the terrible threat war poses to human life and to work against that threat. And not to give up.   


[1] See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2263-2265, available online at https://bit.ly/3wUUCSB, accessed June 3, 2021; and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), Chapter 5, 79, available online at https://bit.ly/3vRidDB; accessed June 3, 2021.

[2] See Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), 256-262, available online at https://bit.ly/3garVdx; accessed June 3, 2021.

[3] Gaudium et Spes, Chapter 5, 78-79.

[4] For a clear and concise summary of Just War Theory principles, see Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005), 285. For a Catholic perspective on crucial aspects of the Just War Theory, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2307-2314, available online at https://bit.ly/3vUTQ88, accessed June 3, 2021. For a secular defense of Just War Theory, see Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

[5] See “‘Remember Pearl Harbor: Keep ‘Em Dying’: War and Racism in the Pacific.”

[6] Quotation from US Air Force Colonel David Baker, interview in the PBS Frontline episode The Gulf War (1996); transcript available at https://to.pbs.org/3fOglpN; accessed June 2, 2021.

[7] For various estimates of Civil War dead, see American Battlefield Trust, “Civil War Casualties,” accessed June 3, 2021, https://bit.ly/3fQBBLE; Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” New York Times, April 2, 2012, https://nyti.ms/3wTOtGd; PBS, The American Experience, “The Civil War by the Numbers,” accessed June 3, 2021, https://to.pbs.org/3fQgybK.

[8] Gaudium et Spes, Chapter 5, 81.

[9] For analyses of the ultimate consequences of nuclear war, see Columbia University, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine, Says Study,” Phys.Org, March 16, 2020, https://bit.ly/2JdGqAP; Rutgers University, “Nuclear Winter Would Threaten Nearly Everyone on Earth: Second Study of Its Kind Confirms Extreme Impacts from US vs. Russia Nuclear War,” ScienceDaily, August 28, 2019, https://bit.ly/2J5cHua.

[10] Gaudium et Spes, Chapter 5, 80.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “On Being a Non-Pacifist Peace Advocate: A Personal Reflection

  1. One of the aphorisms I’ve been pondering lately is by Pope Paul VI: “If you want Peace, work for Justice.” Justice can be difficult to determine, so it’s certainly challenging to think about. But I feel like there’s a truth there that I definitely wrestle with.

    1. I think you’re touching on the central problem: how do we work for justice while also adhering to nonviolence? These two goods can sometimes be (or at least seem to be) in tension. This tension is what makes so many of us uncertain and ambivalent about war.

      For my part, I don’t find any of the standard responses to the tension between justice and nonviolence wholly adequate. Just War Theory is, in my judgment, probably the least bad response but even it falls short. As you suggest, there is a lot to wrestle with here.

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