Pacifists and soldiers

Eugene Volokh quotes this essay in NRO:

A popular bumper sticker says “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” If you’re a pacifist who hasn’t been murdered or enslaved, thank a soldier.

Well, yes and no. If you’re a pacifist (or not a pacifist, for that matter) and have been murdered or enslaved, you can probably thank a soldier as well.

Hurting people and destroying their stuff is much easier than helping them and making new stuff. That’s the human equivalent of the Law of Entropy. As a result, wherever a society is capable of making more than a bare subsistence, there will be people who eschew useful work and specialize in taking other people’s stuff, either by simple force or by threatening to hurt them if they don’t give it up. That being the case, productive activity will always require guards. Thus the Law of Easier-to-Hurt-than-to-Make renders pacifism a prime example of the category “nice ideas that wouldn’t work in practice.”

But that doesn’t mean that its opposite, militarism, is somehow a good idea. It’s not as if soldiering per se is on balance a good for humanity; surely the pacifists are right that war is brutal and wasteful. And as Plato pointed out, the capacities that enable guarding — capacities for the organized use of actual or threatened violence — also enable taking.

The human good is served, not by soldiers simply, but by soldiers under the control of the people they’re supposed to be guarding. The capacity to generate military force adequate for national defense without letting the soldiers take over the country is perhaps the single greatest advantage of the modern republic over the classical republic. In defiance of Machiavelli, it has proven possible to subordinate the people capable of wielding organized violence to people capable of wielding persuasion and law.

So there’s no getting around the point that disrespect for soldiers — what Kipling called “makin’ mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep” — is not merely cheap, but self-defeating. We should all be enormously grateful to the soldiers who guard us externally and the cops who guard us internally. But we should be grateful to them precisely because they do what they are told by non-soldiers and non-cops.

The Law of Easier-to-Hurt is definitely a design flaw in this universe, and I hope that whoever builds the next one will learn from earlier mistakes. The pacifist fallacy — that the Law of Social Entropy doesn’t exist, or can safely be ignored — must be refuted in argument to prevent our refuting it by experience. But the pacifist impulse that desires to minimize the role of violence, and wielders of violence, in human affairs, is perfectly sound.

It’s not pacifism to have as one’s goal making war as irrelevant as possible. That’s a perfectly workable goal. War is already irrelevant to practical politics on the North American mainland.

If the European Union holds together, war will become similarly irrelevant to a similar-sized population. In a long view, whether Germany and France backed the US and the UK against Iraq is trivial compared to the overwhelming fact that Germany and France aren’t even thinking about fighting each other, or Britain; for the first time since the Dark Ages, Western Europe isn’t at war or preparing for war. The faster that zone of we’re-not-going-to-fight-one-another expands, the better.

In South America, the armies have for more than a century been more dangerous to their own populations than to each other, and the last couple of decades have brought enormously encouraging progress in bringing those armies under control. Now the question is whether the guerrilla armies and paramilitaries can be overcome without re-entrenching the brass hats in power, and whether the political system can be made to work in ways that foster economic success. Anyone who expresses optimism about sub-Saharan Africa ought to have his head examined, but it is just barely possible that South Africa will provide a model of a country where the military is on tap and not on top, and that somehow that model will spread.

One of the consequences of the Cold War was the desire on the part of the United States to have all the countries opposed to the Soviet Union increase the share of their GDP devoted to defense, and therefore to have “pro-military” governments in power. (The fact that American weapons-makers profit from selling weapons to countries that can’t afford them was surely not irrelevant to the domestic politics of that process.) As applied to countries such as Iran (under the Shah), Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the resulting policies proved to be a disaster both for them and for the rest of the world by fueling the growth of militaristic versions of Islamic fundamentalism.

Now that the fundamental conflicts we face are with enemies no match at all for us in sheer military power, a foreign policy in the American national interest ought to take as one of its primary measures of success decreasing defense budgets, and the influence of the military on politics, worldwide. That isn’t pacifism, either. It’s just common sense, and traditional American thinking to boot. After all, we’re Athens, not Sparta.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: