Why Pacifism Was Modified: Vladimir Putin

It's suddenly clear. We now see why Eastern European countries hustled in their NATO applications after the Berlin Wall tumbled: Mother Russia is a brooding matriarch coveting the children she once kidnapped, and Vladimir Putin stands in the tsarist lineage of thuggish, self-appointed successors of the Byzantine Caesars. Bare your chest and steal Crimea -- and throw in that 97 percent vote as homage to yesteryear's Soviet elections.

Obviously, a U.S. military strike is out of the question, but Putin reminds me why I reluctantly sympathize with fourth and fifth-century Christian theologians in their abandonment of strict pacifism, which historians Peter Brock and Thomas Paul Socknat define as "an unconditional rejection of all forms of warfare," including self-defense. Goths and Visigoths marauded, culminating in Alaric's sack of Rome in 410. Christians, once persecuted, now held high governmental positions with obligations to guard their citizens. Their moral dilemma: How do we handle sociopathic tyrants? Such bullies thank their enemies for the olive branches and then brandish them as whips. Think of Nero, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor. Think of Ted Bundy with an army.

Milan's bishop, Ambrose (337-392 CE), borrowed Cicero's "Just War" approach, which mandates a just cause, a formal declaration, and just conduct. His more famous pupil, Augustine (354-480), agreed in his classic, City of God, which also carved a notch for conscientious objectors. He contrasts God's eternal, peaceful city with the temporal and ill-fated City of Man. The two cities now mingle, with Christ's wayfaring pilgrims duty-bound to both. Subsequent thinkers molded the theory into what might better be called "modified pacifism:" A war must be waged for a just cause, with the right intention, as a last resort, by a lawful authority, and with a reasonable chance of success. It must be selective in its weaponry, adhere to international conventions, and avoid deliberate civilian assaults.

A pacifist heart beats within modern Just War thinkers (that unfortunate label has stuck). Blood-letting makes their skin crawl. Didn't Jesus, the Prince of Peace, order Peter to drop his sword? Didn't pacifism reign during Christianity's first three centuries? They worry about war's dark allure: the adrenaline-laced saber rattling, the feel of raw dominance, the malevolent pleasure of revenge. Pope Leo XIII called war a "scourge;" Pope Paul VI pleaded to the United Nations: "Never again war, war never again!" The US National Conference of Bishops wrote in 1983: "Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of disputes," with force permitted in "exceptional circumstances." John Paul II said war "is always a defeat for humanity."

But what about those Mafia-don leaders? The ghosts of the Rwandan genocide want to know.

Pacifists almost invariably reply with platitudes and finger-wagging deflections: "We didn't negotiate enough ... we're just as guilty ... We're for peace; you're for war ..."

Really? Does total non-violence invariably lead to genuine, holistic peace? Remember the hopeless diplomacy of Cyrus Vance and David Owen in their efforts to end the Bosnian War. The Serbs only negotiated after NATO bombings.

Strict pacifism's weaknesses glare when we review a bygone era that ran on different assumptions: The fascist threat rendered the political Left less dovish in the 1930s. Reinhold Niebuhr, a social democrat and arguably America's greatest twentieth-century theologian, debated in 1932 with his brother, Richard, on the pages of The Christian Century. Japan had attacked China late the previous year. Reinhold said war is sometimes necessary while Richard suggested the U.S. should pray, repent, remain inactive, and plunge into "an American self-analysis." Our inaction would be "of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness."

A question: How would our doleful self-analysis have helped up to 200,000 Nanjing civilians in 1937, victims of the Imperial Army's orgiastic rampage? Does our guilt for past sins excuse present-day neglect?

More weaknesses reared in 1936, when the Nazis re-militarized the Rhineland. The British and French remembered the Great War's slaughter and did nothing. Hitler, who ordered his troops to retreat if attacked, took heart: The allies were soft. He bullied them into ceding Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland at the Munich conference of 1938, after which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed "peace in our time" to the applause of his countrymen (we forget the applause). Hitler invaded Poland the next year.

Incredibly, British pacifists still wagged their fingers in 1942 while the air raid sirens howled. George Orwell -- again, a socialist -- said pacifism served the pro-fascist cause: "If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other." That's why the Nazis encouraged allied pacifists while rounding them up in the Fatherland. "Lying on one's back" in attempts to halt German troops betrays "ignorance of the way in which things actually happen."

Perhaps Orwell wasn't fair, but D.S. Savage, General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, reeled in near-drunken moral equivalency: "War demands totalitarian organization of society. Germany organized itself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same."

No wonder why Orwell accused Savage of "intellectual cowardice."

He was kinder to Mohandas Gandhi in 1949. The Indian leader's Satyagraha philosophy was "a sort-of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling an arousing hatred." He commended Gandhi's rejection of "the sterile and dishonest line" that all sides are equally evil, and even credits him for intellectual consistency in his calls for sacrifice. But "it is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again." The British raj would arrest Gandhi with great publicity; Stalin would have had him shot and his family laboring in Gulag mines, with Pravda somberly rejoicing over its fictional statistics on escalating pig-iron output. No one would have known his fate and, in a land crowded with NKVD moles, no one would have asked.

Which circles us back to Putin. He's hardly Stalin's son, but he is something like a great nephew, a might-makes-right tough. Our considerable failings cannot blind us to cold reality: Modified pacifism is our only reasonable choice as long as former KGB agents reign and itch for those halcyon days of empire.