NEW ZEALAND’S PARTICIPATION in the war against Islamic State has already prompted angry criticism from the Left. This country boasts a pacifist tradition extending back at least 100 years, to the First World War and the persecution (among many others) of the conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter.
Less honourable, perhaps, and certainly less grounded in the pacifists’ profound ethical objection to the taking of human life, is the Far Left’s historical opposition to “imperialist wars”. Significantly, their protests against these conflicts were generally organised on behalf of “the victims of capitalist aggression” – whose victories in such “wars of national liberation” were eagerly anticipated. These were the unabashed revolutionaries, who, in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, chanted: “One side right, one side wrong. Victory to the Viet-Cong!”
Somewhere in the “middle” of the Left stand those who are willing to accept that in some circumstances (World War II being the most cited example) the taking up of arms is not only an urgent, but also a profoundly moral, necessity. This idea of the “Just War” goes all the way back to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments are still drawn on by members of the UN Security Council whenever decisions have to be made about whether or not to authorise the use of military force.
The greatest anti-war movement of the last century was undoubtedly the international movement against the US involvement in Vietnam. All three of the great anti-war traditions: the Christian prohibition against waging “unjust war”; the revolutionary socialists’ objection to “imperialist war”; and the pacifists’ uncompromising opposition to the taking of human life; were intermingled in the global “mobilisations” against the Vietnam conflict.
What elevated the anti-war struggle in the United States to a cultural watershed, however, wasn’t opposition to US imperialism, or even the appalling loss of life, although both of these considerations played a part. No, what really transformed the anti-war protests into a genuine mass movement was conscription. Overwhelmingly, the young men sent to fight and die in South-East Asia were draftees – conscripts whose “number” had, quite literally, come up.
Not In My Place: American university students whose call-up had been 'deferred' strove to rescue their conscripted brothers by ending the war in Vietnam.
One of the few ways to avoid the draft was to enrol in a course of university study. It is only when one grasps the importance of “deferment” that the crucial role played by university students in the American anti-war movement makes any historical sense. As the number of American soldiers in Vietnam began to escalate, those whose service had been deferred felt an increasingly urgent obligation to bring the conscripts home. Young working-class Whites, Blacks and Hispanics were literally dying in their place – and for no good reason. The US wasn’t battling Hitler in Vietnam, it was napalming and carpet-bombing peasants whose only crime was an iron-clad determination to rule themselves.
America’s experience in Vietnam brought home to its leaders the huge risks entailed in fighting what came to be seen, increasingly, as an unjust war with conscripted citizens. If a government’s intention is to use its military resources for any other purpose than national defence against an imminent and existential threat, then it is best that the soldiers, sailors and air personnel employed are professionals – not draftees.
Doing Their Job: New Zealand's highly professional special forces personnel in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A professional standing army, precisely because it is not composed of the voters’ conscripted sons and daughters, may be deployed in relative political safety for any number of purposes (many of them, these days, decidedly dark). The usual left-wing suspects will complain – but with considerably less effect than during the war in Vietnam.
Professional soldiers look forward to war. Fighting for their country is exactly what they signed-up to do. Should they fall in battle, their families, their comrades and their country’s leaders will mourn and honour them, but at the back of everybody’s mind will be the thought: “They knew this might happen, but they weren’t deterred. They died doing the job they’d always wanted.”
Try making an anti-war movement out of that!
True pacifists are few and far between. Anti-imperialists almost always have a dog in the fight. And unjust wars, providing the “enemy” is rendered sufficiently terrifying, and providing the participating military forces are made up of highly-trained professionals just itching to get amongst it, are unlikely to cause the governments that wage them very much in the way of serious political bother.
Few Kiwis will march in the streets for Islamic State.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 November 2014.