Ethics of Pacifism: When is the Amoral Choice Not Using Force?

Speaker: Sebastian Junger, Author and Filmmaker


One of the really confusing things about war is that it's so awful and it's so violent and sometimes it's necessary. That right there is a conversation that society has an awfully hard time with.

I'm just coming at it from my personal experience. I wasn't in World War II. I wasn't in World War I. I get that those were awful, awful events in human history.

My experience with war started in Bosnia. That war, which went on for four years and culminated in the massacre at Srebrenica—8,000 men and boys machine-gunned into pits and bulldozed over, and that finally helped trigger real NATO intervention, which stopped the war.

My experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, I kept having these—and I grew up in New England, in a totally liberal family, post-Vietnam, antiwar, anti-military, the works—that's how I grew up. I went to a Montessori school in Cambridge in the 1950s. I mean imagine.

My experience was in war after war, I'm thinking, "When is the world going to do something?" Finally, the world does it and the war stops. So I have a very complicated relationship with the use of force.

I remember I was in Liberia—what a bloodbath—in 2003, probably the most terrifying experience of my life. There's an American warship anchored offshore, off Monrovia.

At one point, I am in this street crowd. The Liberians during wartime were pretty volatile in crowds. It was a very charged energy in the street. It was terrifying.

A lot of that energy started to be focused on me because I was an American. There's this crowd that gathers in front of me. People are accusing me of things—"You're American."

Oh God, here it goes. That's way scarier than combat, because you're totally alone with a crowd. I mean a crowd is a monster.

You know what they were upset about? They were upset that there was an American warship offshore and that they were staying there. They were like: "Invade us. What are you doing offshore? You have an army for a reason. Come help us. What are you doing? Come. We need you. Stop this war. Three American soldiers could stop this war. What are you doing in the safety of your warship?"

I had no answer. I left, I had to get out of there. I had some real issues with the Taylorgovernment that got pretty ugly and I got out of there.

But what happened after I left was the American forces did come ashore. I don't know how many, but it wasn't a lot. And they never fired a shot, and it ended the war.

I got back to the United States. I was on the subway. I saw some kind of radical newspaper. The headline was "Imperialist U.S. Forces Out of Liberia."

I'm like, Are you kidding? Is this where the pacifist movement is at right now, that a squad of Marines shows up in Monrovia and ends a war and that's a bad thing?

To me it just captured the very confusing ethical territory of use of force, and that we have not figured it out yet. The far right hasn't; the far left hasn't. It's a very confused conversation.

The far right thinks that the U.S. military in an endeavor can do no wrong; and the far left thinks in any endeavor they will always do wrong, they shouldn't exist. Neither is true.

In order to minimize harm and maximize good in the world, we're going to have to have a real conversation about when do you use force; when is the amoral choice not using force? When is that? I don't know when it is. But we need to have that conversation.

Transcript of entire lecture here

Lecture based off discussion of WAR