Saturday, October 07, 2006

Nice idea


Nice idea

Oct 5th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea
By Mark Kurlansky

Modern Library; 224 pages; $21.95.
Jonathan Cape; £12.99

Buy it at

SANCTIMONIOUS drivel dressed up as political philosophy. That, put crudely, is how many people regard pacifism. Non-violence may be a good way of tweaking the conscience of a liberal society, but it is a hopeless way of confronting tyrants, aggressors and madmen.

Mark Kurlansky, in his erudite and eloquent book, tries to put the other side. War is horrible, mostly fought for visibly bad reasons. Even ostensibly just wars do more harm than good. In short, violence invariably leads to more violence. Why not try pacifism instead?

Peace-loving and saintly thinkers, leaders and martyrs of past ages are indeed inspiring. Leo Tolstoy, Confucius and Mahatma Gandhi make predictable appearances, as do some other figures, whose stories are rescued from undeserved obscurity. And many wars' imperfect or disastrous outcomes are overlooked in the histories written by the victors. The author pokes some interesting holes in both America's civil war and its struggle against the British.

But he stretches credulity when he tries to weave it all together. The great world religions have pacifist strands—but that is only part of the picture. Jesus said “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Muhammad fought 19 military campaigns.

The most irritating aspect of the book, however, is not its content, or its logical lapses, but its tone. Mr Kurlansky implies that the opposite of a pacifist is a warmonger. If you do not believe (as he does) that the success of Danish non-violent resistance to Nazism shows that the second world war was the wrong way to defeat Hitler, then you are not just wrong, you are bloodthirsty, ignorant and stupid.

He blithely ignores the third position of the reluctant warrior, who takes up arms only when all else has failed, sombrely aware of the ghastly mess that will ensue. Yet it is in that part of the moral spectrum that the deepest thought can be found.

The Dalai Lama's foreword is rather better than the book. “Whenever conflicts and disagreements arise, our first reaction”, he writes, should be “to ask ourselves how we can solve them through dialogue and discussion rather than through force.” Amen to that: force should never be the unthinking first resort. But in a sinful world it may have to be the last one.

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