Editor's Note: From our June 1991 issue, the late Progressive editor Erwin Knoll explains his commitment to nonviolence—a resonant topic today. A Holocaust survivor, Knoll says he struggled all his life with "just war" theory. His pacifist position, shared by Progressive editors and writers from Fighting Bob La Follette to Howard Zinn, was not casually come by. The case for military interventions and armed insurrections in various conflicts has been a source of debate on the magazine's staff throughout its history. But, Knoll writes, "Since the beginning of the Cold War era, The Progressive's opposition to war as an instrument of national purpose—or of revolutionary change—has been consistent and firm." "Violence is a terrible taskmaster," he explains. "It compels its victims to emulate their oppressors. And what's the point of doing that?"
Last fall, when the U.S. Government was assembling more than a half million US troops in Saudi Arabia for what was sure to be a bloody war against Iraq, I participated in a panel discussion of the Persian Gulf crisis at a small, church-affiliated liberal-arts college. The speaker who preceded me was the school's chaplain, who delivered a learned and, it seemed to me, interminable disquisition on the theory of just and unjust wars. He quoted Thomas Aquinas and other sages, and concluded, after much rumination, that American military intervention in the Persian Gulf would not meet the traditional criteria of a just war.
I was impatient because I could have been marching that very night, back home, in a militant street demonstration against the coming war. I wasn't at all sure that I had done the right thing by leaving town to add my comments to an abstract, academic discourse. The situation called for protest, not chatter.
What's more, I was simply bored with the whole "just-war" argument, having rehashed it so many times, over the years, in my own mind. So when it came my turn to speak, I heard myself saying in a tone verging on incivility, "There's no such thing as a just war," and adding for good measure, "Never has been. Never will be."
To my surprise, nobody in the college audience—not even the chaplain—challenged my summary dismissal of centuries of "just-war" doctrine. But when a frontpage editorial in the March issue of The Progressive repeated the assertion that "There is no such thing as a just war," there was swift and angry reaction from many readers.
One irate correspondent characterized the statement as "mush" and asked, "What about the Vietnamese, the Sandinistas, the nations victimized by the Nazis? Weren't their wars just?" Another asserted, "I do not remember seeing before in your magazine such a statement of a principled pacifist position. For example, you have not adopted this position in regard to wars waged by progressive forces against the United States and its allies in El Salvador, Southern Africa, and Vietnam. . . . Your new-found pacifism has the ring of inconsistency."
One letter-writer demanded to know how I could tell a Salvadoran teenager that he had no right to take up arms against his government's oppressive army. Still another found the renunciation of the just war concept "self-righteous, condescending, and imperious," and urged me to "tell it to the countless number of thoughtful people who, through the ages, have agonized over the question of just war. Or . . . to the fallen black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, or the guys dead on the beaches of Normandy, or the young people throwing stones at Brezhnev's tanks in the streets of Czechoslovakia."
Having done my own agonizing—for several decades—over the question of just war, I can sympathize with such outraged reactions. The idea that it is sometimes necessary and, indeed, proper to slaughter our fellow human beings to stamp out a great evil or advance a noble cause has, after all, been drummed into all of us by Church and State, School and Family. To reject that notion is to dismiss the ultimate sacrifice made by ancestors, friends, relatives, and compatriots who laid down their lives in wars they—or, at least, their governments—deemed worthy. Perhaps it is self-righteous, condescending, even imperious to suggest that their last measure of devotion—as Lincoln described it at Gettysburg—was neither just nor justifiable.
I make no apology.
A bit of history: When Robert M. LaFollette Sr. founded this magazine in 1909, opposition to militarism and war was one of its bedrock principles. The principle was put to the test in 1917, when LaFollette's was one of the few lonely voices raised in opposition to US entry into World War I. That stand was immensely unpopular, even in his home state; LaFollette was burned in effigy on the campus of the University of Wisconsin.
The Progressive's writers and editors were deeply divided over the question of intervention in the years leading up to US entry into World War II, and conducted lively and sometimes virulent debates in the pages of this magazine. The interventionists ultimately prevailed, but The Progressive never succumbed to the mindless war fever that seized the mass media. It rejected, for example, the vapid rhetorical goal of "unconditional surrender," and it proudly published the uncompromisingly pacifist writings of the late Milton Mayer, who began submitting his pieces to this magazine during the war years when no other publication in America would let him have his say.
Since the beginning of the Cold War era, The Progressive's opposition to violence as an instrument of national purpose—or of revolutionary change—has been consistent and firm. The reader who suggested that we supported "wars waged by progressive forces against the United States and its allies in El Salvador, Southern Africa, and Vietnam" is simply mistaken. We supported the goals of those progressive forces; we supported their cause; we did not support the use of violence to attain those goals or to promote that cause. We have, for example, called for justice for the Palestinians since the state of Israel was established in 1948, but we have never condoned violence by the PLO (or by the Israelis).
It's a difficult argument to make, of course. How can I say to a long-suffering victim of South Africa's apartheid regime that he or she should not take up arms against such brutal oppression? How can I tell the Salvadoran teenager cited by one of my correspondents that he or she must resort only to nonviolent resistance against the savagely greedy oligarchs who exploit the people of that land?
I respond that the casualties of war are hardly ever the patriarchs and oligarchs and despots who are supposedly its targets. Just wars claim the just—not the unjust—as their victims.
About the only thing we know with certainty about the casualties US troops inflicted in Iraq—not a just war by any standard––is that of the 100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000 dead, not a single one was Saddam Hussein. The desperate resident of Soweto who picks up a rifle or a bomb will not kill one of the gold-mine proprietors who batten on the sweaty labor of indentured Bantu workers; he'll kill a soldier or a cop who can't find anything better to do with his life than don a uniform. And that teenaged Salvadoran revolutionary is most likely to shoot another Salvadoran teenager just like himself who was unlucky enough to be impressed into his government's army.
What can I say to urge nonviolence on a frustrated and furious Palestinian whose people have been abandoned by the whole world? I can say, Friend, I support your cause though I can't begin to share the depths of your pain. But from my safe distance I can tell you this: If you should succeed against all odds in obtaining justice by force of arms, the victory will turn to ashes, as all such victories have. The guns that were used to free your people will be used to re-enslave them. Every revolution, every national-liberation movement that achieves its ends by dealing in death continues dealing in death once its ends have been achieved.
And I can say, Friend, violence is a terrible taskmaster: It compels its victims to emulate their oppressors. And what's the point of doing that?
All this I've understood for most of my life. Why, then, did I spend so many years agonizing over the question of just and unjust wars? Because the first question you are asked when you say there's no such thing as a just war is the question that was put to me by so many of The Progressive's readers: What about Nazi Germany? For a long time, I wasn't able to answer that question.
I was born in Austria, and at the age of six I watched jackbooted Nazi troops march into Vienna. (Millions of Austrians cheered.) I was fortunate enough to escape with my life, but many members of my family weren't that lucky; they died in the camps. The Holocaust is, I suppose, the formative experience of my life.
As a teenager, even as a young adult, I loved to go to old World War II films so that I could watch Germans die. It gave me special pleasure to see the violent end inevitably allotted to officers of the Waffen SS who invariably wore monocles, permanent sneers, and black uniforms adorned with swastikas and death's-head insignia. I assumed, somehow, that all the German soldiers who froze to death in the siege of Stalingrad and all the German civilians cremated in the firestorm bombing of Dresden were officers of the Waffen SS who wore monocles, black uniforms, and permanent sneers. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that wasn't the case. Apparently, some people still haven't figured it out.
But wasn't it necessary, after all, to stop Hitler? Sure it was; it was necessary, in fact, not to let him get started. But of all the ways to stop Hitler or to keep him from getting started, war was the worst—the way that inflicted the most pain, the most suffering, the most damage on everyone—especially on Hitler's victims. A few months ago, when I read and reviewed Howard Zinn's latest book, Declarations of Independence, I was deeply moved by the account of his moral and intellectual journey from World War II bombardier to pacifist. Zinn offers persuasive evidence that the war magnified rather than diminished Nazi atrocities. And he writes, "History is full of instances of successful resistance (although we are not informed very much about this) without violence and against tyranny, by people using strikes, boycotts, propaganda, and a dozen ingenious forms of struggle."
I believe in ingenious, nonviolent struggle for justice and against oppression. So I won't support our troops—not in the Persian Gulf or anywhere else. And I won't support anyone else's troops when they go about their murderous business. And I'll say, regretfully, to the fallen black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, and the guys dead on the beaches of Normandy, and the young people who threw stones at Brezhnev's tanks in the streets of Czechoslovakia, that they died in vain perpetuating a cycle of human violence that must be stopped, because there's no such thing as a just war. Never was. Never will be.
Erwin Knoll was editor-in-chief of The Progressive from 1973 to 1994.