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(A revised and updated post from September 2007.)

peacedove32209War is most often unnecessary, ineffective, immoral, or all three.


Let’s define necessary as “something essential; something that cannot be done without,” and effective as “something that accomplishes its stated objectives.” I believe war most often fails to meet both of these criteria. It’s usually unnecessary, because there are almost always alternatives that have been proven to work brilliantly if the intervention happens early enough. It’s usually ineffective because it most often exacerbates the very problems it seeks to solve. And it’s usually immoral because (among other things) it brings with it massive unintended consequences for the innocent — my main objection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some stats to consider:

One in seven countries are currently at war.

More than half of war deaths are civilians.

There are now over 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.

Children account for two-thirds of those killed in violent conflict since 1990.

An increasing percentage of world conflicts involve poor nations (formerly one third, now one half).

The average civil war drains $54 billion from a nation’s economy.

25 million people are currently displaced by war.

Mortality among displaced persons is over 80 times that of the non-displaced.

Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years.

[SOURCE: UN Development Programme Human Development Report, 2005]

Yes, stopping Hitler was a terrific idea. Unfortunately, our public discourse now evokes WWII as the justification for all wars instead of recognizing it as one of the very few necessary wars in our history. (See Ken Burns’ documentary THE WAR for a powerful condemnation of the ongoing misuse of WWII to justify discretionary wars.)

Here’s a nice nutshell: Except in the rare cases when war is necessary AND effective AND morally defensible, peace is preferable.

Seems reasonable — which may be why so many atheists and humanists have added their voices to (among others) the Catholic, Quaker, and Unitarian Universalist peace traditions in opposing war.

This position isn’t universal among the religious, of course. Nearly every day I wind up in traffic behind someone with a bumpersticker collage in praise of God, Guns, Country, and War.

Nor do all nontheists agree. Bob Price lays out an opposing POV in a piece that is surprisingly weak for him. Among my several objections to his essay: he doesn’t mention unintended consequences, my MAIN reason for opposing war; he seems to oppose atheist pacifism in part because it “seem(s) to embrace social ethics that mirror in startling ways the stance of Christianity,” as if any common ground is automatically “startling”; and he presents a straw man of moral equivalency that bears zero resemblance to my position — nor Bertrand Russell’s, for that matter. No surprise that WWII was the sole exception in Russell’s opposition to war. (Price’s depiction of anti-capital punishment positions is somehow even weaker. I oppose capital punishment not because I refuse to “cast the first stone” at a murderer, but mainly because of the high error rate in convictions.)


So why bring up war and peace today? No, it’s not Tolstoy’s birthday. Today is the International Day of Peace, an observance created by the UN in 1982 “to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of mankind [sic], to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways… (The International Day of Peace) should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.” (from General Assembly Resolution UN/A/RES/36/67)

News organizations have offered their annual yawn. A Google News search today brings up all of 399 references to the phrase “International Day of Peace” and 355 to “Peace Day” — mostly in non-U.S. media.

Not only do the stats and history seem to support the futility of war, but the foundation of secular ethics is this: in the absence divine safety net, we are all we’ve got, so we ought to try very hard to take care of each other. If war generally fails to accomplish its objectives while impoverishing and killing millions of innocent bystanders, secular ethics ought to oppose it — except in the rare cases when there really is no alternative.

When it comes to this standard, most of our national violence is far more analogous to the Mexican-American War than to the fight against Hitler.

Talk to your kids about your preference for peace, the futility of violence, the situation of child victims of war — and the fact that all of these opinions flow quite naturally from a secular worldview. Donate to Nonviolent Peaceforce, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, or another organization that’s out there doing the heavy lifting for humanity.

New video from Nonviolent Peaceforce

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.