“Some people seem confused by my posts recently. Just because I’m anti war does not mean I’m a pacifist.”
That is what Joe Kassabian – author of both fiction and non-fiction and the host of “Lions Led by Donkeys”, one of my favorite podcasts and a gateway that led me to leftism – tweeted out a day after war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The reason that some of the listeners of Joe’s podcast and readers of his books might have been confused or upset was obvious if you know anything about him. After all, as long as I have been consuming Joe’s content, he has made his views on war pretty obvious: he’s against it. I could think of more than a handful of episodes of his podcast where he and his cohost Nick had very clearly stated that military blunders like the ones they examined throughout history can simply be avoided if you “don’t go to war” and “don’t invade people.” This was given further weight by their combined military service, which included time spent in Afghanistan for Joe.
However, the recent war in the South Caucasus has a personal dimension for Joe as an Armenian-American. The conflict and long going disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan center on territory known as Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh. Though internationally recognized as a territory of Azerbaijan, Artsakh is both historically and overwhelmingly ethnically-Armenian and only became part of Azerbaijan under the former-Soviet Union, when the Soviet government created Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region within Azerbaijan in 1920. Artsakh itself has been nominally independent – though officially unrecognized – since after the last full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a bloody conflict was halted by a cease-fire in 1994.
Since the last war, both countries have engaged in a prolonged, low-level struggle with one another over Artsakh, with occasional flare ups. But on September 27, 2020, the conflict escalated back into a fully blown conventional war as Azerbaijan’s military launched attacks with armor, artillery and airpower in an attempt to seize Artsakh. They have done so with the full political and military support of Turkey – which committed the infamous and horrific 1915 genocide against the Armenian people.
The escalating conflict has quickly brought with it violence and suffering for the civilians of not only Armenia and Artsakh – which have been directly targeted – but also for the citizens of Azerbaijan, caught in the crossfire and victims of collateral damage. There have also been reports of Azerbaijani war crimes against Armenian POWs. As of November 10th, a contentious peace agreement brokered by Russia has taken effect that heavily favors Azerbaijan and has garnered mass opposition in Armenia, ending this most recent conflict between the two states in a way that virtually guarantees renewed fighting between them both in the future.
With all this in mind, it is understandable why Joe would strongly support both Artsakh and Armenia proper in defending themselves from Azerbaijani and Turkish aggression. However, clearly enough people were confused or upset by Joe’s words and actions that he felt like he had to make the tweet I referenced at the onset of this essay to clarify his feelings. That gets to the heart of an issue that I’ve seen a fair amount in the relatively short time since I first delved into the world of leftism, when it comes to war and international relations: a misconception of what it really means to be “anti-war.”
Being Anti-War vs. Being Pacifist
On the surface being “anti-war” seems like it should be very simple: you are against war. That’s certainly what the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition gets across when it defines the term as being “opposed to war” (yes, I’m actually pulling the high school book report move of referring to the dictionary definition of a word; deal with it, internet). The gist of that definition certainly seems to be the point I’ve seen articulated by any anti-war protest or protestor I’ve ever seen – either in person or through second-hand accounts in the media.
That being said, an important distinction needs to be made between being opposed to something and refusing to participate in it. In this case, I mean the difference between being anti-war and pacifist – a distinction that feels like it gets muddled when it comes to anti-war activism. This is the distinction I that I believe that people who were confused by Joe’s vocal support of Armenia were not making.
While being anti-war means generally being opposed to war, being pacifist is specifically defined as “refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds” (yes I did it again; die mad about it; word choice and definitions matter). The distinction here is important because while being pacifist rules out participation in war altogether – even if it is forced upon you – being anti-war does not. Being opposed to an activity does not necessitate a refusal to engage in an activity, especially if your well-being and the well-being of others depends on it.
I offer up an extremely simplified example: I am generally opposed to punching someone in the face (except if they’re a Nazi; in which case, you should feel free to liberate their teeth from their fashy head). That being said, if I was suddenly attacked by some rando on the street – or a good friend or family member of mine was attacked in the same situation and I was standing right next to them – you’d better believe I’d fight back with anything and everything I had at my disposal until the assailant was no longer a threat to me or whoever I was with who had been attacked.
The logic of that example translates to war. Like Joe, I consider myself to be anti-war – despite my lifelong study of it and fascination with it as a phenomenon. But that does not mean I think that you should never fight a war under any circumstances, even if you are the one being attacked by an aggressor. I’m no pacifist – as the above example probably made crystal clear.
On the contrary, I believe that a country that is the victim of aggression has every right to defend itself – just like the victim of a random attack would in my hypothetical example. You could go even further to say that a country has an obligation to defend its people from aggression – especially in the face of mass destruction and possible genocide. Moreover, I’d argue that in the spirit of international solidarity, if an allied or innocent country is the victim of aggression, any leftist state has a duty to come to that ally’s aid and help to defend them and their people until the aggressor is no longer in a position to do them any harm. In my eyes, this is the only major reason a leftist government would to go to war: to defend yourself or an ally against attacks by an aggressor (another time we can get into the nuance of lesser included cases such as going to war to prevent genocide or to enforce or keep the peace – something definitely relevant to cases like Armenia’s as well).
This is certainly not a new idea. In the aftermath of World War I, the signatories to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 all renounced war as an instrument of policy – though reserving the right to war in the case of self-defense. Likewise, the United Nations Charter prohibits its members from the use of force to resolve conflicts between one another, but still allows them the right to self-defense if attacked by an aggressor. Naturally, these documents have failed to stop aggression altogether, but the point here is that the idea of being anti-war but reserving the right to defend oneself against an aggressor is an established and realistic one. You can’t count on everyone else to play by the same rules. There are always going to be those with malicious intent and the ability to act upon that intent.
The “Don’t Start None, Won’t Be None” Doctrine
All this connects back to one of the main points I made in the first essay for this site and one of the main reasons why I started writing these essays in the first place. Even if your country were to turn completely leftist overnight, you simply cannot count on ever other place in the world to do the same simultaneously, nor can you count on them to respect that change.
While some might like to imagine a sudden and complete globe-spanning revolution turning the planet into a fully-automated Star Trek-style space communist paradise in short order, the reality is that will almost certainly never happen (though it’s fun to think about, I won’t lie). The reality is that if any kind of leftist administration is ever achieved in the United States, we would have to deal with an international order based around states and governments. Within that order there would be more than a handful of states that would disagree with our governing principles, as well as with some that might actively wish us and anyone aligned with us harm.
This doesn’t mean that we should be doing more of the same as we have under past administrations, intervening in ongoing conflicts and launching invasions in the pursuit of empire and in the service of capital. Doing that, but under new branding, would simply be imperialism in another guise much in the same way some authoritarian leftist governments have couched it. A democratic socialist government should not seek to start wars. However, if attacked – or if an ally who shares the same principles and values as us is attacked – we should fight back. We should definitely seek to fight to defend ourselves or our friends until the aggressor is no longer in a position to do further harm to ourselves or the ally.
Almost more important than fighting back to defend oneself, is the act of making this intent clear to anyone who may wish to do us or others any harm, exercising the simple concept of deterrence. Clearly and effectively signaling that while we will not seek out and start wars and wish to live in peace, that we will defend ourselves fully if we are attacked, in itself may help to prevent wars that might occur if a potential adversary sees us as being pacifists rather than being simply anti-war but willing to fight back in the way we have defined so far. I don’t have an eloquent name for this overall foreign policy and defense doctrine, so I’ll settle for calling it the “don’t start none, won’t be none” doctrine.
The gist of the “don’t start none, won’t be none” doctrine is that we won’t go around causing trouble, kicking in doors and launching invasions for resources or political clout. But if someone comes around intending to the do the same against us or an innocent victim, then the aggressor had best not be operating under the delusion they won’t face any kind of retaliation.
This is not to say there may not be lesser included cases where invention may be necessary. Things like intervening in an internal conflict to stop a genocide or for other humanitarian reasons (something we can cover in a future essay). But in terms of large-scale armed conflict between states, the only real acceptable reason for a non-authoritarian leftist government to go to war should to be for the purpose of defending itself and like-minded allies (in another future piece I’ll also dedicate more time to thinking about what that might look like in terms of execution and operations)
The Last Resort (but still an option)
Many leftists might see war as a horror and a nightmare that should be avoided at all costs. I understand that viewpoint and I agree with that, but only to a point.
I think a country should always try methods short of war to avoid a conflict first but avoiding war should never come at “all costs”, no matter what. This is especially true when avoiding war would entail giving up everything you and everyone you care about had worked to achieve, or potentially could entail your very life – a prospect that Armenians today are very cognizant of given their history with ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The example of appeasement leading up to World War II is often overused – or even incorrectly used in support of ill-intent towards others – but that doesn’t mean that it does not carry valid lessons that we should take to heart. Seeking solutions short of war should always be the first attempt at resolving issues between states – maybe even the second, third, and so on as well. But you should never simply give up everything you have in order to avoid a war – and if you did, at that point the war would probably still happen anyway. Likewise, you should always be prepared to fight a war if it comes to that – even if you are committed to not being the one to draw first blood in a conflict.
A reality I will return to constantly throughout these rantings and ravings is the fact that I don’t think war or states are going anywhere anytime soon, regardless of how our politics may change in the decades to come. I like to think I understand why some people say we should simply abolish borders and disband states and end war that way. But as a realist (lower case “r”, not upper case “R” like Morgenthau or Mearsheimer), at the very least I don’t believe that is feasible in our lifetimes or even the lifetimes of the next generation (at the very most, I don’t believe it is possible ever, but that’s something maybe I can expand on in another essay). War is and will continue to be a persistent element of life on Earth. As long as there are individuals with the ability to marshal people and resources to that end – which there always will be – war will continue to occur.
With war remaining a constant possibility, we will need to be prepared to fight it, even if we do not seek to start it. We will need to be prepared to fight it even if we are not the ones who attack first, because there will always be those who are weaker and more vulnerable through no fault of their own who may be preyed upon by aggressors for any number of reasons, and we’d be paying lip service to any ideas of international solidarity and other principles of leftism and basic human decency if we did not come to their aid. Consider if you will, yet another form of mutual aid, same as helping to provide food, medical care, and other necessities. If it comes to blows, we must be prepared to offer our own ability to fight as another form of aid to those who need it.
War is a terrible and destructive man-made disaster. But just as we can’t avoid natural disasters, as long as we exist as a species we will never be able to completely avoid man-made ones either, and we must be prepared for them even if we hope and pray they never happen.