The Common Good
September/October 2005

Is Peace Realistic?

by Robert Roth | September/October 2005

Neoconservatives and humanitarians can share a false trust in weaponry and a not-so-subtle imperialism.

People of faith called to be peacemakers gain greatly from books as politically wise and nuanced as David Rieff'

People of faith called to be peacemakers gain greatly from books as politically wise and nuanced as David Rieff’s collection of recent essays, At the Point of a Gun. Not long ago, Rieff was an interventionist who supported the efforts of the United States, its allies, and the United Nations in using force against those who commit human rights atrocities and also for humanitarian emergencies. Now he believes the United States should almost always "lean away from war" because there are "not many just wars."

The book’s 15 essays were previously published in magazines such as The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine, for which Rieff is a regular writer, between 1996 and 2004. A leading journalist and expert on contemporary armed interventions, Rieff has the intellectual and moral courage to publicly change his mind and show how he became convinced - on the streets of Iraq and in hot spots such as Kosovo - that neoconservatives hoping to spread democracy and humanitarians wishing to end ethnic cleansing and deliver food share a false trust in weaponry and a not-so-subtle imperialism. Rieff’s changed mind and heart emerge in the prefaces, postscripts, and "afterthoughts" he has added to many of these pieces.

Does altruism justify war? Rieff argues both sides of this question from his own before-and-after writings, which makes for compelling reading and subtle conclusions. He elucidates conflicts - such as in Rwanda - where the "victims were ready, willing, and able to become the victimizers when they got their turn." Nonetheless, Rieff still counts Rwanda with Bosnia as the two warranted exceptions to his new non-interventionist position.

CHRISTIANS WHO rarely read The New York Times’ international pages might find At the Point of a Gun a slow read but a great primer. Rieff offers pithy overviews and timelines regarding the United Nations and its recent secretaries general, the Kosovo war (the first waged by NATO), war/crimes distinctions, peace accords of the last two decades, and the theology, history, and geography of Iraq’s dominant Shia people.

The first half of the book covers the United Nations and international relations before the Iraq war. The second half explores the actual war and its impact on Iraq, the United States, and the world scene, especially regarding empire and imperialism, human rights, and humanitarian possibilities.

In Rieff’s preface to his most pro-intervention piece - "A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?" - he criticizes his own "sanguine account of U.S. power," concluding that "From Somalia to Rwanda, Cambodia to Haiti, and Congo to Bosnia, the bad news is that the failure rate of these interventions spawned by the categorical imperative of human rights and humanitarianism in altering the situation on the ground in any enduring way approaches 100 percent. Time and time again, our moral ambitions have been revealed as being far larger than our political, military or even cognitive means."

Others have certainly turned away more dramatically from violence as a given than Rieff. Sixty years ago this month, Father George Zabelka began a three-decade process of changing his mind, completely, concerning the morality of all war. He was chaplain to the pilots and crews of the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (killing more than 100,000 people) and Nagasaki (more than 50,000). Zabelka returned to those cities in the 1970s to say, "I’m sorry. I was wrong."

Still, both Zabelka and Rieff offer people of faith a measure of hope. In their own ways, both look at global events with honest realism, seeking a better world.

Rieff’s book caused me to temper my too-cheery outlook regarding some African governments, the short-term possibilities for the United Nations (Rieff clarifies the United Nation’s image in many regions as subservient to the United States), and the International Criminal Court (how will it gain widespread legitimacy and relevance?). In the end, Rieff’s clear-eyed secular analysis that war is failing repeatedly around the globe deepens my hope, a hope born of a gospel preference for peacemaking and nonviolence.

Robert Roth directs the United Methodist-related Shalom Center for Justice and Peace in Lansing, Michigan.

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