Rejecting Ideology, Upholding Justice: A Veteran for Peace on the Ethics of Pacifism and Ukrainian Self-Defense

Rejecting Ideology, Upholding Justice:
A Veteran Peace Activist on the Ethics of Pacifism and Defending Ukraine

E.K. Knappenberger, 13 Mar. 202

A Veteran for Peace

“Knappenberger, stop complaining! We are the best army in the world, we do things as well as they can be done.” So said the commanding officer of my company in 2006 in a plywood shack in the middle of Iraq.

When I was a soldier in the war nearly twenty years ago, it seemed like our US hegemony was unchallengeable, unstoppable, inevitable. We rolled through an opposing army in a matter of weeks, and imposed our political will on the hapless and backwards country at hand. The US military was busy building another coalition government and setting our sights on other unruly geopolitical problem children. And yet, silly Knappenberger, I still found reasons to complain: our occupation was neither justified nor carried out properly. Besides wasting tens of thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars, the Bush administration recklessly allowed a genocide of millions of Iraqis to unfold. And ultimately Donald Rumsfeld’s incompetent policies led to the rise of the extremist Islamic State and the very regional destabilization that they feared in the first place. I watched all this unfolding in real time as a soldier and as an analyst.

When I left the army in 2007, I began a two-year project aimed at ending the US military Stop-Loss program, which involuntarily extended the contracts of our supposedly “all-volunteer” military. The legality of said program was never established or upheld in a court of law. Called the “backdoor draft,” Stop-Loss exposed the lies of US imperialism. Not only is the US military not so voluntary as it would like the world to believe, but the US invasion of Iraq was neither as moral nor as popular as Bush and Rumsfeld made them out to be. By attacking the artifice of lies that undergirded the war in Iraq, I was helping the US Army to be better — morally, ethically, practically. I was holding my country to public account for its actions. My activism was then and continues to be a form of critique, though I didn’t have the philosophical vocabulary to express it that way at 22 years of age with no college education.

When I commenced a very public political life, I expected support from the veteran community, which was after all party to the negative effects of the Stop-Loss. To my surprise, the veteran world (with the exception of Veterans for Peace) was somewhat hostile to my project, calling me a traitor and a hippy. It was in fact the peace community which was supportive of me and my projects. And so, by default, I began to participate in the peace and justice world, which I still do. I spent ten years working for and board member of peace and justice centers in Bellingham, Washington and Charlottesville, Virginia. I was involved in other nonprofit boards, projects, veteran enterprises and even socialist and anarchist communities. I was instrumental in the early phases of Occupy Charlottesville. I spent extra years in college just to study pacifist theology and philosophy.

I suppose I should trot out some of my other credentials, to contextualize the arguments I am about to make. Among several books I have written is one with my friend: lifelong peace worker, missionary and veteran Rev. Dr. Alfred S. Dale, Jr. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees from a christian pacifist university in the fields of philosophy, theology and religion. I studied academic pacifism with the students of John Howard Yoder and James Luther Adams. I am a qualified Mennonite historian as well as a trained military intelligence analyst. I have published ethical and historical works in a variety of peer-review and multimedia outlets; I have presented keynote and guest lectures at peacebuilding conferences and massive antiwar events. I was Washington D.C. Peacemaker of the Year in 2007. I have starred in counter-recruiting videos against the militarization of youth. I have been cited as an activist in several books of history and theory. I coordinated the Virginia chapters of Veterans for Peace for several years. My wife and I are aspiring Quakers.

The inclusion of these credentials is not braggadocio but goes to the establishment of the harsh truth which I find myself wanting to address to parts of the peace-adjacent community. Those whom I intend to sharply criticize now cannot brush my critique aside nor can they dismiss me as an unserious outsider. I have earned my say in this matter, both as veteran analyst and as peace advocate.

A Veteran for Situational Pacifism

One of the important things that struck me in my younger days was my mentor, Alfred Dale, who though a radical Methodist and peace advocate, spent a decade in the military — including as a teenager in the Second World War. When Al and I used to talk about war and peace, he would say that he had been “a conscientious participant” in the war. He explained this to mean that he was unsure of the ethical considerations of fighting a war as a Christian, but that he knew deep down that the actual war itself was necessary. Afterwards, he spent the next seven decades working for peace, and even got booted from the Army Reserves for protesting another US war in Vietnam. Al’s doctoral dissertation at the Chicago Theological Seminary, University of Chicago, struggled with the use and application of Just War Theology, which stems from the Augustinian tradition.

Though Al Dale was not, like many Mennonites and Quakers, an absolute pacifist, what he worked for his entire life was what might be called a principled situationalism. Having done graduate work myself on the ethics of the seminal Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, I understand this to mean a rejection of pacifist absolutism coupled with an affirmation of the general principles of Christian nonviolence. In the post-Marxist or Foucaldian sense, we might call this a pacifistic critique of ideology. From such a theoretical framework, we can hold as proximate both complete Christian gelassenheit and the empowerment of those who have chosen, under a specific set of conditions, to defend themselves in a Just war. This avoids the moralist pitfalls on either side — like Al Dale, Martin Buber, and Gandhi, we must support the cause of Truth and Justice even when it seems on the surface to conflict with that of Peace.

And here is my first criticism of a certain set of activists who have embraced hollow dogmatism in the place where analytical and compassionate reflection should operate. Some on the left have joined with the likes of Kremlin propagandists and notorious FOX dissembler Tucker Carlson in, for example, blaming NATO for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite a clear historical continuity of imperialist Muscovite aggression predating NATO by half a millennium. This particular example of hypocritical dogmatism bears more scrutiny.

These “peace” ideologues have preposterously tried to claim that Putin’s expansionist war of choice was somehow defensive. They point to NATO expansion into former Soviet-bloc countries; they claim that NATO itself constitutes an existential threat to the Russian Federation. Nevermind that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, and that in my own lifetime Russia itself considered applying for admission into NATO. Nevermind that NATO gave multiple assurances that Ukraine would not be joining it before it was attacked. Nevermind that Eastern Europe, having suffered 75 years of Soviet Russian occupation — and centuries of Russian domination before that — was begging desperately for protection from the Russian war machine. Nevermind that the tiny baltic and central European countries in question — or even the whole of 21st century Europe as it currently is — could hardly hope to threaten a massive, nuclear-armed Russia. Nevermind that Russia itself ratified the pre-Putin borders of Ukraine, and even offered multiple security guarantees in the 1990’s when Ukraine voluntarily de-nuclearized its armed forces. The ideologues in the peace community dismiss all these inconvenient truths en masse.

More could be said here, but my point is simple: the dogmatic opponents of Ukrainian self-defense, those who call themselves “peace advocates” and agitate against western aid to Ukraine, claim that in blaming NATO expansion into former Soviet-occupied territory they are really just trying to contextualize the war from an objective standpoint. But this could not be farther from the truth. A truly objective historical contextualization of the Russian occupation of Ukraine would begin with the fact that Ukrainian ethnic groups — Huzul, Kozsak, Lemko and Kyivan Rus — predate the Muscovite nation-state by hundreds of years. The diverse peoples that make up Ukraine today are not historical offshoots of Russia, as the Russian media have often claimed, but vice versa. Furthermore, the ideological “peace” agitators fail to take into account the fact that the many  “republics” in the Russian Federation are colonial projects, penal colonies and puppet states that have been conquered piecemeal by Russia since at least the time of Ivan the Terrible.

The same voices that are so quick to criticize the US history of imperialism and racism are silent on the overt fact that 21st century Russia is engaging in an evil expansionism similar to the 18th and 19th century American practice — only in Russia’s case they are doing so with a modern, mechanized military and in defiance of the entire intellectual tradition of marxist thought which they still at times revert to. And whereas the proponents of US manifest destiny came from an intellectual context where such things were acceptable if lamentable, Russia today routinely belittles the United States and Europe with the hypocritical rhetoric of anti-imperialism.

Indeed, listening to Putin’s banal dictatorial speeches, it is clear that he, like Hitler before him, wants to purge the world of “social deviants” — starting with gay, lesbian and transgender culture — using force if necessary. Putin has often pointed to rightwing extremist talking points to justify his atrocities at home and abroad. This alone should be enough of a red flag to those who worry about government-enforced gender violence. And so we naturally must ask: why the silence from so-called peace advocates on Russian violence? Why have they failed to disown hateful Russian rhetoric, imperialism and atrocities? They are not so shy when it has been time to denounce America!

One would do well to ask a whole slew of followup questions. For “peace advocates” who have spent a good deal of time in public clamoring about US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, where is the outrage regarding Russian war crimes in Ukraine? For those who have worked against sexualized violence at home and abroad, and yet who turn a blind eye to the rape, torture and genocide daily being perpetuated by the Russian army on Ukrainian civilians — for those who have spent decades trying to find and exploit cracks in the US “military-industrial complex,” and yet who still want to rob Ukraine of the means of self-defense — where is your zeal against Prigozhin’s mercenaries? Where is your dissent against the use of untrained Russian prisoners as cannon fodder? Where have you condemned the bombing of civilian targets in Ukraine? Where have you spoken against the Stalinesque violations of international law, the rigged votes for regional accession, the clear Russian lies and the Russian aggression peddled 24/7 on Russian television?

Hypocrisy on these points is easy to spot and impossible to cover over. It takes a deliberate sort of blindness for supposedly global-minded persons to ignore what Putin is doing in the world today. The “special military operation” in Ukraine is clearly an illegal war of racist aggression against the actual people of Ukraine, who for decades have been begging for protection, warning of Muscovite intentions. Right up until the day the invasion started, these same “peace advocates” mocked US intelligence assessments that showed a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. For several weeks afterward, many of these Putin-apologists were silent, refusing to admit that they were wrong. If only their silence would continue until the war is over!

Neither does it take an intelligence analyst with a government clearance to know what Putin is up to. Russian atrocities in Chechnya and Georgia should have been enough of a warning to anyone paying attention to Russia in the last thirty years. Even Russian political opposition, as well as the independent Russian news media, was busy telling us exactly what was about to happen in the weeks leading up to 24 Feb 2022. And yet, smart people who found themselves aligned with Russia for one reason or another dismissed all these sources — western reporters, jailed Russian dissidents, independent Russian news media, US and British intelligence — and more importantly the collective wisdom of a hundred million people once affected by Soviet rule — as “western propaganda.” These same Russia-apologists claiming to stand for peace and justice are now, (still!) refusing to listen to everyday Ukrainians as the Russian atrocities pile up in their illegal war. This repugnant attitude of dismissing reality when it disconfirms personal opinion is a type of deception akin to lying.

Also, there are other, more subtle lies and threats being peddled under the banner of peace. These often begin with legitimate fears. I am referring to Putin’s impudent nuclear saber-rattling when things do not go his way in the world. Whenever the west reaches out to help the democratic self-defense of Ukraine, Putin lobs the words of nuclear war, triggering a wave of sympathetic indulgence on the American left. It is the indulgence of these hateful threats that empowers little Putins everywhere in their plutonium ambitions. Because what sane person isn’t afraid of nuclear war? And yet, to those thousands of civilian women and children massacred in 2022 in Mariupol, in Bucha, in Irpin, what difference if it was a nuclear bomb or a conventional one which killed them? At least a nuclear bomb can’t imprison and rape a person like those hiding behind them can. Buying and repeating Putin’s terroristic shill about the end of the world, as some so-called peace people have done, is wholly unhelpful and somewhat nihilistic. I myself have done anti-nuclear advocacy work, and have studied these issues; let me just say that there is a profound difference between working for a world free of nuclear weapons and trafficking in nuclear terrorism on behalf of a criminal regime. One is honest and the other is not.

A Veteran Against Illiberal Propaganda

Unwilling to spend another century subjugated to the will of a dictator, perhaps with the memory of Stalin’s holodomor still in mind, the Ukrainian people shocked the world by standing together and repulsing the imperial war machine at great personal cost. Few western analysts were able to foresee this surprising development, perhaps because we have been deluded by propaganda for so long that we forgot what actual unity looks like. We forgot, if we ever knew in the first place, what is possible when a society is united. Most Ukrainians have spent their lives with the sewage pipe of Russian misinformation dumping into their homes, poisoning their families and wrecking their politics. Additionally, Ukraine has been at war since Putin invaded its sovereign territory in 2011; since then, many Ukrainians have developed a certain immunity to the Russian rhetoric which has been trying to divide them against each other. In effect, the Ukrainian populace has learned to critically evaluate misinformation and to trust their own political governance process in significant ways.

In an important turning point, the Ukrainian people have become proficient at tuning out those unhelpful, unnecessarily-divisive voices which speak in odious dogmatic tones. And in this, the rest of the world has something significant to learn from Ukraine: namely, that organic unity is still possible in a postmodern world, even in a pluralistic and democratic society. This unity, this sense acting toward true Justice — this standing together against divisive antagonism within as well as against the repugnant evil without — this is a precious treasure that should be protected and emulated. And it is also precisely this organic unity in defense of the common good which is the guarantor of our situational ethics.

To hear my friend Al Dale talk about it before he passed away, a similar thing happened in America in the 1940’s: former enemies and political factions came together, silenced the few remaining bad-faith rhetoricians in a way that was not permanent or totalizing, but which worked to preserve opportunity for pluralist discourse at a future time. It was this ethical flexibility practiced within the framework of liberal democracy that was able to successfully protect the social fabric from totalitarianism by cutting off cantankerous fascist rhetoric. This also had the effect of attracting the foreign intelligentsia of a world shadowed by absolutism.

I am not speaking of a synthetic unity inculcated by wartime western propaganda, but of an organic unity which preceded it. Often these two different concepts are falsely conflated by fringe elements who find unity of either kind uncomfortable and impractical. In other words, there is a time and an ethical way to shut the door on self-styled “free speech absolutists” like Elon Musk, a noted pusher of Putin disinformation who personally profits from the chaos and confusion he inculcates. Yes, there is a time to close the conversation on those who will never be comfortable within the limits of a free society — those who want to ruin it for everyone else. This closure of insincere dialogue in the public sphere can be conceptually delimited from the totalizing shutdown of all discourse, as it is currently practiced in Russia itself. Theoreticians like Zizek and Jameson have in the last decade begun expressing similar sentiments, calling for new forms of social discipline with which the impending crises of climate change and global hypercapitalism might be faced.

Ultimately, it is important that considered, reflective and critical discourse are allowed to thrive — and this sometimes means pulling up the weeds of the inconsiderate, immodest and indefensible misinformation personified in figures like Alex Jones. Ukraine can show us the way for our pluralist, liberal society o become immune to such illiberal propaganda. Ukraine can remind us exactly why we don’t want to indefinitely listen to power-hungry demagogues. Ukraine offers us a way to save ourselves from our own fascist tendencies; but we must first be willing to give them the means to defend their lives from the actual hordes of weaponized, under-supervised prisoners at their literal doorsteps.

A Veteran Against False Peace

Sadly, last year at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I had to sever ties with Veterans for Peace, an organization which I dedicated years of life and thousands of dollars to. Veterans for Peace seems to have fallen for the victim-blaming lie, and announced its official position against NATO — and de facto, pro-Putin. If my mentor Al Dale were still alive and on the VFP board of directors, this never would have happened. Sadly, Veterans for Peace is not the only voice repeating Putin’s lies. Former friends and left-leaning allies are settling in with the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Matt Gaetzs of the world in announcing the need to defund Ukrainian resistance. Such clownery is more than despicable, it is dangerous and emboldens the power-hungry.

My pacifist philosophy professors taught me a valuable lesson: that nonviolence can and should strive to be principled, consistent, practical and rationally-defensible. Neither are the self-styled peace advocates whom I am criticizing being consistent about their pacifism as a totalizing platform of Christian life — they are engaging in geopolitics surely — nor are they being consistent in their application of their principles to those geopolitics. Where they criticize the US as an imperialist bully, they see only poor little Russia, afraid and alone hiding behind thousands of nuclear bombs, raping and pillaging its neighbors in self defense. What’s more, for these former friends of mine, there is no actual discourse possible, precisely because any evidence they are presented which might contradict their ideology they summarily dismiss as “western propaganda.”

Actual Christian pacifists, those who struggle with pacifist teachings, and those peace philosophers like Al Dale, Buber and Gandhi, know the difference between fighting a war of choice and helping a people to defend their own homes. Those of us who understand principled pacifism, who want to engage a practical, Justice-based peace, know that the surface-level pseudo-peace of the last twenty years is not a real peace. We know that the thin veneer of peace in post-soviet Russia was only a disguise for the international crime syndicate (i.e. the Russian oligarchy,) which has been busy promoting ethnic nationalisms and destabilizing liberal democracies everywhere. It is painfully obvious to anyone interested in the rule of law that there can be no actual peace so long as Putin and his thugs are free to invade their neighbors whenever they like. To advocate for this false peace at the expense of the Ukrainian people is morally indefensible.

A Veteran for Defending Ukraine

It has been a long and confusing journey for me through war and peace, but I still feel as if my fundamental mission is the same: to participate meaningfully in society, to stand for what is right, and to make the world better. I have found in studying philosophical and theological ethics that there is no autopilot for doing what is right. There is no cardinal direction toward Justice; no cruise-control morality. I believe with Buber that we can inductively determine right and wrong, but that we must otherwise engage in some form of situational dialectics in order to determine what is best, what is relational and mutual. And sometimes this means helping people defend themselves.

In this essay I have not named individuals, though it would have been easy to do so. Nor have I hurled ad hominems or emotive arguments. What I have done is point out a few of the hypocritical positions of those who claim to stand for peace while implicitly colluding with a morally-repugnant Russian war. I have also tried to consistently, rationally and practically demonstrate the need to end bad-faith discussion and to build social unity — if not for the providing of every available defensive means to Ukraine, then at least to the purpose of keeping the discourse from turning sour as Ukraine bleeds.

“Stop complaining, Knappenberger!” is not terrible advice, upon reflection. There is a time and a place for such complaints. In the middle of the life-and-death struggle which is happening in Ukraine even now is not such a time. This is a hard lesson — too hard for the dogmatic, who will learn too late how precious life and freedom are. In the meantime, I pray for peace and hope for the safety and victory of the forces of Ukrainian democracy. Slava Ukraine!


E.K. Knappenberger is a former military analyst, religious historian and occasional philosopher in McCauley, West Virginia and Harrisonburg, Virginia.

2 Replies to “Rejecting Ideology, Upholding Justice: A Veteran for Peace on the Ethics of Pacifism and Ukrainian Self-Defense”

  1. Excellent commentary. Much appreciated. As a Veteran and a Christian interested in the cause of peace, I was considering joining/donating to Veterans for Peace. However, I was concerned about some of the positions held by that organization, including the one on NATO. Based on your comments, I’ve decided not to join Veterans for Peace. I’ve been investigating other peace organizations to join and donate to instead. Perhaps you have some recommendations?

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