We Are Not in Treblinka

Because of my pronounced skepticism of war, my friends often prod me to consider whether there are any historic acts of mass violence that, given the opportunity, I actually would have supported. One such act always comes to mind, and its morally relevant characteristics are certainly not unique to it. This happened in 1943, well after the Nazis had made their genocidal intentions clear. The Allies had been faring well in battle, and prisoners in the Treblinka extermination camp—emboldened by Allied victories but simultaneously fearful that the embittered, flagging Nazis would move quickly to “finish the job” of Jewish annihilation—decided to strike their fascist captors before it was too late.

Following months of anxious, painstaking preparation, a prisoner inaugurated the rebellion one August afternoon with a gunshot to the air. Several of the conspirators at that point lured Ukrainian sentinels into a death trap with offers of pilfered gold. After lighting buildings on fire and killing dozens of guards, hordes of prisoners bolted for their lives, many with weapons stolen from an arms cache that the rebels had opened with a counterfeit key. Although the surviving guards chased after them, roughly 70 prisoners avoided recapture and lived to see the end of the war.

To all but neo-Nazis and a few ardent pacifists, it probably seems clear that those desperate prisoners acted justly. But if this episode is to inform our moral analysis of military conduct today, then we must determine exactly why our sympathies fall with Treblinka’s rebels. For example, we may suspect that their uprising was just because and only because they did not turn their guns on civilians. But imagine what we might say if several of the Nazis’ children had been visiting their fathers at Treblinka that day and that the desperate prisoners, by necessity, had killed those children in order to proceed with the uprising. Might we still insist that the prisoners acted justly?

I think we might.

Though the death of children is always tragic, perhaps we feel that the responsibility in that scenario would lie properly with the Nazis, not the prisoners. Inviting children to Treblinka, as the Nazis do in this hypothetical, is roughly analogous to forcing those children and the equally innocent prisoners into an old-fashioned duel, in which the survival of one side depends on the demise of the other. If the prisoners in that duel opt to save their own lives through lethal violence, then the resulting deaths are the fault of the Nazis, for the Nazis were the ones who coerced the hapless parties into dueling in the first place.

Alternatively, or additionally, we could defend the Treblinka rebels by saying that the Nazis were pure evil and that it is never a problem to kill evil people. But surely this is too permissive a view of killing. Even if we recognize the necessity of some killing, we should acknowledge that all killing, even of evildoers, is regrettable. Nazis, too, had people who loved and depended on them, and these outsiders, in many cases, had done nothing to “deserve” the deaths of their loved ones. Therefore, our presumption must be against killing, and the isolated observation that a killed person was “evil,” however accurate, cannot be enough to overcome this presumption.

We have to look elsewhere to justify the Treblinka uprising, perhaps observing, importantly and most basically, that there was no doubting the Nazis’ intentions or their ability and willingness to bring their heinous plans to fruition. As the prisoners had by that point discovered, the Jews and other Nazi targets were in Treblinka to be murdered, and their fascist overseers had all of the requisite machinery in place to facilitate the process. Thus, the prisoners were responding to a veritable death threat.

It is true, as some pacifists may hasten to add, that the fact that the fascist guards were murderous is not itself enough to establish that killing them was necessary. It is theoretically possible that Treblinka’s prisoners could have—and, by extension, should have—successfully pleaded with the Nazis or eluded death in some other peaceful way. But in light of what we know about Hitler’s genocidal resolve, this possibility seems exceedingly small. Many captives did plead for their lives, and their pleas were ignored with the almost unimaginable callousness for which we remember the Nazis today. Violence was probably the rebels’ only lifeline, without which the most undignified deaths surely would have awaited the victims.

To our defense of the uprising, it is crucial to add, even if it is self-evident, that the successful rebels generated a state of affairs that was morally preferable to the state of affairs that would have materialized if the Nazis had succeeded. Upon their escape, Treblinka’s rebels did not torture German civilians or put them in concentration camps. For the rebels, “success” meant simply living in peace, whereas success for the Nazis meant terrorizing people who were trying to live in peace. Thus, it was clear to well-informed moralists at the time, and has since been confirmed, that a world in which the rebels defeated the fascists was better than the alternative.

It bears upon our present considerations that politically-motivated bloodletting often inspires a backlash that worsens the very problem that the bloodletting is supposed to solve. This is one of the most serious ethical shortcomings of terrorism in particular. Shortly after Al-Qaeda destroyed the Pentagon and World Trade Center, it became clear to everyone with an iota of common sense that the indignant U.S. government was going to respond, not by withdrawing all support for illiberal governments in the Middle East (as some of al-Qaeda’s supporters may have wanted), but by retaliating with further attacks on innocent Muslims. Thus, it is illogical to claim that Al-Qaeda’s barbarism was necessary in order to repel U.S. forces from the Middle East once and for all. The 9/11 attacks actually solidified the United States’ long-term commitment to meddling militarily in the Middle East.

The violence of the Treblinka rebels was different. Unlike Al-Qaeda operatives, Treblinka’s rebels had little reason to fear that their militancy would trigger a counterproductive backlash against innocent people. After all, by torturing Jews and arranging for their execution, the Nazis were already operating with the utmost barbarity, meaning that the violent prisoners had almost nothing to lose for themselves or their fellow prisoners by trying to break free. Thus, we have another reason to feel confident that the rebels acted justly. For a proposed act of violence must be judged largely by its potential consequences, and if none of those potential consequences is significantly worse than the status quo, then the act of violence may very well make sense.

These reflections on a highly unusual set of historical circumstances should awaken us to the (very different) facts about the world in which Americans live today. The maelstrom in Venezuela is the latest obsession of our military leaders, who are open to backing an invasion of that country in the near future. The Islamic Republic of Iran is on their radar, too, while the Russian and Chinese governments remain subjects of significant bipartisan suspicion. The Pakistani regime, with its nuclear weapons and illiberal sensibilities, must always be on our leaders’ minds, which is true of the Communist dictatorship in North Korea as well. Atop it all, the sheer existence of private individuals with intense anti-American sentiments means that a terrorist attack on our soil remains possible. But none of these threats—if the label “threat” even fits them all—currently justifies our waging war.

It is true, as some advocates of military intervention may remind us, that Nicolás Maduro has dubbed our president “the new Hitler.” It is also true that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “death to America” (even if he really means “death to the U.S.’s policies” and “arrogance”) and that Kim Jong-Un has spoken menacingly of a “merciless attack” upon our country. But an armed foreigner’s chest-thumping does not itself furnish a strong case for our waging war, any more than a muscular bully’s idle taunts from the other side of a football field justify our running over to break the bully’s nose. As the just war theorist Michael Walzer argues, the people we preemptively attack, possessing both the will and means to attack us, must actually be planning to attack us. When they ambushed and killed murderous Ukrainian guards, Treblinka’s rebels certainly met this standard. Our leaders, on the other hand, will just as certainly be falling short of this standard if they attack Venezuela or another country that, to the best of our knowledge, has no plans to attack us.

It is worth repeating that even imminent threats, when they do actually emerge, do not always justify military responses. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration apparently felt, perhaps for good reason, that Osama Bin Laden posed an imminent threat that only capturing him could neutralize. But before the U.S. war to hunt him down began, the Taliban offered to extradite Bin Laden to any U.S.-selected member state of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, including a U.S. ally, if the U.S. could demonstrate that Bin Laden actually orchestrated the attacks. The horrors of war are such that, even in the face of an imminent threat, one has a duty to pursue this sort of offer before mobilizing the government’s vast military apparatus for a bloodier undertaking. Bush failed to do so, which should strengthen our conviction that he responded to 9/11 poorly.

Of course, one may advance other reasons for our waging war, reasons that make no reference at all to an imminent threat to the United States. Indeed, it may be the main thrust of the actual case for most U.S. wars that the U.S. government, having succeeded in deterring major attacks on our homeland, is now entitled to oust foreign dictators in order to protect people in other countries. On this pro-war account, the fact that Maduro, Khamenei, and Kim do not intend to invade the United States is irrelevant. What matters is that they threaten their own people and that the U.S. is well-equipped to remove these boorish men from office.

The false premise of this “humanitarian” argument is that war can reliably replace tyranny with social harmony. The historical record of U.S. wars, which is by now quite extensive, suggests otherwise.

We can, if we would like, trot out the customary examples of Iraq, where ISIS replaced Saddam Hussein, and Libya, where gangs of Islamist warlords and slave traders supplanted the despotic Muammar Gaddafi. But we can also look at the fruits of the less controversial “Good War”: the Soviet descent upon Germany and the subsequent rape of thousands, perhaps millions, of German women; the largest ethnic cleansing campaign in history, whereby Allied forces drove millions of German civilians from non-German lands; and the absorption of tens of millions of people into Stalin’s infernal empire. We can look at what replaced chattel slavery in the U.S. South shortly after its war with and occupation by the North: not racial equality, but a repackaged form of slavery and racial terrorism that endured at least until the 1940s. Whatever good came of these and the United States’ other “just” wars in the past, it is not obvious that they ushered in a state of affairs much better than what would have obtained if the U.S., steadfast in its commitment to nonviolent engagement, had refrained from taking up arms.

Maybe there is some reason to expect the United States’ future wars to follow a more inspiring trajectory, but I don’t know what that reason might be. War never changes much. Almost every war is a brawl between or among multiple rapacious forces, each of which feels itself justified in resorting to nearly all manner of vice to achieve its ends. Once the victors emerge, they clear away the rubble in order to build a new social system. But because of the victors’ immorality, the intransigence of the war’s bitter losers, a third party’s efforts to exploit the war-induced power vacuum, or some combination of these, the new system proves to be ghastlier than, as ghastly as, or only slightly superior to the system it replaced. For us to condone the initiation of a U.S. war today, we would need to be convinced, against the odds, that the war would deviate from this tiresome pattern.

That the Treblinka uprising departed from this pattern is evident: the victorious prisoners, instead of replacing Nazi tyranny with their own form of tyranny, secured genuine freedom for many of the Nazis’ victims. Maybe the secret to the Treblinka rebels’ moral success is that their mission was limited. If they had decided to expand their mission by embarking upon, say, the “democratization” of Poland, they probably would have killed many Polish civilians (thereby motivating Polish resistance) and empowered the unscrupulous Soviet government to fill the power vacuum by committing further crimes against civilians. Perhaps we should conclude, then, that death camp uprisings, slave rebellions, targeted assassinations, and other narrow acts of violence are more likely to be moral than are nation-building, regime change, and other large-scale military operations, because the former projects are more likely to avoid the pitfalls of war and are therefore more likely to have effects that improve upon the antebellum state of affairs.

Still, we would be foolish to ignore the potentially perilous consequences of even very limited military operations. Our government may think nothing of a “limited” U.S. drone strike against an alleged terrorist in Yemen or Pakistan; however, such a strike, in producing civilian casualties, may be enough to rouse foreigners’ anger against our country and motivate even more people to scheme against us. If limited strikes have this effect, then they—unlike the effective strikes conducted by the Treblinka rebels—are morally prohibited. For even if we could concede that the terrorists in question pose an imminent threat to civilian lives, that assassination is the only way to stop these terrorists from committing their crimes, and that drone strikes produce only minimal collateral damage, the significant probability that our lethal response would ultimately increase the threat of terrorism would mean that we still ought to abandon this weapon of war.

Well, if we find that drone strikes are generally out of the question, then what applications of U.S. military force today are justified? Perhaps none. This may seem like an extreme conclusion; but then, war is an extreme tactic, to be employed only when the threat is dire and every other option would yield even greater assaults upon human dignity. No matter the zeal with which our leaders speak about the “need” for war today, lethal violence really is the proper resort of people like those in Treblinka, and in every meaningful sense, we are not in Treblinka.