The physical damage caused by war is obvious. People maimed, wounded and killed, cities reduced to rubble and agriculture ruined. The twentieth century introduced new horrors to war, such as the indiscriminate carnage of aerial bombardment. Despite the exaggerated claims made for so-called smart bombs, the first war of the twenty-first century has already left hundreds of civilians dead and thousands more homeless and threatened with starvation.
Bad as this is, the spiritual damage is every bit as real and in the long run, perhaps even more tragic. In times of war, a type of collective madness prevails. Values and ethics become turned into an evil mirror image of themselves. Murder and destruction are not only condoned, but praised. Deceit becomes the common language of governments and media. Hatred becomes a civic virtue.
A milder, but more insidious, form of this psychic pollution is the position which acknowledges the effects of war, but accepts them as necessary evils. There is an appalling selfishness in the argument that death and destruction in faraway lands are regrettable, but a price worth paying. The ones making this argument are, of course, not the ways who have to pay that cost.
The Buddhist religion does not offer any justification for violence. This is not to deny the historical reality that Buddhist countries have at times waged war, and even occasionally abused the name of the Buddha for nationalist propaganda. Such cases are travesties that have nothing at all to do with the true Dharma. In the Buddhist teachings there is no doctrine of a Just War, much less a Holy one.
The very first ethical precept of Buddhism is not to harm or kill any living being. Good Buddhists will not kill even insects, let alone human beings. There are no exceptions allowed. In the Pali tradition at least, this may be taken as an absolute. There is certainly no textual justification for any kind of "lawful killing", whether it be in the case of war, or of capital punishment. It is impossible to support war and honour the First Precept.
One of the cardinal virtues in Buddhism is compassion. This is defined as the wish that beings be free of suffering. To become a liberating spiritual state, compassion must be universal. If some being or collectively of beings is excluded from compassion, it is not universal. If it is not universal, then some aspect of the total reality is being rejected. For one who supports a war, it is impossible to practise compassion fully. Instead of wishing that all beings be well and happy, the war hawk wishes that some beings be blown to bits as quickly as possible.
A common criticism of pacifism is that it is unrealistic, and doesn't confront evil. However, the use of violence is only the most obvious response to conflict. It is not necessarily the best one. In the understandable, if misguided, desire for security a resort to war leads to the perpetuation of evil. Violent responses tend to breed a cycle of violent counter-responses. We have seen this again and again, in Yugoslavia, in the Middle-East and elsewhere. Killing follows killing until it becomes meaningless to ascribe blame.
It takes much more courage and creativity to seek lasting non-violent solutions. These can never be based on the imposition of one country's will upon another but must involve open and equal relations. This is not at all a simple thing to achieve, especially with the weight of human history being dominated by power, fear, greed and the other poisons of the mind. But it is a pressing necessity of this new century. No lasting peace can ever be built on a basis of force. The Buddha said "Hatred is never overcome by hatred. Hatred is overcome by Love. This is a Law Eternal." Do we have the courage to live by this precept?