Pacifism is the only answer to Sawoniuk and Arkan

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The Independent Online
Easter dawns, and one wonders how many priests will be ascending their pulpits this morning to defend the notion of the just war. The Pope has called for an end to the Serbian air strikes. The tenor of his pronouncements on this, and other wars, has been all but pacifist. In theological circles, it looks as if the idea of a just war, first cogitated by Thomas Aquinas, has had its day. How puzzling to the modern secular mind, then, that Nato's super-powers should have chosen this juncture of history to revive it. For that, it seems, is our justification for the aerial bombardment of the Serbs - not that it will, in the short term, have any beneficial effects on the Albanian victims of Serb aggression; it will, however, give expression to "our" feelings of moral indignation against Milosevic.

It is hard not to welcome the Pope's voice on this issue. If the present Balkan war teaches us anything, it is that the pacifist idea has arrived, and that we solve nothing by acts of war. Nothing, nothing. The streams of refugees, with their pathetic stories, make us wish that there had been a peace-invasion of Kosovo a year ago - the largest convoy ever seen of ambulances, nuns, Red Cross units. It would have to have been led by unarmed peace-workers whose vanguard were prepared to be killed by Serbian forces. Surely such a gesture would have been better than this stupid, murderous bombing campaign which has had so far such pitiful and cataclysmic results? Our pygmy politicians are trying to ape Churchill, and this is a situation crying out for a Tolstoy or a Gandhi.

There was a peculiar fittingness that the trial of Anthony Sawoniuk should have been concluded in the first week of our new just war. It is impossible to doubt that this former British Rail ticket inspector from Bermondsey did indeed, in an earlier incarnation, slaughter Jews in the village of Domachevo. No tears will be shed for this nasty old brute as he is sent down for the rest of his life. Yet, for these very reasons, we all know that there was something ritualised about his trial. Had he committed some dreadful act of murder in peacetime Belarus - for example, had he slaughtered his parents, or a rival in love, we should not have seen him brought to trial over half a century later in the Old Bailey. The Crown Prosecution Service would have said that pounds 11m was too much to spend collecting evidence from gerontic "witnesses".

The concept of the war crime is something different, however. Yes, part of our motive in bringing war criminals to trial is a burning need for justice. But part of it is something more confused. We are terrified of the idea of equivalence. There must be a moral difference - mustn't there? - between our boys, the good guys, killing tens of thousands of German women and children in air raids during the last years of the Second World War and some vile thug gunning down a few dozen Jewish women in a wood? The one action must be seen as sad but necessary; the other as morally repugnant. There have been plenty of Western politicians this week who, with the example of Sawoniuk before them, have wanted to remind the Serbian thugs despoiling Kosovan villages that one day they will be brought to account. The sinister figure of Arkan, "the bloodthirsty Serbian militia leader" with his beautiful wife, Ceca, has been held up to us as an icon of evil. Almost before the Kosovan stage of the Balkan war had begun, a war crimes tribunal in the Hague had declared him a criminal. Yet, when this terrible war is over, who is going to be responsible for more deaths? Arkan who has slain thousands, or the Nato warlords who, with the kindest and most liberal of intentions, may end up slaying tens of thousands?

It is a hard saying but in war the most dreadful deeds can seem pardonable or even praiseworthy. Many of those who carry out Arkan's brutal orders will see themselves as fulfilling their patriotic duty, just as many of the young Nato bombers will have been trained to think that they are doing a good deed by unloading high explosives on to Balkan cities. We all suspect that the Nato bombing of Serbia has precipitated more killings by Arkan's murder squads. Few can tolerate the thought that, if we had not fought a war against Hitler, the circumstances would not have existed in which a Sawoniuk could have committed his crimes. It's easier to have the concept of a war crime than to face the consequences of knowing that war itself is a crime. Only by pledging ourselves to total peace can we be rid of its guilt.

A friend of mine who was a teenage bomber for Arthur Harris at the end of the Second World War lost almost half of his comrades during the incredibly dangerous raids they undertook over the German cities. After peace was declared, he and a group of mates in the RAF were sitting having a cigarette in some bombed-out site in Germany. A jeep came along the road and pulled up. A young British army officer looked at them from the driving seat. "Did you do all this?" he asked. "Yes!" they said proudly. During all their months as Harris's prize bombers, they had never spoken to anyone who questioned the morality of what they had done. They had never seen the newsreels of German women, running from their houses with their babies alight in their arms and their hair on fire. "You bastards," said the young officer, and roared off down the bombed-out street. Their feelings of rage and bafflement can be imagined.

I feel something like pity even for the brutes who are caught up in Sawoniuk- style sadistic orgies in the Kosovan villages and I feel awe at the bravery of our Nato pilots. I'd never say, "You bastards". But what they are doing makes me a fervent pacifist. There is no such thing as a just war.