All modern governments do terrible things during wartime.  Most deliberately murder innocents; the rest at least recklessly endanger innocents.  Morally speaking, all sides in any serious military conflict are led by war criminals.

Unfortunately, however, these genuine insights often lead my fellow pacifists astray – and hinder the quest for peace.  The problem: People easily slide from the moral claim that “The people running government X are deliberately doing great evil” to the descriptive claim that “Negotiation with the people running government X is hopeless.”  When we’re talking about modern governments, the two claims have little connection. 

How is that possible?  Suppose government X bombs one village in your country, killing a hundred innocents.  Before you spurn negotiation, you ought to ask, “How does what X did compare with the worst X can do?”  If government X had enough firepower to level a hundred villages, the fact that they only destroyed one village raises a big question: How come they only did 1% of the evil that was in their power?

There are many possible answers.  Maybe they’re saving their bombs for other victims.  Maybe they’re trying to trick you into surrendering, so they can commit atrocities at their leisure.  Etc.  But the most obvious explanation is, “They feel at least a little bit guilty about killing innocents, so they’re trying to kill the minimum number necessary to achieve their war aims.” 

Morally speaking, that’s a crummy excuse.  Pragmatically speaking, however, it’s a great opportunity.  It’s a chance to calm down and ask, “What exactly are X’s war aims?”  “Would giving in to their demands really be so bad?”  “Would they settle for a bit less?”  Etc.  These seem like naive questions… until you compare what your enemy is doing to the worst your enemy can do.

Hawkish Americans should actually welcome these observations.  Since the end of World War II, the United States has plainly not done the worst that it could do.  Not even close.  Imagine how much the U.S. could have extorted by using its four-year nuclear monopoly to the hilt.  Picture what U.S. occupation forces could have done to the Communist Parties of France and Italy.  Think how easy it would have been for the U.S. to assume control of the British, French, Dutch, and Japanese Empires if it had been willing to summarily execute anti-colonial activists.  The fact that the U.S. government killed a few million innocent people rather than a billion is, to put it mildly, damning with faint praise.  But it strongly suggests that even abjectly appeasing the United States was not only livable, but preferable to the Cold War that actually happened.

Of course, some sides do approach the worst they can do.  Yes, the Nazis.  But focusing on the ratio of actual to potential evil-doing remains a powerful pacifist heuristic.  Why?  Because, thanks to in-group bias, human beings readily rationalize their unrestrained evil-doing as the only non-suicidal response to their opponents’ infinite evil.  And if the rationalizers honestly tested their infinite evil hypothesis by picturing the worst their enemies can do, they would often have to reject the hypothesis.  This would deprive them of their own lame excuse for limitless evil-doing.  This could in turn undermine hawkish arguments on the other side, potentially starting a virtuous spiral.  That’s hardly a guarantee – but war is no guarantee either.

Pacifists, I’m dismayed to admit, have often apologized for totalitarian atrocities.  Critics could claim that my “worst they can do” heuristic is a thinly-veiled apology for Western atrocities.  They should give me the benefit of the doubt.  I’m not apologizing for anyone.  My claim is simple: Peace requires negotiation, and the mere fact that one side has done great evil does not show that negotiation is futile.  If you seek to weigh the viability of negotiation, it is far wiser to compare the ratio of actual to potential evil.  Peace-makers of all parties should spread the word.