Pacifism is like virginity. It doesn’t work half way. Anybody can be a pacifist when nothing is at stake. The trick is to be a pacifist even in the face of aggression against oneself or the people one cares about. The principle of pacifism, genuine pacifism, is that violence is always counterproductive. Always. A corollary principle is that wars are always bad for everyone involved. Wars, in that sense, are never winnable. Never. Any position that varies from this line isn’t really pacifism. It is more like prudence or restraint. It is saying that war ought to be avoided but that it’s still a genuine option.

It turns out that Nicholson Baker, the author of such bestselling novels as Vox and The Mezzanine, is a hardcore pacifist. His newest book, Human Smoke, is about the lead-up to and… More…