Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pacifists, Part One

“Jesus was a pacifist.” -----Chris Hedges Mirriam-Webster defines pacifism as, “the belief that it is wrong to use war or violence to settle disputes.” The root word is “pax,” ancient Roman for peace. The word “pacifism” was coined by French peace activist Emile Arnoud (born in 1864, died in 1921). It was adopted by the tenth Universal Peace Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1901. But the tradition of pacifism reaches back millennia. In major Indian religions, the Sanskrit word “ahisma,” which means “to do no harm,” expresses this philosophy. Christ invoked us to “love thy neighbor,” and Moses might well ask, “What part of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ do we not understand?” What I don’t know always amazes me. When I moved to Montana from California I knew I was leaving a deep blue state for one that I believed to be crimson red. But I discovered that Montana has a tradition of independent thought; I even have found a liberal scattering of liberals throughout the state. More, I learned of a woman who defined pacifism in her whole being, a Montana native. Discovering her has rekindled my personal desperation to write on the subject. Her name was Jeannette Rankin. Jeannette Rankin holds two unique distinctions in American politics. In 1916 she was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Nationally, women had not yet achieved the right to vote, but Montana was among a handful of western states that enjoyed full suffrage. Rankin, a Republican, soon thereafter was called to a special session of Congress, in April 1917, to vote on whether the United States should enter World War One. In all, 50 Senators and Representatives voted No – Rankin among them. She did not win re-election, but returned to the House in 1940, just in time to vote on America’s entry into World War Two. She cast the only No, making her the only human being to vote against entry into both world wars. She stated that she could not in good conscience vote to send another mother’s son to die in battle. Despite immense pressure to make the vote unanimous, Rankin stood her ground. After the First World War, dubbed by some as “The War to End all Wars,” eighteen million people lay dead, ten million soldiers and eight million civilians. The conflict was indeed global as distant outposts of various empires became contested property. But at war’s end, everyone, especially the victors, was weary and disgusted. Pacifism as a movement gained favor. In 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, originally supposed to be a treaty between the United States and France, grew into a declaration that war was and is illegal. Although little more than a gesture without teeth to support it, nonetheless this law has never been repealed. Anti-war sentiments dominated the literature of the time. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, told from a German foot soldier’s point of view, so universally captured the plight of all warriors of that conflict that it became an emblem for pacifists. In 1930, Lewis Milestone directed an American production of the film, which stands today as a harrowing and frank account of war in general, not as an issue of strategy but one of slaughter. The film’s young star, Lew Ayres, was so moved by the film of which he was a crucial part, that he became a pacifist himself. When World War Two broke out, Ayres refused to fight. His initial request for conscientious objector status nearly destroyed his reputation. But he was no coward. He had requested status as a non-combatant medic, but military policy forbade servicemen from requesting assignments. Ayres then filed for conscientious objector status and was sent to a CO camp. The military changed his status in April, 1942, and soon he served as a medic in the Pacific Theater. Still, the shift in climate made it almost impossible to be a conscientious objector, or a pacifist.

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