Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Politics of Pacifism: I Would Rather Fail

Victor Hugo once said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Pacifism is actually a relatively new concept. The term was coined by Frenchman Emile Arnaud in 1901, and adopted by the tenth Universal Peace Conference in Glasgow that year. The philosophy or belief that war was an evil to be avoided, even fought against, only began to take hold slowly. During World War One anyone who chose not to fight on the grounds of opposition to war and violence was treated as a coward, but as the war dragged on and the staggering death totals mounted, more and more soldiers on the Front began to question the morality, the reasonableness, and the true motives behind the war they were fighting. They began to see their leaders as either horribly incompetent or deliberately prolonging the war for their own personal gain. Soldiers “infected” by such thoughts began questioning the causes that led them to war, often publicly. Famously, Siegfried Sassoon wrote scathing critiques; all that saved him from court-martial was being declared as suffering from shell-shock, largely through the benevolent interference of his friend Robert Graves. While “recovering,” Sassoon met Wilfred Owen. Both came to oppose the war, but both were brave and honorable men who returned to the front even so. Owen was killed one week before the Armistice. One writer notes that, before 1914, no one ever associated the powerfully modern word “machine” with “gun.” But World War One changed everything. Slaughter became wholesale and glory was no longer part of the equation. Machine guns decimated the attacking British troops on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. For so many, it was no longer a matter of do or die, it was just die. The futility of that war led more and more people to believe like Sassoon and Owen, that war itself had morphed into something no one should sustain or encourage. Another World War One soldier-poet, Tom Kettle, put it best when he wrote, “If I live, I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery and I know what an outrage it is against simple men.” But Kettle did not live. He died on September 9, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Many who survived turned in earnest to the pacifist movement. The terrible war could not possibly be repeated. Unfortunately, the old men who had waged the war now waged the peace, and in so doing planted the seeds that would uproot the very peace they sought, with a vengeance. And since, war has remained a constant among human beings throughout time and space. I recognize that pacifism is an idea whose time has not yet come. But life is a continuum, an evolution. I have to believe that day is on the horizon, or just beyond its edge, and within our grasp. As Woodrow Wilson, the upstart outsider at Versailles, said, “I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately triumph than triumph in a cause that will ultimately fail.” He failed; his League of Nations was granted no teeth. But he tried.

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