Opinion & Blogs » Back Page

A Pacifist in Wartime

... being for peace is much more complex and expansive than being against war.


Most members of my generation bear physical and/or emotional scars from that war. The area of central Africa, where I once lived and worked, has for the past decade been decimated by the twin scourges of civil war and AIDS. In the former Confederate capital where I now live, some of the most beautiful hillsides are covered with soldiers' tombstones. Our local history museum carries photographs of our city in 1865 — burned to rubble.

The possibility that our country may become involved in yet another war is very sad. I oppose most wars, partly because of the human suffering they cause, and mainly because they are destructive, expensive and generally ineffective as a means of resolving conflict. If a war on Iraq is declared, I will continue to write letters and to participate in teach-ins and actions against bad policy decisions by our government leaders, and to work and pray to avoid a further broadening of any war. Yet if years of involvement in various peace movements have taught me anything, they have impressed on me that being for peace is much more complex and expansive than being against war.

Here are some roles I believe pacifists like me can usefully fill during wartime:

1) We can find a tangible problem that the war is not solving and engage some of our time, energy and material resources toward solving it. The most glaring example for me is our global overdependence on fossil fuels, with the economic dislocations and ecological damage this can often bring. Even the most saber-rattling of newscasts lately has spent at least some coverage on the huge oil spill from a ruptured tanker off the coast of Spain. Bombing or invading Iraq will not prevent such events. Changing our household and transportation habits to use less fuel can have an impact — lessening the pressure to haul so much oil on the open seas. We can also encourage changes in tanker design that can make further such ruptures less likely. We can work toward improvements in solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies that, over a long period, will greatly reduce or even eliminate our dependence on oil. We can direct our political skills toward shorter-term alliances and treaties to reduce U.S. dependence on the oil reserves of repressive and/or unstable governments and regions. We can point out ways that current government policies unfairly reward some for wasting energy, while making energy less accessible to some of our most vulnerable citizens.

2) We can support those put in harm's way and their families. While we struggle to learn less-harmful ways to resolve our differences, we need to respect and honor the sacrifices of those who bear witness to our intermittent failures.

Families of combatants and noncombatants alike who have already lost, or who will lose loved ones, are in pain, and their sacrifice is very real. Despite the horrors of combat, some are prompted to acts of unusual courage and humaneness as they experience it. We can admire their bravery and altruism.

3) We can remain the messengers of realistic hope. Conflicts are the inevitable result of differences in character and perception. A world without differences would be excruciatingly sterile and bland. War is not an inevitable result of conflicts. We have not yet learned to avoid war entirely, and we are learning to defuse and de-escalate some of our disputes to minimize deaths, injuries and material damage. Wars tend to polarize; pacifists in wartime must hold the middle ground between unrelenting despair and unrealistic idealism. Wars can cause terrible losses of life, natural resources and productive capacity, but no war so far has been universally fatal. (Of course, with our present level of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons technology, there is always that possibility.) A na‹ve belief that the path to dispensing with war altogether will be either quick or easy can be just as damaging as despair. The complex truth lies somewhere in between — the vast majority of people on the planet manage to make it through every day without killing each other. Many contribute actively to our global stores of beauty, wisdom and love. Those of us who support peace can keep faith that a next peace will come, and do as much as we can to make that peace a little more robust and long-lasting.

4) We can practice a spiritual discipline of abundance. For me, this is the hardest lesson of all in our glitzy, goods-saturated age. Wars are fought from a perspective of scarcity — be it not enough human labor, not enough land, not enough coal, not enough oil, or not enough glory, recognition and honor. In order to have peace among nations, we also must find the peace within ourselves.

Despite my relative material ease, I find it incredibly difficult to be mindful that all the material and spiritual resources I need are readily available to me. It is from that deep knowledge of abundance, found in all living faith traditions, that lasting peace comes.

May this peace, that currently passes our human understanding, suffuse this wintry time and may we continue to learn to share its blessings. S

Jinny Batterson is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


Add a comment