People who dislike pacifists really dislike pacifists. In fact, I sense that the term has become somewhat embarrassing. George Orwell said pacifism was “objectively pro-fascist,” and many believe he was exactly right. Sam Harris wrote that pacifism is “deeply immoral.” This Huffington Post writer says she feels no need to respect the opinions of any self-described pacifist, because they are illogical and indefensible and abet the rise of terror and fascism.

You can see how someone can come to despise pacifism. If we think pacifism means “an absolute commitment to nonviolence,” such that the pacifist has vowed never to take up arms under any circumstances against anybody, then it’s easy to come up with hypotheticals where pacifism seems perverse. You wouldn’t shoot Hitler? You wouldn’t save your family from an intruder? You would simply stand there and watch as atrocities unfolded, even if you could do something about it? The pacifist is confronted with examples of “just wars” where fighting would seem a moral necessity, and pacifists seem like “moral free loaders” who require other people to do the dirty work of fighting to keep them safe, while the pacifists maintain their purity. A pacifist is a coward who wants the luxury of denouncing as murderers those upon whom his free speech depends.

I don’t find this picture of pacifism remotely fair, though I understand the logic that produces it. But I’d recommend that anyone tempted to hiss at pacifism pick up a single book, Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth. I don’t think it’s easy to come away from Brittain’s book without sincere respect for the pacifist stance.

Testament of Youth chronicles Brittain’s life before, during, and after World War One. She served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during the war, leaving a comfortable life at Oxford University to tend to the gassed and mutilated men of the trenches. Brittain lost some of her closest loved ones during the war: Both her fiance and her brother were killed on the battlefield along with two of her dear friends. She begins the book studious but naive, living mostly for her schoolwork, but her war experiences turn her into a fierce pacifist activist, and when she returns she is frustrated by the obliviousness of those who have not experienced the war firsthand.

The portrait of Brittain’s fiance, Roland, and his commonplace, meaningless death, is devastating. Age 20, Roland writes her a letter from the trenches explaining how the actual facts of war make patriotic descriptions of it seem farcical:  

The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among the chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power. Let him who thinks War is a glorious, golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey grags that cover half a skull and a shin-bone and what might have been Its ribs [sic], or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped round it; and let him realize how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence! Who is there who has known and seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these?

Roland himself soon joins the “foetid heap,” shot in the head while on a routine patrol. Brittain, whose love for him had become all-consuming, is utterly shattered. She writes of the experience of what it was like to see his clothes after his death:

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply caked with mud. And I was glad that neither you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse-heap of a country” or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house.”

You will not find Testament of Youth to be an uplifting read, but Brittain attempts to convey what World War One actually meant in the lives of those who endured it. She forces us to look at the flesh of her dead fiance, demands that if we are to justify war we give her an explanation for why it was right and good that this much pain came into so many lives.

This, to me, is where pacifism begins: with a full awareness of what violence actually is and what it does to human bodies. Pacifists like Brittain are horrified by war, but more than that, they’re horrified by the fact that anyone can fail to be horrified. They don’t understand how war can be talked about casually, as a thought experiment or adventure film, when what it actually means is seeing a pile of your friends’ bodies on the ground. The pacifist feels as if the whole world around them has gone mad, is treating as normal but “regrettable” something that is actually so absurd that it should never even be conceivable. This is how Albert Einstein described the root of pacifism: “My pacifism,” he said, “is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting.”

Note that this does not actually entail a particular position on whether violence can be justified under X or Y circumstance. Einstein has not said here that he does not think you are morally permitted to raise a hand in anger even to spare the lives of a million children, or any other such extreme position that is often treated as synonymous with pacifism. Murder is disgusting. Pacifism here is a feeling that violence is an evil that needs to be stopped, that we cannot treat it as natural or inevitable. It can’t be shrugged off, it has to be deplored.

Here I want to be careful, though, because I think it’s easy to reply “Well, nobody likes violence, if pacifism just means ‘thinking war is bad’ then everyone this side of Henry Kissinger is a pacifist. Only a psychopath likes war for its own sake. If pacifism is just a feeling, but you can still be a pacifist and engage in justified violence, then it means little.” I want to avoid saying that pacifism means an absolute opposition to violence under any circumstances, but I also want to avoid a kind of “wishy washy” pacifism that just means “peace is preferable to war.” I think that what distinguishes the pacifist from the non-pacifist is the strength of their hatred of war. Some people just say “Oh yes, of course war is bad.” The pacifist feels it to their core. I have written before about the way people talk about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—many who say the bombings were necessary say that they were terrible, but they don’t seem to really spend much time thinking about just how terrible they were. Anyone can say war is terrible, but not everyone is going to mean it in the same way that Vera Brittain means it when she says war is terrible.

This strength of opposition to war means that pacifists want violence to become “unthinkable.” It’s not just that we should strive to avoid war. It’s that “war” shouldn’t seem like something sensible at all. Just as I cannot conceive of raping another person, I should be unable to conceive of killing another person, and coming up with hypothetical examples in which killing is justified should be like coming up with hypotheticals for when rape is justified. Pacifists are trying to “de-normalize” war, to make it seem as strange and barbaric as slavery or medieval torture. The reason a pacifist will be reluctant to answer the question “Would you be violent in X situation?” is not because they would necessarily take the most extreme stance in favor of absolute nonviolence, but because they do not want to legitimize these kinds of questions as reasonable. Discussing it “puts it on the table” when it should be out of the realm of possibility. We can ask all kinds of revolting hypotheticals, after all (e.g., “Would you eat one of your children if it saved the other two?”), but we may debase ourselves through the very act of contemplating it.

It’s also silly to taunt the pacifist by asking whether they would fight Hitler. The pacifist, more than anyone else, will be trying to stop the rise of Hitler from the very beginning. The hypothetical only usually works because it is set in 1941, where war is unavoidable. If, however, the pacifist is dumped in 1919, when there are plenty of peaceful means one might use in order to ensure that the world does not descend into another bloodbath, the challenge becomes less compelling. Yes, you can engineer a situation in which the poor pacifist has very few non-martial options for advancing ultimate peace. But when we are not in those situations, the pacifist spends her time doing everything possible to make sure those situations do not come to pass. In that respect, the pacifist is distinctly different from those who talk about war casually, who (like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times) daydream about telling other countries to “suck on this.”  

It is important to be clear, too, that there is no relationship between pacifism and cowardice. Even those who have the most unyielding commitment to nonviolence are not fearful. Quite the opposite. I’ve been struck, reading first-person accounts of those who avoided the Vietnam draft, by how many felt that they had to muster more bravery to refuse to fight than they would have to fight. This is because by refusing they endured the total disdain of their peers, families, and communities, seen as fugitives and traitors, which seemed a far more difficult fate than the risk of being hit by a bullet. And when nonviolent resisters face external force, the refusal to fight back becomes impressively courageous. Nobody, after all, can call the 1960s civil rights demonstrators who risked being beaten and killed anything but fearless. Gandhi himself said that bravery was critical to his nonviolence:

My nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes. Nonviolence is the summit of bravery. And in my own experience, I have had no difficulty in demonstrating to men trained in the school of violence the superiority of nonviolence. As a coward, which I was for years, I harboured violence. I began to prize nonviolence only when I began to shed cowardice.

And yet we still have those who share the sentiments of John Stuart Mill, who described the hater of war as the ugliest of creatures:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

Mill is technically condemning cowardice here, and neither Gandhi nor King prized his “personal safety.” But in this passage we see a conflation that happens all too often: Being willing to fight for things, and caring about your values more than saving your skin, is lumped together with believing that war can be acceptable. That’s not necessarily the case, though—we know there are many ways to “fight” that do not not involve arms. It is dangerous to suggest that the only people who pass a moral test are those who are willing to kill and maim others in the name of their morality. (Sorry, Desmond Doss, you’re among those ugly creatures who is immoral because you cannot endorse war.) Brittain herself volunteered to do one of the hardest jobs in the war, though she could have remained in her cushy life at Oxford. If we are to say that only those who are willing to fight have moral credibility, then what of Vera Brittain, who lost so much, endured so much trauma, and yet still came out declaring: “All that a pacifist can undertake—but it is a very great deal—is to refuse to kill, injure or otherwise cause suffering to another human creature, and untiringly to order his life by the rule of love though others may be captured by hate.” Even those who don’t think everyone should think this way must admit that there is value to having some people around who think this way. Without people who hate war, it will never go away…

I do not know precisely how to resolve the old questions about when fighting may or may not be morally necessary. I do know that I am haunted by Roland’s letter to Vera from the trenches, and that I do not trust anyone to discuss the moral questions intelligently unless they, too, are haunted by it. This is the starting position: not just a feeling that killing is “bad,” but that it is disgusting, that it must be stopped forever and we have to dedicate ourselves fully to ensuring war becomes a thing of the past. If you cannot stop hearing the scream of Hiroshima victims who watched their children burn to death, then you are a pacifist. If you do not think much about them, then you are not. Pacifism does not describe a particular set of solutions to the thorniest moral problems. Instead it is an attitude about war: a feeling that it is deeply wrong, that even when it is “justified” it still isn’t justified, that nobody should treat such bloody insanity as romantic or noble or respectable.


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