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The Conflicted Pacifist

One of my favorite quotes is by Isaac Asimov, from the first Foundation novel: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” In a single sentence, he encapsulates much of my belief as a pacifist. People become violent when they run out of options, when all other avenues of recourse — argument, the judicial system, the political process — are closed to them. Violence should always be the last, somber resort, and should never be glorified. It’s a philosophy I try to embody in my writing.

I first came in touch with the modern peace movement about fifteen years ago, around the same time I joined the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. There’s a great deal of overlap and bidirectional influence between the church and the movement, although UU is not explicitly pacifist. Given UU’s liberal Christian roots (along with the Quakers), it’s no surprise that many UUs are also pacifists.

Despite my personal philosophy, there’s a vast gulf between myself and the modern pacifist movement. I don’t feel that the peace movement has done any good, definitely not since Operation Iraqi Freedom, and may have hurt its own cause.


My UU church occasionally hosts guest speakers at the pulpit, often during the summer. That was the case recently, when a member of the US Peace Memorial Foundation came to speak about the culture of war in America. They spoke at length at the glorification of war, how much deference is given to soldiers, how students learn more about war than they learn about peace in school textbooks. This is all true. Then they advocated building a 200-foot tall structure in Washington, designed to highlight the work and words of peace leaders.

Besides the fact that there’s already a neglected Peace Monument (which is more about mourning the Civil War dead than the abstract concept of peace), I think soliciting time and funds for a peace memorial is wrongheaded. This person, very well-educated, thinks that a stone structure in DC can have a profound effect on our country’s warlike culture. At best it would be ignored, tended to by a few volunteers every few months to pull weeds and power wash the concrete. At worst it would be the victim of vandalization, a lightning rod for jingoistic displays that it’s trying to lessen.


Here’s the problem with the peace movement as a whole. They are trying to create a counterculture to our country’s martial, jingoistic mass culture. For one, you don’t engineer a counterculture, and two, this counterculture doesn’t differ substantially enough from mass culture to be an effective agent of change. Americans have lived in a bubble of peace for over a century. To most Americans, war is distant, a big-budget fantasy film, a shaky YouTube video. Except for those who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other wars, we’ve only experienced peace in our day-to-day lives.

See, the modern peace movement’s real enemy isn’t war: it’s jingoism, the subversion of patriotism into aggressive imperialism. A big, stone monument espousing pacifism doesn’t fix jingoism. Instead of selling peace as being right, they should sell it as being patriotic. Until people can be convinced that peace isn’t un-American, the reactionary core will feed into Americans’ sense of righteousness and duty and turn them off the message completely. There’s more than enough political polarization, and we don’t need more of it.

Fixing jingoism is much harder than promoting peace, and that’s why the peace movement’s stuck doing annual marches and building useless stone monuments.


During their speech, my church’s guest speaker displayed one of those left-wing political cartoons that I’m familiar with from my years as a latecomer hippie. It showed a fighter jet releasing twenty missiles, each with the name of a country that the United States has bombed in the last twenty years. (Being ten years old, it was missing a few names.) “Bombed” was used as a synonym for “invaded.” I can understand why they would want to blur the distinction, but there’s a point to be had.

The US sometimes participates in relief missions or UN-sanctioned police actions (an awful euphemism), and sometimes acts unilaterally (like in Iraq). PolitiFact recently tackled this issue and concluded that only three countries could be considered an “invasion” beyond any doubt. Iraq is on that list, but Afghanistan is an edge case, which I would contend. Nonetheless, the peace movement is not doing any favors by over-simplifying the argument.

They’re willingly using a straw man fallacy. Not only do they oversimplify the case against war, but also the case against violence. This brings me back to the quote above. War isn’t the chief evil, violence is. And war is not the only form of violence. We won’t cure the human tendency to violence if we stop participating in war.

And sometimes other forms have violence have only been ended by war.

Would we have ended slavery in the American south without the Civil War? Which is the greater evil, slavery or war? I would not want to live in a world with slavery, even if it were a world without war. (Unfortunately, slavery still exists in the world, in such guises as human trafficking.)

I would not want to live in a world with race laws and concentration camps for undesirables, even if it were a world without war.

Ending war would not stop church shootings.

Ending war would not stop police brutality.

Ending war would not stop domestic violence.

We can’t just stop war. We have to put an end to all forms of violence, and that can only happen if we address its causes: jingoism, racism, sexism, bigotry, and above all fear.

If the Peace Memorial Foundation wants to foster peace, it needs to end islamophobia. It needs to fix American education. It needs to tackle poverty. It needs to address racism. It needs to destroy corporate interests in government. It needs to fix the disease, not simply the symptom.


We UUs have an odd relationship with Jesus Christ, which can be summed up as “a great rabbi but not God”. However, there’s a compelling passage from the Sermon on the Mount that I’ve thought about lately.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Matthew 5:21-22, NIV

My takeaway from this passage is simple: hate burns. A similar sentiment was spoken by the Buddha:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Promoting peace without ending its cause is like telling a person holding a hot coal to stand perfectly still. They’ll either burn their hand off or throw it harder. First, you must drop the coal.

You won’t end war, or any violence, by pushing peace. You end war by ending fear and hate. That’s where the real struggle begins.