How a Pacifist Says Thank You on Veterans Day

New York – “United Nations – Swords into Plowshares” David Paul Ohmer/Flikr

I hope this doesn’t make me un-American, but I don’t celebrate Veterans Day; I mourn it. I mourn the lives lost. I mourn the visible and invisible scars created by war. I mourn that we haven’t found a way toward peace that doesn’t involve violence. I mourn that pacifists frequently blunder our message, falsely and self-righteously creating an “us” who are for peace and demonizing “them” who just want war. I mourn that we’ve had Isaiah’s vision for roughly 2,900 years and we still haven’t beaten our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.

Why am I a pacifist? Because nobody wants war. Everybody wants peace. Despite accusing one another of being “the Great Satan” or the “Axis of Evil,” we all want peace. We want peace and those we call our enemies want peace, too. This desire for peace is a good thing. The problem is that each side views the other as an evil threat to peace; and each side believes the same thing – that the threat to peace must be eliminated. Peace will come, we believe, when our enemy is eliminated. But history has shown that when one enemy is eliminated, another will soon emerge to threaten our peace.

The problem with pacifists is that we can be very violent in our call for non-violence. Humans tend toward dogmatism – even the modern inclination against dogma is stubbornly dogmatic in its anti-dogmatism. Unfortunately, pacifists often come across as dogmatically against soldiers. That is a tragedy because it creates a violent distinction between “us” and “them.”

Pacifists must not universally condemn soldiers, but we must critique the ways of violence. We must work for the day when swords are turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Our battle is not with flesh and blood. The battle is not with the Empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, France, Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, Islam, or China. For the pacifist, the battle is with the Empire of Violence that exists in every nation, in every ideology, indeed, in every human heart.

The best way forward for pacifists is to be in solidarity with soldiers. We need to be present with those who suffer the consequences of war. Too often our nation turns its heads from their suffering. As Tom Brokaw recently said

We fought the two longest wars in our country’s history, with 99% of our country having no connection to them [our soldiers] if they chose not to. They didn’t have anybody fighting, they didn’t have to think about it, they didn’t have to pay an extra dime in taxes or at the gasoline pump, make any sacrifices at home. The families who were home with people fighting over there were living in constant terror. Too many young men and women came home in body bags or are gravely wounded for the rest of their lives.

Pacifists must do more than simply say “Thank you” on Veterans Day. We must seek out friendships with veterans and their families. As I write this, it is painful to know that labeling myself as a “pacifist” means that I will inevitably be labeled as being anti-veterans and anti-soldiers. I’m not. I want to help in the spirit of friendship and solidarity. It is shameful what our country is doing to our veterans. On one day a year, we come together to thank veterans for their sacrifice, absolving us from the guilt of ignoring them the rest of the year. The Pentagon claims that suicide rate among active duty military personnel are outpacing deaths in war, and any soldier that responsibly seek assistance risks being stigmatized. Veterans in need are put in the “the backlog: the crushing inventory of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits that has overwhelmed the Department of Veteran Affairs. For hundreds of thousands of veterans, the result has been long waits for decisions, mishandled documents, confusing communications and infuriating mistakes in their claims.”

We need to show gratitude to veterans today and every day. Josh Kohrs of the Huffington Post provides 6 practical ways to honor our veterans here.

I pray for the day when we will finally turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. I believe it’s possible, indeed, in the face of weapons of mass destruction it is necessary if we are to have a human future. But until then, we need to take responsibility as a society to love our soldiers as ourselves. That means providing the best possible care for them when they come home.

This might be a strange way for a pacifist to end an article, but I leave you with the words of President Ronald Reagan. His vision was a challenge to himself, and they remain a challenge to us.

Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war?

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