PQ Blog: Pacifism and pacificism

Flower Power

Most people, upon meeting me, would think me an unlikely member of the peace movement. Though I worked at Fort Henry during my summers in university, studied military history, and grew up in a military family, I have been extremely hesitant to join the armed forces mainly because I would not know what it is I would be fighting for. Simply put, after extensive study of politics, economics, and warfare, I came to the conclusion that very few wars are fought for just reasons: all too many have been expansionist wars of empire in search of resources or plunder, with humanity made a casualty in the pursuit of state goals. This disillusionment has only grown as the world seems to spiral out of control, and has pushed me to seek alternative solutions to the great issues facing us.

I was recently informed that the body of ethics that I’ve come to agree with is referred to as ‘pacificism’, or the opposition to war and violence except when truly necessary to advance the cause of peace. True pacifism on the other hand is the complete opposition to violence and belief that war is never justifiable; while this is a position I do not personally hold, I have the greatest respect for it, especially those conscientious objectors who have served in the military in non-combat roles. Such examples of true pacifists are really rather rare; I think most individuals in the peace movement fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two positions. To dismiss pacificists due to their belief in the occasional necessity of force would be unwise, as quite frankly the peace movement needs all the members it can get.

Modern pacifism came of age during the interwar period, in the wake of the First World War but before the chaos and destruction of the Second. Martin Ceadel, who has written on the pacifist movement in Britain during this time, identified the shift in opinions as the threat presented by fascism made itself abundantly clear. Many former true pacifists such as the antimilitarist socialists began to see the necessity of force in containing this great evil, choosing to fight in the Spanish Civil War and later in the Second World War. While it is necessary to ask hard questions about the motivations and actions of the Allies, especially in regards to the unprecedented and indiscriminate mass bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan, the argument can still be made that the use of force to contain fascism was a lesser and necessary evil.

The Vietnam War gave rise to another wave of pacifists with the anti-war movement and the hippies. This conflict, enlarged by the Americans ostensibly to contain communism in East Asia, was an easy target for the peace movement. Even pacificists would be hard-pressed to justify the excesses of indiscriminate bombing, racking up ‘body counts’, and the use of disposable draftees in counterinsurgency. Vietnam, and other similar wars of imperial expansion by the great powers in the 20th century, are a good example of when pacifists and pacificists are on the same page.

The 21st century is a difficult time for the peace movement for both pacifist and pacificist strains. The ability of the United States to proceed with grossly unjust military actions (e.g. Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’) despite the nominal opposition of other states has laid bare the ugly reality of realpolitik. The rise of robotic and unmanned weapons systems has exposed further ethical dilemmas with the conduct of 21st century warfare. With conflicts popping up all over the world, mass media using militarism for ratings and perpetually banging war drums, and more nation states embroiled, the peace movement must again be prepared to make hard choices similar to those made in the fight against fascism. It is difficult to brand warfare as a blanket good or evil, and conflicts must be analysed on a case-by-case basis in order to ascertain their legitimacy.


By Frank Cybulski

Frank is the editor of the Kingston Free Press – a new volunteer-run local paper.